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Cantabria Travel Guide

Mountain village, Cantabria (© Arturo Limón -
Mountain village, Cantabria.


At the heart of the Cantabrian Mountains, between the Basque Country and Asturias, lies mainland Spain's second smallest and second least populous autonomous region, Cantabria. It is approximately twice the size of Luxembourg and, with 590,000 inhabitants, has a similar population.

Santander, Cantabria's capital, is the seat of Banco Santander, the largest bank in the Eurozone and one of the largest banks in the world in terms of market capitalisation.


Cantabrian cuisine is varied, but relies heavily on local freshwater and sea fish, seafood, beans, game, and beef. The seafood from the Bay of Biscay ranks among the tastiest in Europe, and includes seaweed, clams, razor shell clams, mussels, scallops, cockles, crabs, barnacles, crayfish, lobster, octopus and squid. The fish menu usually features bonito, sea bass, mackerel, hake, red mullet, scorpion fish, anchovy, and sardine.

The Cantabrian people used to hunt bear in the mountains until the 19th century, and game (deer, roe deer and wild boar) is still an essential component of the local cuisine. The most widely used cooked meat is, however, beef, and especially veal. The black, long-horned Tudanca cow of Cantabria bears uncanny resemblannce to its wild ancestor, the extinct aurochs, suggesting particularly late interbreeding between aurochs and domestic cattle in the region. Spain's largest cattle fair is the National Cattle Fair of Torrelavega, held in Cantabria's second largest municipality.

Typical Cantabrian specialties include arroz santanderino (rice dish cooked with salmon and milk), cocido montañés ('mountain stew', made with dried lima beans, collard greens, black pudding and chorizo, and not unlike southern French cassoulet), hake in green sauce, rabas (fried squid rings), and sorropotún (tuna pot). On the sweet scene, you'll find corbata and polka (both puff pastries), quesada pasiega (cheesecake of the Pas valley, flavoured with cinnamon and lemon zest), sobao pasiego (butter pastry made with eggs, lemon zest and anise liquor or rum), and frisuelos (kind of crêpes).

The indigenous alcohols, shared with other regions of northern Spain, are the chacolí (sparkling, very dry white wine with high acidity, known as Txakoli in the Basque Country), orujo (pomace brandy with an alcohol content over 50%), and apple cider. There are two wine appellations in Cantabria: Vino de la Tierra Costa de Cantabria and Vino de la Tierra de Liébana.

History & Language

Cantabria owes its name to the Cantabri, the Celtic tribe that occupied the region in the Iron Age. The Cantabri were used as mercenaries in various conflicts, notably on the Carthaginian side against Rome during the Second Punic War. The Cantabrian Wars (29-19 BCE) were the final stage of the Roman conquest of Hispania.

Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Cantabria fell under Visigothic rule. In 574, King Liuvigild established the Duchy of Cantabria, which also comprised the north of the modern province of Burgos. In 714, the Moors conquered the part of Cantabria south of the mountains, forcing the Cantabrians to unite with their Asturian neighbours.

The territorial division of Spain of 1833 placed Cantabria within the Old Castille. Nevertheless, due to its geographic isolation, Cantabria retained a strong sense of independence and cultural distinctiveness and requested its own autonomous status in 1978. Castilian Spanish, which originated in the adjacent region of Burgos, is the main official language. Cantabrian, also known as Montañés ('from the Mountain') is itself a dialect of Castilian, although it has little more than 3,000 native speakers nowadays.

Prehistory & Genetics

Cantabria is the richest region in the world for archaeological sites from the Upper Paleolithic period (Cro-Magnons), ranging from 50,000 to 10,000 years ago. The most significant site for cave paintings is that in the cave of Altamira, dating from about 37,000 BCE and declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, along with nine other Cantabrian caves.

Insight from population genetics revealed that Cantabrians have an unusually high percentage of haplogroup R1a, a patrilineal lineage more associated with Northeastern Europe. The inhabitants of the Pas and Miera valleys in particular, known as the Pasiegans (Pasiegos), were reported to have 18% of R1a. Maternal Pasiegan lineages (mtDNA) were also unusual for the region (21% of haplogroup V, 16% of U5, 6% of I, and 2.5% of U4, among others) and displayed the same strong links with Northeastern Europe. These lineages could be remnants from the Upper Paleolithic or Mesolithic inhabitants of Iberia. An ancient DNA study showed that Mesolithic Iberians were genetically closer to modern Northeastern Europeans than to modern Southern Europeans.

Both the Cantabrians and the Asturians possess a considerable percentage of Y-DNA haplogroup E1b1b and G2a, the two main lineages associated with the Neolithic diffusion of agriculture. The E-M81 lineage, found in about 15% of Cantabrians, suggests that Neolithic farmers in Northwest Iberia came through the Maghreb, an hypothesis corroborated by the presence of about 3% North African maternal lineages (L2, M1, U6).

In contrast, Cantabrians have one of the lowest frequency of haplogroup R1b (55%) on the Atlantic fringe of Europe, a lineage linked to the Bronze and Iron Age dispersal of Indo-European speakers such as the Celts. The Cantabrian mountains therefore seem to have preserved a higher degree of Mesolithic and Neolithic genes than in the rest of Western Europe.



Palace of Sobrellano at sunset, Comillas (© Jose Ignacio Soto -
must-see Comillas
Santillana del Mar
Santillana del Mar (© LENTEJA -
outstanding Santillana del Mar
Altamira Cave ※
Bison drawing, Cave of Altamira
very good Cave of Altamira

Other attractions

very good Oyambre Natural Park
very good Reinosa
very good Saja-Besaya Natural Park


Collados del Asón Natural Park
Cascada del Asón (© Argonautis -
very good Collados del Asón Natural Park
Dunes of Liencres Natural Park
Dunes of Liencres Natural Park (© B.F. -
very good Dunes of Liencres Natural Park
Palacio de la Magdalena, Santander (photo by Fernandopascullo - Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license)
very good Santander

Other attractions

very good Macizo de Peña Cabarga Natural Park
very good Monastery of San Sebastián de Hano
very good Santoña, Victoria and Joyel Marshes Natural Park

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