An adventurer, storyteller and writer with an insatiable curiosity for the fresh, the bizarre, the brilliant. Exploring life in North East England and elsewhere.

The Spanish Course and the Wonders of Cantabria

The Spanish Course and the Wonders of Cantabria

Unknowns

There are many unknowns in life. Cat has had to face quite a few of these. Most of them were names. Names of towns, areas and landmarks. Names like Teesside. Names that carried with it new post codes, telephone numbers and bus timetables. There was nothing more exhilarating, nothing more frightening than memorising those unknown names and times. There was nothing that made her feel like she’s traveled to a place more than getting to grips with those nitty gritty codes of living.

Cantabria was the latest unknown, Cantabria and a tiny village in the North of Spain.

Wonders of Cantabria

In August, I undertook a two-week language course in Spain for work. I had chosen this course amongst several recommended by the Department of Education because I knew the best language training happened where the language lived and breathed: in the country where it was spoken. I had to get to Santander — a city I had never heard of — in Cantabria, a small ‘communidad’ in Northern Spain I knew nothing about. The easiest way for me to get to Santander was to book a flight to Bilbao. I have never heard of Bilbao either.

En route to one of the mountain villages to see the snow during my October visit

En route to one of the mountain villages to see the snow during my October visit

The unknown names engraved themselves in my mind and transformed into visual images during my first bus ride from Bilbao to Santander. It was the architecturally breathtaking Guggenheim (a highly regarded contemporary art museum flanked by sculptures of a skinny bronze spider and floral dog) that became the visual embodiment of this trip. But more than the Guggenheim, an artefact that belonged to the Basque countries, what really started symbolising ‘Cantabria’ for me was the nature. The closer the bus got to Santander, the deeper I seemed to be entrenched in undulating woodland greenery, the sea, a growing blue calmness on my right.

Strolling along the promenade in Santander

Strolling along the promenade in Santander

I met Fernando, my Spanish tutor, at the bus station from where we went to the tiny village of Aés. It was there, nestled in a place of history and ruled by unspoilt nature that I discovered my temporary Spanish home — a 1780s Cantabrian style casona montañesa — in Barrio Cotillo. After moving back to Spain from the UK in the early 2000s, Fernando and his wife, Merche, bought the large country house with the The Spanish Course in mind, as they could live there with their children and offer accommodation to their students as well.

The 1780s country house where I stayed for both visits

The 1780s country house where I stayed for both visits

It was a magnificent place. Perched on a hilltop, surrounded by waves of farmland cascading down to the river Pas, Barrio Cotillo overlooked Monte Castillo, the highest mountain peak within sight and home to prehistoric caves. There were various towns and villages within walking or cycling distance from Barrio Cotillo. I discovered some of these over the course of my summer and autumn trip, usually by cycling along the Vía Verde, an old railway track that had been restored for walks and riding along the Río Pas.

Stopping at ‘Los Arcos’ on my way to Borleña - the Pérez bicycle helped me explore the region

Stopping at ‘Los Arcos’ on my way to Borleña - the Pérez bicycle helped me explore the region

Days started off calmly with a simple breakfast, a strong cup of coffee and Spanish news in the dining room. It picked up in mental intensity as lessons started around 10am in the library. Fernando had the valuable ability of explaining grammar clearly and in a memorable, amusing way, which made me understand the language and also inspired my own teaching practice. Despite his high expectations, especially when it came to pronunciation, lessons were relaxed and we happily practised, made mistakes and learned an incredible amount each day. With Fernando’s great sense of humour and general knowledge, and with the occasional assistance of Merche and their twin daughters, Victoria and Rachel, lessons were never dull.

It was during this time that I was reminded that truly inspirational teachers are rare. I’ve had only a hand-full throughout my life and I can safely say Fernando is now one of them.

Monte Castillo - home to the prehistoric caves, a UNESCO heritage site

Monte Castillo - home to the prehistoric caves, a UNESCO heritage site

Lessons stopped at about 1h30pm and everyone had lunch together at 2pm. If there was one thing about Cantabria (and Spain on the whole) that made a great impression on me, it was mealtimes. Merche provided a range of meals, including fresh salads, soups, stews, pizza, empanadas, fish, seafood, tortillas, sandwiches and variety of meat dishes too. In general, the taste, quality and variety of the cuisine, whether homemade or while dining out, was incomparable to most other countries, and what enhanced the flavour of the food even more was the atmosphere of spending unrushed time together.

