Cantabria is one of the 17 autonomous communities of Spain. Although it is only a small stain (the second smallest) on the map of this European country, Cantabria surprised me with its diversity, interesting historical sites and natural beauty. The northern St. Jacob’s Way passes through its territory (Camino del Norte and Camino Lebaniego), some of these sights are located directly on the route, for some others, it is definitely worth turning off this pilgrimage route. Whether you go to Cantabria on vacation or on a journey to develop your spirituality and self-knowledge, caves belong to the most interesting tips for a trip. There are up to 6,500 of them in Cantabria! During my visit to this part of Spain, I visited three caves, each of which was completely different and unique.
Altamira – In the Art Gallery of Prehistoric Man
Imagine a prehistoric man when he returned from hunting – about 16,000 years ago. He was hunting bison. He went hunting regularly, thanks to frequent observations, he knew exactly how these huge animals stood, sat, lay, ran and also how they rushed to attack. Maybe already before, he drew their silhouettes with a thin bone or piece of wood in the sand or damp ground. And suddenly he got a much greater desire to paint those bison than to hunt them.
He took the torch and in its flickering light, first, he drew black outlines, then diluted the ocher powder with water and painted the bodies of the animals in various shades from yellow through orange, red to brown. In the fervor of the creative enthusiasm, he added other animals to the bison — horses, does, wild boars, also some mysterious symbols and finally his own hand. I would be very interested to know what impulse, what desire evoked this creative activity, and how did the prehistoric man discover this creative power in himself?
In the second story, we do not have to go back to the Paleolithic, it will suffice until 1879. There is a hunter again. He just rescued his dog, which fell into a cave. The man told the landowner – the nobleman and lawyer Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola – about that place. Since Sautuola was also an amateur archaeologist, he decided to examine these underground spaces in more detail. One day, he took with him his five-year-old daughter María, who probably shared his archaeological enthusiasm and was also driven by child curiosity. While the father shovelled the rubble on the ground in an effort to find some interesting prehistoric objects, the girl moved into another part of the cave and turned up the candlelight to the ceiling. “Torros, torros!”, sounded in the underground. María had just discovered a whole herd – though not of bulls as she thought – but of bison and other animals painted by prehistoric man.
However, most scientists have questioned the new discovery. They could not accept the idea that even prehistoric man could be intelligent enough to think in the abstract, not to mention his artistic talent. Sautuola was declared a fraud, and many derisively called him the “Altamira bison breeder.” Unfortunately, he did not live to see his rehabilitation. The change did not occur until 14 years later when similar prehistoric galleries of cave paintings were discovered in France.
However, Altamira is the first cave to reveal the work of unknown prehistoric painters to the modern world. Its most remarkable part is the Great Hall (18 x 9 m) with paintings of 25 animals. The purpose of the paintings remains a mystery. Today, the prevailing opinion is that they have a religious significance. They were created in different periods, according to the latest research, the oldest paintings are up to 35,000 years old!
What was most surprising to me was that the paintings were not on the walls, but on the ceiling, which must have been an even more difficult challenge to make them. It is already clear to me why the French scientist Henri Breuil called this cave the Sistine Chapel of the Paleolithic.
It is amazing that so many thousands of years ago, the authors of the paintings have also used the cracks and unevenness of the wall, thus adding plasticity to the depicted animals. But I must admit that even though I was aware of all this, I did not get the chills in the cave. Probably because I was not standing in the original cave but only in its perfect copy. In the 20th century, crowds of visitors visited the cave daily, and moisture from sweat and exhalation began to damage the paintings. And so Altamira was closed to the public in 1977. Today, it is on the UNESCO World Heritage List and can only be visited by a very small number of visitors who are selected in a lottery-like manner. For the others, the copy was built. In addition to the paintings, there are not only interesting information but also engraved drawings of animals and statues of human faces, which cannot be reached in the original cave.
There are several caves in Cantabria with paintings and drawings from the Paleolithic, although to a lesser extent. If you can’t get to any of them, then you should definitely visit at least the Altamira Cave Museum.
Practical information for your visit: here
How to get from the capital Santander to Altamira: here
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Note: all opinions expressed in this article are my own.
Text: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri
Fotos: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri