A Palace Revisited – Santander’s Palacio de la Magdalena

There are many reasons why I write about places in Santander. Sometimes it’s to find out a little more about a building that isn’t well known. Or to get a few paragraphs out there about a location or an architect that isn’t documented in English. This time it’s a bit different. I’m writing about the Magdalena Palace to develop a meaningful relationship with it.

You see, unlike most of the buildings I’ve written about before, I have known the Palace as long as I have known Santander. It’s been there all along – up in the distance – observing me and framing the city since I came here first in 1992. I’ve walked there, exercised there and partied there. So you’d think I’d have had plenty time to form an opinion about the place wouldn’t you? In fact, if you remove the places where I’ve lived and worked, it’s probably the building I know best in Santander.

So why do I need to build a relationship with it now? Mainly because I’ve taken it for granted. It took a book from 1936 (see my last blogpost) to make me think about it and what it means in my Santander. So back I go with fresh eyes, and my camera on manual:

Pamela Cahill Magdalena Palace Palacio Santander Spain Woodland Trees Paths

This is one of the quieter pathways for pedestrians where you get a sense of the gradient. To get this far, I’ve walked uphill through quite a bit of the peninsula

Pamela Cahill Magdalena Palace Palacio Santander Spain Sunlight

Getting closer to the Magdalena Palace basking in the evening sunlight. I read the stone came from Cueto just outside the city limits

Pamela Cahill Magdalena Palace Palacio Santander Spain Southern Facade

The Southern Facade that looks onto the bay of Santander. Keen eyes will spot influences from France, England and Cantabria

Pamela Cahill Magdalena Palace Palacio Santander Spain Southern Facade

The central stairway gives it a sense of grandeur. You can see the Anglo look coming through. Queen Victoria was Scottish

Pamela Cahill Magdalena Palace Palacio Santander Spain Carriage Entrance

The carriage entrance is on the Northern side. Although less photographed, I like this section of the Palace – probably because it reminds me of somewhere in Ireland

Before I go on any further, I should give you a bit of background. Unless you are from the city, you are probably wondering why there is a palace in the North of Spain.

Royal Holidays in Santander

In 1861, Queen Isabel II of Spain took a six week break with her family in Santander. Curiously, the nanny and wet nurse to her son Prince Alfonso, Maria Gomez Martinez from Vega de Pas, also travelled with them. (Wet nurses from the Pasiego region in Cantabria were highly sought after throughout Spain.) It’s not clear exactly what brought the Royals up North. I can say that Santander had become very popular for its ‘Baños de Ola’ or sea bathing since the mid 1840s. And the climate in Santander was refreshing for anybody living in Central and Southern Spain in those days before air-conditioning.

Isabel II must have enjoyed her stay because she was back in 1862. In fact, a house was made available to them every Summer in Santander until the 1868 Revolution put an end to the arrangement. Undeterred, in 1872, the Royals return to the city. This time they are hosted by the astute industrialist and general mover and shaker Juan Pombo who offered his summer house in the Sardinero area of the city. They come back again in 1876. Pombo was a firm believer in the development of the Plaza de Italia, then called Plaza del Pañuelo. He had opened up access to the beaches, built the Casino and four hotels, and held the license for the tramway from the centre to the Sardinero. His sons have developed the spa. Holiday towns were now very much in vogue across Europe – think Brighton, Biarritz and San Sebastian  – and Pombo wanted Santander to be the next fashionable destination.

Local Appetite Strengthens for a Royal Residence

Having seen the boost that coastal cities with a royal connection were experiencing, and desperate to turn around the city’s finances, by the turn of the century, even the Republicans in Santander were keen to donate land to the Spanish Royals to build a summer residence. In 1908 this became a reality. The 22-year old King Alfonso XIII and his Scottish wife Victoria Eugenie were given the site for a Summer Residence on the Magdalena peninsula. I should tell you that Queen Victoria was granddaughter to Britain’s Queen Victoria and Albert. BTW I’m not sure where the name Magdalena comes from but there had been an old chapel or shrine to Santa Maria Magdalena on the headland previously.

Grand Designs (Fit for a King)

As you have already seen the photos, you might be surprised to know that a palace wasn’t initially on the cards for the site. The design for the building went out to tender and eight projects were presented to the Royals in San Sebastian in 1908 including one by London’s Ralph Selden Wornum (1847-1910). He had designed the Miramar royal residence in San Sebastian (for Alfonso XIII’s mother Maria Christina) as well as a large commission in Biarritz, and others in St Jean de Luz and Gibraltar. In Cantabria he had designed the Casa de los Hornillos en Las Fraguas (where The Others with Nicole Kidman was filmed) in 1904 which was where Alfonso XIII stayed when he came to Cantabria to review progress on the Magdalena Palace. Wornum should have been a shoe-in for the job in Santander and I’ve read that his was the design favoured by Queen Victoria.

