Ever since the Guggenheim burst onto the scene in 1997 to transform Bilbao, every city in Spain has angled for a contemporary cultural symbol. Although Santander was rather late to the party, its very own Centro Botin is a beautiful creature and perfectly scaled for this modest Cantabrian capital. It’s taken me a while to actually get inside – although on repeated visits for several years I watched the entire seafront being dug up. Now, that’s all over and the chrysalis is hatched.

Silhouette of the Centro Botin, Santander
One wing of the Centro Botin silhouetted against the bay of Santander

Location, location

Perched on the waterfront like some exotic insect, two white, shiny wings are raised on stilts so as not to block the view. And the view is perhaps the winner all round, because here, across the glittering Bay of Santander, you see the jagged outline of the Sierra Cantabrica – a mountain range that has played a major role in Spanish history from prehistory onwards.

Reflections on the underbelly of the building, with bay behyond
Lapping up the view

But back to the arts centre itself. The cultural project kicked off in 1964 when the Fundacion Botin was founded by the late Marcelino Botin, but it needed the impetus of the 21st century to actually create a fitting shell – eventually masterminded by the water-obsessed Italian architect, Pritzker-prize winning Renzo Piano, also a devoted yachtsman. It finally opened to huge applause in 2017 after long years on the drawing-board and in construction.

Clad in 360,000 ceramic discs finished with an iridescent glaze, it really shines. And as the building is south-facing, the sun bounces off the water to leave ripples of light across the underbelly, where locals now love to promenade, or just sit, “on the dock of the bay” as Otis Redding once crooned. Today, Piano’s modest genius has made it Santander’s waterfront jewel.

Birdseye view of the dock from walkway
A wing of the Centro Botin with stairway
An auditorium and offices are inside this west wing

Access can be via external stairs and walkways, all in steel and glass, so exactly as silvery as a grey day in the Cantabrian Sea. Inside is equally sleek, all wooden floors, steel and glass. If there’s one disappointment, it’s the ground floor café-restaurant, El Muelle which looks so seductive online, but that turns out to be a rather bland, limited space. Perhaps it comes into its own at night, when the bay sparkles, but I was elsewhere by then.

And the rest of Santander…gardens, banks and all

More than just a building, this entire project entailed burying a major road in a tunnel. This then enabled the extension of the Pereda Gardens to embrace the arts centre. Doubled in size, the landscaped gardens are now speckled with benches and palm-trees and criss-crossed by paths, perfect for dreamers while anglers still hang out on the dock. Another plus is that the city centre is more directly linked to the bay.

View over the Pereda Gardens to the Paseo
Looking across the Pereda Gardens from the Centro Botin to the Paseo Pereda

What many people don’t know is that Santander was already extended in the past, as all the land in front of the Paseo Pereda, the seafront boulevard, is actually reclaimed. In fact the entire area has had a tough history, starting in 1893 when an explosion on a ship in port, unfortunately laden with dynamite – went boom! The result was an inferno which tore through the town, destroying many historic buildings. Tragically, in 1941, another fire followed, burning much of the old town.

On the positive front, Santander is also home to the eponymous bank (Banco de Santander) which was founded in 1857 by the great-grandfather of the present CEO. At the time, Santander was the biggest port city for trade with Latin America, especially Cuba, then still a Spanish colony, and the bank boomed.

Old men on a bench silhouetted against the bay of Santander
The perfect spot for a natter on the newly revamped waterfront
Fishermen with rods on the dock
Angling from the dock

So, as you cruise into Santander on a ferry from Plymouth or Portsmouth, raise your gaze to admire this creature – then find the time to explore inside. And I’ll tell you more about Santander’s other secrets soon, in an article about the city’s great pincho and tapas bars…

A man walks beneath the swooping underbelly of the centre