Santander, the capital of Spain's Cantabria region, is blessed with a physical beauty few towns can match. Set on a tranquil bay, its landmass undulates into lush green stretches for parks, golf courses and long romantic walks, and sandy coves for beaches. Obviously, the Spaniards know their country well-in the summer months, many rush north for relief from the hard-bitten sun of the south to Cantabria's cool air and broad spaces. The town retained its turn-of-the-century charm when the Spanish nobility discovered it and made it one of their preferred getaways. Unfortunately, Santander is missing a very old portion of town--the kind Americans love to visit. Due to a fire in 1941, the town lost much of its city center, and with it an ancient heritage. Still, it is a very attractive city for leisure visitors and a great base from which to visit Picos de Europa National Park, which soars at more than 7,500 feet at its rugged peak. The northern regions are often sold to repeat visitors, since Madrid, the Costa del Sol and Andalucia are traditionally sold as the first-timer's introduction to Spain. Fortunately, those rules are not written in stone. The north provides an interesting pastiche of regional differences without the heat of the southern summer sun and without the crowds. For many people, Santander could be a fine introduction to Spain. The bay is undoubtedly one of the city's most recognizable icons. Its calm water changes color depending on the wind, creating a kind of magical element. A walk along the bay takes visitors to the Barrio Pesquero, a fisherman's area lined with gritty taverns and earthy restaurants. Farther along is a street called the Paseo de Pereda, locale of Pereda Gardens, known as the «lungs of the city.» Although the buildings along the coast vary, there is a strange architectural unity-they all feature balconies made of wood and glass. Along the bay front is the International Festival Hall of Santander, a modern, box-like building that has the capacity to drop a wall and open itself to the bay for performances held under the stars. The Reina Victoria, Santander's main avenue, is among the most beautiful maritime avenues in Spain. Reina Victoria takes visitors to the Magdalena Peninsula, home to the English-style Magdalena Royal Palace. It was the summer residence of King Alfonso XIII and is now a fabulous venue for university and summer courses. Beyond the peninsula, visitors head toward elegant El Sardinero, an area featuring magnificent beaches, the Gran Casino and the Piquio Gardens, which offers panoramic views across the bay. Perhaps the best way for visitors to get an orientation of the city is to board one of the bay's sightseeing motorboats and take a trip to the lighthouse of Cabo Mayor, located on high, steep cliffs. Santander is also a great base from which to see some of the country's most talked-about sites. For instance, Bilbao, in the Basque region is a two-hour drive, and is also easily reachable by train or bus. Visitors can take a full-day trip to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and sample the region's version of tapas, called pintxos. In addition, one of the highest mountains in Europe, the Picos de Europa, is about a three-hour drive from Santander, and along the way there are numerous villages to visit, breathtaking gorges to see and tiny inns at which to dine. Not far from Santander is the town of Santillana del Mar, a romantic medieval town known as one of the best preserved in Europe. Closer still is a marvelous zoo called Cabarceno, which is set in the former iron mines that had been operated by the Romans for thousands of years.