Travel Report: Castro Urdiales, Spain.
Castro Urdiales, Spain.
July 2015. Did I ever tell you about the time I packed up my bags and headed off for a new life in the north of Spain? It was the summer of 2015 and I was at one of my infamous loose ends. After years in Asia, living in and travelling around China, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, I fancied spending some time in Europe. Rebalance my travel Fengshui, if you will.
After a short job search through my old friend Dave’s ESL Cafe, I landed a summer English teaching job in a small seaside town called Castro Urdiales. Located in the province of Cantabria in northern Spain, this incredibly picturesque town is popular with day-trippers from the nearby cities of Bilbao and Santander.
The school was a tiny training centre run by a wealthy American woman. There were just two classrooms, her in one, me in the other. For the most part the kids were motivated and I didn’t have many problems with behaviour.
Moreover, I found the work itself undemanding thanks to plenty of resources and all the latest technology. Immediately, the owner made it clear that a one year contract was available beyond the summer, should I be interested.
Castro Urdiales, Spain.
Keen to see if Castro would be a good long term base, I set about exploring in my free time. Straight away I was struck by what an incredibly pretty, green and clean little town it is. My first sight was this charming square, named after the Spanish conductor and pianist Ataúlfo Argenta.
The square is one of many prime hangout spots for Castro’s senior citizens. Day in day out, this is where the same group came to sit and do nothing. The prevailing silence broken only by a sudden slice of local gossip.
Regal, well dressed and a touch stern looking, these are the people who gave birth to my sittin’ doin’ nothin’ files. In fact, wherever I went, it often felt like I was playing a private game of spot the person under 60. Already, after just a few days, I was asking myself if I really wanted to spend a year living in a retirement town.
Just around the corner from Ataúlfo Argenta Square lies Castro Urdiales’ longest street, Avenida de la Constitución. This cute pedestrianised stretch is home to numerous cafes, bakeries and restaurants. It also had an amazing little ice cream joint, which I often frequented during my breaks between lessons.
Plaza Del Ayuntamiento.
Eventually, the avenue leads to Plaza Del Ayuntamiento, a small square home to Castro’s gothic, seventeenth century town hall. Under the stone arches, there’s a butcher, a greengrocer and a traditional candy store. There are also a few bars where old men gather to sit, do nothing, maybe read a newspaper with an afternoon beer.
The square overlooks Castro’s quaint harbour, with over a hundred fishing boats and private yachts. Fishing is still big business here and indeed there’s a large sardine and anchovy canning factory on the outskirts of town.
As a result, much of the local tapas scene revolves around fishy bites. Most tavernas offer anchovies in oil and sardine bruschetta as staples. What’s more, a few of the harbour bars overlook a large statue of local fisherfolk repairing their nets.
Dominating Castro’s harbour skyline are the handsome forms of the Church of Santa María de la Asunción and the Castle of Santa Ana. The castle was built in 1163 to keep the town safe from sea attack. Its lighthouse, added in 1853, is very well preserved by all accounts. Unfortunately, the ruins were under renovation during my stay, so I never got to go in.
The Church and the Castle.
However, I did pay a visit to the church. King Alfonso VIII of Castille ordered its construction in the 13th century in the French Gothic style.
Inside, the basilica’s three chambers are small but beautifully kept. Among the many treasures, I saw gothic carvings of the Three Wise Men, a wooden reclining Christ and a mobile gold leaf altar displaying the White Virgin. The church became listed as a national monument in 1931.
Exiting back outside into the afternoon sunshine, I made sure to walk round to the back of the church. Here, I could sit on the stone ledge and gaze out across the deep blue, unblemished Cantabrian Sea.
It took me just a few weeks to realise that Castro Urdiales was an utterly charming place to visit, but not ideal for me as a home. Most days, at a complete loss as to what to do with myself, I’d invariably go jogging down the promenade towards Brazomar Beach.
Along the way, I usually stopped for a breather at La Pescadora, the one-armed fisherwoman. The sculptor Carlos Goitia created her in 1998, taking inspiration from a German immigrant, Cornelia Fischer.
She fled Germany for the north of Spain during the Second World War after becoming wanted by the Nazis. As the story goes, Fischer helped free imprisoned Jews during the Holocaust and had lost her arm in the process. I tried to dive deeper into this story, but online details are slim.
When the weekends came, Castro Urdiales transformed into a whole other beast, as thousands of people flocked from around the region for a day on Brazomar Beach. The entire town literally went from Sleepyville to Disneyland in a matter of hours.
One interesting beach landmark was the derelict shell of Hotel Miramar, originally a grand spa built in the 1940s by prisoners of The Spanish Civil War. By the 1960s it had become one of the finest hotels in the region under the ownership of the Alonso family.
It eventually fell into disrepair and sat rotting for decades, becoming the subject of several complicated legal disputes. While putting this article together, I saw that it was finally demolished in February 2020.
I guess I’m the kind of guy who can be impossible to please. There was me bemoaning how dull life in Castro was. But when those weekend crowds descended I wanted nothing more than to escape. Happily, I was able to do this in a wonderfully peaceful spot at the end of Cotolino Park.
First, I had to get to the end of Brazomar Beach. Then walk through the park itself, past the cafe up to the cliffs. It was always quiet up there, especially by the lone tree at the cliff’s edge.
In time this became my private Castro nook. A place I’d come to read and listen to music and podcasts. The views out to sea were unbelievable and the only sounds were the crashing waves, the squawks of the seagulls and the rustling of the tall grass.
When I told the school owner that I wouldn’t be staying for the year she was disappointed. She tried to sweeten the deal with improved accommodation, but I’d made my mind up. With the clock ticking down on my exit date, I made sure to mop up a few more of Castro’s curious corners.
Located a little further down the coast, El Pedregal is a tiny pebble beach and natural swimming pool. The seawater enters at high tide through a tunnel in the cliff, flowing into this gorgeous, almost secretive craggy cove.
Next to the pool, one of the buildings has been decorated and named in honour of the beach. A series of stone tiers, bleachers style, allow locals to sit and sunbathe.
On my last day in Castro, I took a hike up one of the low lying hills that overlooks the town. It takes about half an hour to reach the Virgin Mary monument at the top. As I progressed, there were mountain goats, squirrels and a mean looking snake that slithered across the path right in front of me.
The statue itself isn’t much to shout about, a diminutive, grey creation atop an equally featureless column. A priest built it in 1956 with help from hundreds of local residents, who made donations.
The Virgin Mary Monument.
Despite the anticlimax of the statue, the views from the top are breathtaking. Even on a somewhat overcast grey afternoon like this one. In a video I saw online about the hill and the monument, a local man explains how this is “the first mountain that anyone from Castro Urdiales climbs”.
I was about to embark on a trip across northeast Spain towards Barcelona. Beyond that, all I knew was that I’d be spending some time in London. From there the rest of my life lay before me like blank pages in an unfinished novel.
The sun had already begun to set on Castro Urdiales and indeed on my time in this little corner of Spain. Thus I took a moment to breathe it all in, before grabbing one last shot and making my way back down the hill.
Like this? I’ve written an extended series of travel articles from all over Spain.
I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.