Searching high and low in Santander

Santander is the capital of Cantabria,  a province renowned for its seafood, although sadly I didn’t eat as well as I would have liked. It is the Spanish equivalent of Brighton and like to London-by-the-sea it has been a popular summer destination for rich Madrilenos.

It is also similar to San Sebastian (see previous post) but with more beaches and fewer interesting buildings. As with Brighton and San Seb, it has benefited from royal patronage, in this case from Queen Isabel II who came here in the 1860s. Apparently she was hoping the sea air would help cure the dose of clap she had contracted from the prime minister at the time, General O’Donnell.

And of course it’s home to a large banking corporation. If coming by road, you will see their IT centre on the way into town, a huge bunker with twenty floors underground, one of three around the world, where they keep everyone’s financial information safe from prying eyes.

Another interesting fact is that Santander was the last place in Spain to still have a public statue of General Franco. The council only got round to taking it down in 2008, which may or may not say something about local political beliefs…

The long sandy beaches are divided in two by a promontory that also separates the resort area from the gritty port. The port area used to be just as picturesque as the rest of the town but in 1883 a ship carrying dynamite exploded in the harbour killing 500 people and wiping out half the town.

The long promenade is great for walkers, runners and cyclists to get a good round in. I was only here for two nights so again; this post is by no means exhaustive, just a small selection of what I had time to do.

My favourite experience here was the market, Mercado de la Esperanza, which is located in Placa Esperanza. Built in 1897, it houses a vibrant fish market in the basement, meat and dairy on the first floor, and the fruit and veg stalls around the outside.

Most of the fruit and veg was pretty standard, although they did have these flat peaches which you don’t see every day.

In many markets I’ve been to the stall holders are sick of the sight of tourists but here they were exceptionally friendly and even set up their wares for me to photograph. I bought a selection of goat cheeses, for which Calabria is also famous, some huge lemons, and a couple of very pungent bulbs of garlic to take home.

There is another old market nearby, Mercado del Este on C/ Hernan de Cortes, which has now been converted into shops and tapas bars. The tourist info is here, next to a good deli which seemed cheaper than elsewhere, and this place…

La Casa del Indiano (Intermediate B), Mercado del Este, C/ Hernan de Cortes

On a semi-local recommendation, I had a three course lunch here which with wine cost a reasonable $33.

I started with the local dish of Rabas, literally meaning ‘tails’ but which are in fact strips of lightly battered deep-fried squid, in this case rather bland (B-). I followed this up with a grilled steak of white tuna which was fine (B) but came with some horrible dipping sauce, with the colour and consistency of HP but tasting much worse (D).

The apple tart was also very bland (B-) but the glass of aged Moscatel (Pico Plata) I had with it was more like Pedro Jimenez being very dark and sweet, a first for me (B).

The food was ok (B-) and the service was good, but I wasn’t keen on the kitsch decor and I’d probably go elsewhere next time.

Bodega Cigalena (Intermediate B-), C/Daoiz y Velarde 19, Tel. 942 213 062

On my first night I didn’t finish work until 8.30 pm so I went to this place just down the road from the school, which had been recommended by a colleague in Bilbao and backed up by the local teacher.

It calls itself a wine museum and the walls and ceiling are covered with vintage bottles. Given this, their expensive house white Albariño (Do Ferreiro 2011) should have been much better than it was (B-). Although the restaurant was fairly full, the bar and pavement outside was thronged with locals, all of whom were drinking red, so I may have missed out there.

The first course was allegedly Langostinos al Ajillo, but they were in fact blatantly prawns. The waiters insisted otherwise and said that ‘gambas’ were much smaller which they might be in local parlance, but they couldn’t fool this Norwegian prawn eater. A langoustine is a langoustine. They were also very bland and disappointing (C), and not a patch on the ones from the North Sea.

I followed up with Chipirones de Guadan, or baby squid still with their ink sacs inside, and a small side of sliced garlic potatoes. This was an improvement (B-) but again I’ve had better.

Finally, a dessert of homemade Millefoglie which again was nothing special (B-) but was paired with an interesting Malvasia from Tenerife (B) (Vinatigo).

I enquired after a Cardenal Mendoza cognac to finish but retracted when I was told it would cost €11 (it can be as little as €6 in other places). To their credit I instead received a complementary glass of Larios 1866,  a more expensive though less tasty brand, which won me round to the waiters again after a bad start. With a bill of around €78 though, I don’t think I’d come again.

La Gaviota (Intermediate B), Calle Marques de la Ensenada 32, Tel. 942 221 006

A multi-room seafood restaurant in the run down port neighbourhood, the first in a row of several seafood places, all of which are much cheaper than the touristy restaurants near the beaches. This one was rated as the best place in town by Cadogan and it also features in Spanish guide books. To be honest the food is ok but not the best (B/C) although it gives good value for money I guess.

You can get a very cheap menu del dia (€12 in 2012) or if there’s two of you, a mariscada seafood feast for €55. I had the seafood paella (B-), grilled razor clams (B-) and grilled prawns (C) .

To drink an ok (B) bottle of Verdejo (Cantarranas 2011) followed by an average Orujo des Hierbas (C) for €55. I’d try the grilled anchovies next time, or perhaps go to one of the places next door which seemed to be just as busy.

So, more research needed! I’d happily come to Santander again but will have to look harder for a good place to eat. Given what was on display at the fish market, they have good quality ingredients but finding a good place to eat them cheaply is a bit of a challenge.

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