Altamira – an old dream of mine comes true

On Tuesday, 7th of May, we visit Altamira and the medieval town of Santillana del Mar.


The caves of Altamira – an old dream of mine comes true

When I was a child, I read the book about how the caves of Lascaux in France were discovered: Some children walked with their dog in the valley of the river Vézère in the Périgord. The dog disappeared all of a sudden. It had fallen into a hole that turned out to be the cave of Lascaux with the beautiful prehistorian paintings. The book then talked about Altamira that had been discovered earlier, in the late 19th century. I had seen the caves of Lascaux some 30 years ago (the copy) and I had always wished to see the caves of Altamira. Now I am here. My dream has come true. Oh yes, I know, what I see is a copy, but a well made copy. The bisons seem to look at me with their eyes wide open.

The prehistorian artists made use of the natural forms of the rock to place their animals. This one has been hit by arrows.

And this is another bison – just amazing.

An excellent museum is attached to the reproduction of the cave. The map shows the occurrence of prehistoric paintings in Europe, and such paintings have been found all over the continents (not only in Europe), as another map explains.

This was a wonderful experience and it would be wonderful with children, as there are many videos and animations that explain the history.


Strolling through medieval Santillana del Mar

Our Dumont announces Santillana del Mar as a medieval small town with palaces that have been built by “Indians” or Spaniards after having returned wealthy from the Americas. The Palacio de los Velarde is one example.

The palaces are decorated with coats of arms. 

Between the medieval buildings, there is the laundry house, and in the bar to the left, we have a zumo de naranja (an orange juice).

Santillana del Mar is pretty – I can understand Sartre who said that this is the most beautiful town of Spain. But that was at the time, when Sartre lived. The town is still pretty with all the houses perfectly renovated… but it is almost “too” pretty: Too many souvenir shops, too many bars, too many restaurants and too many hotels. The town just seems to live for and from tourists.

In the shops we learn about local products such as the quesado (a cheese casserole)…

or soboa (similar to our Madeleine). In a somewhat “normal” shop, I buy a sausage of jabalí (wild boar).

The Romanesque church of Santillana was built in the 11th century. It is dedicated to Santa Juliana. In Roman times, Juliana’s father found a husband for his daughter, but she had become Christian ad did not want a non-Christian husband. For that, her father tortured and killed her. She is buried in the church. This is the main gate…

… and this is the choir.

We pay the entrance fee and enter the cloister. Ursula says, look here – uoarmmmm, look, George kills the dragon by penetrating it with his sword – right in the middle.

The interior of the church is sober.

The altar is of Isabelline style from around 1500. Isabelline is late Gothic at the transition to Renaissance.

“Look, this must be a modern antependium,” Ursula says. But no, the antependium is from the 11th century. Not modern at all. Well, it is not the first time that we thought a Romanesque sculpture to be modern – Romanesque art just holds for ever.

On the antependium, the second person from the left is Petrus with his key, the other half reliefs cannot be identified. The altar, the antependium and the martyrdom of Juliana are carefully documented in the church.


Santillana del Mar has a beautiful Plaza Mayor,…

… with two towers from the 14th century.

After three hours, we leave the pretty town that is full of tourists and souvenir shops. WeIl, we had expected more local shops and more local people here – this really looks like an open- air museum to us.


Evening meal

We return to our Casona de los Güelitos and enjoy a nice dinner. We do feel at home in this cosy house.

From Bilbao to Santillana del Mar

On Monday, May 6th, we travel from Bilbao to Santillana del Mar, along the coast.


From Bilbao along the Ría Bilbao to the sea

Our GPS takes us to the modern and well-kept residential area with apartment buildings on the right hand side of the Ría Bilboa. Soon, we reach Portugalete.

Ursula talks about crossing the Ría using a puente colgante with a cabin. I am a little worried: I see our Audi hang above the river. But then it is easy: The puente colgante is a ferry boat that works like the four Rhine ferries in Basel (a wooden boat is attached to a rope). This ferry is larger (for cars) and attached to a metallic rope that glides along an iron beam, the design of one of Eiffel’s pupils. The guard tells me strictly that I am not allowed to leave the car…

After having crossed the Ría, we continue north to Santurtzi, located at the sea. We park our car in a narrow parking house.

The sun makes the port sparkle, and in the background, I can see the Puente Colgante that we had used half an hour ago.

We continue crossing mountains and ugly beach resorts with beautiful sand beaches, until we reach Laredo. It is another old city center with another sandy beach and many more ugly apartment houses.

I am hungry. Heavy traffic here and not one single free parking lot. Finally, we find one single free slot right in front of a pintxo bar. We have some tapas, drink some water, and as we want to leave… we find our car locked behind two cars parked on my side. One driver sits in his car and leaves. The second driver is nowhere. Ursula contends that now it is possible to get out. I am not convinced. Maneuvering on to the sidewalk around a tree and a hydrant and with the help of Ursula, of two more men and one women showing to me, how close I am to all that, I finally get out – but I am not really amused. “Land und Leute” or “country and people”, Ursula says, shrugging her shoulder. Hmm. I am not against “Land und Leute”, but to my opinion, there are limits…

We take the motor way and, one hour later, we arrive in La Casona de los Güelitos in Santillana del Mar. I do feel at home in this quiet old country house that has been tastefully renovated.

The sun shines and after a short siesta we decide to visit the mountains south of Santillana. Ursula has selected Bárcena Mayor that is said to be a typical Cantabrian mountain village. Driving through smooth, green hills with pastures, we reach a large parking area. A signboard promises restaurants, shops, hotels and guest houses. We get to a well-kept pretty village with thriving flowers all over, but it is empty. Not one shop open, not one restaurant open, everything dead. Pretty, but empty on this Monday.

We leave this place and continue uphill, uphill, uphill. A gorgeous panorama here. Smooth hills, green pastures with cattle – cows of all colours, goat and sheep.

After the Puerto de Palombera on 1250 above sea level, we reach a high plateau with the Alto Campo and the Pico Tres Mares behind us. The rivers that emerge here go either to the Atlantic in the north, to the Atlantic in the west or to the Mediterranean (hence tres mares). Signs point to the source of the Ebro. We find it, blue-green, in a lush forest.

It is a pozo (well) that emerges from the karst ground. The water comes from the creek El Hijar that originates at the sides of the Pico Tres Mares, disappears and appears again here, near Fontibre. The water is blue-green, due to the plaster, clay and limestone that the water picks up underground before emerging. This is one of several wells of the Ebro, there are more that have the label “source of the Ebro”.

What starts here as a small creek, flows through Spain – 910 km – ending in the Ebro Delta with its abundant bird life and rice fields (photo taken in November 2018).

We return to our Casa de Güelitos to have dinner in the small restaurant. I have three kinds of cheese from Cantabria, a solomillo and a glass of Rioja tinto.

We sleep well in our quiet guest house. In the morning, I can hear a cock crow.