A week ago (on 6th October 2022) I officially became Spanish, so we celebrated by visiting our chums Carmen and Carlos in their ingenious high-tech house craned into position as flat-pack in a now lush garden at the little town of Cabezón de la Sal in our neighbouring province of Cantabria. The national Alsa bus company screwed up the trip small time on the way to Cabezón, and massively on the return journey, may their owners’ toes itch tormentingly in cramped ‘Comfort’ seats with useless trays.
Each day at Cabezón proved to be even more amazing than the previous one. Rather than stay at their own place, Carmen gifted us 3 days in the hotel just across the road. For a reason. Our quarters occcupied the whole of the former stable block of an 1880s mansion, converted sumptuously into a huge single-building suite where Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise stayed earlier while filming some of Amenábar‘s Los Otros (The Others). Yes reader, we slept in the imprint of stars.
A bamboo grove masked our bed-level bedroom windows where only a badger or fox might peer through at Cruise and Kidman or at us. Windows elsewhere in the suite were cinemascope yet curtained with exotic bushes. The 3-hectare gardens of The Garden of Carrejo Hotel forms an ambitious arboretum with over 150 different types of trees (all unnamed) as well as Ballardian overgrown stone swimming pools or maybe balancing ponds connected with the local mill race… which was indeed racing whilst elsewhere in Cantabria there’d been drought. Kidman and Cruise filmed 30 kilometres away around the scenic Palacio de los Hornillos in tiny Las Fraguas, which also contains its very own Parthenon no kidding.
Next, Carlos drove us up and down mountains with vast vistas till we came to the Soplao Caves — their name refers to the breath of wind from a cave newly breached — where multitudes of stalagmites and stalactites grow everywhere, mostly alabaster white in pitch darkness.
You enter the first cave on a deliberately noisy jerky miners’ train. Those miners were intent on lead ore and zinc. A one-hour tour on foot takes you through about a kilometer of encrusted cave revealed by cleverly serialised lighting. There’s also a two-hour tour which will take athletic visitors out to 3 kilometres. Beyond, closed off except to fully trained speleologists, are 32 kilometres more of caves.
Some joined-up pillars could have been a million years old.
What else is old and big hereabouts? Forests of giant Redwoods, towering Sequoias! We had the enormous privilege of being specially guided by a forest ranger, a Forestal known to his friends as Saba.
Facing the photo, from left to right: Carlos, Saba in his Forestal uniform, Carmen, and yours truly. My constipated expression is due to an effort to suck in my gut for the photo. There’s no reason for the paunch. I have a small appetite. For years I’ve avoided salty and sugary things. I don’t eat desserts or cakes or sweeties or chocs. I drink at most a couple of small cans of (non-weak) beer per day. A bottle of red wine dry is virtuous. This is a vicious genetic curse. When I was a young lad, one day my father forgot to bolt the bathroom door. I entered to behold him standing naked: a barrel supported upon skinny stilts.
Anyway, in my mind—distorted, I’m told, just like my stiffened shoulder here—I felt sure that our Forestal was the totally benevolent twin of the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, R. Lee Ermey.
Historically, all timber within 15 kilometres of the coast belonged to the Crown, reserved for building ships of the Fleets (or Armadas, of which the ‘Invincible Armada’ that sailed to disaster was only one). The public visiting these wonderful woodlands rejoice to be in the bosom of Nature, and of course they must be able to visit since their taxes pay for the care of such places. (note woman in red at right side for scale)
However, are these tall Sequoias not somewhat crowded? Is this true tree-hug Nature?
The truth is that a deeply Darwinian tree experiment began on a vast scale in this part of Cantabria in the 1940s when tens of thousands of Californian Sequoias and Monterey Pines and other species were introduced in close-packed planting zones, to see which trees would best and fastest and most vertically fight their way to the sky for the sake of best timber production for the nation. Since then, tree zones have been selectively culled periodically, always scientifically supervised. These 60-metre tall Sequoias are 80 years old, planted approximately when I myself was born. Their full height will be 120 metres, but to reach that full height will take them 2,000 years. That’s because of the sheer amount of labour each tree must perform to raise moisture ever higher and higher.
Saba was so amiable and generous, and we all got on so well, that he extended our experience far beyond what we ever expected possible. Powering his vehicle around effortlessly — forest rangers need to be tough as well as knowing the Latin names of trees — Saba took us down many dead-end trails to see this special grove and that. Then we were out into more open landscape where a bygone Brit cottage had collapsed like Brexitland.
A Russian Oligarch‘s rural retreat occupied a whole hillside. Soft brown limousin cows grazed accompanied by garzons or cattle egrets. Buzzards, whom everyone else insisted on calling vultures, circled over some out-of-sight carcass. At the first ever beachside golf course the British expat designers appointed a small hermitage as their 17th Hole for G&Ts. A whole mini-valley with farm house and small-time inland salt pans, bought by a rich Australian nowadays hermit, looked uninhabited. And now we come to the beach of Oyambre, once world-famous…
Inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s pioneer flight of 1927, for the next two years half a hundred people lost their lives attempting variations on transatlantic flights. This caused the French government to ban more attempts from France to the USA. Undeterred, an adventurous French millionaire dismantled and shipped his own specially bought plane from Orly, where it was hors de combat, to a beach in Maine USA. The Yellow Bird was painted that colour to be better noticed by shipping in case of ditching at sea. By now the millionaire had lost an eye in an accident, so he needed a pilot as well as a navigator. Once air-borne, the trio discovered a stowaway on board, an out-of-work chap hungry to be part of an exploit. A storm drove the plane off course. This and some really dodgy navigation ended with the Yellow Bird, out of fuel due to the extra weight of the stowaway, forced to land a thousand kilometres off course, on empty Oyambre Beach to the side of the sleepy little town of Comillas (where Gaudí built the early Capricho house). Fear not, Comillas immediately went into media and fiesta overdrive to become for a week or so the most famous town on Earth.
A local craft IPA commemorates this event.
here served in the pub garden near Comillas with the best ever view of cape beyond cape into the mountainous distance.
as the end of our Cantabrian adventure, for which we are duly thankful. (Fotos some signed mostly by invisible Cristina).