cantabria, day two

We've had another outstanding day of seeing cave paintings, an entirely different experience that complemented the other two cave tours.

We left Santillana del Mar early and drove on back-country roads to the town of Puente Viesgo, to see the caves known as El Castillo and Las Monedas. The countryside here is beautiful - lush green hills dotted with red-roofed stone houses, groups of cows and sheep and horses grazing here and there. The rural routes wind through little town centres with the usual shops. I know Spain is suffering under severe unemployment, but we see no evidence of it. (I'm not suggesting the reports are over-rated, only that the misery doesn't show.)

In Puente Visiego, there was a car park and an interpretation centre, so right away this was more developed that the cave at Covalanas. There was a bit of confusion about our reservation - they had two spots reserved under my name, but no time listed - but the friendly park staff assured us that we would definitely have a tour, and it would be at the time we expected (10:00 a.m.). This was a terrific stroke of luck, as, once again, we were the only people on our tour!

The guide introduced herself as Susanna, and asked if I understood any Spanish. Before I could answer, she said she would speak very slowly and if I needed more explanation, I was to tell her, and we would work it out between us. She also asked if Allan would understand, and I indicated I would tell him, and she said, Va a traducir para él, muy bueno, You will translate for him, very good.

Susanna was true to her word, and she was a gem. She spoke slowly and clearly, in simple sentences, and - most importantly - paused after each sentence so I could process the meaning and convey it to Allan. (This is the key, I find. In the Tito Bustillo cave, I would be trying to hold information in my head to tell Allan, but the guide would speed onward, and I'd get lost, and then it was hopeless.) If I had questions or was not sure of the meaning, Susanna encouraged me to find a way to express it, and all three of us would figure it out. She reminded me of a librarian or a school teacher. In fact, at one point I asked her if she gives tours to children, because she is so easy to understand. (She does, and it's her favourite part of her job.)

Cueva de El Castillo is part of a group of four connected caves, and only partially open to the public. The entrance to the cave is where the paleolithic people lived - many different peoples over thousands of years - and is still being excavated. Where the people lived, there are no drawings, and where there are drawings, no one lived. Much of the cave system is very wet, with rushing waterfalls in the winter and tremendous stalactite and stalagmite activity, and of course no paintings are found there. Other cave "rooms" are dry, and all the dry rooms contain cave art.

In this cave, we saw the figures of deer, bison, and bulls - not modern-day bulls, but a paleolithic bull called a uro. There are also a wealth of symbols, the meanings of which can never be known, but which attest to the paleolithic people's capacity for abstract thought. There was also another feature, something very, very special: hand prints. These handprints were formed by a person holding one hand against the cave wall, and in the other, a hollow reed, and blowing pigment onto and around the hand. We saw about 10 of these handprints. The cave contains a room with 66 handprints, but it is in a narrow passageway closed to the public.

Seeing these handprints was absolutely amazing. Here was a person, like us; here they stood; here was her or his hand. It gave us chills. Even Susanna, who has seen these so many many times, said that for her, these hand prints are the most meaningful piece.

We also saw a long series of red dots or daubs that line the caves. One theory holds that these dots were used for counting; another theory is that they were navigational. Or they well could mean anything else, there is no way to know.

Susanna also put the El Castillo cave in context with other caves in Spain, France, and elsewhere. For example, when we saw the uro, she told us which caves are known for the depictions of uros, or which caves have large numbers of hand prints, or where there are figures on cave ceilings.

In one room where there are no paintings, but where in the winter there is a rushing waterfall, Allan noted that the rock formations resembled the "melting" effect on the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Susanna said that many people note that, but that Gaudi never saw this cave. I noted, though, that Gaudi used formations found in nature, and he may have seen rock formations like this at some point.

On this tour, I was able to fill in the blanks of various bits of information I half-gleaned but didn't fully understand on the first two tours - how the pigments were made, how long ago the pictures were painted, how many different groups of people used the same caves over time, how old the caves are, and so on. There weren't a huge number of paintings in El Castillo, but the intimate experience and the ease of comprehension made it a wonderful experience.

I remarked that we were very lucky to have a private tour. Susanna said that on weekends, Spanish people are highly unlikely to go on a 10:00 tour! She said noon, at the earliest, but stressed this was only on Saturday and Sunday. She said, but when you travel, you must be up and about: "Yo no iría a Canadá a dormir!" (I wouldn't go to Canada to sleep!)

