Usually, when we arrive in a new place we get our bags inside as quick as we can and head out to look around. Not so in Santillana – we loiter in our little studio apartment, showering and catching up on emails, glad to be inside. The truth is the streets of this perfectly preserved medieval village – famed throughout Spain for its picturesque beauty – were intimidating as we drove in, dropped our bags off and drove out again to leave the car in the mandatory car park on the edge of town.
To say the place is popular would be to put it mildly. What would appear to be the two or three principal streets and square swarm with tourists and day-trippers. Getting even our small car through them is a cocktail of fear, rage and regret. The place is awash with cheap t-shirt emporiums and the kind of mass-distributed trinkets you could pick up in Málaga or Madrid. Somewhere behind all these multi-coloured leather goods and straw hats is the place that Sartre called “the prettiest village in Spain” but, as K succinctly puts it, “I think we got here about two hundred years too late”.
There are a few genuine artisans working here – jewellery, art, furniture – but lots of it’s just tat. A little girl’s flamenco dress, in Cantabria. Really? The region is famed for its anchovies and if the shop shelves in Santillana are anything to go by, they all come from this inland town; if the prices are anything to go by, they’re golden anchovies. We don’t see a single butcher, or electrical appliances store, or fruteria.
Places. Here’s a question: what makes a place a good place? What is it that makes it good to be there? Something purely subjective – an interest in history, alcohol, shopping or sport? Or something else, something we might define and share? If the latter, it’s a more difficult question. If the former, this piece is going to take up a few minutes of your life that you’ll never get back.
The blunt imperative of making a buck will always create a ready interest in trying to pin it down, of course – that quality of attraction, the ways to exploit it. Here as in other locations the market seems to have convinced itself it’s got something to do with the opportunity, whilst in a place, to buy something that will remind you – at a later time – that you’ve been there.
No, preserved isn’t the right word for the town. Juiced, maybe. Squeezed. Something that, for all the crowds on a Friday afternoon in August, conveys a sense of absence, of having been emptied out – and they’re still squeezing, clearly under the impression there’s more juice to be had. They’re right of course – people still come. All this activity provides employment and a (big) shot in the arm to the local(ish) economy. To ask people to stop making their living would obviously be absurd. It’s just a shame that Santillana no longer seems to be a place so much as a presentation of its former self. The little pueblo has become its own visitor centre.
Perhaps we’re hypersensitive to the contrast that arises from our having arrived here from Ábalos in the wine country of La Rioja. The little village (population three hundred and fifty seven) couldn’t have been more different. It’s a working village of wineries – there may be a few around who do something else but the majority of people there either work for a bodega or are lucky enough to own one. The kind of place where a glass of local red in any one of the three bars will cost you sixty five cents and where you have to ring the doorbell at the village shop for Marisol to come downstairs and sell you something.
It isn’t as if there isn’t any tourism in La Rioja – every bodega is meticulously signposted – but people come here for the wine and outside of that niche interest, little places like Ábalos have largely been left to their own devices. It’s a very pretty village with no discernable street plan, an outrageously over-sized church and a clutter of heavy stone houses, big and small. Cobble the streets and throw in a few gift shops and it could give Santillana a run for it’s money in the eye candy stakes. But, thank goodness, they’ve done neither.
When we sit in the central square with a glass of cheap wine at a rickety red coca-cola table, we do so opposite the requisite clutch of old men who have a good look at us and just about everyone who passes us by has a quick word – about the heat, mostly – before moving on. Nobody seems to mind that we’re here but nobody seems to care all that much either. It’s bliss.
We’d driven to Ábalos from Pedraza, a historical hill town to the north east of Segovia. It’s one of Spain’s best known villages, always making the top ten lists and what have you, and would therefore be a prime candidate for Santillana-style ruination but has apparently avoided it. It’s smaller and less manicured, there are a couple of gift shops and a number of casas rurales and posadas. They say the few restaurants are busy at the weekends and every July the village hosts a couple of evenings when the electricity is turned off and the streets are illuminated by hundreds of candles, so it definitely does tourism.
If you walk around the place though, especially in the early morning as households crank up, there’s still a community there. People shake their rugs and bedspreads over their balconies and shout across the way to their neighbours. In the evening we watch as the covered gallery outside one of the buildings on the square (which happens to be one of Spain’s more photographed village buildings) plays host not to some market of knick-knacks or overpriced eatery, but to an extended family group at leisure, who still call this old house their home – a real clatter of them: mami is there teaching the girls to skip, the abuelo, any number of tias. It’s a town that has gone a little further down the road of presenting itself than Ábalos, but has not yet been subsumed by the act of presention, as in Santillana. There are still a few people around who are busy at something other than catering to you. Long may it remain that way.