On Spain’s northern coast, sandwiched between Asturias and the Basque Country, is a little slice of land that makes up the province of Cantabria. Like the rest of Spain’s northern coast, influenced by the Oceanic climate blowing down from the Bay of Biscay, it is a lush and verdant region that gets plenty of rain. Though somewhat less popular as a tourist destination than its neighboring provinces, the region’s capital, Santander, is widely recognized for the eponymous international bank, Banco Santander—Spain’s biggest bank and second-largest company.
And it seems that the capital is bound to receive new visitors, thanks in part to the recently opened Botín Center. This building takes its name from the family that owns the bank (and who financed the project), and is designed to rival the Guggenheim in Bilbao, just a couple hours east by car. Like that Basque museum, designed by Frank Gehry, the Botín Center is a museum of modern art housed in a striking modern edifice, in this case designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano. I happened to visit Santander in April of 2017, when the building was complete but had yet to open its doors to the public. From the outside the museum looks like an alien spacecraft which has been neatly bifurcated. It is in a beautiful area, right on the water, a fact which has irritated some local critics, but which undoubtedly adds to its charm. Though I haven’t been inside, I read online that there is a room dedicated to drawings by Goya (on loan from the Prado) and another room dedicated to installations by contemporary artists. I hope to visit someday.
This center—looking incongruously futuristic against the serene waters of the bay, surrounded by fishermen—was, by chance, one of my first glimpses of the city. My Blablacar driver had dropped me off nearby. I was, as usual, disoriented and ragged, from having gotten up so early; and I still had several hours to kill before I could drop off my bag at my Airbnb. So I had little choice but to trek heavily around the city for several hours.
Santander is a maritime city, perched on a peninsula wrapped around a beautiful bay. The walk along the water is wonderfully picturesque, with stately building on one side and green mountains across the blue water—and it was especially nice since, when I visited, the sidewalk was the site of a street fair. Proceeding upwards this way, I walked by the memorable Palacio de Festivales, a municipal event space, and then the Maritime Museum, which has an aquarium and some impressive fishy fossils on display. I also saw the monument to the raqueros, or beachcombers, a whimsical group of faceless statues about to dive into the water. Continuing onwards, I got to the end of the peninsula, which consists of a lovely park area. There were several families having a picnic, and I am sure I looked fairly ridiculous as I strode by with my disheveled grey hoodie and my bulging green suitcase.
Walking on in this tiresome manner, I got to the Palacio de la Magdalena, Santander’s royal residence. This was actually built by popular subscription (the royal family was more popular in those days) and gifted to the king, in 1911. The royals did not have very many years to enjoy it, however, since the Second Spanish Republic (1931) and then the Civil War (1936) put an end to their annual peregrinations. The palace is built in a gaudy eclectic style, heavily indebted to the English; but it has an undeniably nice view of the sea. Nowadays it is used for conferences and suchlike things. Looking out from the tip of the peninsula, I saw the azure bay filled with little sailboats. My Santanderino friend, who himself has a sailing permit, informs me that this maritime pastime is very popular in the city. Certainly it is a good place for it.
As I walked on westward, more and more of the Cantabrian coast opened up into view, a rugged rocky coast bathed by serene waves (though I am sure it gets rather stormy sometimes). I walked by an open-air museum, grandly named the Museum of Man and the Sea, but which consists of three reconstructions of old galleons. I believe they were meant to represent the three ships which sailed with Columbus to the New World, the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María, though to my eyes they looked too small. A little further I encountered an open-air zoo, with walkways overlooking a pool in which seals were restlessly swimming.
Finally I reached Santander’s major beach: the Sardinero. This is about as nice a beach as anyone can ask for: with golden sand and ample space. Hotels and restaurants hemm in the coast, of course, while sailboats float out in the distance. In the summer I imagine the place is crawling with people; but when I arrived, a few months before proper swimming weather, the beach was charmingly empty, even peaceful. Looking back from the beach toward the palace, I was struck by how jagged and natural the coast appeared, despite being in the center of a city.
Now it was time to drop off my things. As usual, I had booked the cheapest Airbnb I could find, which was far outside the city center, deep in the industrial part of the city. Also as usual, I did not want to pay for a cab. So I walked an hour and a half, through the city, under the sun, sweating and stumbling, across highways and past strip malls, until finally reaching my destination. By saving money, I also stay thin.
Returning to the city was far less painful, not only because I wasn’t dragging around my bag, but also because my Airbnb host told me which bus to take. Thus in less than half an hour I was back in the center, ready to see more.