But it seems that Alfonso XIII had other plans. And so, rather surprisingly, a local team comprising architects Gonzalo Bringas (1880-1943) and Javier González de Riancho (1881-1953) won the bid. Who knows why. Those handling the bidding process certainly didn’t mind the job going local and would have liked the palatial grandeur of the Bringas/Riancho design. And the Santander-duo had even called their project ‘Palacio Real’ or Royal Palace. The Royal couple was later said to have been surprised by the size of the Palace. At roughly 5,500 square metres it certainly wasn’t discrete. Perhaps the simplicity and discretion of his design was Wormun’s downfall – and his naming the project ‘Residence Royale’ was probably the nail in the coffin. If you want to see his plans, you will find a framed drawing of his hanging inside the Palace today. All was not lost for Queen Victoria as some of Wormun’s elements were later factored into the Bringas/Riancho plans. If you’d like to see other buildings designed by the two chosen architects, you can visit Riancho’s Hotel Real that was completed in 1917 and Bringas’ Real Club Maritimo which opened its doors in 1934.

The man responsible for turning the designs into reality was Daniel Sierra. He won the bid for the construction of the Palace on January 23 1909. By the 22 March, Sierra was on site. The outside structure was completed by 1911 and by 1912 the interior was finished and two sets of keys were handed over to the King and Queen that September. On 4 August 1913, Alfonso and Victoria arrived for the first of their seasons in Santander. I imagine the city’s authorities were poised on tenterhooks – hoping the couple would take to the city.

17 Royal Seasons from 1913-1930

They did. They loved the freedom afforded on them. And the city loved them back. Studying the newspapers for that first month of August – you can see that Santander’s bet really paid off. The coverage was excellent. The reporting of the King’s visit to the tennis club, or out at a regatta, or the children spending the morning at the beach – it painted a scene of the city that it’s own politicians and developers couldn’t in their wildest dreams have hoped for.

Skipping ahead a few years, I came across a guide book from 1925 called the Guide for the Royal Society of Friends of the Sardinero – that wrote of the “distinguished families”  that come to enjoy the” incomparable beauty of the beaches”. I got a real sense of the buzz and social climbing that came with having the Palace and its owners in town every summer.

Unable to find statistics on the number of tourists to the city over this period, I was able to see that city’s population soared from a figure of 54,694 in 1900 to 101, 793 by 1940. Such levels of growth weren’t registered again until the 1970s and 80s. Today (in case you’re curious) the figure stands at 177, 123. But that’s all by the by now. I’m guessing that nobody involved in the donation of the peninsula to the Royal family would have predicted what happened next.

Academia Replaces Royalty in the 1930s

The declaration of the Second Republic in April 1931 meant the end for the Royal family and its residences – the Palace was seized. It was officially bought back by the Town Hall in 1977. Today it is used for official ceremonies and civil weddings. And every summer, the Menendez Pelayo International University (UIMP) moves in. The institution was created in 1932 and began offering its courses in the Palace the following year. Since then, it has played host to heads of state, government ministers, politicians, leading academics, writers and musicians who participate in the annual summer university programme.

And Royals Return to Madrid but not to Santander

By 1969, Franco had decided to name Alfonso XIII’s grandson (the present King Juan Carlos) his successor. The Bourbons were back. But instead of holidaying in Santander, they chose Mallorca. I suppose Santander of the 1970s wasn’t the fashionable place it had been a century before. And having lost a summer residence twice already in Santander, somewhere warmer and more isolated probably seemed like a good idea.

Back to Today – and the Bit of the Palace that Speak To Me

I can get a bit distracted by history. I was supposed to be bonding with the building. Eclectic is a term I keep coming across when I read about the Palace. But what caught my eye?

Pamela Cahill Magdalena Palace Palacio Santander Spain Stonemasonry

I like where the stonemasonry imitates brickwork. It’s perfectly offset by white frames and the reflection of the blue sky in the glass

Pamela Cahill Magdalena Palace Palacio Santander Spain Tudor influences

Here I’ve zoomed in to show you the Tudor influences – visible in the sharp geometric latticework. And on the left, you can see the castle-like five-storey tower to remind the Queen Victoria of her Scottish roots. It’s not that I like the individual sections or the combination of both, but the elements speak to me about how the architects interpreted the project. I’m sure the pre-pitch discussions between Bringas and Riancho were colourful

Pamela Cahill Magdalena Palace Palacio Santander Spain Views Stairways

Lovely – a simple stairway to heaven which in this case in the bay

Pamela Cahill Magdalena Palace Palacio Santander Spain Carriage Entrance

I love the way the pillars frame the scene in front. This building was certainly designed to be enjoyed from the inside looking out as well as from the outside looking in. With views like these to showcase, it would have been a crime not to…

And Inside the Palace?

If I were to include the inside the Palace I’d never post this item so I’m not going to walk you around indoors. I will say you should visit in person and seek out the wonderful 1907  painting of Queen Victoria by Sorolla. I like Sorolla a lot. You can see it plus many photos of the Royal family on the Palace’s gallery of historic images. If you have been following Grand Hotel (Spain’s Downton Abbey) on Sky Arts you’ll like these images. And if you are looking to snoop around inside the palace as it is today, you’ll enjoy the Palace’s virtual visit. I particularly recommend the view from the top of the tower and you can see the Sorolla painting I like in the ‘Salon de Familia’ or Family Room.

