The neolithic rock art found in the caves of Altamira in northern Spain's Cantabria region has inspired song-writers, artists and poets for many years. Isn't it time it inspired you?
I was eight, in a darkened bedroom and quietly drawing by torchlight the figure of an animal on the clean white wall. Suddenly, the lights came on and my experiment with cave art came to a swift but raucous conclusion. Dropping the tools of my endeavours, I desperately tried to explain, then pointed dumbly to the picture of a charging bison in the open pages of a magazine lying by my side. But my mother was having none of it. She was not familiar with the legendary caves of Altamira, with their magnificent and ancient wall paintings, or if she was, now was not the time to discuss their artistic merits. I felt truly hard done by as I scrubbed my efforts from the wall and wondered if some young boy in Altamira had suffered the same tribulations for his art, a very long time ago.
Almost 40 years later, I stepped out of the bright Spanish sunshine and in to a darkened room where before me I saw that very same bison that had charged from the pages of my childhood. It was obvious the creator’s mother had been an ardent admirer of her offspring’s work. Either that or she was not overly concerned about the pristine condition of her cave’s walls.
Altamira has been on my imaginary must-see list for as long as I can remember. And so, in mid-September, I arrived in the Galician city of pilgrims, Santiago de Compostela and started my own pilgrimage in reverse. Accompanied by my partner – a native Galician – we drove first south to her home, through a countryside resembling rural Ireland (but with vineyards and blue skies), where we said hasty hellos and goodbyes before setting off to the east through the flat lands of old Castile and Léon and north to Santander, the staging point for Altamira.
Santander, embracing a wide, crescent-shaped bay, arrives as a welcome surprise - a Spanish holiday resort left over from a belle époque when royalty took the sea air and nobility strolled the city beaches of El Sardinero. Balconied and brilliant white hotels line the promenade, and flags flutter in the breeze from the elegant dome of the casino. After hours on hot sun-baked roads, this was just the tonic.
One street back from the sea, the classical charm of the old-world Hostal Paris – run by six generations of one family – offered a double room with breakfast for €95. The rooms have high spacious ceilings and are dressed tastefully with antique cane furniture accentuating their lightness. An elderly countess sitting with her embroidery and chaperoning a fair-skinned debutante in the downstairs drawing room would not have seemed at all out of place here.
Once refreshed, hunger drew us towards the old city centre and its narrow back streets, where we were spoiled for choice. Tapas bars were everywhere. But some valuable research singled out one in particular: El Diluvio, a hostelry on a street named General Mola and frequented by locals. After sampling a medley of their mouthwatering tapas and pinchos, I understood why.
Jamon Iberico cut with the precision of a surgeon, anchovies, seafood salads and tiny rounds of black pudding topped with even tinier fried quail eggs were all washed down with brimming glasses of local wines (the deluge referred to in the bar's name, I guessed) for less than the €8.95 I had paid for a sandwich in Dublin airport.
You can easily spend an evening (or a week of evenings for that matter) hopping from tapas bar to tapas bar, sampling the inventiveness of their kitchen staff, and getting quite drunk in the practice. But Santander was not the purpose of my journey, and early next morning, after a light breakfast in the grand and airy dining room of the hotel, we left this delightful city with a promise to return and do it serious justice another time.
At last I was on my way to the caves of Altamira.The caves - or, to give them their correct modern-day title, The National Museum and Research Centre of Altamira - stand on a hillside in rural Cantabria, 30km west of Santander. To the north, the land slopes easily down past the butter-coloured stone houses and museums of Santillana del Mar (described by Jean-Paul Sartre as “the most beautiful village in Spain”), over rolling countryside where buff-coloured cattle graze on fragrant grasses, their bells tinkling in the light breeze, and on towards the long sandy beaches of Comillas and St Vincente de la Barquera. To the south, the landscape gathers momentum, culminating in the mountains of the Reserva Nacional de Saja and further again to the towering spires of the Picos de Europa, a nature-lover’s paradise where the skies are filled with birds of prey and the forests run with deer and wild pig. And over the rise, just out of sight to the east from where we had come, lies that sparkling seaside jewel of Santander. For the sheer diversity of landscape, I could see the attraction that drew the ancients and the tourists of today to such a place as Altamira.
In 1879, one Marcelino Salz de Sautuola, a learned man with an inquisitive mind who lived close to Altamira, was exploring a cave with his young daughter when she uttered the now famous words “Mira papa, bueyes!” (“Look father, oxen!”), and so it was that the caves of Altamira were rediscovered, having gone unseen for millennia. Sautuola published his findings but was scoffed at and ridiculed by his peers. In 1888, dejected by disbelief, he died a broken man. It wasn’t until the discovery of a group of caves in France’s Dordogne region some years later, containing similar paintings to those found by Sautuola, that his discovery was given credence and a public apology made posthumously. For all the good that did him.
Now, where I stood on the site of his discovery, there is an institution dedicated to the study and conservation of one of the world’s greatest treasures. Scientists from the around the globe pore over the paintings of bison, stag, horses, wild pig and cryptic ladder-like designs, which so far have puzzled their armies of researchers. Including Altamira, Cantabria is home to over 50 such sites featuring cave art, one of the densest concentrations in the whole world and a Mecca for specialists in palaeolithic studies.
To preserve the cave’s paintings from literally being erased by the breath of its visitors, an exact replica, down to the cracks and fissures of the rock, has been painstakingly recreated. The building that houses this modern miracle – the Neo Cave – slinks on the horizon and barely creates a blemish on the landscape. Here, visitors like me can stand and wonder at the lives of those who created such masterpieces, and explore their culture, beliefs, tools and weapons. Their lives and deaths. The animals they relied upon for food and warmth. The music they made. Their social groupings. Even the ongoing work of the forensic anthropologists who investigate the site is available to all (in both English and Spanish).
There are exciting workshops for children and adults, exploring the everyday activities of the cave-dwellers - hunting skills, fire-making, prehistoric rhythms, the manufacture of clothing and, most of all, how the paintings were created, so lovingly and so long ago. But Altamira is not a stuffy place of learning and academics; at least it wasn’t for me. It is also a place of inspiration and amazement, the home of true artistic process, “art for art’s sake”. As Picasso allegedly said, “after Altamira everything else is just frivolity”. And as I looked at those paintings suspended in time, I believe I understood just what he meant.
After I had finally witnessed the object of my pilgrimage and sat in silent contemplation in the museum’s restaurant, I watched a group of children busy in a workshop as they drew pictures of animals on sheets of crisp white paper, and as I did so, that day in my bedroom, a day that had escaped me for many years, came flooding back like a long forgotten dream.