It was in the afternoons and early evenings that I went walking or riding in the countryside. I was always accompanied by the soothing echo of cow bells, bird-life and the animated conversations between villagers on these outings and each new village or town that I came across had a unique charm, united by a feeling of togetherness rooted in the shared history of the graceful old houses and churches.

My walking and cycling companions - wherever I went they were always a couple of miles away

My walking and cycling companions - wherever I went they were always a couple of miles away

A church on a hilltop along the Vía Verde

A church on a hilltop along the Vía Verde

Puente Viesgo stood out in particular. It had a range of excellent restaurants, one of which, Restaurante El Jardin, was in the Gran Hotel Balneario. The hotel also had one most highly recommended spas in Spain and the ethereal Temple of Water (‘el Templo del Agua’) that resembled something out of a Shakespeare romance. The pleasant woodland walk to a waterfall close to the village of Borleña is also worth mentioning and, of course, Santander, the capital of Cantabria, its beaches and unbeatable Regma ice-cream.

Puente Viesgo

Puente Viesgo

Bronze statues along the promenade in Santander

Bronze statues along the promenade in Santander

Unbeatable Regma ice-cream

Unbeatable Regma ice-cream

Within the first couple of days it was undeniable: Cantabria was a cultural, natural and sporting paradise that had so much to offer that you would be able to go back countless times and still be able to discover something new.

Fernando, Merche and the Spanish Course

Towards the end of my first visit, I asked Fernando and Merche how it all started.

’When we lived in England I was a professor of Spanish at the University of Surrey,’ he explained, ‘I was in charge of all the online language courses of the entire university. As is normal in the UK, to further your career it is necessary to change companies. In my case, that meant changing university, I would have had to sell my house, my wife Merche would have had to change jobs and we would have had to start from zero in some other place in the country. In other words we would have had to start a new life somewhere else. It was then that Merche suggested returning to Spain and we decided to begin online courses.’

But their initial online courses did not attract enough students and that’s when they came up with the idea of face-to-face language courses expertly tailored to the individual needs of students of any age. To reduce the price of the course (eliminating the cost of hotel accommodation) and to ensure students got the best language immersion possible they decided to lodge students on their own premises, becoming both the host family and language instructors.

The Pérez family

The Pérez family

Living, breathing Spanish — Becoming part of a family

Put aside nature. Put aside an exhausting list of culturally enriching excursions and activities. Even put aside Fernando’s expert language guidance. Never before have I had the chance to live and breathe a foreign language so naturally with so much laughter, with so much warmth as I did during my two visits to Barrio Cotillo, becoming part of a new family for the duration of each of my stays. It has made such an impression on me that I hope anyone entering my own home would feel the same way.

If you are looking to learn, practise or perfect Spanish or simply to have a lifestyle holiday different to anything you’ve have experienced before, there is only one Pérez family in Spain offering the Spanish Course. It’s not a once off experience because even if you don’t go back, the memories — memories of being welcomed, of sharing stories around the dinner table, of exploring Spanish films and trialing Spanish literature, of making tortillas with Merche and receiving football lessons from Victoria and Rachel — are likely to stay with you forever and find their way into your own home.

Tortilla-making lessons followed by a tortilla dinner - always a highlight during my stay

Tortilla-making lessons followed by a tortilla dinner - always a highlight during my stay

The Spanish Course offers a range of different courses. For detailed information click here to visit their website.

Spanish language treat: Fernando and Merche’s story as told in Spanish

Cuando estábamos en Inglaterra viviendo yo era profesor de español en la Universidad de Surrey. Estaba al frente de todos los cursos online de lenguas de toda la universidad.

Como es normal en el Reino Unido, para mejorar profesionalmente es necesario cambiar de empresa. En mi caso eso suponía cambiar de universidad, tener que vender mi casa, Merche tenía que dejar su trabajo y tendríamos que haber empezado desde cero en cualquier otra ciudad del Reino Unido. Es decir, empezar una vida nueva. Fue entonces cuando Merche sugirió volver a España y decidimos empezar con los cursos online.

Era 2004 y, por entonces, nadie quería estudiar lenguas por Internet. Así que cuando terminamos de desarrollar los cursos online vimos que no teníamos ningún estudiante interesado. Por eso, pronto cambiamos a ofrecer cursos presenciales. Como no teníamos casa en España, los estudiantes tenían que alojarse en hoteles y la mayor parte del precio de los cursos era para el hotel. Por eso decidimos vender nuestra casa en Guildford y comprar una casa grande en España donde pudiéramos alojar a los estudiantes además de poder vivir.

Así es como empezamos.

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