Adventures in Cow Country

Good morning Cantabria!

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Cabezón de la Sal is a simply gorgeous mountain village sat in a cleft between the hills of Santillana and the Escudo de Cabuérniga, a mighty ridge stretching in a straight line all the way to the Asturian border. What makes it so immediately different from the south is the layout of the town: if anything, it’s more English than Spanish. Where small two-story flats hold the monopoly in the town centre, semidetached houses dominate almost everywhere else. Long gone are the snake-like rows of white houses with barred windows and marble porches; the Cantabrian norm is stone-brick dwellings with wooden roofs and quaint, upper-storey balconies. It’s charming, if a little alien to a habituated southerner like me.

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There are buses – apparently – but it’s the local train service that holds sway here. Quiet, comfortable and cheap at the price, Cantabria’s FEVE provides a reliable alternative to Extremadura’s LEDA – provided you arrive in town before ten to nine at night, that is.

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‘Let’s go to Potes,’ says Kate, ‘for a little walk.’ So off we went to Torrelavega, that city of burgeoning factories and towering flat-blocks that I passed through twice four years ago in the early days of my trans-Iberian adventure. In the sunlight, Torrelavega looks…

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…well, I’ll not beat about the bush. Torrelavega is not exactly Paris. If Cabezón is a more rustic version of Villafranca, Torre is the Almendralejo equivalent in Kate’s neck-o’-the-woods. But like Almendralejo, it’s got its own charms. One of them goes by the name of red velvet sponge-cake.

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We arrived in Torrelavega looking for the bus to Potes, but the bus station proved singularly unhelpful, and a quick browse of the internet told us that the bus we were looking for left not from the bus station, but from the Palomera office by the train station we’d just left behind. In a scene which echoed the night before (albeit in slow motion), we half-ran back to the station… but there was absolutely no sign of the bus. Or any bus. Or even a bus stop, for that matter. Unless the Potes bus is a mystical bus which flies through the air and receives its passengers from the balcony of the Palomera offices on the second floor, I declare that bus stop to be an enigma. The city of Atlantis and the fabled kingdom of Shangri-La have captivated the imagination of man for centuries. Now I shall brazenly add the Palomera bus stop to that box of unsolved mysteries.

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Thinking on our feet, we dabbled with the idea of catching the train into Asturias in search of the equally mysterious inland bay of Gulpiyuri, but after all of that faffing around with the Potes bus we’d just missed the only practical train to Llanes by five minutes. As though calling out from a memory, Santillana del Mar came to mind and I decided we would grab the next train back to Cabezón and strike out for the coast via the Town of Three Lies. Public transport has as its advantages, but as a species, we should never forget that it was learning to walk on our own two feet that got us where we are today. And so off we went.

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The strangest thing about this last-minute change of plan was that it meant retracing my steps almost pace for pace from that ridiculous adventure, now some four years ago, right down to getting off at the very station where the driving rain turned me back to the shelter of Santillana del Mar. But for a few forks in the road, I had the entire route embedded in my mind as though I’d walked it ten times over rather than once. Perhaps that’s fate. She’s been playing a long game with me.

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It felt decidedly weird coming down out of the hills into the cobbled streets of Santillana all over again. As Spanish villages go, Santillana has got to be amongst the very prettiest. It’s known as the town of three lies – being neither holy, flat, nor by the sea – but if that is so, then it’s a damned beautiful liar. As I so often find myself doing, I made sure to revisit all of the places I’d been before: the same church, the same quesada shop, the same Savage Culture boutique that I still don’t fully understand. I can’t explain it, but something about this town keeps pulling me back.

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We had a picnic lunch of peanut butter sandwiches on the steps of the Colegiata de Santa Juliana and basked in the afternoon sun. 15 degrees Celsius… not bad for Cantabria. In all the bad weather Spain’s north coast has been having of late, I must confess I think myself bloody lucky to have landed a whole twenty-four hours of glorious sunshine in the one day I had to explore the place. I could hardly have asked for better: better weather, or better countryside, or better company.

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Leaving Santillana behind, we climbed steadily northwards across the rolling hills to the coast. Along the way we were misled by the Arch-Deceiver that is HERE Maps, which tried to convince us that what looked suspiciously like an overgrown stream was actually a main road, and we were caught up in a high-speed chase with a tractor, like an extremely low-budget Cantabrian version of Need for Speed. The stereotype lives: Cantabria truly is a land of green hills, of cows and of tractors.

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The last time I wandered these hills, the skies were iron-grey and I could only see as far as the next range of hills for the glowering rainclouds. I can’t have known it at the time, but I was seriously missing out. After abandoning the path and freelancing our way up a hill, Watership Down fashion, we were treated to what must be the most awe-inspiring landscape I’ve seen since I first stepped onto the plains of Caceres.

For once, I had the full works on me, so you can enjoy the view three times over, with the wide-angle 18mm…

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…and the macro 200mm…

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…and the telephoto 500mm.

