Squeezed into a narrow cove, reminiscent of Cornwall’s seaside villages, Cudillero’s seafaring houses tumble into and onto each other down the rocky cliffsides.
A maze of steep winding lanes and worn stone steps serve to baffle the newcomer and force you to explore tucked away corners and backyard dead ends.
From the steep cliffside path above we saw that some of the houses rooves had caved in. We wondered if it was weather damage.
Once down below and able to ask in a local grocery we were told that ‘older people are dying, and younger people don’t want to live here. Family homes are abandoned. The new mayor wants to invest to bring in more tourism and second homeowners, as so many people visit and love the village.”
Expensive seafood restaurants filled the tiny square at the head of the small harbour of crashing blue waves. On Sunday afternoon a Porsche was amongst the flashy cars driven endlessly around the small port.
We wanted a glass of cool wine to sit with and soak up the atmosphere but were turned away from three places as we did not want to eat a full meal. It had an odd feeling that neither of us could quite place. It was like being somewhere familiar, but it not being quite there.
We wondered what regular life was like so returned the next day to find out. The steep road down to the port was busy with village life alongside fewer visitors. Schoolchildren returned noisily home, flashing past us on skateboards then shrieking as they came to an abrupt halt at crossroads.
The tapas bars were packed at 3pm, and elderly women were out in force shopping at fish and vegetable shops. It seemed a busy place and not devoid of the hope that we had been led to believe. We wished it well!
Santillana del Mar is considered to be one of Spain’s prettiest villages. It is Medieval and has retained its 15th century timbered-framed and stone houses, with just a few 18 century additions, along its cobbled streets.
The winding streets, impossibly driven along by bouncing locals in small cars, are peppered with drinking troughs, fountains, churches, convents, fortified mansions and municipal buildings.
Paradors and boutique hotels now occupy former houses of importance. It is touristy. Overpriced glasses of wine, cider and lemonade were being guzzled in wooden-columned courtyards.
We parked outside the village and walked the couple of miles there and back through lush green fields being grazed on by shiny cattle and horses. Enormous coaches of international visitors from cruisers docked at the nearby ports at Santander and Bilbao were unloading en masse at the roadside.
Like Cudillero, it didn’t feel quite right. It was historic but seemed to lack the lived-in authenticity that we’ve felt in bucket loads across our journeys in Spain, at places such as Tordesillas, Baeza, Toledo, Chipiona, Cadiz and Valladolid.
We had planned to stay the night at the town’s free aire, but instead chose to continue along the A8 coastal road, around Santander, to an old favourite campsite.
After almost 2,900 miles, our final nights in Spain were spent at beautiful Zarautz, a coastal town that we first discovered several years ago. Smarter and flashier, its clearly been well invested in by both the municipality and private homeowners.
We enjoyed the steep stroll down from the cliffside campsite to meander along a newly installed boardwalk crossing the long beach to the cavernous Old Town, hidden away in little squares under stone arcades where old boys leaned heavily over old oak beer barrels and nibbled at tiny pinxtos treats with small glasses of Manzanilla.
Our encounters with the Spanish have been very heart-warming and we’ve appreciated both their courtesy and inherent enjoyment of life. We could all learn from that! Yet the remainder of 2019 is replete with uncertainties for Spain.
Since we entered the country almost three months ago, economic and political confidence has declined and there is the serious threat of another recession…. but you wouldn’t know it. The country’s transport infrastructure is mind-bogglingly efficient and superbly maintained. Its historic centres and cities seem to be in a state of constant and sensitive restoration and are lovingly cared for.
The people are proud and keen to tell you of their culture and local as well as national history. We experienced no aggression, no covert jealousy, no suspicion or watchful dislike which we know often accompanies seemingly better-heeled travellers in more depressed communities.
Travelling in Iberia has been a privilege and joy and one we hope to be able to repeat. However, work and home life sound their siren call across the Bay of Biscay.
So, ducking under the low wooden beams of a bodega doorway to join the old boys, we look forward to being – for a final few days – currently away….