Northeast Snapshots #1

Santander - Madrid

There is a lonely strip of road that takes the visitor who has arrived by the overnight ferry from England to that elegant old port of Santander onto Madrid. Logic would say take the motorway; but then logic has never much cared for the beauty or pleasure of the slow road. The unromantically named N-623 offers as usual the glimpse into a lost epoch of quiet and lonely places where time has melted and lost its form. 


The new arrival is first whisked through the impressively unattractive industrial outskirts of Santander and over the course of the next hour sails gently past one-horse towns that seem to be part trucker-stops and part farmsteads. Soon the high green walls of the Sierra del Escudo arrive with their trees and their green but then gingerly give way to the shining Ebro Reservoir; lower than hoped for and showing its scrubby sandy ankles.


As the the border with Old Castille arrives, verdant Cantabria promptly bids farewell and the ground decides it has had enough of conifers and will make do with crumbling granite outcrops and grasses. Valdelateja sits in the old gored out canyon of the Rudrón river valley; a handful of chalets backed by a honey-coloured chapel and soaring walls of rock. The stone houses glowed and baked in the late May sunshine. The doors were open and chatter and the sound of plates and cutlery drifted out. A shaggy old dog sat half in and half out of a doorway of parted beads framed by a creeping rose bush. The air buzzed quietly and had a weight to it in the lungs and nostrils. 


At Tubilla del Agua omelette sandwiches and cool beers were taken by the side of the road at the only bar open in the village. The shining Iglesia de Santa María y San Miguel - apparently so good it got two - was decidedly fine for such a small place. The man behind the bar was as gruff as all Castilian shopkeepers are. No smiles, just quick curt service and a hacking cough. An old boy in a wide-brimmed hat slowly crossed the road and hailed the bar. No doubt the usual beer or liquor-laced carajillo on the house. The back-scratching communism of small pueblo life. 

The slow road then slinked out of the valley sides toward El Cid’s home, Burgos; a smudge of apartments and a frilly cathedral off the main road. Speed then took over as the motorway fulfilled its role of taking the traveller as fast as possible through the sanity-testing monotony of the high meseta to Madrid. 

A taste of a lifestyle a century away from the now; and only on the slow road.