Thursday, 1 January 2009
Cantabria - Day 3, Meet the Flintstones
With the entire content of a pharmacy store in my system fighting the cold 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, World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. 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 was’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.
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 famous as Altamira.
This place 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. 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 damp people who had clearly spent the weekend in the rain sodden Santander. This included three especially large and unattractive ladies who looked like characters from Viz magazine and we hoped we wouldn’t be sat close to them 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 an aircraft 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.