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Day 4: Santander

The destination for today's excursion was the coastal town of Santander, located approximately 100km to the west of Bilbao. This had been a planned stop on our itinerary ever since we first started designing the holiday in February, although precisely why we are struggling to remember. It may have been because it looked like a significant dot on the map of Spain and so we felt it must surely be worth seeing, or it may have been because I thought that anywhere which had a bank named after it must be an exciting place. It presumably wasn't on the recommendation of the Rough Guide to Spain which, we discovered over breakfast, described it as being devoid of interest. By the time we read that it felt like too late too change our minds - and we have loved other places in the past which the Rough Guide has been scathing about - so we decided to give it a go anyway.

There is a train route between Bilbao and Santander, but the trains appear to run at such irregular and unfriendly intervals that it didn't seem possible to use them for a day trip. Instead we trekked across town to the bus station with the intention of catching a bus which was scheduled to depart at 11.00. The timetables on Spanish transportation websites don't appear to be entirely reliable, and it transpired that there wasn't actually a bus until 11.30. Oh well. When it finally came it was clean and comfortable though, and happily everyone was given an allocated seat so there was no pushing and shoving to board.

The journey took us on a motorway which led out of Bilbao and then across some hilly countryside towards the sea. The middle of the route was particularly spectacular as we drove alongside a rocky coastline with steep cliffs. As the road moved inland, the views became less interesting and we stopped in a couple of towns of which 'devoid of interest' was probably quite an apt description.

First impressions as we pulled into Santander was that it looked how Wolverhampton might look with the addition of a sea port. Warehouses, retail parks, industrial estates; I felt more like I was going on an audit than on holiday. As we walked out of the bus station the town centre seemed very... concrete. And the entire seafront looked like it was being dug up in a serious construction exercise.

Oh dear. We began to feel like it might have been a terrible mistake to attempt to defy the Rough Guide and that the best course of action would be to have lunch and head back to Bilbao. Trying to find somewhere suitable to have lunch quickly became a mission of its own, but in the course of our quest to find a restaurant in Santander which served something other than fish, we did come across some more attractive parts of town.

This was the building of Banco de España...

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...this was a pleasant square with a statue...

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... and this was an interesting church.

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Eventually we came across a restaurant which was advertising its dish of the day as spaghetti bolognese. We went in and took a seat in hope, but I began to get rather nervous when they presented us with an English version of their regular menu, which featured three different dishes involving squid and several other delights along the lines of pickled tuna and gizzard with onions. Eek!

Luckily for me, the waitress confirmed that spaghetti bolognese was indeed on offer and it came as part of a meal deal with a glass of house wine, pudding and coffee. It all sounded good, but when the wine came we were somewhat perplexed by the fact that it smelled more like whisky than wine. Once you got past the strong smell I thought it tasted nice, though Tim was unconvinced and the man sitting at the table behind us went so far as to tell the waitress there was something wrong with his (she sniffed it, gave him a funny look and told him that was how it was supposed to smell!). The pasta was very normal anyway and I followed it up with an enormous chocolate mousse and an extremely strong espresso.

Feeling a bit more cheerful now that we were fed, we decided to give Santander another go. A big Spanish flag on the main promenade confirmed that we were no longer in the Basque country:

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There was another Spanish flag flying from the headquarters of the Santander bank.

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We didn't find any indications of an Opus Dei fascist conspiracy, although I may be tempted to send this photo to my correspondent:

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Banks aside, we found that the coastline outside of the town was actually quite beautiful...

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... and the beaches were a lot less crowded than at San Sebastian.

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Overall we probably wouldn't recommend Santander as the most exciting day trip in Spain. On the other hand, we did succeed in getting well and truly off the beaten track, not encountering a single other English tourist, so in some ways it was nevertheless mission accomplished :)

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