The Cave Paintings of Cantabria, Spain

Cantabrian cave painting unesco world heritage spain
The deer seems to run in the flickering light.

Among the most intriguing Unesco World Heritage sites in Spain are the Cantabrian caves that contain prehistoric paintings.

We checked out two of them which are in, or very near, the town of Ramales de la Victoria–the Cueva (Cave) de Covalanas and the Cueva de Cullavera. We started out a few days ago trying to find Cullavera, which is pretty much right on the edge of Ramales but you’d never know that from the official web site or the map provided with it. We drove and walked around a barrio of Ramales for a couple of hours asking people as we went how to find it, and it was only after we finally wandered into close proximity and, finally, into an older gentleman who actually knew where it was, that we were able to find the entrance up a long narrow road–the only one we hadn’t stumbled upon on our early peregrinations. Of course, by the time we got there, the cave was closed.

So, we resolved to go back, and we did, only to find we’d just missed the start of a tour, and would have to wait an hour for the next one. So, I snapped a few pictures of the cave opening and moved on to the other cave on the other side of the same mountain–Cueva de Covalanas. Here, we also were going to have to wait an hour for the tour, so we drove back down into the center of Ramales to our favorite bar/restaurant, Casa Quintela, and hung out for a half hour over a couple of beers and a plate of tortilla española and rabas, which is what they call calamares in this part of Spain.

Thus refreshed, we drove back up the mountain, about two kilometers out of town, parked in the parking lot and began a 15 minute hike about 600 meters straight up the mountain to the cave mouth. There you find a little hut which houses a couple of pictures of the cave paintings and a computer where Victoria the guide registered us as being from the United States (for statistical purposes,) collected our 3€ admission fee, and handed us some flashlights for the tour.

The cave is not very big. It only extends perhaps 50 meters or so into the mountain. The opening cavern is probably about the size of an average American bedroom. Victoria explained that the floor of this room had been dug out and lowered about a meter so that visitors could stand up as they entered. When the cave was first discovered a hundred years ago, she told us, you had to enter a gatas–on all fours–so in the 1980s, they decided to make it more convenient for the tourists. Victoria also told us that this cave was never inhabited, and that archeologists speculate that it was a spiritual place that was used to represent the sacred animals that provided life to the early men who lived in caves further down the mountain.

Soon after proceeding out of the opening cavern, the passage narrowed and presented an interesting melange of arches, juts, and water-shaped walls that provided the provocative canvas for the Paleolithic painters of 22,000 years ago.

The primary subject of the painter is deer, and there are a couple dozen of them painted in the red paint made of iron oxide mixed with grease in various states of activity and repose along the walls. (There are also at least one horse and one bull on their own walls.) As is typical of such paintings, the artist used the natural contours of his medium to enhance the imagery of his subjects. As Victoria pointed out some of the multi-layered paintings depicting a herd on the move, she elucidated for us the skill of the artist in drawing deer that were moving, and that, in one case, was actually looking back over its shoulder as it ran–an exemplar of drawing perspective that you wouldn’t really see again until the Renaissance.

Another remarkable aspect of the paintings that Victoria pointed out was that the sense of movement was greatly enhanced when you considered the light sources–bone marrow lamps–the artist was working with 22,000 years before. She had us extinguish our flashlights while she aimed hers on an opposite wall and waved it back and forth to simulate a flickering flame of a weak lamp. Indeed, the painting carved on the undulating wall seemed to expand and contract as the light moved, giving an amazing sense of motion to the running deer. In one painting, the artist had even incorporated a small hole in the rock as the deer’s eye. In this case, the wavering light made the eye seem to wink as the deer ran up the wall.

cantabrian cave painting unesco world heritage spain
A herd of deer moving around you as you enter the cave.

Unfortunately, photography is prohibited in the caves, so I have to cadge images from other sites, which will go unnamed. Nevertheless, I don’t mind not being able to shoot inside the caves. It forces you to concentrate more on the moment and capture the imagery and imagination of the artist in your own head for personal review later.

