Santillana del Mar

Santillana del Mar

Santillana del Mar

My accommodation - a winter let flat

My accommodation – a winter let flat

Despite this being one of the prettiest and most visited towns in the Spanish Province of Cantabria, it was really the Altamira Cave that drew me to Santillana del Mar. It was the first cave to be discovered in the world which houses ancient cave paintings made by the first humans, our ancient forefathers.

The cave is now closed to the public because the number of visitors (174,000 in 1974!) were posing a serious threat to the art, so a perfect replica, the “Neo Cave” was constructed beside it.

The entrance to the real Altamira Cave in the hillside - as close as I could get.

The entrance to the real Altamira Cave in the hillside – as close as I could get.

When I entered the Altamira “Neo Cave” I expected to be interested and feel a sense of history, but I was unprepared for the beauty within and was instead completely stunned. The cave is so well made that you soon forget that it is not the real thing and imagine yourself underground seeing the true paintings . And, oh, how marvellous they are.

Painted as long ago as 22,000 years, the paintings are startlingly beautiful.  You can see a “rampant horse” galloping across a wall, a bison lying down curled up at rest, a sublimely graceful hind, a wild goat, another large bison’s head looking at you with his beady black eye.

I did not expect to see such excellent art. The illustrations of these animals in various positions, coloured rich reds and browns, are well drawn with such fluidity that they are full of life and movement. Here and there the cave painters had cleverly used the natural curves of the rock to shape their images, so a bison’s back and a hind’s stomach had been painted around bulges in the stone to make them 3D portrayals.   The animals are so well depicted that archaeologists can determine the actual breed they represent – for example one kind of Ibix can be identified from another by the shape of it horns.

The paintings are exquisite and timeless.  Sadly photography of even these replicas is not permitted but they can be viewed on google images   Google images.     Pablo Picasso felt that art had attained  perfection in the cave and said : “After Altamira everything is decadence.”  Other artists have expressed similar sentiments and some like Miro were inspired by Altamira Art.

And that is not all, as well as animal paintings, drawings, and scratched art, there are mysterious signs that no one has been able to decipher – some dating from before the animal paintings, to as long ago as 36,000 years before the present.  The ”rupestrian” (rock) art is therefore not simply about hunting images but represents far more complicated symbolism and expression.

I walked around gazing up in awe, moved by the beauty of the images. Then I reached a point where someone, all those thousands of years ago had painted his hand in red ochre and pressed it on the cave wall, leaving a perfect handprint. There he was, his mark preserved in time, reaching through the millennia to connect with years and years and years of observers centuries later – down to me.   I could see him in my mind’s eye in the act of this self-expression and wept at the thought of his art, his humanity, touching me across history, in a way that is impossible to put adequately into words.

Monument to by Marcelino Sauz de Sautuola and his daughter who he took into the cave.

Monument to by Marcelino Sauz de Sautuola and his daughter who accompanied him into the cave.

Though local shepherds knew about the Altamira Cave it was “officially” discovered around 1875 by Marcelino Sauz de Sautuola who made it known to the scientific world.  It was the first example of cave art found and at that time no one could believe that the first humans could have been capable of such artistry so his findings were not accepted and the cave was forgotten for years. Later its significance became clear and it was eventually opened to the public in 1917. In the years which followed it was visited by thousands of people until its closure. It is shocking now to read how tourists would enter the cave in large groups, breathing over the art and even touching the cave walls.

Outside the neo cave is a superb museum, where I spent many hours examining the informative interactive exhibits. The museum explains the origins of “hominids” in Africa 2.5 million years ago, the different species which developed, how our homo sapiens forebears co-existed with neanderthal man for a time before the latter petered out of existence and homo sapiens colonised the planet. It seems that neanderthal man’s extinction is not completely understood. This species, the “lost lineage”, had a sophisticated culture, used language, “nursed their sick and buried their dead” but had an inferior brain size to our forerunners.