Though Santander’s history stretches back to medieval times—its position on the bay is a natural spot for settlements—the visitor will not notice any of the chaotic, jumbled, narrow streets characteristic of old cities. This is largely due to the great fire of 1941, which destroyed most of the old center and left thousands homeless. The conflagration occurred during the lean years following the Spanish Civil War, when the resultant poverty occasioned many accidents around the country. As a result of this catastrophe, the center is crisscrossed with wide, perpendicular streets and full of modern buildings. There is a monument to the blaze—several human figures, looking hopeless and lost—in the park near the Botín Center.
One of the buildings damaged in the blaze was Santander’s medieval Cathedral. What stands today is largely a reconstruction. The cathedral struck me as rather odd, with its stark, white exterior almost wholly devoid of ornament. To go inside one must climb a flight of stairs, for the cathedral is not level with the street. I remember going through one door, only to find it full of a congregation midway through mass. This was the crypt, which is used as an independent church, La Iglesia del Cristo. The cathedral stands on top of this crypt-church; this is why the space is so claustrophobic and full of thick supports. Though finely vaulted, the cathedral’s interior was not any more richly adorned than its exterior. I admit that I left the building feeling rather baffled, since at the time I did not know that the original church had mostly burned down, or that there were two separate churches in the same building.
Quite nearby is the original building of Banco Santander, a stately edifice that projects conservative dignity, very appropriate for a bank. You can pass through the central arch of this building to the other side, and then make your way to the Pedro Velarde Square. The plaza was named after a Spanish soldier who was involved in the much-mythologized uprising of May 2nd against Napoleon’s invading troops (a scene immortalized by Goya). A statue of this fierce patriot stands guard over the entrance to the square. The plaza is surrounded by a uniform row of attractive apartment buildings, much like the Plaza Mayor in Salamanca, making it an excellent spot for photos. I should also note that there are many fine restaurants nearby.
One of the city’s most intriguing sites is right next to this plaza, the air raid shelter, or refugio antiaéreo. As one might expect, this is not very conspicuous from the street, merely consisting of a stairwell. I was fortunate in being able to visit, since you normally need to reserve a spot in advance, and I had not done so. What is more, all visits to the tunnels are guided, which meant I would have to hitch a spot with another group. But by chance, as I approached the entrance to the shelter, another visiting couple (from Madrid) was inquiring about tours, too, so I was able to join theirs. Being a third wheel has seldom proven so educational.
The shelter was built during the Spanish Civil War. Though Santander was not of paramount strategic importance and was not the scene of major fighting, the city was nevertheless the target of bombing raids by the fascist forces. In Madrid, metro stations were refitted to be used as bomb shelters; but lacking a metro system, the people of Santander had to build shelters from scratch—and quickly. This shelter is not very big (maybe 100 people could have squeezed into it, briefly) and consisted of several interconnected concrete passageways. Our tour guide gave us some of the context of the war and the history of the tunnel’s construction. There were a few video clips, examples of uniforms worn by the fascist (many of them Germans) and Republican pilots, and sound clips designed to reproduce the feeling of being underground during a bombing. Although the shelter did not get much use, since Santander was taken by Franco’s forces fairly early on during the war, it remains a moving artifact of the new horrors of aerial warfare, dropping death indiscriminately on enemy cities—something the world had never seen before.
After this, I decided to visit the Prehistory and Archaeology Museum of Cantabria, which is just down the road from the shelter. This was good to save for last, since it is open quite late—until 8 pm during the summer. Here I found myself descending underground once again, for the museum’s collection is below street level. Intentionally or not, the sun-less, cave-like interior of the museum adds to the evocative power of its exhibitions about early humans. I was in the right mindset to learn about stone tools and extinct bears. Even so, I did not expect to encounter such a fine museum. Somehow, I imagined that it would be mainly geared towards children; yet within minutes I was spellbound by the quality of the displays. It is superbly made.
Admittedly I was predisposed to be interested, since I studied archaeology in college and even tried my hand at making stone tools once. Even so, I think anyone can appreciate the scope of information and the skill in presentation to be found there. On display are hundreds of stone tools—choppers, knives, arrowheads—arranged chronologically, showing the increasing sophistication of human ancestors over time. There are also recreations of tools made from wood and antler (which normally do not survive the ages), accompanied by videos of people making and even using these tools. This was not all. There was a recreation of a shellfish midden, a refuse pile left by generations of ancient shellfish-eaters; there were fossils of extinct animals, many of them massive; there were stone megaliths covered with decorative carvings; and there were even some Roman artifacts. When I visited I was the only person there, and stayed until it closed. It was an enchanting experience.
Though this did not happen on the same day, for the sake of continuity I will mention my visit to the Hermitage of La Virgen del Mar. This is quite far from the city; I was only able to visit thanks to my aforementioned Santanderino, who kindly drove me there. The building of the hermitage itself is quite bare and basic. But its location, like that of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, is exquisite, standing atop an island (very close to shore) next to a rocky, windswept beach. It is a gorgeous, romantic place that preserves its peaceful, natural beauty, despite the constant trickle of tourists.
This fairly does it for my time in Santander. I was dividing my limited time—a single weekend—between this city and Altamira (which I will describe next), so I did not get to know Santander as well as I should have liked. Even so, I was left with fond memories. Both the city itself and its location on the shore make it one of the great cities of northern Spain, reminding me most nearly of La Coruña in Galicia—one of my favorite places in the country. The rugged coast, oceanic weather, attractive center, and cultural monuments make the city one more delightful stopping-place in the Spanish panorama. And as you will shortly see, Cantabria has much more to offer.
The cave paintings of Altamira are perhaps only behind those of Lascaux in renown. Luckily, the site of their discovery is quite close to Santander, making it an easy daytrip. In a car the trip is around half an hour. And there are fairly frequent buses (every two hours) that run from the city center to town nearest the caves, Santillana del Mar.
I arrived in this town on a Saturday morning, shivering with excitement. Ever since I saw Werner Herzog’s transfixing documentary on the caves of Lascaux—Cave of Forgotten Dreams—I have been fascinated by the artistic power of our early ancestors. As a child I wondered at the enormous antiquity of the artifacts from Egypt in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yet the span of time between us and the people who painted these caves is far vaster. That an image created from a human hand could survive so many years—that it could speak to us from an age when strange extinct animals roamed the earth, when the stars in the sky were shifted, when the climate was altered and cold winds blew down from nearby glaciers—and not only speak to us, but entrance us with its beauty—it seemed too miraculous to believe. And thus it seemed even more stupendous that I could, with my own eyes, witness this temporal miracle.
I should stop my melodrama to note at this point that I was not going to see the actual paintings. These are much too precious and delicate to be casually seen by the general public. The organization has a lottery that they hold on Fridays in the museum, to select five lucky people to visit the caves. Since I was visiting on a Saturday, this left me with scant hope. But after closing the caves to public visits in 2002, the authorities have constructed a replica (called the “neocueva,” or “neo-cave”) that can be visited freely. This is what I was going to see.
The bus dropped me off in the center of town. I had bought my ticket ahead, which had a timed entrance to see the neo-cave. (Because of restricted space, smallish groups are allowed in at staggered times.) My entrance was in less than an hour, so I had little time to spare. Without pausing to catch a glimpse of the town, I strode out into the countryside towards the hill of Altamira. Even through my anxiety and morbid determination, however, I could not help noticing that the countryside was absolutely lovely. Gentle rolling hills, green with grass, dotted with trees, crisscrossed with plots of farmland, spread out ahead of me. White mist clung to the distance, as black-and-white cows grazed before a lonely church; and to my right were the tiled roofs of Santillana del Mar. Spain has seemingly boundless reserves of beauty.
I arrived at the museum with 20 minutes to spare (of course). This was hardly a problem, since the neo-cave comprises only a part of the display. There are dioramas of ancient peoples, skulls of ancestral species, piles of stone tools, and smaller replicas of cave art. Not bad for three euros—a modest price which includes the neo-cave, too. I particularly liked the examples of shapes made on the cave wall by blowing pigment against a hand, thus creating a reverse hand-print. There is something elemental about this gesture, allowing us to shake hands with someone from a different epoch. Perhaps all culture is rooted in the attempt to cheat death—sometimes literally, as with weapons and medicine, and sometimes figuratively, as with art. These cave-dwellers lived short and difficult lives compared to us; but will we leave any art that survives half so long?
Finally it was time for me to visit the neo-cave. I joined a small group of waiting tourists, while a placid employee scanned our tickets. Finally, like the heavy gates to an ancient city, the doors of the neo-cave slid open. I could scarcely have been more excited if the caves had been real.
A single footpath leads down through the neo-cave, into the main chamber, and out again. Some introductory panels of information are posted along the way; and a glass screen projects a cave-dwelling family into the artificial cave—the Jetsons meet the Flintstones. All of this is got through in five minutes. The rest of the time is spent gazing up at the ceiling of the main chamber. Photos are not allowed, which is likely a good thing, since the combination of lighting, angle, and surface texture would make it difficult to capture the chamber. In any case, the paintings are reproductions anyway, so why reproduce them once over?
