Santillana del Mar, a seat of saints and humanists
Santillana del Mar maintains its status as one of Spain's most beautiful medieval towns…19 June 2008
SPAIN - Santillana del Mar is alternately called "the prettiest village in Spain," a "living museum," and "the village of the three lies," because it is not holy ("santa"), it is not flat ("llana") and it is not located by the sea ("del mar"). In fact, its name derives from Santa Illana, also known as Santa Juliana, the saint whose relics are kept in a collegiate church dating back to the Middle Ages, and around which the entire town was built.
Located just two kilometres from Altamira and 30km from the regional capital, Santander, the town has worked hard to preserve the charm of a medieval village, if only for the benefit of tourists. Its historical centre is off limits to cars, and the cobblestoned streets take visitors past stately stone homes emblazoned with the coats of arms of powerful families of the day, including that of the first Marquis of Santillana, Íñigo López de Mendoza, who received the town as a gift from king Juan II in 1445 in return for support during the Battle of Olmedo.
The Marquis de Santillana was a renowned humanist and a great admirer of Dante Alighieri, who wrote the first sonnets in the Spanish language. Politically, he was the founder of the Duques del Infantado lineage, a powerful nobility title granted by the Catholic Monarchs.
The chief architectural draw of Santillana is the Colegiata de Santa Juliana, one of the most representative examples of the Cantabrian Romanesque style. According to Catholic lore, Juliana was a martyr in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) whose remains were brought to this area by monks and kept in a shrine. In the 12th century the original building was replaced with the collegiate church, which was at first a Benedictine monastery. The cloister is considered the most valuable element in the building because of the excellence of its carved capitals.
Near Santillana, but this time truly by the sea, lies another town of significant historical and architectural importance, Comillas. With the ocean on one side and the Picos de Europa Mountains on the other, Comillas boasts a setting of stunning natural beauty that highlights its man-made buildings. Its medieval architecture is reminiscent of Santillana, and in fact during the Middle Ages Comillas fell under that town's jurisdiction, causing constant tensions between both populations. During the 19th century, construction reflected the influence of Catalan modernism and Indianos, the Spaniards who made their fortunes in the Americas and returned home to build themselves mansions and flaunt their wealth.