Monday, 29 June 2015

So long, Cantabria

My first sense of Santander was not unlike the one I had of Trieste some twenty years earlier. In both cases, I knew nothing of the place before. Both are situated between the sea and the mountains. Both are distinctly European, but one can easily get confused where exactly in Europe they are. Trieste didn’t look like an Italian city to me. Of all Spanish cities I’ve seen so far, Santander did feel least Spanish. Later, I found similarity between these two places on a deeper level.

I find this mermaid near Palacio de la Magdalena rather sexy. Unlike her caudal fin, the Latimeria-like pelvic fins make perfect sense to me.

I got my first impression of santanderinos the following day, on boarding the city bus. Two things did strike me:

  1. It was too quiet.
  2. Nobody was smiling.
Let me explain. In Canarias, people board guaguas to talk as much as to travel. People shout “Hola, guapa” or “Chao, mi niña” across the bus cabin. The seats closest to the front door usually get occupied by talkers who spend the rest of the journey distracting the driver. People do ask each other things (and answer). If you ask anyone about your destination, half of the bus joins to explain where you have to get off and what to do next, mi niña. And they do smile at you.

Not here. Even though that first impression was shaken one Friday night (the bus was full of drunk and loud youngsters), it still holds true.

At first, I could’t believe that people here really speak Castellano Castellano. They say “Voy a Madrith”, €10 is “dieth euros” (not “dieh euroh” like in Canarias), and they use vosotros.

When I arrived (on a slow FEVE train from Bilbao), the sun was shining. “Just you wait”, I was told. I was waiting for a month. Patiently. I spent the two last days of October on the beach. On the 1st of November, the floodgates of the heavens opened and winter began. I had to invest in an umbrella and a pair of welly boots. Again! Maybe leaving most of winter things in Porvoo was a mistake after all. (Clothes! Layers and layers of them. I hate it.) February was particularly horrible, with thunderstorms and hailstorms every other day and simply rain in between.

I made good friends in Santander, just like I did in Trieste. None of them are native of either place. This may, or may not, suggest that you can’t make friends with santanderinos. In any case, I can’t prove it. As a rule, Cantabrians are proud not to be from Santander; or, if they are, they hide it well.

If you follow this blog, you know that Santander is full of live music and other cultural events, many of which are free. There even are free dance classes — bachata, kizomba, tango... Thanks to the weather, not that much was happening outdoors. (Maybe now, when the temperature is in mid-twenties, it is not raining and I am not there any longer.) The Carnival did not impress me at all, and a couple of Semana Santa processions that I’ve seen almost freaked me out. So what. Cantabria is more than Santander, and there is a lot to sea.

I was working in Liencres, a town about 9 kilometres west of Santander, where you can find some of the finest beaches in Cantabria. I mean, Santander’s own El Sardinero and Playa de Mataleñas are great by any city beach standards, but once I’d discovered La Arnía, Covachos, Somocuevas and Valdearenas, there was no way back.

Covachos is probably the most beautiful naturist beach I've ever been. You can only access it by foot when the tide is out.

Every second Sunday, there was a walk-cum-language exchange organised by La Escuela Oficial de Idiomas de Santander. Thanks to these excursions, I got acquainted with some corners of Cantabria I’d never get to on my own, such as “the capital of the world” Arredondo or spooky Túneles de La Engaña.

Cantabria is small (Canary Islands have larger area and population), but, disregarding the weather for a while, it has everything one can dream about. There are mountains — not the hills called “mountains”, like in England, no, the real mountains with snow on top, Picos de Europa. On a good day, I could see them from my school window.

Meltwater lake near Fuente Dé.

There are rivers — again, real rivers, not barrancos with puny streams of water which disappear during the dry months.

Ghostly face of la Cascada del Asón in Collados del Asón Natural Park.

Then, there are forests. (Yes, you’ve got it, the real ones.) España Verde, of which Cantabria is a part, is not called Verde for nothing. I did not realise how green it is until went to Málaga for a long weekend in the beginning of May. When I flew back to Bilbao just three days later, the visual impact of The Green took me by surprise. Now, at the peak of Canarian summer, I miss you, Holy Chlorophyll.

Loads of green stuff near Barcenillas.

And then, there is a sea. English may call it Bay of Biscay and French Golfe de Gascogne, but here it is called much more respectfully: Mar Cantábrico.

I should have explored España Verde beyond Cantabria a bit more, but I didn’t. Just before Christmas, I went to San Sebastian with Toastmasters Sardinero group. I liked it. Could have been nicer if it were not raining all day. Then, I went to Las Palmas for Christmas/New Year break. The cheapest flights I was able to book were from Bilbao (to Las Palmas) and to Santiago de Compostela (back). I decided to stretch my journey back to Santander over three nights, staying in Santiago, A Coruña and Oviedo. Back to work, I told my colleagues about my holidays.

— ¿Te ha gustado Bilbao?
— Sí, claro.
— Yo soy de Bilbao.
— Ah. Por supuesto, me gustó mucho.
— Mucho mejor que Santander, ¿no?
When I mentioned Oviedo, another colleague of mine, who seemingly was not paying attention, turned to me and asked:
— ¿Te ha gustado Asturias?
— Sí, mucho.
— Soy de Oviedo.
— Lo se.
— Es que Bilbao es feísimo, sabes?
— ¿Pero qué dices? (The first teacher chips in.)
— Es verdad verdadera.
My last week in Cantabria was supersaturated. Every day I was saying goodbyes on an alarming scale. Also, in a knowledge that these were my last days of sleep deprivation, I almost gave up sleeping. Luckily, I had two school excursions, to the two places I wanted to go myself but somehow never did, Cabárceno and to the Cave of Altamira, so I did not have to prepare classes for those days.

The conversations with my colleagues kept revolving around my imminent departure.

— Ay Kirill, es tu última semana aquí, ¿verdad?
— Sí.
— ¿Cuando te marchas?
— El viernes.
— Jolín, es muy prontito.
— Eso es.
— Que guay. Este finde vas a la playa con tus hijos, con tu mujercita...
— Sí, claro.
— Vas a compensar el tiempo perdido, ¿no?
— Por supuesto.
A lump in my throat prevents me from giving longer answers.

Yes, I knew I was going to stay in Santander for eight months. I did not expect my stay there to be exactly eight months. I have to thank Ryanair cheap direct flight scheduling (Santander — Gran Canaria, one weekly flight) for the fact that I flew back home on my last working day. Which probably spared me a few more days of heartwrenching farewells.

Somocuevas as I last saw it

Adiós, Cantabria. Te echaré de menos.

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