We shook hands and thanked Susanna warmly. When she said it was a great pleasure, I believed her. There is nothing as satisfying as teaching people who love to learn, whose faces are lit up with delight. We were star pupils!

* * * *

After the cave visit, we stopped at a supermarket. We had no desire to have another dinner in Santillana del Mar, and we wanted to try some of the local specialities. We got a local chorizo and two local cheeses - queso de tres osos (made from cow's, sheep's, and goat's milks combined) and cabrales, a smelly blue-green cheese that tastes like very strong bleu. Here and in Asturias, cheese is aged in caves! And of course we got the ubiquitous red wine, jamon, bread, and some sobaos, which we are now addicted to - a short-lived condition.

We went back to the hotel and ate on the patio, and suddenly I had no desire to see the museum at Altamira. But we rallied.

* * * *

Right around the corner from our hotel, two kilometres down the road, is the Museo de Altamira.

With the Lescaux caves in France, the caves at Altamira were the best known and the most heavily touristed for cave art. They've had a great impact on our understanding of our prehistoric ancestors. When the caves were first discovered in the 1880s, there was a huge public controversy, because people doubted that prehistoric people had the intellectual ability to have created the paintings. When the authenticity of the paintings were finally established in 1902, our understanding of prehistoric peoples were forever changed.

In the 1970s, it was found that human breath, from so many visitors, had altered the humidity in the caves, leading to the growth of algae, harming the paintings. (Kind of amazing in itself!) In 1977, the caves were closed to the public, and in 2001, the museum, which includes a replica of the Altamira's most famous paintings, opened.

The museum is a truly excellent anthropology museum, treating paleolithic humans with respect and admiration. After all, these people learned how to survive in incredibly harsh conditions, inventing their own technology without the benefit of trade, and sometimes without the benefit of received wisdom, as life expectancy was extremely short. These were people who made tools, buried their dead with rituals, cared for their children, wore jewelry, engaged in abstract thought (possibly spiritual in nature)... and who made art.

Two excellent features of the Altamira museum were a digital slideshow of paleolithic art all over the world and a silent tryptich film depicting the birth of cave art and connecting it with art today. The film included a glimpse of Picasso's "Guernica," which reminds us of what Picasso said after seeing the cave paintings:“Después de Altamira, todo es decadencia”. "After Altamira, everything else is decadence."

The slideshow was amazing. There is paleolithic art on every continent. The work in some African countries, where giraffes are depicted, and in central Asia, is particularly stunning. In the Americas, paleolithic art includes two places Allan and I have visited: the Nazca Lines in Peru and Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. The US state of Colorado is as far north and east as paleolithic art is found in North America, as most of the continent wasn't populated until the neolithic era. The photography in the exhibit was tremendous, and the art is simply eye-popping.

The Altamira museum also contains a reproduction of the famous cave ceiling covered in red and black bisons, each bison painted into a natural depression of the cave. I sat this one out, but Allan said it was well done, although of course not very exciting, since you know it's a reproduction, and you're standing in a museum, not a cave.

If you ever go to northern Spain, I highly recommend visiting this museum in conjunction with seeing real cave paintings in real caves. It's not a substitute, but it does enhance the experience.

* * * *

In the late afternoon, we wandered a bit in the little village of Santillana del Mar to take some photos. It seems to be a popular weekend destination for locals to hang out. It's a nice town, with two weird features. There's a zoo, which makes us sad every time we pass (who is locked up in there?), and there's an inquisition museum, featuring more than 70 different instruments of torture. Uh, ok.

On our drive to the Tito Bustillo cave yesterday, I thought that the Asturias region looks like lovely place for a cottage holiday. It's right on the Cantabrian sea, there are nice little things to do like visiting caves, and Gothic and Romanesque architecture, and it's incredibly picturesque. The cave is on a little inlet where people were renting kayaks. Asturias is framed by the Pico de Europa mountain range, a popular climbing destination for people who do such things.

Our trip is almost over! Tomorrow we drive to Bilbao.

Photos from Cantabria and Asturias are here. The most wonderful part of our stay in this region cannot be photographed!

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