Walking Through History in Cantabria, Spain

Guest post by Alison Bailey

The Northern coast of Spain is rich in history. The geography is ideally suited to seafaring activities, there is ready access to the Bay of Biscay, and Santander has played a major part in shaping European history. Cantabria’s history goes back further than man’s first attempts to tame the sea, much further.

The rock found in northern Spain is principally limestone, which, when eroded by fast flowing rivers coming off the Cantabrian mountains gave rise to caves. Early man found those caves very useful!

The Museum of Altimera, founded in 1979 by the Spanish Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport to protect one of the oldest caves in the region. The Museum also wanted to share this amazing cave with the public, but this creates a problem; how does one protect a valuable relic while allowing access to the public? The solution; simple, they built an exact replica of one of the oldest, and largest Palaeolithic caves in the world, accurate to within centimetres!

The replica cave at Altimera, in Cantabria, Spain on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography Cantabria 012

The Museum of Altimera, and replica cave

The cave represents Altimera as it was 15,000 years ago, but in 2012 uranium-thorium dating techniques confirmed that a red sign in the Polychrome gallery is over 36,000 years old! It’s quite an astonishing feeling, standing in the same landscape as prehistoric man did 36,000 years ago! The art left on the ceiling of the cave, dates back 20,000 years, it is the oldest form of art known to exist, representing the very emergence of Homo sapiens.

Palaeolithic art on the ceiling of the replica cave at Altimera, in Cantabria, Spain on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography Cantabria 017

Some of the earliest known Palaeolithic art

The Altimera cave, discovered in 1879 by Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, but it was his daughter, being smaller, who spotted the painted ceiling. Sadly their find was not taken seriously and it was only in 1902 that the international community validated the cave, and drawings as authentic. Unfortunately Marcelino didn’t live to see his discovery recognised, or the cave being added to the UNESCO world heritage list in 1985.

It is truly one of the most valuable places on earth.

In July last year 9 Cantabrian caves with Palaeolithic art (10,000-30,000 BC) became world heritage sites.

The museum does a fantastic job of educating a multitude of international visitors to the site.

So how, exactly, do you follow that? Well, we shifted to Medieval times in Santillana del Mar.

The origins of the current Santillana del Mar goes back to the 13th century, when a group of monks carrying the relics of a martyr called Juliana, decided to settle in an uninhabited area near the village of Planes, at the foot of Mount Vispieres. The monks built a small, simple chapel so that the relics they had carried could be exhibited, and so establishing a Monastery, and later creating a village, called “Sancta Luliana” now called Santillana.

La Colegiata de Santa Juliana, Santillana del Mar, in Cantabria, Spain on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography Cantabria 081

La Colegiata de Santa Juliana

The cobbled streets signified to visitors the importance of Santillana del Mar. Only towns of import had the time, and funds to make streets of stone, the buildings were also made of stone, and decorated with family crests.

Santillana del Mar, in Cantabria, Spain on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography Cantabria 074

Medieval pomp

Visitors were aware that they were in a place of importance, with real power, where some of the residents had influence over matters of state, even Royalty.

Santillana del Mar, in Cantabria, Spain on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography Cantabria 070

The main square in Santillana and Town Hall

Santander

Finally, there is historical of Santander, one of Northern Spain’s most important ports, with a rich seafaring history dating back to Roman times. At the beginning of the Middle Ages settlement was concentrated in the area surrounding the Cathedral. According to legend, the heads of the martyrs Emeterio and Celedonio were brought to Santander from Calahorra in the third century.

‘Santander’ appears to have originated in the Latinised form of Saint Emeterio, Sancti Emetherii, which passed through several versions before becoming the name we know today – Sant Em’ter/San Ender/Sant Ander.

During the Reconquista (Reconquest) when Spain fought to recapture the country from the Moors, Santander was the scene of many naval battles. These included the battle for Seville, fighting under the command of Admiral Boniface. In recognition of its contribution, the King granted Santander a coat of arms boasting a golden tower, a chain over the Guadalquivir river, and a ship.

In 1754 the church became a Cathedral and shortly after King Fernando conferred the title of “city” on Santander.

Throughout the 19th century, heavy trading with America brought about important changes in the city. The population grew, the port, the shipyards expanded and the commercial infrastructure of the city developed.

Magdalena Palace, Santander in Cantabria, on the Northern coast of Spain on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography Cantabria2 009

Magdalena Palace

Tragedy struck Santander at the end of the 19th century, in 1893 the freighter Cabo Machichaco exploded in the harbour, resulting in the loss of more than five hundred lives, and severe structural damage. This disaster is the reason that the port of Santander is now located some distance from the centre of town.

Santander experienced a boom in architecture and expansion in the early 20th century, after the city became the summer favourite of King Alfonso XIII. Elaborate buildings such as the del Palacio de la Magdalena (Magdalena Palace) were constructed. This was gifted to the Spanish Royal family, and returned because it’s public site would have created security issues.

Shortly after the end of the Spanish Civil War, Santander was again struck by tragedy; In 1941, a terrible fire swept through the city, whipped up by a prevailing south wind, and tragically destroying much of the Old Quarter. The majority of architecture in Santander is quite modern, but has been built with panache, this stylish city certainly impresses.

Limestone Santander in Cantabria, on the Northern coast of Spain on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography DSC_3086

Santander, built in limestone, first used by man 36,000 years ago

I enjoyed my walking history lesson around the sites, and cities of Cantabria, it’s a fascinating region, and I hope this post gives you an appreciation for its historical significance.

Alison Bailey finishing the coast to coast bike ride on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography

Finishing the Coast to Coast

About Alison Bailey

I started as a photographer at the tender age of three when my Dad gave me my first camera, a Kodak Brownie. I crawled around ‘taking pictures’ of everything, even though there wasn’t any film, and I’ve been taking pictures ever since.

I’ve worked as a Lab Technician specialising in Pathology to the promised land of Olympus cameras, and even a spell in law enforcement. I’ve returned to my first love now however, specialising in wedding photography. I predominantly use digital today, but the traditionalist in me still loves film, and the skills required to develop it.

* All photography by Alison Bailey, © Copyright of BaileyPhotography 2014

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Comments 3

  1. John

    Isn’t Cantabria awesome? We were just there in late June and absolutely loved Spain’s northern coast. Nice photo of the cave! We tried to take a picture but they were being very strict about forbidding cameras during our visit.

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