Altamira tells you the story of these ancient people and their lives. Watching films explaining how the first tools were skilfully made and looking at the museum artefacts, the people came to life. When you look at the tricky fish hooks, serrated harpoons, the delicate jewellery and shell decorations for their clothes you feel a sense of connection to our ancestors. Homo sapiens man could reason and reflect, was capable of complicated behaviour, made music and, as he could express himself symbolically, was the “creator of humanity’s first art”.

On display were hollowed out stone gourds which archaeologists believe were lamps which the cave artists painted by in the dark recesses of the cave. There were explanations of how they made their paints – ochre made yellows reds and browns; manganese and charcoal made black; hermatite and quartz were crushed to make a deep red.    The very first “air brush” paintings, a technique still used by modern artists, were made by blowing paint through delicate bird bones.

When I left Altamira I was on a high and looking up imagined I could see prancing deer and a rabbit painted on the blue sky overhead.

My Altamira sky paintings

My Altamira sky paintings

Official information states that the cave is closed to the public but one of the museum staff told me that every Friday they hold a lottery to allow just five people to enter the real cave, dressed in special overalls, face masks, and shoe covers.   So I returned and tried my luck.

I did not win a place and, bitterly disappointed decided to take a walk in the nearby hills which look over the scenic Cantabrian countryside.   Resting eventually on a bench with a spectacular view I discovered again how, when alone, one notices more about the things around you – this time I became aware of how the lime-green leaves of the tree beside me prettily shimmered and flashed green then silver in the breeze.   So it was that when hearty old Alfredo came promenading along the path he found a crazy woman lying on her back on the bench taking photographs of the leaves overhead. He laughed jovially, said something, sat down and started our very agreeable encounter.

Alfredo's tree

Alfredo’s tree

Alfredo and I communicated through mime and my poor Spanish but we “talked” about many things. He was 73 and had lived in Santillana del Mar all this life. He pointed out his farm below where his wife was cooking dinner, and the house next door where his son and family lived. Alfredo had farmed the land around us all his life and indicated his cattle-grazing lands and barns. He was an intensely cheerful, chuckling person who made me laugh and who told me the secret to his long life was no alcohol, no cigarettes, and lots of exercise. A chubby man, he still walked miles in the hills every day. He gave off a deep sense of contentment with his life both past and present and there were moments where we were both content to sit in peaceful silence gazing at the view – the glorious benefit of having all the time in the world to do so.

We were eventually joined by another elderly gentleman, also taking his daily constitutional walk, and seeing him climbing the hill Alfredo cheekily communicated that he was a Grumpy Old Man. He was indeed.   Now, GOM may well have much to feel disgruntled about, I do not judge. But what I did perceive, sitting with him on my left and Alfredo on my right, was how much we affect others by our mood. We may think that our bad temper is private, our tetchiness internal, but in fact we invisibly emit that mood into the air around us, to be unconsciously imbibed by others. Though he was courteous, I recoiled from GOM’s tangibly negative disposition and was uplifted by Alfredo’s attitude and aura. When I left them Alfredo had GOM searching under a tree for mushrooms or some other delicacy.

Though Santillana is named “del Mar” it is not by the sea but is slightly inland, and attracts hordes of tourists all year round. It is a small, beautifully well-preserved, stone village dating from the middle ages. The cobbled main streets are filled with tasteful tourist shops, mostly selling products from the region, and excellent artists’ and craft shops. Though slightly “unreal” it is nonetheless picturesque and enjoyable to see, and if you take a walk to the outskirts you can find the genuine homes of its 4,000 or so inhabitants.

Artist 1

Santander building 1

Santillana town 2

The main street descends to a pretty square dominated by the golden collegiate church of Santa Juliana, before it an old covered lavoir, or lavadero, fed by a still fast-flowing underground spring, where people once collected water and washed their clothes.

