Our place in time – Exploring northern Spain

Having spent the last ten weeks driving through France and northern Spain, we’ve learned a lot about every province we have visited along the way. We’ve realised that every region sort of has a theme whether its historical, cultural, sport or alcohol related. Many of them are a combination of lots of interesting things and the provinces of Cantabria and Asturias in northern Spain certainly has the best scenery but the stand out theme of Cantabria has to be its many caves and caverns where you can observe the cave art and settlements of early humans and Neanderthals from thousands of years ago.

We arrived in Cantabria the morning after an attempted break-in to our campervan near Bilbao and we drove to the most beautiful spot where we parked just beside the Cabarceno Natural Park. There was a free aire de servicio right next to a huge lake full of birds and an elephant enclosure where elephants, water buffalo and gazelles roamed. It felt like an oasis and we chatted to lots of UK campers who were staying there too while waiting for the Santander ferry. We even met an Irish camper, Páidí from our neighbouring county of Waterford who just got off the ferry and was on his way to Lanzarote, a trip he does every winter. We spotted the Irish reg and went over to say hi and he looked at Liam curiously as if he knew him when it clicked, “you’re not Liam Colfer from the Great Lighthouses are you?!”. He had been watching the Great Lighthouses of Ireland series on Irish telly and remembered recognised Liam from it. We still haven’t seen it.

The Cabarceno park is 750ha of former iron mine turned into a natural space for animals here in Cantabria. I’ve never seen anything like it, it’s not a zoo and the 150 different types of animals from every continent that live here live in the hills in such freedom where they they fight & mate as if they do in the wild. You drive through the park in your own vehicle where you can jump out at designated parking areas to watch the animals. You can also take the cable cars which are running constantly over the entire park which was a great way to see the hippos under the lake and the brown bears camouflaged in the hills. We loved it, it was just what we needed after a shitty end to our trip through Basque country.

The view from our camping spot in Cantabria
Brown bears in the Cabarcena Natural Park
Deer roam freely around the park
On a cable car over the Rhino’s lake in Cabarceno
Zebra grazing by the Rhino’s with the cable cars running above
Driving around the park in the campervan was fun

We had a week to spend there beside the Natural Park while we counted down the days until my parents flew in to Santander for a four day visit and towards the end of the week, it rained, hard. Three full days of constant cold thundery rain, which is not the weather we expected at all, and after watching all of our netflix downloads and getting bored with playing too many board games we decided to get out for a day and visit one of the caves.

At the entrance to the El Castillo Cave in Cantabria

There are around 6,500 discovered caves in Cantabria and this region has one of Europe’s highest concentrations of prehistoric art dating back between 12,000 and 40,000 years. Lots of these caves collapsed during the ice age and have remained hidden for centuries and millenias. It is only now that some of these caverns and caves can be visited. The finest examples of cave art are in the Altamira Caves, known as the Sistine Chapel of cave art and a designated world heritage site so we decided to leave that cave until Mam and Dad came and waited to see it with them. Seventeen more caves in Cantabria were added as an extension to the Altamira cave UNESCO status, nine of which also have paleolithic cave art and on one of the rainy days we decided to visit the El Castillo Cave, “the cave of castles”, just south of Santander which is known for containing the oldest discovered cave art in Europe.

Gallery of Hands at El Castillo
Cave art at El Castillo, bison in red ocre

We arrived and paid €9 for the whole family to visit the cave where we were so lucky to get a private guided tour from Maria who was an English speaking guide. We joked about the weather being typically Irish, Maria said but this is typical Cantabria weather. Sure we thought all of Spain would be sunny all of the time. Maria was great, she really brought the whole history of the caves over the last 200,000 years to life and we were totally intrigued. At the mouth of the cave there were excavations where Neanderthal and animal skeleton remains were found as well as evidence of fires, tools and the food that they ate. Deep within the caves are paintings and outlines of animals; bulls, bison, deer & horses but most are simple hand stencils and red disks created by placing hands on the wall surface and blowing paint made of iron oxide on top of it. This very old ‘Panel of Hands’ is 37,300 years old and it is amongst these hands that there is a red disc that dates to more than 40,800 years.

