Travel

Spain: In the art of ancient caves, a universal language is found

Exploring Cueva de El Castillo (Cave of the Castle) by flashlight.
Exploring Cueva de El Castillo (Cave of the Castle) by flashlight. Government of Cantabria

The Spanish guide unlocked the gate in the stone wall and pointed the way with a flashlight. Though it was a hot, dry summer day, we were entering a world where ice once enveloped the land and long-extinct beasts roamed the forests. And there, just a few dozen yards away, was the evidence: the unmistakable image of a mammoth, about three feet across, outlined in red.

For 3 euros each, with 10 other visitors, we were visiting Cueva del Pindal, one of Spain’s foremost prehistoric cave sites. It’s on the northern coast, with the Cantabrian Sea crashing against the rocks a hundred yards away. We stepped through the metal gate into a dark, damp, chilly cavern more than three football fields long.

A short walk from the mammoth were half a dozen well-drawn paintings of deer, horses, bison and a fish. There were also bunches of vertical lines and dots, perhaps denoting the passage of time but whose significance is still being debated by experts and may never be known. They are thought to be 13,000 to 20,000 years old.

For aficionados of early human art like my husband and me, Spain may be the best destination in Europe — some say the world — to see all kinds of prehistoric art up close. Spain’s sites, scattered throughout the country, include dozens of dimly lit caves like this one, as well as hundreds of “abrigos,” or outdoor overhangs, where the images are still very bright.

“If you are interested in the very origins of artistic expression, this is where you need to be,” said Ian Tattersall, a specialist in Spanish cave art and a former curator at New York’s American Museum of Natural History.

“What is really cool about many of the Spanish caves is the fact that they cover a period of cave art not very common in France,” although that is where their name comes from. That would be the Solutrean period of more than 20,000 years ago, Tattersall said.

The oldest cave art in the world is thought to be in El Castillo, a popular Spanish cave an hour’s drive away near the town of Puente Viesgo, where there are outlines of human hands as well as images of animals.

The cave artists only occasionally drew human forms. Those are often simpler than the animal portraits: stick figures, mysterious symbols that may denote fertility. Or not.

“There is always an explanation du jour, and everybody has their own pet theory about this stuff,” Tattersall said. “It does beg to be explained, but we only know that these deep cave sites that are decorated were very special and meaningful places to the people who made them.”

Sometimes the artists were remarkably sophisticated, such as in Covalanas, in the Cantabrian region, where the artist was able to incorporate the curve of the stone to make it seem that the animals were running. These works combine sculpture and painting, alongside hand prints and dots.

Other caves in the north of Spain open to the public include Las Monedas, a short walk from El Castillo, with a dramatic black bison standing on its hind legs; and the more recently discovered El Pendo, less than 10 miles from the north coast city of Santander and the source of a number of impressive pieces of portable art now housed in the Santander regional museum. The cave itself bears a single panel of several beautifully painted deer.

The caves of Asturias and Cantabria that are open to the public admit a limited number of visitors daily, and only in small groups by reservation. Sturdy shoes are a must; if flashlights are required, the staff will provide them. Reservations can be made on the Internet or by calling the cave’s visitors office (knowing basic Spanish is helpful).

In almost every cave we visited, the universally enthusiastic guides spoke only Spanish, and often there are few, if any, brochures in English. Sometimes the guides knew English but were hesitant to use it; you can try asking questions in English if you can’t speak Spanish.

But the experience of the cave and the art, in reality, need no translation.

On a different trip across the province of Málaga, in southern Spain, we drove to the rural village of Benaojan, where a small sign directed us up a dirt road to La Pileta, one of the few privately owned, open-to-the-public caves with paintings in Spain.

We walked up a steep trail and stone steps that ended by the mouth of the cave. A roofed picnic area beside a small, unoccupied cabin provided shelter from the sun. Near 1 p.m., the time of our tour, the cave’s iron door opened; a few people emerged squinting at the sun. They were followed by the cave’s guardian and tour guide, Tomas Bullon, the great-grandson of Jose Bullon, who discovered the cave in 1905.

Bullon led us through the cave opening into a small gift shop lit only by his battery-powered lantern. He collected the entry fee of 3 euros each and handed out a few more lanterns. Then he told us the rules: No photos once we left the shop area — the flash is bad for the art, and the sensors are bad for the bats, he said, and no touching anything (standard rules in such caves).

Inside, the cave was wet and cool. Water dripped from stalactites formed over thousands of years. Bullon was eager to speak in English, a rare but welcome opportunity for us. Along with some British tourists, we took him up on it.

Cueva de la Pileta’s art is mostly black and red paintings of horses, deer and one enormous fish. The art is thought to be about 25,000 years old.

Although most cave ceilings are high, and the claustrophobia factor is low, some people prefer to see art outdoors. Throughout Spain and in neighboring Portugal are several impressive pieces of stone and outdoor sculptures that were carved with primitive tools but often with great artistry.

Siega Verde, on Spain’s border with Portugal, and Côa Valley, in Portugal, offered greater accessibility than any cave we visited. There, we saw small and large animal figures carved in stone that rivaled anything we saw in caves. And there is a bonus — you can take pictures.

