One of the great pleasures of the road is to arrive at a village on foot. You see it first at a greater or lesser distance depending on the terrain, and then you have reference to act as a form of target. You move towards it, as directly as the path will allow you, you begin to make out the spire of the church, the larger houses, the way it is set into the hills around it, the colours of the walls and roofs, the feel of the place, you begin to sense the activity that goes on there, and then to smell it, too, be it cows, fish, industry, machinery, powdered earth or humanity. Then you are in it, you have a look at anything that seems worth it, you stop for a drink or a bite, you take a few pictures, exchange a few words, and you set out again, leaving it behind as the road takes you onward. The road (the path, the track, it’s all one) dictates your movements. You go where it goes. On the road you move through places that those who live there think of as fixed. To them they are the centre of the world, at least for a time, but to the caminante it is the village that moves around him, through him, past him. It was before you, now it’s behind you, another spot on the horizon, another reason for wandering. One of the best places you can arrive at on foot is Santillana del Mar.* If you approach from the coast along the clifftops, which is the best way to do it, you climb into the hills, pass through Arroyo, an olde worlde collection of houses in a little dip with a stream running by (this time the name is quite true) you walk past the Japanese girls with blisters sprawled on the side of the road (I mention this because they’re probably still there; neither of them looked as though they would ever move again), and suddenly you look down on Santillana. Santillana is almost entirely mediaeval; the central part, which is most of it, consists of 15-16thC wood and stone houses, and cobbled streets, beautifully kept and with few modern intrusions. Cars don’t enter, many of the houses are used as shops and cafés, and the whole effect is of going back to a place from another time, not a museum, a real place that lives and breathes, but without the smell and the hunger. That’s what you see as you approach Santillana from above, an expanse of brown and black buildings, many like small palaces, the Colegiata, a kind of monastery, another church and cloister, and streets of more modest houses, all looking bright and charming, and on the edge, smallholdings in which cows of the same brown colour chew grass philosophically, all of this set in the beautiful hills of the Cantabrian coast. It’s worth pausing a moment to enjoy all of this before you enter the town. And that’s why I travel on foot. *It’s known as the town of the three lies because it is neither holy nor flat nor by the sea (which is what the name would suggest). It would be possible to argue that none of them is strictly false but in any case the place is named for St Juliana of the Sea, who did something Godly several centuries ago and is therefore now buried in a rather nice mediaeval church in the town, the Colegiata.
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