The Caves of Altamira and Santillana del Mar – Cantabria, Spain

Fragile and Invaluable Link to the Ice Age

Forbidden to all but a chosen few, the Caves of Altamira (las Cuevas de Altamira) are often described as the Sistine Chapel of prehistoric art. Together with Lascaux Cave in France (also closed except by special permission), they contain the best Upper Paleolithic cave paintings in Europe.

Discovered in perfect condition by a local hunter in 1879, the red-and-black bison, bulls, horses, and boars demonstrate early man’s love of beauty and astonishing artistic skill. The cave paintings date back to between 20,000 and 15,000 B.C and range from 4 to 8 feet high.

Unfortunately, a century’s worth of tourism has resulted in serious bacteria-caused deteriora­tion, and the number of visitors has been drastically curtailed. Twenty to twenty-five people are allowed to enter each day, and pref­erence is given to those with legitimate scholarly interests.

For flexible travelers plan­ning a trip to Spain a year in advance, a fax to the local museum and a lot of patience may result in the coveted letter of admission that will allow you into the cave. A remarkable replica cave next door re-creates the same set­ting and paintings (including before-and-after photos that show the damage done), but lacks some of the excitement of the real thing.

In town, you can still capture the medieval spirit of Santillana del Mar’s small cluster of per­fectly preserved mansions and palaces. Jean-Paul Sartre called it “the prettiest little village in Spain.” Despite its name, Santillana del Mar lies 3 miles inland from the sea. This rural com­munity does not live by tourism alone.

Local dairy farmers sell fresh milk and cheese from their stable doors. Stroll through town to the 12th-century church of St. Juliana, the burial place of the 3rd-century martyred saint. Over time her name was corrupted and transformed to Santillana. At the other end of the main street is the 400-year-old Convent of the Poor Clares, whose museum contains a surprisingly rich assemblage of religious paintings and statues.

If you’ve fallen under the spell of this tiny town, end your stroll at the Plaza de Ramon Pelayo, where the Parador Santillana Gil Bias has been created within the elegant but coun­trified 17th-century ancestral residence of a local family. A more recently built and less expensive annex absorbs the overflow of guests. A visit to Santillana is incomplete if there’s no room at this inn.

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