cantabria and asturias, day one

Today we fulfilled a travel wish we've harboured for many, many years. We saw two sets of paleolithic cave paintings.

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The day started out a bit interesting, with an early-morning phone call that appeared to be from our dogsitter, scaring me (although it turned out to be a mistake), and a non-working shower. While we ate breakfast, the desk clerk wanted to tell us the shower was fixed, so she wrote this on a scrap of paper: "The bath this one are repaired. Forgives the inconvenience." I have no doubt my Spanish sounds equally amusing.

We had to wait for the tourist information office to open in order to get a regional map; our large road map of Spain is useless for local driving. This meant getting a later start than we wanted, so we were unsure if we'd get to the first cave in time for our 10:40 reservation. As it turned out, the cave was much further away than we thought, and after we found the town, we then had to drive past the town, leave the car on a trail, and walk up steep switchbacks - a good 20 minute walk uphill - to the cave entrance. At the top of the trail, there was a little cabin, locked up, and we assumed the tour had left without us.

As it turned out, this was great. When the "tour" came back, it consisted of one park ranger tour guide, and only one tourist. For this tiny cave, only six people can go in at a time. Because we missed our appointment, we had the next scheduled tour to ourselves.

This was Cueva de Covalanas, the Covalanas Cave. It's one of the least developed in the region in terms of tourism. The guide spoke only Spanish, but I told her if she spoke slowly, I could understand. And when she remembered to speak slowly, I did! I translated for Allan as best as I could.

The guide unlocked the entrance with a key, and we all walked in. The only light was her little pen flashlight. We walked for a few minutes, then she turned off her light so we could see how dark the cave really was. It is the darkest dark you can experience. Total blackness. Even after a few minutes, your eyes don't adjust, because there is nothing to adjust to. You literally cannot see your hand in front of your face.

Then she clicked on her light and there on the wall: a deer. It's drawn in vivid red. It was drawn 16,000 to 20,000 years ago, and it looks like it could have been put there yesterday.

The guide traced the form of the deer, using the shadow of her finger as a pointer, showing us how the artist used the natural contours of the cave as part of the animal's form. By moving her flashlight, she showed us how the animal form is better seen with indirect light. With her flashlight above the figure, rather than directly in front of it, the shape really came alive.

The guide explained how people didn't live in these caves, they lived in caves below, closer to where we parked our car, and only used these caves above for some special significance. She told us how they would make light with fire (burning animal fat) and how they made the paint out of minerals. The paint isn't found naturally, it was a painstaking process, very deliberate. And of course the painter was drawing from memory, without a model or a photo in front of him.

Using her light and the shadow of her finger, the guide showed us several more animal forms. The animal's name translates as deer in English, but it looks more like what we would call an antelope. There was also a horse that the artist portrayed with its mane flowing and legs running, the front legs not drawn but formed by the rock.

There are 18 paintings in all. They are all red, and made with a distinctive style: the painter used his or her thumb to make dots or daubs. You can get very close to the paintings, and they are incredibly well preserved.

Our guide told us about how the great cave paintings at Altamira are now locked up - the irony of permanent preservation, but their gifts no longer reaching the public. She said, there are the reproductions, but it's not the same. To her, the best cave is Covalanas, because it's dark, and not developed, and you can be so close, and the red is so vivid. She was clearly passionate about her work, and often she would forget to speak slowly, and I would get only the barest gist, but it didn't matter. It was just a privilege to be there. Allan and I were both very moved.

Since you can't take photos in the cave, we bought a book. The text is only in Spanish, but the photos are wonderful. We took a few photos of the surrounding mountains, with sheep grazing in mountain pastures. As we left, two people had arrived for the next tour.

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We weren't sure if we could make our next appointment, which was in the complete opposite direction, and over the provincial border in Asturias, plus there was some road construction along the way. But we did make it, just in time, to the little town of Ribadesella, to see the Cuevas de Tito Bustello, named for one of the cavers who stumbled on them in 1968.

This was an entirely different experience, and an excellent counterpart to our first tour. At Tito Bustello, as many as 20 people can go in the cave at a time. There is a specially constructed tourist entrance, with a cement floor and artificial lighting on the floor. It is still dark, and wet, and slippery, but the cave has been transformed for tourists. There's a large interpretative centre that (supposedly) will one day replace the caves when they are closed to tourism.

At this cave, the group walked a long way in, through large open rooms full of stalactites and stalagmites, and strange, beautiful rock formations. The guide talked quickly and incessantly. We were the only non-Spanish-speakers in the group, and mostly we just didn't understand anything. I could generally understand the subject of the talk - now he's describing how the cave was formed by the river, now he's describing what paleolithic people ate - but that was about it.

We walked a long ways in, towards the originally entrance to the cave, which has since been closed by a landslide. The guide turned off his light so we could experience the darkness, and also asked for silence, so we could hear the rushing water of the river (which you can't see). Then the guide used the same techniques - the flashlight and finger shadows - to show us a large area painted with red and black deer, antelope, bison, and geometric shapes. Above them all, too high for a person to paint without some type of ladder or scaffolding, is the beautiful image of a horse's head: the image that has come to symbolize cave paintings in the north of Spain.

There are many more paintings in Tito Bustillo, but they are in small spaces that are now closed to the public.

After the tour, we spent time in the interpretive centre, which was truly excellent, signed in both Spanish and English. There was an exhibit on how the paintings were discovered by a group of cavers purely by chance, and a lot about the painting techniques, and the lives of the people who created them.

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I love to think about these people, fully human, just like us. People who are the ancestors of all of us, people who made tools, who learned how to survive - but who also made and wore jewelry, and made art, and fashioned tools that were not only useful but beautiful. This means we share something with these long-ago humans, we have a commonality with them. They are part of our shared heritage, the heritage that links all humans as one. And, as far as we know, they were the world's first artists.

I can go on and on about this stuff. If you haven't yet seen the Werner Herzog movie "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," I hope you will. He captured and expressed the wonder I feel about this work.

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After we drove back, we walked into the little town centre for dinner. Dinner was better tonight - cocido montenes, a local stew with white beans, greens, and sausage, and some pork medallions, and more flan, and dinner always includes water, wine, and bread.

We end the day the way it began, with a mistranslation. On the menu, a dish is described as "loin of pork, including its landfill".

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