Techo De Policromos Cantabria cave painting
The bison from the reproduction of the Cueva de Altamira ceiling in the Museum of Altamira. It's almost better to see them this way, because you don't have to crawl.

When we first came to Cantabria, I wasn't aware of the paleolithic cave paintings here. But I'd certainly heard of the Lascaux and Chauvet Caves in France. The French caves are closed to visitors after the Lascaux Cave's treasures were severely degraded after the entrance of too many tourists caused mold to grow on the cave walls and begin to destroy the paintings. Because of its experience with the Lascaux caves, the Chauvet Caves have never been open to the public, and is open on only a very limited basis to the professional academics who are studying it.

One exception to the limited access rule to the Chauvet Cave, luckily for all of us, was granted to one of my favorite film makers, Werner Herzog and a crew of only four. The result is the marvelous film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which is well worth a view.

The French government, though, is in the process of building replicas of both caves that should be open to visitors in 2014. Put me on the list, please.

The same is happening here in Spain. The principal cave which contains the most marvelous art, the Cueva de Altamira, is closed to all but professional archeologists. But Spain has already built a replica of the most famous of the cave's galleries at a museum near the cave site. Although, of course, it's somewhat disappointing to not be admitted to the actual cave, the museum provides the next best thing, and you don't have to crawl around in the moist dark.

The museum also does a great job of explaining the history of the caves and the people who lived in this part of Spain 25,000 to 30,000 years ago. There are explanatory exhibits of how the pigments were made for the paintings, and how the pigments and scratchings were applied. There's even a hands on place where you can use a metal stylus and try to scratch a stone yourself. It isn't easy and I certainly didn't have the patience to chip at the stone long enough to make a mark–much less draw a bison.

Another cave you can visit however, is the Cueva de Hornos de la Peña, near San Felices de Buelna. (Like the Covalanas and Cullavera caves near Ramales, the signage once you get close is terrible. You'll have to ask people how to get to the cave. And, once you do find the right road, the place to park is about half a kilometer away from the entrance to the cave site grounds. And the cave site itself is another uphill hike of another half kilometer or so. You have to have a certain dedication to cave art to make the trek. And, you have to be in a little bit of shape.)

At Cueva de Hornos, like the cave of Covalanas, the visits are very restricted. You must reserve in advance, and a maximum of four people plus the guide are allowed into the cave at a time. The tour takes about 45 minutes. It is a small cave. And getting back to the art walls take some bending and contortion and some coordination. The coordination comes in handy because you are not allowed to touch any of the walls, and when you are bent double and sideways to get into a tiny gallery…well, it isn't that easy if you have any size to you.

Our guide was an extremely pleasant woman named Estela, who was no more than five feet tall. I wouldn't want to have her job and have to negotiate the narrow and low straits of this cave eight times a day if I were much larger than that.

Cantabria cave painting unesco world heritage spain
Dancing horse. You have to use your imagination. Or shake your computer back and forth.

As with Victoria, our guide at Cueva de Covalanas, Estela was extremely knowledgeable about the cave and its art and relics and provided a thoroughly enjoyable voyage into the far past. The art of Hornos was not as vibrant as that of Covalanas. It was all scratchings instead of pigment, and of course they were harder to see than the painting, and have been more degraded by the centuries of seepage and calcium deposits. Nevertheless, the horses, like the animals of Covalanas, seemed still to dance in the flickering light of Estela's flashlight, and you could appreciate the skill of the artist who could use the undulation of his rock canvas to portray such animation in his subjects.

There are still other caves that are open to visitors in this part of Spain, and we plan to get to them before we leave in a couple of weeks. But, that requires some planning and advance reservations and some driving. We'll fit it in.

The Caves in Cantabria are a Unesco World Heritage site. Spain is the country with the third most Unesco sites. To see a list of all the Spanish sites, with links to our posts about them, click here.

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