Santillana del Mar is a confusing town, not least in the fact that its name derives from the words Saint (Santo), flat (llana) and sea (Mar). It is certainly not a saint, the land it lies upon is actually ratyher hilly and it’s not even that close to the sea, which is some 3 kms away. However, it has always been a popular stop on the pilgrim route and became a major tourist destination due to the discovery in 1879 of some caves featuring Neolithic artwork from as far back as 16,000 BC.
The Altamira cave network is about 300m in length and contains many figures of animals and hand prints created using a variety of techniques from engraving, black charcoal drawing and painting with red ochre sediment. Even more incredible is the use of the natural formation of the cave ceiling to create 3D figures and utilizing holes and fissures in the rock as features in the artwork.
Sadly, the popularity of the site led to its deterioration. During the 1970s thousands of visitors passed through the caves which had been modified to improve their viewing. Paths were made, electric lights were introduced and in some areas, timbers were installed to support the cave ceiling. The impact of the heat, increased CO2 and micro-organisms from the wood resulted in irreversible damage to the artwork. A decision was made to close the cave in order to protect it but having been added to the UNESCO world heritage list in 1985 it was deemed necessary to provide the public with a “New” cave. So, it is this replica of the Altamira cave which I am visiting on a cold December day. Bizarrely, it is a guided visit and I am encouraged by the fact that the guide is wearing a padded jacket – perhaps it is more authentic than I imagine. Sadly, I’m disappointed. Video information boards and modern visual effects try to recreate the atmosphere of Neolithic life and the paintings are over illuminated. Add to that the incredible speed at which the guide gives information in Spanish and I’m completely lost. The museum area makes up in some way, providing an informative overview (in English) of these early artists, their lives and the tools of their trade. However, I can’t help feeling cheated by the whole experience.
The following day I drive up into the Cantabrian Mountains to the village of Puente Viesgo where loud explosions signal that a fiesta is underway. But I’m not here for a party. High up above the village, deep in the mountain peak, is the cave of El Castillo. Like Altamira, it contains intricate Neolithic art, but this cave is still open to the public, though visitor numbers are limited. However, at this time of year it is deserted and I’m the only client for the 13.15 tour. While I wait for the guide at the entrance to the cave, I can feel my excitement rising. I’m cold and damp and about to enter a real cave and see real Neolithic art with my own eyes.
The tour is again in Spanish but Jose speaks slowly and chooses his words carefully so that I can easily understand him. Using lamps and a laser pointer he helps me to discover and identify the paintings – bison, horses, a deer, as well as a myriad of hand prints created by blowing the ochre dye through a pipe across a hand placed on the wall. ‘It takes two people to make this hand print.’ Jose tells me. ‘One to place his hand on the wall, and another to blow the paint.’ He also informs me that most of the hand prints are of the left hand and that these are the oldest form of art in the cave because some are superseded by parts of the animal paintings. I am amazed at how clever these Neolithic artists were but my credulity is stretched when Jose tries to show me a half-animal, half-human statue whose shadow is superimposed onto part of a wall painting. Also the scratches in the walls that have been made by a Neolithic hibernating cave bear. I’m sure that when you’ve spent as much time in the cave as Jose has, you could see just about anything with a little imagination, but it certainly makes the tour interesting. We emerge into daylight over an hour later and I’m so delighted with the experience that I want to jump up and down and shout about it. Instead I vigorously shake Jose’s hand and grin like a Cheshire cat.
My two days in the caves leaves me with a lot of questions. Why did the Neolithic men paint in the caves? Was it a kind of spiritual devotion, communication with future generations and other clans, or just a way to pass the time during rainy days? Another conundrum is whether these caves should be closed to the public and resealed to preserve them for future generations and replaced with replicas for educational purposes. I can appreciate the argument for this but Altamira proves that it is impossible to recreate the true atmosphere of the caves and the anticipation of the discovery within them. Perhaps visits should be limited and controlled, like the path to Machu Pichu in Peru or visiting the gorillas in Uganda.
One thing I know for sure is that unless we respect the delicate balance between tourism and conservation we will lose these treasures forever.
Footnote: Both the museum in Altamira and the caves of El Castillo cost €3 to visit and can be reached easily from Santander.