Originally, Siega Verde was not high on our list of places to visit, and we didn’t even know about the Côa Valley. We added Siega Verde to a trip through Castilla y Leon visiting mostly Roman remains. Visits were by appointment only.

With a guide and a few other visitors, we walked along a short trail to the river’s edge and viewed some of the most spectacular early art we had seen in Spain — large and small figures of horses, deer, and cows or bulls carved or pecked into rock. The carvings date to at least 12,000 years ago and are remarkably similar to the animal figures of the cave art that we had seen. We saw a dozen or so fine carvings.

The Côa site is huge — something like 4,000 identified drawings and carvings — though visitors are permitted to see only a few. Our visit started at the starkly modern museum that sits high above the Côa River where it meets the Douro in the heart of the Douro wine country. Our guide took us and a couple from Belgium down to the valley in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. The art was as impressive as Siega Verde, and there is more of it.

For those looking to combine ancient art with an outdoor adventure, try hiring a private guide to take you to Cueva de la Laja Alta to see the oldest known representation of a boat on the Iberian peninsula. (We found our guide through the owner of our hotel, Hostal el Anon.)

After a half-hour drive along winding and, ultimately, dirt roads to the top of an Andalucian hill outside of Jimena de la Frontera, our guide took us on a three-hour-long bushwhack through a cork forest.

We finally arrived at an abrigo, where the painting is behind iron bars to protect it from vandals. It was made during the Chalcolithic period, or Copper Age, between 5,000 and 8,000 years ago. Standing a few feet away, we could make out the somewhat faded outline of a red boat.

If following a guide on a long march, or into a cave with a flashlight or lantern, is not your thing, the Altamira museum near the town of Santillana del Mar has a high-quality reproduction of Spain’s most famous cave, Altamira. The sleek, modern museum building has exhibits and graphics in addition to the “nueva cueva.” Admission to the main attraction, the replica cave, is in small groups by timed tickets.

Much has been done to reproduce the experience of the cave, including creating a mock cave mouth with a view of the green Cantabrian landscape outside — similar, perhaps, to the view a Paleolithic cave-dweller may have had. A series of ramps then leads down to the main chamber away from the mouth, passing by a clever hologram-like video showing a Paleolithic family going about their business — and speaking Spanish!

If you are lucky, you might win the Altamira lottery: Last year, the Spanish government decided to reopen the actual cave, about a 10-minute walk from the museum, to small groups who are picked out of the crowd once a week.

Going to Spain

Information: www.spain.info

WHERE TO STAY

Hotel Abba, Calderon de la Barca 3, Santander, Cantabria; 011-34-902-153-163; www.abbasantanderhotel.com. A small modern hotel. Doubles from about $65.

Hotel Siglo XVIII, Calle Revolgo 38, Santillana del Mar, Cantabria; 011-34-942-840-210; www.hotelsigloxviii.com. A short walk from the center of town. Doubles from about $78.

Hotel San Gabriel, Calle Marqués de Moctezuma 19, Ronda, Málaga; 011-34-952-190-392. www.hotelsangabriel.com. Small hotel in the old city. Rooms from about $134.

Hostal el Anon, Calle Consuelo 36, Jimena de la Frontera, Cádiz; 011-34-956-640-113; www.hostalanon.com. The American owner can find a guide to take you to Laja Alta. Doubles from $117.

WHERE TO EAT

Restaurante Machichaco El Machi, Calle Calderón de la Barca 9, Santander, Cantabria; 011-34-942-218-722; www.elmachi.es/comidas. A good choice for fresh seafood. Fish entrees from $21.50.

El Castillo, Plaza de Mayor 10, Santillana del Mar, Cantabria; 011-34-942-818-377; www.elcastillosantillana.com. Popular and in the heart of town. Lunch is about $15 and dinner can range, but is about $35.

Restaurante Pedro Romero, Calle Virgen de la Paz 18, Ronda, Málaga; 011-34-952-871-110; 011-34-952-874-731; www.rpedroromero.com. A traditional restaurant across from the storied bull ring of Ronda. About $15 for tapas to about $45 for dinner.

WHAT TO DO

Museum of Prehistory and Archaeology of Cantabria, Hernán Cortés 4, Santander, Cantabria; 011-34-942-209-922; www.museosdecantabria.es. About $6.50.

Altamira Museum, Avda. Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola s/n, Santillana del Mar, Cantabria; 011-34-942-818-005 or 011-34-942-818-815; museodealtamira.mcu.es. About $4; free Sunday and after 2 p.m. Saturday.

Caves of Cantabria, 011-34-942-598-425; cuevas.culturadecantabria.com. Admission to each cave about $4, $2 ages 12 and younger. Reservations required.

Cueva del Pindal, Pimiango, Asturias; 011-34-608-175-284. About $4, children $2. Younger than 7 not admitted.

Cueva de la Pileta, Benaoján, Málaga; 011-34-952-167-343; www.cuevadelapileta.org. About $10, ages 5-10 about $6.

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