The old "lavoir" wash house

The old lavoir wash house, el lavadero publico

The town grew up around Santa Juliana, hence its name. Its early origins were as a 9th century monastery, and later it became a church housing the supposed relics of Saint Juliana. Santa Juliana is such a beautiful yet simple building, with plain glass in its windows but inside it is full of breath-taking riches. Photography not being allowed, you will have to imagine all the treasures inside – the lavish golden religious artefacts and a huge silver embossed altarpiece from the 16th century.  If I was stunned by the surprises inside this small stone church, just imagine the awe poor people in the past must have felt when they entered to pay homage to Juliana’s bones.

The golden stone of Santa Juliana and the local Spanish beret worn by many locals.

The golden stone of Santa Juliana and the Spanish beret worn by many locals.

I was allowed to photograph the magnificent Romanesque cloisters outside the church. These are renowned for the varied sculptures on the capitals of their columns.   Greenery and flowers rambled over the arches and window openings making this a special and peaceful place to stroll around.  “Los claustros” were evidently inspired by Muslim architecture and symbolically represented the four corners of Paradise.

Cloisters 3


The varied styles of the column's capitals

The varied styles of the column’s capitals

Capitals 1

As I sat outside a café in the square sketching the church I opened my heart to another stranger. This time a young Polish pilgrim who was walking across Europe towards Santiago de Compostela, very slowly. He had been on the road for months and it would take him weeks more.  I would not normally have encouraged conversation with Oskar, he was dishevelled and rather odd, and I could see many people were wary of him at first. However, again, something about this Journey made me trust in the moment. He was inordinately blissful and full of stories about his pilgrimage and how it was changing his life fundamentally for the better.  We talked for quite a while and he brought me joy.   He had with him a bubble gadget with which he sometimes performed to get money from the public, but that day he made bubbles just for fun, with no collection hat, just to bring happiness to the people around who all responded cheerfully to his infectious pleasure.

A bubble hovers over the church

A gigantic bubble hovers over the church

All along the north coast surrounding Santillana Del Mar are pretty little seaside villages.  I found those I visited haunted by ghosts of summer past and all packed up for winter, which made me feel lonely. At Suances a dramatic half-man half-hole statue looked out to sea from a clifftop.

The half-man statue at Suances

The half-man statue at Suances


There are many treasures in Cantabria with its 200 kilometres of coastline – monasteries, palaces, natural parks, magnificent cavern networks, fishing villages and surfing beaches. One could spend months exploring this splendid province alone. In Santillana Del Mar there is a surprisingly well stocked zoo, and though I was thrilled to see the tigers and snow leopards it also saddened me to see such specimens in captivity. I was almost the only visitor and a keeper let me accompany him at feeding time, when the big cats became ferocious and riled when they saw him coming with his wheelbarrow of meat, quite a spectacle.


Tiger pair

The charming butterfly house made me feel less guilt-ridden and in the aquarium I was not sure who was observing whom.
My fish friends 1

Butterfly 2

Butterfly 1

One day I took a local bus to stylish Santander – the sophisticated main town of Cantabria. Santander is spacious and light, with wide palm tree-lined streets and arresting buildings.



Santander & statue

Stylish door

My favourite building by far was the imposing tall, white Bank of Santander which dominates the open seafront and quay area.

The Bank of Santander

The Bank of Santander


Classy Santander is a chic shopping town, and is home to the Cantabrian parliament and University, but it also has beautiful beaches tucked around the coast and is a member of “The Most Beautiful Bays in the World Club”. It therefore receives many tourists in summer – despite its typical Costa Verde year-round humidity level of over 90%. It was once the favourite holiday destination of the Spanish Royal Family and high society and one can see the Magdelena Royal Palace standing to attention on the headland.

Like Santillana del Mar, Santander is on El Camino de Santiago and there were signs of this everywhere, reminding me that as I continue on this special path I am learning new ways of being, including, as here, to open my heart more to strangers in order to receive the hidden gifts they may bring.

– + –

Camino 1

Street sign

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