The main chamber consists of a roughly square space with a low, uneven ceiling, which has been covered with paintings. Most of these consist of hooved animals, most prominently bison. These are executed using charcoal and red ochre. The round bodies of the bison crowd around each other, sometimes overlapping, and conform to the bumpy, bulging surface of the cave. As a rough estimate, the average size of these figures is three feet across; and there must be several dozen individual figures. As is inevitable with prehistoric art, many mysteries remain as to the origin and function of these paintings. We know that they were completed during the last ice age, before the cave was sealed by a rockslide 13,000 years ago; but beyond that there is a wide range of possible dates. We may safely surmise that the bison were prey animals, and tentatively guess that these paintings were involved in some kind of ritual to ensure plentiful food. But we do not know if they were painted all at once—perhaps by a few brilliant painters—or over the course of generations, perhaps even used successively by distinct cultural groups. However we may guess, we do not know what these paintings meant to their creators. We cannot even rule out the possibility that they were made by neanderthals, not humans.
The neo-cave is lit up by discrete LED lights in the built into the floors, walls, and ceilings. It is tastefully done; but no electric light can replicate how these caves must have looked when seen by firelight. In the weak, quivering glow of the flames, these bison may have been terrifying apparitions, seeming to run and dance in the unsteady light. Given the location of these paintings and the light-sources available to people at the times, it seems unlikely that the creators saw them the way that we are inclined to: as works of visual art, to be contemplated for their great aesthetic beauty. But that does not mean that we are not free to view them this way. The bison are somehow both stylized and realistic. They represent the lumbering form of the animal—powerful, meaty, muscular—with relatively few, bold strokes, reducing the animals to their most essential features. Yet this does not render them to caricature, but turns them into elemental monsters, like fire or rain. Clearly these artists had carefully observed real bison, and fully understood the animals’ essential role in their survival.
After I emerged from the neo-cave, blinking and exhausted, I was left with that sense of empty purposelessness that accompanies the doing of any long-awaited thing. Now what? I strolled around the museum some more, but I had already had my fill of prehistory museums in Santander. Then the idea struck me to see if I could find the entrance of the cave.
This is very easy to do, for the cave stands within five minutes of the museum compound. You cannot get very close, since it is closed off with an ample fence (I bet vandals and thrill-seekers occasionally try to break in); and in any case, there is not much to see, just a little doorway covered with a barred gate. It was hard to believe that beyond that small portal lay one of the most remarkable finds in the history of art.
After being sealed by a rockslide around 13,000 years ago, the cave became a natural time capsule. Apparently the cave’s entrance had become revealed by the 19th century, since by then it was visited by locals. One of these locals was Marcellino Sanz de Sautuola, a well-to-do Spaniard who both happened to own the land and have an interest in archaeology—a fortunate coincidence. After being led into the cave by his young daughter and realizing the importance of the paintings, Sautuolo cooperated on the original publication announcing their existence. Sadly, academics dismissed his claim of the paintings’ great antiquity, and he died before the truth was realized—an unfortunate coincidence.
Now I was absolutely famished, so I descended the Altamira hill back to Santillana del Mar, once more passing through the delicious countryside. Contrary to what you might expect, Santillana del Mar is not actually on the sea, only somewhat near it (15 minutes by car). I had assumed that there was another Santillana somewhere in Spain, but I cannot find any, which leaves me wondering why they thought it necessary to add “del Mar” to their name. In any case, this pueblo is routinely included in lists of beautiful Spanish villages, and for good reason. Long before the Altamira caves were discovered, it was a stopping point on the Camino de Santiago, which meant that a fair amount of monied pilgrims travelled through these streets. The result is an extremely handsome village, well worth visiting even if you do not, for some insane reason, visit the Altamira site.
For lunch, I went to a restaurant whose name I unfortunately did not write down. It was one of the best meals I have had in Spain. I sat on a balcony overlooking some of the surrounding countryside, drinking an ice-cold red wine, with a brash, fruity flavor. Because I was alone, and had ordered the daily menu, they gave me a full bottle of wine all to myself (which I mercifully decided not to finish). For the main course I was served cocido montañés, the typical stew of Cantabria. Now, many regions of Spain have their own type of stew; and they are all broadly similar, consisting of beans and cured meat. This particular variety is made with white beans and collard greens, making it somewhat lighter than other cocidos. With wine, cocido, a salad, and a slice of cake in my belly, I waddled back to the bus stop to return to Santander.
I left Cantabria thinking of the mysterious power of shelter. The cramped church underneath the cathedral, the air raid shelter underneath the street, and the caves of Altamira—all of them created a similar emotional atmosphere, at once safe and unsafe. These spaces protect us from what is outside; and yet the claustrophobic darkness within is unnerving, and even frightening. A Jungian might say the visitor delves into a deeper layer of the unconscious, while a Freudian might be content by pointing out that caves remind us of a mother’s womb. Leaving psychoanalyzing to one side, I will only point out that, thousands of years ago, our ancestors were driven into caves to hide from the elements and to make contact with spirits; and now, thousands of years later, we are making caves for the same reasons—to hide and to pray.
[See real cave entrance, story of their discovery, eating in town