So after settling into Spanish ways we headed towards the mountains. We had glimpsed the jagged profiles of the Picos de Europa last year and they are also visible from Santander.
We stopped off first on the way at Santillana del Mar, a delightful little town. This seems to have been prosperous in the 13th century, but nothing much has happened since, judging by the many early Gothic buildings that survive, possibly because it is no longer ‘by the sea’. Claimed to be the prettiest village in Spain, it’s a popular tourist haunt.
Just by the town is the cave of Altamira, which has some of the oldest known European art, dating back to the old stone age, by some of the earliest modern humans, up to 20,000 years ago. They lived in the cave mouth and made large numbers of lively artworks, mostly of the animals they hunted. The cave, now a world heritage site, was deteriorating due to visitors, and so an exact replica has been built of part of them, which we visited, along with its excellent museum.
A real privilege to see this: obviously skilled artists, they used bulges in the rocks to give 3D enhancement to their works. There are lively images of bulls, deer and other species, more abstract pictures, and even the painted outlines of the artists’ hands. An amazing survival. This was not some first time dabbling: much of it it is the work of skilled artists, and you realise that their life must have been filled with art, on skins or wood or other lost materials.
From there, we continued to the Cantabrian/Asturian border then turned inland through increasingly remote towns, rising up to our destination in the Picos de Europa. The countryside is almost Alpine: green and fresh everywhere, buildings with wide overhanging snow catcher roofs, and herds of cows with bells around their necks.
Into this landscape a big new road had been inserted, which barely touches the ground, flying across valleys on bridges and viaducts then plunging through mountains in many tunnels. Throughout Spain, it seems, the infrastructure is constantly upgraded: yet the roads are almost empty, a joy to drive on.
The final stretch winds up and up to Fuente De, just two hotels and a cable car station almost surrounded by the high peaks. The parador itself is a fairly modern, but very welcoming building, with another good restaurant serving a local cuisine, brought out by two very friendly and efficient middle aged ladies. We were beginning to understand the strong loyalties the people of Spain have to their own regions and traditions.
The weather was dramatic, with clouds pouring fast across the mountain ridge from the ocean. Next morning I took the first cable car up to the ridge, through the drizzle and disappearing through a cloud layer. The car was filled with mad mountain bikers who apparently intended to ride the bare rock ridges for miles. The top is bleak, raw granite, with hardly a blade of grass, but with fantastic views of the wild mountain peaks and the huddled green valley far below, glimpsed between rolling clouds. Two golden eagles wheeled effortlessly overhead as the bikers set off grimly determined into the driving rain.