A surreal feeling looking at these outlines of hands

These dates caused a bit of a stir as it was thought that Neanderthals didn’t have the capacity to make art and modern humans only arrived in Europe from Africa some 40,000 years ago so before that the only people here were Neanderthals who had been in Europe for over 200,000 years. Debate continues about whether the first art made here was the work of Neanderthals or of modern humans. Either way, there is something special about standing next to art that was created from 20 to 40 thousand years ago. Knowing you stand in the same spot where a paleolithic man or woman did all those years ago to paint and leave their print is a pretty amazing feeling.

A handprint from over 20,000 years ago in El Castillo cave

A couple of days later, it was time to pick up my parents at the airport. The kids woke up that morning as hyper as hyeenas while Liam & I cleaned the hell out of the campervan and filled the fridge with champagne and cerveza’s. We drove to Santander’s small, very handy airport just at landing time and five minutes later, Mam and Dad appeared through the sliding doors. The kids were ecstatic, the first glimpse of their grandparents in months, Ellen said it was her highlight of their time with us, an unforgettable feeling. Hugs all around and it was time to get back in the campervan and hit the road.

The whole family sitting around the campervan kitchen table

Our camper is a 6 berth one with two fixed double beds, one at the back and one over the cab and the dining table in the middle folds down so the cushions can be jig-saw’d together to make another double bed so there was plenty of space for us. Liam & I had a route planned with stopovers and we wasted no time at all and drove to the medieval town of Santillana del Mar thirty minutes from the airport. Santillana del Mar is a stunningly beautiful perfectly preserved medieval town and we parked down a hill in a little cobbled car park where there was five campervan spaces and we were the only campervan there. I’m usually a bit dubious when we are the only campervan, it’s reasuring when there are a few other vans around, safety in numbers I guess. Nevertheless, we strolled into town admiring its medievalness, visited its torture museum and headed to a cidreria, a cider house where your waiter pours you a cider from a height. It’s a traditional drink and there’s a particular pouring method where your waiter holds the bottle staight up over his head and pours it into the glass in the other hand as low as he can hold it. They pour just a bit into a large glass and you’re supposed to skull it. It tastes like cider vinegar to me and I didn’t want to embarras myself by making squinty faces so we left it to Liam & Dad to do the skulling while Mam & I had some vino blanco and then we left in search for somewhere to eat. As Liam & I are on a really tight budget and as vegans we haven’t eaten out once since we left Ireland. It’s expensive and very meaty but with Mam and Dad over we thought we should try to find somewhere suitable when just as it got dark and started raining again we came across an Indian restaurant with the only veggie dishes in the whole town and as luck would have it, it was closed. Plan B was to pull into a nearby campsite where we could plug in and cook up our own vegan feast but as we tried to drive up the little cobbled hill of the carpark now slippery from the rain, the camper couldn’t get a grip on the cobbles and spun on the spot. We thought we might have to throw the hat at it but on the fifth attempt with a cheer from Mam, the kids and I in the back and Dad shouting “give her the welly”, we got a good run at it and made it out, phew!

The cobbled streets of Santillana del Mar

The following morning, we drove to Altamira, the most famous cave in this region, in the world. Altamira Cave was discovered in 1879 & it was the first cave ever found with prehistoric cave art which attracted thousands of visitors over the years & to ensure its preservation, only 5 people a week can go to see the original cave. We bought our tickets where the receptionist advised us we would be seeing the replica cave. I had known this already but I thought the replica paintings were in an actual cave but when we arrived to the busy center and queued up for our visit we were rounded up into a large room where they had built a fiberglass cave. It was brilliant to see the beautiful replicated cave art but overall the experience was a little underwhelming to be honest, especially after seeing the real caves at El Castillo. There was no cave feeling in it at all, it was warm and dry and packed full of people. My Dad gave a little knock on one of the walls, joking, and a security man walked briskly over wagging his index finger at him and said “don’t touch the wall, don’t touch the ceiling, don’t touch anything”. Well we giggled like school children, Dad always somehow attracts this sort of attention everywhere we go and he didn’t see any harm in touching a fiberglass wall with replica paintings made with modern technology. We made a quick exit through the giftshop and explored the museum center instead. The center there was incredible, it contained many artefacts including bones, jewellery, tools and clothing found at lots of caves in the region and it had really great interractive cartoons, displays and games for kids. We spent hours in it learning so much about Paleolithic life and human evolution, it was really fascinating and the kids loved it.