Connecting in the Great Outdoors

Never mind the mini-zoo with seals and penguins or the little train that transports families from the bottom of the peninsula to the top, I found myself criss-crossing the park rather than sticking to the pathways – and that’s where I forged a strong personal connection. It started with the sculptures that add a lovely contemporary touch and reminded me how wonderful outdoor sculpture is.

Pamela Cahill Magdalena Palace Palacio Santander Spain Sculptures

El Coloso (1988) by Francisco Leiro Lois (Pontevedra, 1957) is one of the many great sculptures by the Palace

Pamela Cahill Magdalena Palace Palacio Santander Spain Sculptures

One of my favourite pieces is by Tom Carr (Tarragona 1956) called Untitled but referred to as Tela de Araña (Cobweb). It’s been here since 1988. I like the way it frames the house from this particular angle


Pamela Cahill Magdalena Palace Palacio Santander Spain Wooden Sculptures

This wooden carving is made directly from a tree stump and is the handiwork of Rogelio Verdeja from the Parks & Gardens Dept. of the Town Hall. I had great fun looking for them – there must be at least another fifteen or so in the park. The next time I bring the kids we are doing up a map

My Little Hideaway

We all like a quiet corner in any large public place. And I found mine close to the cliff edge. If you’ve read any other posts, you’ll know I like my architectural curves. But it was the simplicity of the structure – after staring at the Palace for a while – that really won me over. Just like I treasure the little petrol station (soon to be a café) outside the new Botin Centre, I also cherish this little gem. Maybe because it helps put the larger building in perspective. And it feels safe and snug. It was a maritime pilot station that was built in 1954 and used to house a maritime signal box. Today the door is locked and the window that looked onto the sea is bricked in. But when I’m around these parts and need somewhere quiet, now I know where to go.

Pamela Cahill Magdalena Palace Palacio Santander Spain Tower

My new find beside the Palace. A maritime pilot station from August 1954

Pamela Cahill Magdalena Palace Palacio Santander Spain Tower Map Mauro

Looking out to Mauro Island and its lighthouse – some really special curves and views here

Making Sense of the Palace
As is the case with almost every building I like in Santander, the site is the real star. The views enjoyed by the palace are superb. Perhaps even better than those which the Botin family and Renzo Piano are working with downtown. If you don’t get a true sense of that from the photos, you should see the access that drones give us to the rooftops of the Palace and beyond.

Having walked around the building a dozen times in one afternoon, I suppose I understand why my emotions towards the Palace had been a little confused. The more I know about the design – the more I see that it’s a little confused too. But I’ve come to realise that its beauty lies in its chameleon-like ability to be so many things to some many people. Which makes its fit for purpose – in a strange sort of way.

I look at it now and love it for the emotions it causes me to call upon. If I were to leave Santander and never return, it would be one of a handful of places I would think about from time to time. We all need reminding that buildings are much more than a few walls and a roof. They are triggers for our brain. Like gate-keepers or custodians, they help us file away events and store memories that we can dip into easily when we hear the name or see the place in a photo or in person.

Time to Go

I leave the Palace, walking out past the Stables. I have been looking forward to checking out my photos over a coffee or something stronger but I was so absorbed in the task that the café doors were locked. That’s what I get for lining up the Cobweb sculpture with the Palace. But I’ll be back. And I’ll take some time to think of young Alfonso and Ena and Bringas and Riancho too. And the many other souls that made this building Santander’s most emblematic (to date).


Pamela Cahill Magdalena Palace Palacio Santander Spain Café Caballerizas

The Stables are the first buildings you’ll come across and the last ones you see as you leave. Fortunately for pedestrians, especially thirsty ones, they now house a café. Unfortunately I spent too long on the photos and the place had shut for the night when I put away the camera.



  1. insiderioja · · Reply

    Fascinating, Pam. I attended a course at the Universidad Menéndez Pelayo at the palace and was fascinated by the building. Your in-depth description and photos made me want to return, which I will do this summer!

    1. Thanks Tom for stopping by and commenting. It’s a building with a very colourful past alright. If those walls could talk. Glad to prompt a return visit and hope to catch up sometime over the summer.

  2. Pamela, another fascinating post! Apart from the palace, I love the bird carved from the tree stump. Will you post more of them?

    1. Hi Barbara, They are really great, aren’t they? I took very few pics of those carvings because I was too busy watching a little kid screaming with glee chasing from one to another. That section would be great for a treasure hunt – must do one sometime during the summer hols..

  3. That sounds like fun, am sure the children would adore it. It would also make a great post too!
    Hope you are enjoying some spring weather. B xx

  4. This palace has always been one of my favourites in Spain ever since I saw it in 2010…I’ve only walked around it once, but I’ll have to rectify that in the near future. Love the history behind it. It makes it more special now.

    1. There are a few surprises in its past that I’ve discovered recently that I must blog about sometime. Glad you liked the place and the post 🙂

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