Santander, Spain Day 1: Going with the Flow

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”Particularly in the last couple of years, I’ve come to enjoy the journey part of a trip (almost) as much as the destination. Ironically, it’s a time when I get to slow down and enjoy the feeling of being “bored” (I’m never bored.) A time when I can listen to a new album not just to hear it, but to immerse myself into the listening experience to pick up on the complexities.

But mostly, I enjoy this part because of the paradox of control. On the one hand, I relish the sense of pride in planning and navigating through a long drive, 3 flights through 3 different countries, and renting a car in a different language, all successfully. On the other, the knowledge that something could go wrong at any time and throw a wrench in the entire rest of my plan is somehow no longer anxiety-inducing, rather it’s a rush. It’s a chance to prove how capable I am of thinking on my feet. Through all the heartache, self doubt and difficulty of the last several years, traveling has been here to remind me of the beauty in the little things as well as the beauty in simply accepting things as they are. It’s not your circumstances that determine your happiness, rather how you react to them.”

This is what I wrote as we were on our third and final flight to Spain. After waking up at 4:30am to drive to Baltimore (arriving over 3 hours early to avoid the heart attack of almost missing our flight like last time!), taking a 6 hour flight to Iceland, waiting through a 2 hour layover, flying another 2.5 hours to Ireland, enjoying another 4 hour layover and then finally attempting to sleep through our final 2 hour flight, we were almost to our destination. This may seem a little crazy - almost 30 hours of traveling one way - but we paid $270 and I wasn’t on a time schedule, so all of this down time was actually quite enjoyable.

We were smart. This time, instead of trying to cram as much in as possible immediately, once we got to our hotel we emptied our bags, grabbed a bite to eat and went to sleep to recover from jet lag as quickly as possible.

We didn’t plan too much for this trip. We knew we wanted to have one day to just bum around Santander, one day to see the sunrise and enjoy a beach picnic, and one day trip to somewhere else close by. As it was pouring rain on our first morning there, we decided to take the cue from the weather and enjoy a quiet first day. In planning, Erin was in charge of the activities and I the restaurants, particularly as I spoke the better Spanish of the two of us. When I ordered our breakfast, I hadn’t quite plucked up the courage to engage in a full on Spanish conversation, so I was feeling a little embarrassed about my speaking skills as we waited for our food. But just at that moment, a small, scarf-clad and white haired woman walked by our table, said something to us conspiratorially, winked, and walked out the door. After that, I knew that the act of at least trying to speak the language might make up for my errors.

After a 3 euro coffee and toast breakfast (non-dinner meals were incredibly cheap!) we sought shelter in the Prehistory and Archaeology museum of Cantabria. Both with art degrees, Erin and I typically lean more towards art museums. But in trying to get out of our comfort zones and broaden our minds, we thought what better way than to learn about the history of the city we were visiting. The museum turned out to be fascinating and well-constructed; a self-guided chronological exploration of human and animal presence beginning hundreds of thousands of years ago.

I never mind exploring a museum by myself, but having an equally interested buddy meant that we could let the exhibits guide our conversations; musing over the lack of wars until the existence of settlements, the brilliance of artistically carved tools, how the reach of the Roman army impacted each culture it touched.

We spent almost two hours delving into the history of Cantabria, the Northern region of Spain we were visiting. And once we’d read through each and every exhibit, I plugged in the directions to our next restaurant and off we went. Whereas most people think of Spanish food as tapas, we quickly learned that the Cantabrian equivalent is “pinchos” or “pintxos,” slices of bread topped with any and all sorts of fresh ingredients, though usually fish. For every restaurant we visited, we had the option of eating from the menu, or sitting at the bar and enjoying a glass of wine while we pointed to whichever pinchos we wanted, displayed right there at the bar. We probably could have asked which was what, but my favorite part was picking out the pincho that looked the most interesting and then being surprised by what it actually was (like the squid I sampled at this particular meal!)

Immediately after we sat down at the bar, the waiter served us little cups of the most spectacular, warm vegetable broth, took our wine orders, then served up warm pinchos all in a matter of minutes. Already more comfortable with my Spanish, I asked for a glass of whatever local wine was his favorite. It was definitely the right choice.

After our snack, we photographed for another few miles before dipping into a cafe for coffee and pastries. I mentioned earlier that non-dinner meals were incredibly cheap, and this suited us well because we were able to grab a bite every few hours to sample as many cafes and restaurants as possible without ever feeling full, or breaking the bank. We chattered animatedly about the existence of escalators right there in the middle of the city - acting as the sidewalk on the steepest hills - and then settled in to sip our hot coffees as we let our clothes dry out again.

When we were in Paris a few years ago, we tried renting bikes to see the city from a different perspective. It did not go well. That day it was pouring, there weren’t any sidewalks so we had to dodge the fast-moving traffic, and we didn’t really understand the road signs so we spent half the time getting yelled at in French. We ended up giving up after 20 minutes, frustrated and stressed.

So, when we saw bikes in Santander, this time parked along the water with a 10-foot-wide bike lane marked for two-way traffic, we thought it was time to try again. And boy am I glad we did! Though it was 45 degrees and pouring rain, our exhilarating hour long ride wrapping from the southwest of Santander along the coast to our hotel in the Northeast was by far one of the highlights of the trip. At first we stopped every couple of minutes to take pictures and to dry off our faces. Then after a while we settled in to simply enjoy the scenery, especially when cruising along the bumpy boardwalk directly on top of the sandy beach.

That afternoon also solidified my approach in shooting primarily film while I travel. Though I had my digital camera in my backpack (which was covered by its rain guard), I left my 35mm Vivitar slung over my shoulder for easy use and had no qualms whipping it out in the pouring rain knowing that the fully manual camera would be just fine. Although, I’m fairly sure a few rain drops did actually seep into the camera as you can see a few odd stripes on the end of that roll of Ilford black and white. Oops!

After our ride, we each took a luxurious hot shower and settled in for the evening, listening to a Harry Potter audiobook while we relaxed. Since most restaurants didn’t open for dinner until 9pm, we’d decided to take a few hours’ break in our day between our excursions and dinner so that we wouldn’t be burnt out on the first full day of our trip.

For dinner, I once again ordered for us starting with hands down the best ceviche I’ve ever had, then a waiter-recommended steak dish, into dessert for each of us and finally closing down the restaurant by enjoying a glass of some sort of locally-made liqueur that the waiter gave us for free as a welcome to the city. All in all, this was a perfect first day in Spain!