If you’re thinking of coming to Cantabria on holiday, and interested in getting off the beaten track to see interesting villages, drive some stunning roads and get away from the main tourist areas, bringing your own car to is probably the easiest and cheapest option. There’s no real problem with car crime here if you follow the obvious precautions (keep valuables out of sight etc.). Brittany Ferries provides general information in a pretty comprehensive guide to driving in Spain (as well as a great guide to motorbike touring in Spain) on their website, however below is some more Cantabria specific information for motorists.
Renting a car is of course another option. In Santander there are two major hubs for this, at the airport, where you can find all the major car hire companies, and also in the Plaza de las Estaciones, where the RENFE and FEVE train stations and bus stations are located (a 5 minute walk from the ferry terminal), where there are also more of the familiar faces. It’s nearly always cheaper to reserve and pay for your car before you arrive. Note that Goldcar is just outside the airport, but they have a minibus which runs you to their place. Another website which I’ve personally found good for car hire abroad is Holiday Autos.
Driving in Cantabria
Much like in the rest of Spain, driving in Cantabria is nothing out of the norm, if you discount a few more horns being blared at junctions and traffic lights (it might not always be at you, it’s also a “hola” to friends!). The roads are in good condition, with the possible exception of some very minor mountain roads and tracks. There are two main motorways, the A8 from W-E (Oviedo to Bilbao) and the A67 N-S (Santander to Madrid via Valladolid). The crossroads for these is the knot of junctions that is Torrelavega, which is smack bang in the middle of Cantabria transport-wise. The motorways are all relatively new and are pretty fast. The only areas which are really prone to congestion are the section from Castro Urdiales to Bilbao at the start and end of the working week/holidays, and coming into Santander at the same time. The sections west and south of Torrelavega are virtually empty most of the time. In summer there is of course a lot more traffic around, and more patience is required, especially at the arrival points of some beaches (San Vicente de la Barquera, Suances and Somo are notoriously bad on busy days), occasionally around the Torrelavega knot, and also the N621 up to Potes through the Hermida gorge can become clogged with coaches and slightly nervous drivers. There are also “S” motorways in Santander, the S20 to El Sardinero, and the brand new S30 providing a link road for those going Torrelavega – Bilbao (or visa versa), which avoids most of the S10 motorway section and its congestion around the shopping centres and airport at peak times.
Speed Limits & Speed Cameras
The national speed limits for cars in Spain are as follows (there are different limits for other vehicles):
Motorways – 120km/h
N roads and other regional roads – 90km/h (some dual carriageway roads and N roads are 100km/h, which will be clearly marked)
Urban areas – 50km/h
In Cantabria all the motorways have sections of 100 somewhere along them, either due to dangerous sections (such as between Castro and Bilbao on the A8, in a couple of places between Santander and Torrelavega on the A67, and approaching Torrelavega from the south on the A67) or bridges (as in several places on the A8 and A67). Most motorway tunnels are either at 100 or 80. Where there are fixed cameras on motorways, these are clearly marked, however the police do do speed checks on motorways with hidden cars, and also patrol in unmarked cars. It’s also common to find police in villages along N roads, where the limit drops to 50 or 70 in and around the villages.
There are no toll motorways in Cantabria.
There’s no getting away from the fact that in the main cities of Cantabria (Santander, Torrelavega and to some extent Castro Urdiales) parking is a nightmare! Really, no more so than in any other big city in Spain, where you have to take into consideration that most people live in flats in the centre of a city, and those that don’t have garages (which reportedly sell for the price of small houses) fight for spaces. I would personally not recommend even trying to park a car, let alone a hire car, in the centre of Santander, instead either park up in the Sardinero area (off season) and take a bus in, or be prepared to pay for an underground car park, of which there are many in the centre, well signposted, and with the electronic space indicators. If you don’t want to park underground, there is a normal car park between the RENFE and FEVE stations in Santander. Elsewhere in towns, it shouldn’t be too much trouble, except perhaps on market day or during fiestas, and check for signs advising set parking restrictions for market days or processions, especially if you’re leaving your car overnight. One thing to watch out for if you’re in a camper van or other high vehicle is that there are now many height restrictions on car parks, especially underground car parks and beach car parks, where they have had a crackdown on people parking and staying overnight, and you can expect a hefty fine if you are obviously camped where you shouldn’t be.
Cantabria has now caught the bug of speed bumps with avengance, and in many small towns there are many present of various sizes (don’t assume that just because the first one was small the next one will be too!).
False Traffic Lights
Another thing to watch out for is a new craze of false traffic lights on the approaches to villages. They are preceeded by a flashing yellow light, and followed by another set which will be red if you are going over the limit (50 in villages) and yellow if you are not. If it starts on red and you reduce speed it will change to yellow as you approach, which can be confusing. Locals often ignore them, and get annoyed with tourists stopping for them (expect a beep), BUT they are still red lights, and it is still illegal to go through them. Be careful, as some yellow flashing lights are preempting a zebra crossing or junction too, so don’t assume it’s a false one either. There can be up to 3 lights in a row, the flashing yellow, the false lights and then a real zebra crossing light. Sound confusing? It is!!
Road cycling is extremely popular in Cantabria, and on Saturday and Sunday (and holiday) mornings, on most country roads, there are cyclists everywhere…round every corner! There are many cycling organisations, and as such it is not only the lone or small group of cyclists to look out for, but sometimes a huge group…and they rarely ride one behind the other, so you can expect to find them 3 or 4 abreast, taking up the whole lane, often having a chat whilst riding along! Watch out for them!
Mountain Passes & Snow
Cantabria being a mountainous region, there are many mountain passes to the south of the region. In winter months, when there can be quite a lot of snow, there can be circulation restrictions on these passes, they can either be closed (cerrado) or require snow chains (cadenas) or winter tyres (the police may well request proof of this, and ask to see your chains and check your snow tyres). The first ones to be shut are usually La Lunada, Estacas de Trueba and La Sia, but wherever you see a mountain pass on your map it is best to check its status if there has been recent snow, although main N roads and motorways are usually clear. You can check this on the DGT website.