Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Ramales de la Victoria and the Cave of Covalanas

     Possibly my favorite stop on the trip was Ramales de la Victoria, a small village in the region of Cantabria (west of the Basque region). We took a bus from Bilbao to Laredo and then to the village. There wasn't much in the village itself, but I was drawn there because of the caves. Cantabria is full of caves, with more than six thousand discovered in the region. Along with your everyday caves, the region has some very special caves—ones with cave paintings. I had never seen cave paintings, and was very excited to see some that were over 20,000 years old. The oldest known existent cave paintings are in Cantabria, and are somewhere around 40,000 years old, but they are not open to visitors.
     The first cave we saw is located ten minutes outside the town. On the way there, we passed a bar with an interesting name.

Taberna Nashville, in Ramales de la Victoria.
     That's right—in a town of 2500 people in northern Spain, there is a bar called Nashville. Apparently, several years back a few Americans settled in Ramales to live the Spanish dream, bought the bar and some horses, and eventually rode into the sunset. The bar is now owned by a Spaniard. 
     We reached the cave of Cullalvera and found we were the only visitors. The tour guide told us all about the cave as we walked through it and brushed up on our Spanish geological vocabulary. I guess the last time I learned about stalactites I either didn't understand or didn't care how they were formed. But when he told us that the water drips through a hole in the rock and, as the droplet falls, minerals in the water cling to the rock, slowly accumulating and over tens of thousands of years form a thin hanging rock, I was impressed. 
     The cave, though it is large (its opening is 120ft high and it is over 5 miles deep), is only the sixth largest in Cantabria. It has some cave paintings, but they are deep within the cave and inaccessible even  to the tour guides. At nearly three quarters of a mile in, the paintings are some of the deepest in the world. The cave was also used by the rebels during the Spanish Civil War to store vehicles.

Cueva de Cullalvera
Cueva de Cullalvera
      I was very glad we went to the cave and learned a lot. But Katie had been in bigger caves, and was harder to win over. Luckily, we saved the best for last. The next morning we hiked along the mountains a couple of miles until we arrived at the cave of Covalanas.

Hiking near the Cueva de Covalanas.

La Cueva de Covalanas.
     The exterior of the cave is unassuming. It is the inside that is spectacular. Upon arrival we again found ourselves alone. So, with flashlights in hand and a tour guide eager to practice her English, we entered the cave. She explained that the first part of the cave had been excavated so that people could walk in it. In prehistoric times, in order to enter one would have had to crawl on one's back for several meters until the cave opened up to a height where one could stand. 200 feet in, you see the first painting. The striking oxidized iron red forms the outline of a doe. The paintings were done by one person around 20,000B.C., and it is obvious they were well planned and executed. The artist used the tips of his fingers to make dots that he formed into lines and eventually into animals. This technique is called stippling. On the right side of the cave, the animals face inward, and on the left, outward, indicating a circular motion. The artist used natural curves and lines in the rock to imply backs and hooves of some of the animals, and placed the animals so that they were best viewed from a certain angle. Seeing these paintings was incredible. There are over 20 figures, mostly hinds (female deer), but also a couple of stags, a horse, an aurochs (prehistoric bull), and some dots and lines. 

Detail of a doe.
You are not allowed to photograph the inside of the cave due to preservation concerns, but fortunately there are some good photos on the cave's website.
The aurochs. Notice its back is formed by the cave rock.
Here you can really see the stippling technique.
The horse.
     The artist used indirect lighting to illuminate the cave while painting by burning bone marrow that would have flickered around the cave walls. We arrived at the deepest of the paintings, which are clustered in a space where the left side of the cave splits into two walls, forming a small oval-shaped dome (or, more technically, a diverticulum). Here there are hinds circulating the walls. The guide imitated the bone marrow lighting by waving the flashlight around the cave ceiling. This resulted in a phenomenal sight, the deer shimmering, seemingly moving along the cave walls. This was not an accident, said the guide. She mused that the artist, probably a shaman, would come to this place, drink some hallucinogenic drink, and sit here watching the red deer move along the walls. Of course, the reason for the artist's painting these beautiful animals is unknown, but the guide thought it was a religious one. We will never know, but it is certain that these paintings were expertly executed and planned, and were most certainly not just to practice painting. This is a high form of art. 
Part of the diverticulum.
     After this visit, Katie was thoroughly impressed and glad I had dragged her into the middle of nowhere, taking three buses, walking miles, and staying two nights just to see this cave. If you go, you must book online in advance. Here is the website of the cave system throughout Cantabria. It was certainly a highlight of our trip across northern Spain. 

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