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Archives: The International Writers Magazine: Spain
- From Our Archives

Castro Urdiales, Cantabria
• Gretta Schifano
At Bilbao’s curvaceous Guggenheim Museum our youngest child was fascinated by the ‘Shitbody’ sculpture.  The white embryonic figure has a string of excrement dangling from its bottom, and he was unsure if it should be allowed. The eldest loved the colourful abstract canvases and declared that she would paint one upon her return: we’re still waiting.

My favourite was Jeff Koons’ 12m high floral puppy while my husband, a lifelong footie fan, was intrigued by an installation of the 1966 World Cup Final.

The Guggenheim is one reason to visit the Spanish Cantabrian coast, but snorkelling in the Atlantic was a surprise. As I floated face down in the water two metres from the beach I watched a huge shoal of silvery fish speeding along in the current below me. As the sun warmed my back I relaxed into the sensation of weightlessness while the fish bustled and darted along. They were oblivious to my presence but suddenly turned as one and tore off in the opposite direction. My husband and the youngest, paddling in the shallows, said a heron had just dived from a rock into the water and emerged metres away – the fish had been swimming for their lives.

Urdiales Postcard Castro Urdiales sits between Bilbao and Santander and boasts two huge, clean sandy beaches and a higgledy piggledy old town, centred around the working harbour. The harbour is watched over by the 13th century church on one side and the Cantabrian mountains on the other. The handsome main square by the harbour was overflowing with fiesta when we arrived in mid-August, as it was the Feast of the Assumption. From a table outside a harried tapas bar under the arches, we watched cabezudos y gigantes, literally ‘big heads and giants’.

Gaggles of children ran through the streets screaming with laughter as they were chased by these figures with huge papier maché heads and clubs who gently thwacked them if they got close enough. The youngest was bewildered to be clubbed at random, but took it well. A brass band heralded a parade of towering traditional figures, and a group of singers and musicians wailed songs, enthusiastically supported by a clamourous crowd.

The town was busy with Spanish holidaymakers when we went, but seems to be off the radar for everyone else. During the two weeks we spent there in August we came across only one other Brit. Liverpudlian Steve has been in the country for years and runs the only pub we saw, although it’s a very Spanish kind of pub. The Hole in The Wall is in the old part of town near the harbour and serves traditional tapas along with the Guinness. The lack of our fellow countrymen was fine by us: we’d chosen to holiday in Spain because both of our children are learning Spanish at school and they were keen to visit the country.

We figured the more Spanish voices they heard, the better, and we were anxious to avoid the ‘Full English Breakfast Served All Day’ side of Spain.

One of the reasons there are fewer visitors to this area may be the weather: we had two rainy days during our stay, and three or four days which were cloudy and overcast. So if you want to lie on a sun lounger all day, it’s not an ideal destination. But it was warm, even when it was raining, and it suited our family well. We had plenty of time on the beach and in the pool, and all came home tanned having used factor 30 sunscreen. It was never too hot to sleep, and there was no need for air conditioning.

The Parque de la Naturaleza de Cabárceno, an hour’s drive away, is a vast safari park where the animals enjoy a habitat of ferrous crags and lush greenery. The sculptural rock formations are the ghostly remains of an opencast iron mine. The animals have so much space, it really feels like they’re behaving naturally, but the layout is such that they’re easy to observe. As we drove around the park, the eldest and I entertained ourselves, and irritated the others, by singing a song for each animal we saw. ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ was followed by ‘The Bear Necessities’ which segued into ‘Big & Chunky’ (as sung by the hippo in Madagascar 2). The zebras stumped us for a while, but eventually we settled on Michael Jackson’s ‘Black or White’.

Secretive El Pedregal is the town’s natural swimming pool, where the sea has slit through the cliff to hammer out a hidden, crag-encircled cove. We explored the rock pools at low tide, absorbing the elemental atmosphere. It’s an otherworldly place, only spoilt by the brutal apartment buildings looming above.

The kids had heard of a Spanish snack called churros which is deep fried dough coated in sugar and dipped in hot chocolate. It sounded revolting to me but the youngest was desperate to try some, obviously, so when we came across a churreria kiosk by the harbour one evening we had to have some. The churros was freshly made to order, and was actually surprisingly light and satisfying. The youngest liked it so much he said he wanted to dig up the whole churreria kiosk, with the staff inside, and tow it by boat back home so we could have churros whenever we wanted. Besides the churreria the town enjoys a decent selection of places to eat including Los Templarios, recommended by Steve, where we and half the town and their families and dogs had excellent tapas.

Whenever we went out in the evenings we saw groups of quite young children on the streets, playing together happily. One evening by the main square and harbour there was a group of girls who looked about 9 or 10, sitting on the pavement behind a line of their toys which were for sale. They didn’t seem bothered that nobody was buying anything, it was as if they were playing shops. Meanwhile, crowds of people passed obliviously by on their evening stroll, just like the flocks of holidaymakers flying past this coast en route to the Mediterranean.

© Gretta Schifano, March 2012  

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