Santillana del Mar
Notwithstanding the implications for historians and archeologists, the discovery of the Altamira cave in the late 19th century and the subsequent spread of its renown has cast Santillana del Mar, the town nearest the site, into the tourism spotlight. Santillana, nestled in a depression banked by rolling hills a short jaunt inland from the sea, spans the centuries since its founding by Benedictine monks in the ninth century with a harmonious and, some might say pompous, blend of architecture encompassing palaces, mansions, convents, towers and a beautiful church. Cobblestone pathways wind between these stately buildings.
The pride of the village is the Romanesque Iglesia de la Colegiata de Santa Juliana, right, founded by Augustinian monks in the 12th century during a period of relative splendor as pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela passed through the town to pay their respects to the relics of Saint Juliana. The largest church on the Bay of Biscay, it bears the relics of the city’s namesake in a sepulcher at the center of its transept; she was martyred in the third century for refusing to renounce her Christianity and surrender her virginity during Roman persecutions. Her remains were brought to Santillana with the earliest arriving monks. The church’s vine-strewn cloister is a wondrous space adorned with Norman and Arabic geometrical patterns and mythical beasts along its Romanesque arcade.
From the Plaza de Las Arenas in front of the church, a walk down Calle del Río and then Calle del Cantón passes by countless palatial homes ranging in style from the Renaissance to the Baroque favored by the privileged families of the 17th century. One street over, Plaza Ramón Pelayo is highlighted by two Gothic towers, the Ayuntamiento or town hall and yet more palaces. While many are closed to tourists, others have been revamped as hotels or exhibition spaces. Regardless, the main pleasure of strolling down the streets of Santillana is to read the various coats of arms adorning them, each with an interesting if not profound statement of virtue, faith or downright petulant observation.
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