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Guide to Cantabria

Cantabria is the hidden jewel of Spain. This tiny autonomous region of Cantabria in Northern Spain is one of the Iberian Peninsula's hidden jewels, largely overlooked by the mass market tourist industry.

Most British holidaymakers arriving by ferry at the Cantabrian capital of Santander only catch a glimpse of this gorgeous region through the car window as they pass through en route to one of the Costas.

It's true, you can't count on Cantabria if endless days of summer sun are your top priority. The weather here is as unpredictable as it is in the UK. But the Cantabrian climate supports a breath taking array of landscapes ranging from spectacular mountains bedecked with flower-filled meadows to lush green valleys and dense forests which provide a safe haven for some of the country's few remaining wild wolves and bears.

Cantabria - a wealth of diverse landscapes

Take time out to explore the many delights of Cantabria and you'll soon see why the Spanish royals chose Santander as their summer retreat in the early part of the 20th century. The region boasts some superb beaches which never suffer the over-crowding of Spain's Eastern and Southern coastlines.

The spectacular Picos de Europa (Peaks of Europe) mountain range, to the South West of Santander, is one of the best places in Spain for hiking, climbing and various other outdoor pursuits. And for those more interested in history and culture, Cantabria is a treasure trove of medieval villages, ancient monuments, grandiose architectural gems and well-preserved prehistoric cave paintings.

Cantabria is an ideal destination for nature lovers

Lovers of nature, wildlife and adventure sports come from all four corners of the globe to spend a week or two in the Picos de Europa national park which includes the highest peaks in the Cantabrian mountains, interspersed with dramatic canyons and long, narrow gorges. The rivers abound with salmon and trout and the mountains with wild cats, chamois and red deer while eagles and goshawks rule the skies.

The Picos is also home to two glacial lakes and some of Spain's deepest caves. Near the enchanting ancient village of Potes you'll find the 6th century Sanctuary of St Toribio – the reputed home of the largest remnant of the cross on which Jesus died.

One of the region's most precious assets is the Altamira Cave, to the West of Santander, where huge multi-coloured paintings dating back 15,000 years adorn the ceilings. Access to the cave is severely restricted these days but you can see a recreation of the paintings at the national museum in the nearby village of Santillana del Mar (Left). The village is well worth a visit in its own right as it's one of the best preserved medieval towns in Spain.

The Cabarceno Nature Reserve, ten minutes drive from Santander, is one of Cantabria's top visitor attractions with a safari park containing  endangered exotic creatures from five continents that roam semi-wild. The park is home to more than 500 species including elephants, leopards, bears, lions and kangaroos.

Things to do in Santander

The city of Santander has a number of places of interest including several museums, the former summer palace of King Alfonso XIII and the historic Grand Casino of El Sardinero.

El Sardinero (Right) has been a fashionable beach resort for more than a century and there are plenty more superb sandy beaches, hidden coves and pretty fishing villages to be found along the Cantabrian coastline.

Fresh seafood (including locally caught lobster and clams) is prominent on local menus and there are some exceptional dining spots to be found in converted monasteries and palaces. The renowned restaurant El Capricho in the medieval town of Comillas was a former summer residence of the Spanish royals. The intricately decorated building is one of the few outside Catalunya to be designed by the great Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi.