Tag Archives: Santillana de Mar

Northern Spain – The Caves at Altimira

Santillana del Mar in the rain

“I visited the Cave of Altamira while traveling in Europe with two friends in 1968.  Once inside, I was of course in awe, not only of the age of the paintings, but also of the delicacy and skill with which they had been executed. I think we tend to look down on our distant ancestors as primitive and stupid, but cave paintings like those at Altamira remind us that they were not.”                         Susan (Washington) – Blogger

On the final morning of our visit to Santillana del Mar the weather proved to be a disappointment, I could hear rain on the window as I started to stir and when I did the weather check I could only report back that the sky was grey and it was drizzling.

At breakfast our host confirmed the worst and informed us that the forecast was gloomy all day so we decided that it was probably a good day to go and do something undercover and perhaps visit a museum.

After breakfast we settled up and said goodbye and took the road out of Santillana Del Mar and then followed signposts to the Altamira museum on the edge of the town.   I wasn’t expecting a great deal to be honest so was surprised to find a very big car park and a large building built into the hills.  I was about to learn about something else that I was completely unaware of – Cantabria is the richest region in the world in archaeological sites from the Upper Paleolithic period (that’s the Stone Age to you and me).  The most significant cave painting site is the cave of Altamira, dating from about 16,000 to 9000 BC and declared, with another nine Cantabrian caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Well, you learn something new every day it seems!

Altimira cave painting

Around thirteen thousand years ago a rockfall sealed the cave entrance preserving its contents until its eventual discovery which was caused by a nearby tree falling and disturbing the fallen rocks.  The really good bit about the story is that it wasn’t discovered by Howard Carter, Tony Robinson or Indiana Jones but by a nine year old girl who came across them while playing in the hills above the town in 1879.  Her father was an amateur archaeologist called Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola and he was led by his daughter to discover the cave’s drawings. The cave was excavated by Sautuola and archaeologist Juan Vilanova y Piera from the University of Madrid, resulting in a much acclaimed publication in 1880 which interpreted the paintings as Paleolithic in origin.

So well preserved were the paintings however that there ensued an argument about authenticity and some believed the whole thing to be a hoax and it wasn’t until 1902 that they were eventually accepted as genuine.

We paid the modest entrance fee of €2.40 and went into the museum, which turned out to be a real treasure with interesting displays about the Stone Age, or the Paleolithic period if you prefer, with the highlight of the visit being a full size recreation of the original cave and its precious paintings.  Today it is only possible to see this copy because the actual cave is now closed to vistors.  During the 1960s and 1970s, the paintings were being damaged by the damp breath of large numbers of visitors and smoke from Fortuna cigarettes and Altamira was completely closed to the public in 1977, and reopened with only very limited access in 1982.

altamira[1]

Very few visitors are allowed in per day, resulting in a three-year waiting list.  It would be nice to go into the actual cave but actually the replica allows a more comfortable view of the polychrome paintings of the main hall of the cave, as well as a selection of minor works and also includes some sculptures of human faces that cannot be accessed in the real thing.

And, let me tell you, these people were really good painters.  The artists used charcoal and ochre or haematite to create the images, often scratching or diluting these dyes to produce variances in intensity and creating an impression of remarkable and sophisticated contrasts and they also exploited the natural contours in the cave walls to give a three-dimensional effect to their subjects.

The painted ceiling is the most impressive feature showing a herd of bison in different poses, two horses, a large doe and a wild boar.  Other images include horses, goats and hand prints created from the artist placing his hand on the cave wall and spraying paint over it leaving a negative image of his palm.

Numerous other caves in northern Spain contain palaeolithic art but none is as advanced or as famous as Altamira.

The entrance to the real cave is not so impressive however…

Entrance to the cave of Altamira

Advertisements

Cantabria, Rain and Rough Seas

Altamira came as a real surprise and we spent most of the morning exploring it.  It was a good job we did because outside it was still raining and was quite damp so after we had walked to see the actual opening to the cave (it wasn’t very exciting I have to say) we debated our options and after some indecision decided to go west again to where it seemed a little brighter.  We drove along the Autovia for about twenty kilometres but the weather looked just as grim in front so we turned around and agreed that the best plan might be to go to the city of Santander where it wouldn’t matter if it were raining.

Actually, when we arrived there it was raining so hard that it did matter.  It was that sideways rain that makes an umbrella superfluous (especially a £2.50 model from Wilkos) and which soaks you from every angle.  Not that this happened to us however because we did a circuit of the city and then drove straight out and back to Santillana Del Mar and I am now so familiar with that stretch of the E70 motorway that I could choose it as a specialist subject on Mastermind!

It was raining in Santillana Del Mar but at least it was only that gentle sort of rain, which isn’t too much of an inconvenience and anyway we didn’t plan to be out in it for long because it was lunchtime and our plan was to return to the Restaurant ‘Castilla’ for some food.  We choose different items off the menu and spent a pleasant hour with good food and a bottle of wine and we watched as the rain became heavier and the sky became darker.  Eventually it was time to leave and once again we had to debate our options to fill up our last afternoon.

As we returned to the car quite unexpectedly the sky began to brighten in the west again so we decided that this was the sensible direction to head for.  As we drove along the coast the weather improved dramatically and within a few kilometres we were regularly stopping the car and exploring the rugged coastline where the cliffs were worn into gnarled and distorted shapes by the wind, the rain and the sea.

The sea was big and dramatic today and the waves were pounding into the beaches and over the rocks.  By the time we arrived back in Comillas the sky was blue and there was an opportunity for an exciting walk along the headland dodging the spray as the waves pounded in and crashed over the town’s sea defences.  We walked around for a while and were pleased that the day had ended with blue skies and sunshine.  Cantabria was a real unexpected surprise and somewhere that I would definitely return to.

We drove back along the E70 for a final time, refuelled the car and made good time getting back to the airport until I managed to take a wrong turn and get lost right at the end of the journey.  It wasn’t a major problem however and soon we were returning the keys to the car hire desk.  The girl on duty apologised for the appalling weather and the fact that it had been raining constantly for two whole days.  We told her that actually we had enjoyed excellent blue skies in Comillas and a pavement lunch in San Vincente and she seemed a little surprised by that.

It seemed that we had been very lucky and the departure lounge was full of bedraggled people who had clearly spent the weekend in the rain sodden Santander and we hoped we wouldn’t have to sit next to damp person on the plane.

We needn’t have worried about that because hardly anyone got on and I counted less than fifty passengers on the three hundred seater aircraft.  I have never seen so few people on a plane and I was surprised by that because after all the flight price was only £5.00 and that included the ludicrous £4.00 credit card fee, still we weren’t complaining and even though this was only Ryanair this was almost like travelling in our own private jet.

Cantabria, Meet the Flintstones!

Altimira cave painting

With the entire content of a pharmacy store in my system fighting the cold man flu I had a better nights sleep but I was still woken in the middle of the night by the curious footsteps in the corridor outside.  I was tempted to investigate but this insane boldness was only temporary and I settled instead for the pulling the bedclothes over my head option and staying put instead.

In the morning the weather proved to be a disappointment, I could hear rain on the window as I started to stir and when I did the weather check I could only report back that the sky was grey and it was drizzling.  At breakfast our host confirmed the worst and informed us that the forecast was gloomy all day so we decided that it was probably a good day to go and do something undercover and perhaps visit a museum.

After breakfast we settled up and said goodbye and headed back towards Santillana Del Mar and then followed signposts to the Altamira museum on the edge of the town.   I wasn’t expecting a great deal to be honest so was surprised to find a very big car park and a large building built into the hills.  I was about to learn about something else that I was completely unaware of – Cantabria is the richest region in the world in archaeological sites from the Upper Paleolithic period (that’s the Stone Age to you and me).  The most significant cave painting site is the cave of Altamira, dating from about 16,000 to 9000 BC and declared, with another nine Cantabrian caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Well, you learn something new every day it seems!

Around 13,000 years ago a rockfall sealed the cave’s entrance preserving its contents until its eventual discovery which was caused by a nearby tree falling and disturbing the fallen rocks.  The really good bit about the story is that it wasn’t discovered by Howard Carter, Tony Robinson or Indiana Jones but by a nine year old girl who came across them while playing in the hills above the town in 1879.  Her father was an amateur archaeologist called Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola and he was led by his daughter to discover the cave’s drawings. The cave was excavated by Sautuola and archaeologist Juan Vilanova y Piera from the University of Madrid, resulting in a much acclaimed publication in 1880 which interpreted the paintings as Paleolithic in origin.  So well preserved were the paintings however that there ensued an argument about authenticity and some believed the whole thing to be a hoax and it wasn’t until 1902 that they were accepted as genuine.

We paid the modest entrance fee of €2.40 and went into the museum, which turned out to be a real treasure with interesting displays about the Stone Age, or the Paleolithic period if you prefer, with the highlight of the visit being a full size recreation of the original cave and its precious paintings.  Today it is only possible to see this copy because the actual cave is now closed to vistors.  During the 1960s and 1970s, the paintings were being damaged by the damp breath of large numbers of visitors and Altamira was completely closed to the public in 1977, and reopened with only very limited access in 1982. Very few visitors are allowed in per day, resulting in a three-year waiting list.

It would be nice to go into the actual cave but actually the replica allows a more comfortable view of the polychrome paintings of the main hall of the cave, as well as a selection of minor works and also includes some sculptures of human faces that cannot be accessed in the real thing.

Altimira Caves Cantabria

And, let me tell you, these people were good painters.  The artists used charcoal and ochre or haematite to create the images, often scratching or diluting these dyes to produce variances in intensity and creating an impression of remarkable and sophisticated contrasts and they also exploited the natural contours in the cave walls to give a three-dimensional effect to their subjects. The painted ceiling is the most impressive feature showing a herd of bison in different poses, two horses, a large doe and a wild boar.  Other images include horses, goats and handprints created from the artist placing his hand on the cave wall and spraying paint over it leaving a negative image of his palm. Numerous other caves in northern Spain contain palaeolithic art but none is as advanced or as famous as Altamira.

The entrance to the cave is not so impressive however…

Cantabria, San Vicente De La Barquera

San Vincente De La Barquera

When we reached the motorway we headed promptly west again and in a very short time we were in the fishing town of San Vicente De La Barquera, which was busier than Comillas and even in mid December had a hint of vibrancy.  The sky was blue and the sun was shining and despite my horrible cold  man flu this made me feel a whole lot better.  There was an interesting castle and an old town that stretched from the headland to the church of Santa María de los Ángeles and which enjoyed magnificent views over a busy river estuary to the mountains beyond.  And there was a good view of the Maza Bridge, with its twenty-eight arches, which was built on the orders of the Spanish Catholic Monarchs in the sixteenth century.

Even though most of the local people were dining indoors, for people from the north with thicker blood it was warm enough to sit out on the pavement and have some sea food dishes and a bottle of local white wine and we enjoyed paella and a generous portion of fresh sardines and sat in the sunshine and watched the boats in the harbour as the tide continued to rush in and make them dance about on the water.

Before we left San Vicente we drove down to the sea front where the waves were crashing in over the harbour walls with an intense force and we admired the power of the sea.  This place was rather like Cornwall or South Wales with a lively Atlantic Ocean, a working fishing port and an intense blue sea fringed by verdant green fields.  We were reluctant to leave but there were still thinks to see and we hadn’t visited the town of Santillana Del Mar yet, which is supposed to be one of the prettiest in Spain.

We drove east and as we did so the weather deteriorated and when we arrived in Santillana the sun had completely disappeared behind a curtain of grey sky.  We parked the car and walked into the town that turned out to be a real treasure.  It was an unspoilt medieval town with a famous old church and cobbled piazzas and historic old buildings at every twist and turn in the streets and in fact the town is so aesthetically perfect that it has been declared a National Monument of Spain.  We visited the church that wasn’t especially good value for money and then we explored the town looking for dining opportunities for later on.

It was getting cool so we left the town and returned to Ubiarco but before we returned to the Posada San Telmo we drove past to see if there might be alternative restaurants in the other direction.  We came across the beach of Santa Justa and even though it was getting dark we drove down and walked down to the sea.

The tide was fully in and the waves were crashing over the rocks and we were surprised to see the vulnerable Chapel of Santa Justa built directly into the rocks and taking the full force of the surf.  Actually, it turns out that it has been there for four hundred years so presumably it is quite sturdy and quite able to stand up to the winter battering from the sea.  We took a look at the nearby town of Suances but we saw nothing to take us back so we drove back to Ubiarco and after a rest we went back to Santillana for our evening meal.

The town was quite lively on account of this being the start of the nativity season and there was a firework display and a street party for the children, which made the place temporarily busy.  We looked around and chose the lively Restaurant ‘Castilla’ for our evening meal and we enjoyed a substantial menu del dia and a couple of glasses of wine to finish the day.  When we left, an hour or so later, it was cold but the sky was clear and we hoped for another unexpectedly good day tomorrow.

Cantabria, Santillana del Mar and the Posada San Telmo

Posada San Telmo

Less than two weeks after returning from Andalusia in the south of the county we were returning to Spain but this time to Cantabria in the north.  The lure of £10 return flights had tempted us to travel again and even though it really was far too soon after our last journey but I have to say that I find it almost impossible to let these bargain flight opportunities pass by.

My man flu had got worse during the week so on the day of travel I was feeling pretty wretched but I was sure that foreign travel would cheer me up.  At the airport I began to feel really awful and I think I even wondered if it was wise to leave the country especially when the medication that I had requested only arrived after a lengthy detour around the duty free shop!

Actually nothing was really going to change my plans but once on the plane I went to sleep even before the safety lecture was completed.  I thought that this was important because I was embarrassed about coughing and sneezing and spreading germs and calculated that if I were at least sleeping I wouldn’t be irritating anyone.  It was only a short flight of just over an hour and a half and I only started to wake when the plane started to come down and the cabin pressure started to drop and the cracking in my sinuses made my face feel like crazy paving.  It was an agonising landing and I was most pleased when the plane hit the tarmac.

We picked up a hire car at the Sol-Mar desk and after completing the formalities found the vehicle and headed west on the Autovia to the tourist town of Santillana de Mar and the nearby village of Ubiarco where our accommodation was booked.

It was an odd thing about the accommodation but when I checked the web site a few days before I couldn’t find the hotel again and I had worried that perhaps my booking had been cancelled or the place might be closed for the winter.  Eventually I found it through my booking reference number and everything seemed to be in order so I stopped worrying.  I was perplexed however that when I entered alternative dates just to check, there was never any availability and there were no more rooms available for this weekend either.  I convinced myself that the place must surely be full of people all enjoying £10 flights just like us, but there was another strange thing because there were no customer reviews posted to the site, which has to be a little bit strange.

It took only about thirty minutes to get to the village and most unusually for me, we found the place almost immediately and drew into the car park.  There was only one other car there and the place was in almost complete darkness except for a creepy light seeping through the cracks in the curtains at a downstairs window.  It was locked but when we knocked on the door a kindly elderly couple invited us in and explained that they had been waiting all day for us to arrive and I was surprised by this because I was certain that I had advised my late arrival time when I had booked.

It was immediately obvious that there were no other guests and the man took us to our room on the first floor.  We asked about restaurants and bars but he told us there were none close by and as it was about half past nine we weren’t in the mood for driving any more so we decided to settle in, have a bottle of wine and play cards in the lounge.

We didn’t see the lady again but the man was downstairs and he seemed to know instinctively when we needed something from his bar.  First we ordered beer and later a bottle of wine and he was always available when we needed him but at this stage I didn’t find that especially strange.  The wine said 1974 and I hoped it wouldn’t be expensive, on the coffee table were a pile of very old magazines and the television programme was an episode of something like Dallas dubbed in Spanish and the place began to feel more and more unusual and curious the later it became.

We finished the wine and went to bed and I went to say goodnight but the place was deserted except for us so we went straight to our room via the creaky staircase and settled down.  After a minute or two we heard soft footsteps in the corridor and whoever it was stopped outside our door for a second or two and then moved on.  I felt a shiver dart down by spine but I told myself that it was just the owner making sure we were all right and I thought that was a nice touch and that I should be sure to mention it in my hotel review.

I had a restless night because of my cold and at some point I heard the footsteps for a second time but I had no idea what time it was.  The room was pitch black and although we were on the village main road there wasn’t a single sound to punctuate the total silence that lay on us like a thick blanket.  Wild thoughts raced through my brain, I thought about the web site, why were there no guest reviews? Why was no one else staying here?  Why did the room go cold and the lights dim when the man bought us the wine?  And then I heard the footsteps again so pulled the sheets over my head and tried to go back to sleep.

I had a restless night because of my flu and from straining to listen for strange noises but eventually it was morning and when we looked outside there was a promising clear sky and an unexpected view of the sea.  We made a cup of tea and then went downstairs for breakfast but were surprised to find the place deserted and all of the furniture draped in dust covers.

It was cold and eerie and no one responded to our holas!  I didn’t like it at all so we went outside and down the street there was a lively little café that was full of customers so we went inside.  I asked for the breakfast menu and told the owner that we were staying at the Posada San Telmo next door.  He turned pale and gave me an odd stare and when I looked surprised he said ‘Senor, you must be mistaken, no one has stayed at the San Telmo for thirty years, the hotel has been abandoned since 1976’. My blood froze and the hairs on the back of my neck stood to attention and I suddenly understood about the empty web site and the ghostly footsteps and I was anxious to get away so we drank our tea and left rather quickly…