Practising his rock carving at the Altamira museum
Paleolithic jewellery with engravings reminding me of Celtic ogham
Dad checking out the fake cave art

I’ll tell you a little of what we learned. The first footprints of walking primates were found in Africa and that’s where it all began for us two and a half million years ago. Humans physical and cultural evolution happened while adapting to different climates and surroundings and so different human species (hominids) evolved and co-existed. Neanderthals, one of them, existed in Europe from over 200,000 years ago until 28,000 years ago where they lived in caves and left evidence of how they lived. The roots of modern humans began in Africa 100,000 years ago and it was 40,000 years ago when modern humans arrived in Europe where we co-existed with Neanderthals until 12,000 years later when the Neanderthals disappeared without leaving any descendants and from then on Homo-Sapiens (us) became the only human species left on the planet. Mind = Blown

This is world-schooling
Alex loved the tusk from a wooly mammoth which was about a metre long
Skulls from various hominids

As Altamira cave is the jewel in the crown of Cantabrian caves, it’s heavily promoted here and the smaller caves, not so much. Maybe because they’re happy keeping the rest of the caves a little secret so they wont have to built replica fiberglass caves like at Altamira. It’s probably only a matter of time before they have to close more caves to the public anyway so we feel very lucky to have seen some “real” cave art back at El Castillo.

From Altamira, we decided to head west into the province of Asturias in search of actual dinosaur footprints. Yep, dinosaurs in Spain. We have a few dino lovers in the family, especially our son Alex who wore his favourite dino jumper for the day and we were paleontologists in search of these fossilised footprints along the coast from Ribadesella to the amazing MUJA Jurassic museum of Asturias 60km further on. The section of coastline there has fossilised footprints of dinosaurs from the Jurassic period ranging from small footprints of the flying pterosaurs to big ones like the Brachiosaurus all preserved in the rocks of northern Spain. We found the footprint sites in Ribadesella but they could only be seen on low tide and as Murphys law would have it, the tides weren’t right for us. It didn’t matter though, we were delighted to visit the Jurassic museum which had brilliant dinosaurs scattered all around the grounds outside beside its playground and had many footprints, bones, fossils and displays of dinosaurs, plants and other species who lived on this planet during the Cretacic, Jurassic and Triassic periods between 65 million and 250 million years ago. Dinosaurs ruled this Earth for more than 160 million years, a hell of a lot longer than us and it was an asteroid and aftermath of which that wiped them and other creatures out 65 million years ago during the Cretacious mass extinction. Most mammals, turtles, crocodiles, salamanders, and frogs survived. Birds escaped and so did snails, starfish and sea urchins. Even hardy plants fared okay.

MUJA museum, Asturias

Reproduction of a T-Rex skull
Real skeleton of dinosaurs, a bit surreal seeing them

It got us thinking and googling the history of the planet. Earth has already seen five mass extinctions, which we learned from watching Neil de Grasse Tyson’s “Cosmos” series on Netflix. A mass extinction is when at least half of all species on the planet vanish quickly. Today, many scientists think a sixth mass extinction is under way. While most extinctions in the past have been triggered from volcanic eruptions or asteroids, the blame for this one, which will be the fastest extinction in Earth’s history, falls entirely on the shoulders of humans. By the year 2100, human activities such as pollution, land clearing, and overfishing may drive more than half of the world’s marine and land species to extinction. It seems we have to do a lot more than ditch plastic straws to make a difference.

Some people we spoke to in the days prior to Mam and Dads arrival were a little suprised, shocked even that they would be staying in the van with us. We loved every minute though, Mam & Dad adjusted really well to van life, they didn’t mind wild-camping with us and we spent our last few days in our happy place wandering the beautiful beach and sipping wine and skulling local cider on the promenade and quay in the town of Comillas which was another really interesting seaside town. We loved our time in northern Spain and we can’t wait until they book their next trip over to us where ever we will be in the next few months. For now, south we go, to the sun!

Here’s a list of links to some interesting articles I’ve been reading over the last few days on the subjects above.




Published by Niamh & Liam Colfer

Niamh & Liam Colfer currently livin' on the Hook peninsula in County Wexford offering yoga and breath-work classes, personal training and hike the Hook walking tours. All about healthy balanced lifestyle, home schooling, travel, outdoor life, sea swims and on the Hook / off the Hook adventures.

3 thoughts on “Our place in time – Exploring northern Spain

  1. Another very interesting read Niamh, you’ve seen some amazing places so far..
    Happy journey… all happy campers 🙂

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