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Sadly, the Nikon-compatible Sigma 500mm doesn’t come with an in-built autofocus motor, so it won’t be the powerhouse it has always been for rapid-fire avian photography, but at least I got some use out of it this weekend.

It was a beautiful view and all of that, but it was an equally beautiful dead end, so we had to climb back down the hill, cross the cow-fields and roll under a possibly electrified fence in order to get back to the road down to the sea (we didn’t check to find out – not when we were so close to our goal). After a very long and very winding road down one last hill, we made it – at last – to the sea.

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Extremadura has so much to offer, but there’s one thing it really lacks: the sea. You don’t notice until you think about it. Discounting Uganda, I’ve never lived more than an hour from the sea (much less in the UK) so Extremadura is the most inland location I’ve ever had to deal with. To see the Atlantic in all its cold fury once again was a real sight for sore eyes. The storm-force winds and murderous waves of the previous week are gone, but the waves still put on a formidable display for us.

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We spent about an hour by the sea, Kate and I, watching the waves pounding the shore and snacking on Cantabria’s finest delicacy, quesada pasiega. Yum yum. There’s a little ermita built into a cave in the cliffs which we didn’t get the time to visit, but I doubt it would have looked any more impressive up close than from afar. Imagine living in a place like that, with the sound of the Atlantic roaring all about you, twenty-four hours a day. The focus you would have to have – or learn to have – borders on the superhuman. Little wonder, then, that it is what it is. I wonder how an estate agent might describe it?

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It’s getting to that time of year when the sun starts to set later, but sunset was already fast approaching as we turned back for Santillana at about six o’clock. In the gloom of the oncoming night, we finished off the quesada on the banks of the Saja river by moonlight and killed time by making for Rudagüera, the next stop along the Cabezón line… and then legging it back the way we came when it became apparent that it was a little further than we’d thought (one last flick of the claw from HERE Maps) and that we’d probably miss the next train.

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Back in Cabezón, after a drink at a local hunters’ bar, complete with mounted boar heads and numerous black-and-white stills of hunting men of old stood proudly over the carcasses of Cantabria’s once widespread brown bears, Kate took me to visit one of her favourite eateries, El Paraíso. At 2,45€, I thought a ración of patatas bravas would be enough to fill a corner after so much walking (we crammed in about thirty kilometres today, all in all), but I forgot…

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We’re in the north. In my experience, northerners in any country seem to have a much better idea as to what constitutes a decent portion size. Maybe it’s the climate. Who knows? In my earlier traveling days, food was the last thing I was prepared to fork out for. How things have changed since then! Coming back from that Spain trek dangerously underweight four years ago has left a profound mark, and these days food is the one luxury I’m prepared to spend on, and spend well. A long day’s walking deserves a long night’s eating, and I think I did pretty well on both fronts.

So, all in all, it was a very successful trip, albeit a very brief one! I was lucky enough to get a BlaBlaCar on the way back that didn’t mess me around. Better yet, he was no more and no less than a gaditano. Oh, to hear that accent again after twenty-four hours and more of people pronouncing their s’s…! You have no idea how happy it made me.

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Cabezón de la Sal to Villafranca is still a bloody long way to go, but where the bus took all of nine hours, Rafa made it for me in six. In those six hours, taking in the windswept, snowy heights of Reinosa, I was treated to the finest conversation BlaBla can offer, up to and including:

  • Franco’s suppression of the education system
  • The legacy of al-Andalus
  • An anthropological history of Cadiz
  • The true nature of corruption in Spain
  • The Spanish Civil War
  • Gibraltan Spanglish
  • The rationality of England’s outside stance on the EU
  • Podemos and the total absence of a government at the moment
  • Why and how dubbing came to be one of Spain’s biggest businesses (and blights)
  • Piracy in the Old Mediterranean
  • The Growth of the Spanish film industry

I could go on. There were at least five or six hours of it. And all of it in Spanish, and in the very finest gaditano. Talk about a workout… and politics! The eighteen year-old me would never have believed a word of it.

Needless to say, my faith in BlaBlaCar is restored and I’ll be bound for Cadiz proper at some point to make good on that drink I’ve been offered. If I am to live up to the title of ‘Él que va conociendo al mundo’ that I’ve been given, BlaBlaCar is a damned good way of going about it.

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But last of all, I’d like to air high-five my good friend Kate for putting me up (and putting up with me) for two nights and a day in Cantabria. Yours truly is not the most pleasant company in a city, but in the countryside where he belongs, he’s just as insufferable, if only on the other side of the positive/negative spectrum. Kate’s seen me at my lowest in Amman and probably at my highest – quite literally – in the life-giving paradise that is Cantabria. Thank you, Kate, and I hope to return the favour when you’re down in the south! The adventure never ends. Not really. Not ever. BB x

PS. You can read about her side of things here. It’s a lot more tongue-in-cheek than mine.

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