Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the month “July, 2013”

Freeway-free in Spain: The Marvelous Caves of Cantabria

Cueva de la CastillaWhere do you spend a cold, wet day in northern Spain?

How about in a cold wet cave?  We got tickets to see the Museum at the Caves of Alta Mira and had planned to spend the rest of the afternoon strolling around Santilla, billed as “the most charming village in Spain.”  However, no village is charming, or even quaint, on a blustery day with fifty degree temperatures, and we were fascinated by the museum’ artifacts and stories about paleolithic life and how the cave of Alta Mira with its marvelous ceiling paintings was discovered in the late 19th century. The museum  includes a digitally recreated exact replica of the main room of the original caves,  which are currently closed to all but researchers. The digital recreation claims to give you the experience of being in the cave (same dimensions, same temperature, same images on the ceiling, same crick in the neck) but THIS IS NOT SO.

We wanted to explore more, and found out that there are other caves in the area which are still viewable in the original, so off we went to las cuevas del Castilla and nearby Las Monedas. Believe me – the real thing is logarithmically greater than the digital imitation.P1000966web

First, we drove along a twisty one-lane road to the unlikely Visitor’s Center perched on the side of a hill overlooking the mist-filled valley far below.  Then we waited, huddled under one umbrella,  for the guide to return from her lunch and unlock the Visitor’s Center.  We looked over the few postcards and tchotchkes while the guide located the keys to the Cave .  Then  W and I and a handful of other soggy visitors followed the guide to the first Cave, El Castillo.Limestone curtains in Las Monedas

Wow!  the geological formations in the limestone caverns are well worth the twisty drive up the mountain road and the price of admission.  We felt something of the wonder and mystery that the first paleolithic explorer must have felt when he discovered these marvels by torchlight and decided that they must be sacred and secret. Among the limestone cascades and columns the guide pointed out  paleolithic drawings of bison, horses, goats, and dee.  In one spot an upper wall and cieling were covered with  dozens of negative-imprints of hands made by blowing ochre powder through a tube.  Was this some sort of early graffiti, or a sign of a rite of passage  accomplished?  Some of the hands were large, others small and child-like, and all were of the right hand. What did this mean, once upon a time?

The other visitors, deterred by the increasing rain, decamped, but W and I decided to visit a second cave further down the gravel road, Las Monedas.  We had to wait in a cleft in the rock while the guide closed up the first cave and saw the other visitors off.  It was marvelously quiet.  The only sounds were the drips of rain onto the hood of my windbreaker.  The mist was so thick that we could not see the valley below at all.
Trace of Paleo Graffitist - el Castillo

Finally the guide appeared, unbarring the second opening. Then she  led us among marvelous columns and curtains of frozen flowing limestone, spangled with calcite crystals and painted in gold, red, and blue from mineral deposits. We saw a well which once held the skeleton of a trapped cave bear, and a deep crevice in which had been  found mysterious coins from the 15th century, indicating that someone had discovered the cave centuries before it became known in the 19th century, and apparently escaped alive though slightly poorer.

When someone tells you that a movie or a photo exhibit or a museum diorama  is “just like being there” – DON’T BELIEVE THEM!  GO AND SEE!Sign for Cueva de las Monedas

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Freeway Free in Spain: Picos de Europa



View from Fuente De

I was apprehensive about the road to el Parque Nacional de los Picos de Europa, the high peaks of the Cantabrian Mountains which burst out of the plains about 100 twisty KM from our base at Aguilar de Campoo.  In fact,the road was much better than my imagination had envisioned, parts were beautifully kept, and all had marvelous scenery that made us think we must have teleported to Switzerland or the Italian alps.

We drive through beautiful green valleys carpeted with wild daffodils, dandelions, and other white and yellow flowers.   The pastures are occupied by plump unshorn sheep with their new white lambs, plump silky looking cattle with impressive horns, plump draft horses with new foals either just born or about to be.

We go through spring all over again each time we descend from a pass where winter still shows snow and sere branches, down to the green valleys foaming with blooming peach and wild plum trees. Wisteria vines, roses, and calendulas  bloom in farmyards whose yellow sandstone homes were probably built in the 14th century.

P1000913webAbove the green valleys soar snow covered peaks rising up 3000 meters and more. At the end of our drive is the Fuente De, a cul de sac at the end of the road from which we ride a funicular up 1800 feet to the top of one of the peaks, passing waterfalls on their way down, looking an eagle in the eye as he swoops past, and alternating ooh’s and aah’s with frantic picture taking. At the top of the funicular is a 360 degree view of green valley, snowy peaks, and cascading waterfalls.  An eagle flies beneath my feet on the see-through viewing platform.  Spot the eagle below?

Signs point across the snowfield to a trail which leads down to the valley.  We watch an intrepid bicyclist begin the trail – before long he is carrying his bicycle through the knee-deep snow.  I hope he made it to the bottom.P1000929web

We descend via funicular and return to the town of Potes, which is the tourist center and activity start point for the southwest side of Pico de Europa.  We want to take a hike, but miss any trail markers there might have been, and end up taking only a half hour walk up a slope to a spot shaded by pine trees. We sit on a broken pallet, eat our indifferent apples, and admire the stupendous view.bucolic countryside near Potes

My neice Jen says the joke in the region is that every small village has its Romanesque church, its plaza, and its idiot.  We pass through at least a dozen villages on the way back, each church in its plaza more picturesque than the last.  We don’t spot the idiots, but they were probably picturesque also.

Freeway Hazards – Northern Spain

Your friendly Hertz dealerMy neice warned me about driving in Spain – “be sure to read up on the signs” – but it was not the beautifully paved Spanish autovia that nearly undid us, nor even the ubiquitous round-abouts instead of on and off-ramps. It was my lack of cultural understanding of the German transmission of the Opel we were first assigned. I had no problem with the Ford replacement, after just a little coaching about the differences between current manual transmissions and that of the VW fastback I drove so confidently cross-country several decades ago.

The nice lady at the Hertz rental agency had me drive the replacement in the parking lot after the first car had been towed still smoking to her office, and after watching the car buck just a little, she hinted tactfully, “I think you are trying to start in third gear.” Oh. First gear is where reverse used to be, so I had been avoiding that slot. Once we got that cleared up, it was smooth sailing from then on.

And those roundabouts – no problem. I only found myself going the wrong way around once, and fortunately there was no oncoming traffic at that moment, and I was able to exit quickly. After that incident W made sure to keep her eyes helpfully on the direction signs as we approached each circular intersection rather than on her guide book or the GPS screen.

AguilarDeC mapAnd it was not our fault that we missed the turnoff to my niece’s village. She had told us to exit at the first sign for Aguilar de Campoo, cross a bridge, and we would be almost at her house. We did this, defying the urgent pleas of Griselda the GPS lady to take an earlier exit. Neither my niece nor we could know that the Aguilar de Campoo sign had been knocked down from that earlier exit, so the first signed exit led us not over a broad, well-lighted bridge to the downtown plaza as expected, but over a narrow one-lane bridge into the warehouse dock of the local cookie factory. Not many folk about at 9PM, but finally we located a friendly local who was able to re-direct us.

We got great value from our five-day rental, and most of the time was spent on back roads. In general, though, I’d still opt for trains and buses when possible. I prefer to take my wrong turns up one-way streets on foot.

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