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Discover the Magic of Santander

Jul 25, 2008
The Cantabri had a fearsome reputation. Of all the ancient Iberian tribes, they put up the fiercest resistance to the invading Romans. Nevertheless, the Romans overcame them, humiliated them and marched on. The punch-drunk Cantabria died out dreaming of a rematch. When History flexes its muscles and offers to fight any man in the house it is sornetimes better to don a bow tie and grab a seat in the front row than to step into the ring. Yet two thousand years on, the high peaks that rise at Torrelavega in the province of Santander and stretch across Asturias towards Galicia are known as the Cantabrian Mountains (Cordillera Cantabrica), and not the Sierra Romana.

Cantabria is now synonymous with Santander, a province so mountainous that it is known colloquially as The Mountain. It covers 5,289 square kilometres (2,042 square miles) and its south-western border with Asturias is marked by some of the most impressive mountains in the chain, the limestone mini-Everests of the Picos de Europa, which rise to over 2,620 kilometres (8,600 feet). In the north, the province ends abruptly on the shores of the Bay of Biscay.

Judging by the incredible prehistoric paintings and etchings found in the Altamira cave, 30 kilometres west of the region's capital city, even the Cantabri were relative late-comers to the mountains. A hunter stumbled on the cave in 1868, but it was a nobleman from Santander, Marcelino de Sautuola, who made it famous. Remarkable, really, since he seems to have been either as blind as a bat, or the unfortunate victim of an arthritic neck which prevented him from looking upwards. He first visited the cave in 1875, and had no problem picking up bones and flint tools from the floor.

However, it was not until four years later, when he took his young daughter, Maria, along with him, that the paintings came to light. While Marcelino was scrabbing in the dust looking for more bones to add to his collection, she yawned, stared lethargically upwards and said, 'Papa, bulls'. The bulls were actually bison, but the child may be forgiven for that. The cavern roof was covered with vivid red, black and violet paintings of them. Among the 150 or so, there were a couple of wild boar, a few horses, a hind, but this was unmistakably the inner sanctum of the Cantabrian Bison Society.

His attention belatedly drawn to the existence of an unparalleled prehistoric art gallery which he had previously failed to notice despite unerringly retrieving microscopic pieces of bone from the dust of millennia, the world's worst archaeologist now began shouting his discovery from the rooftops. In 1880, his published descriptions of the paintings were initially greeted with scepticisrn. Many denounced them outright as forgeries. After all, it did seem passing strange that their existence had gone unnoticed by the hunter who found the cave in 1868, and by Marcelino himself in the four years he had spent skulking around the cave before the fortuitous visit of his daughter. But despite their suspicions, no one could recail seeing hirn heading for, or returning from the cave with a paintbrush, and by the turn of the century, most experts accepted them as genuine. They had to. By then the paint was dry.

Santander is one of the provinces of Old Castile, and its capital lies on the southern shore of the rocky peninsula of Cabo Mayor, in an inlet of the Bay of Biscay known as Bahia de Santander. It was a natural place to build a town, and sorne historians equate it with the lost Roman settlement of Portus Victoriae. That would have been a characteristically triumphal name to have given a town after the final crushing of the troublesorne Cantabri. Rubbing the noses of vanquished foes in the dirt was de rigueur for the Romans. But there are always historians willing to see evidence of lost Roman settlements on every hillside and in every scrape of an excavator's trowel, so we should be wary.

Despite their military success, the Romans never felt entirely safe in Cantabria. Their influence was largely restricted to the new towns that they founded, and when they and their empire were swept away in 410 AD, few tears were shed in the hills. In innumerable villages and towns their demise passed virtually unnoticed. For more than 150 years the rugged mountain folk remained stubbornly independent of all that happened around thern. In 574, the Visigoths tried to impose sorne order by creating the Duchy of Cantabria, but History was soon flexing its muscles again, and with the coming of the Moors Cantabria and its neighbour Asturias became the front line of resistance and the embryo of the Reconquest. The boundaries of Cantabria became less distinct, and ultimately its western sector was swallowed by Asturias, while the eastern part was absorbed by Castile.

A lesser people might finally have given up the struggle and allowed themselves to be sucked into oblivion, but Cantabria was far from finished. The province of Santander was created as part of the wholesale re-structuring of Spain in 1833. Cantabria was back, albeit under an assumed name, and for the first time it had its own capital and administrative centre. It would prove, in the words of the popular song, to be the start of something big.

The l9th century was a period of great progress and expansion, especially for the capital, which grew into one of Europe's most important ports. It is also a beautiful city, with excellent beaches and over 30 parks. Culture is important here, as it is throughout Spain. Frorn humble beginnings in 1948, when someone thought it would be a good idea to bring a little musical enlightenment to the students of the Menendez Pelayo International University (UIMP), the International Santander Festival has become one of Europe's premier cultural events. A touristic triumph.

Beyond the capital, the mountain nature reserves are a Mecca for the adventurous - particularly those able to deal nonchalantly with the occasional appearance of bears and wolves. Cantabria's unique situation is highlighted by the Pico de Tres Mares (Three Seas Peak). Depending on which route it takes down the mountain, rainfall here might end up in the Atlantic (via the Rio Duero), the Sea of Cantabria (the Rio Nansa) or the Mediterranean (the Rio Ebro). Amazingly, two years into the 2lst century, no one has yet devised a method of turning this phenomenon into a TV game show. The fit, and those with illusions of fitness, can canoe, ski, parachute and hurtle down mountain rivers on rafts to their hearts content. If necessary they can stiffen their sinews beforehand with a sip or two of orujolebaniego - a local beverage distilled from the grape refuse left over after pressing. Its history of physical isolation, and the indomitable independence of its people, has made Cantabria unique. And in its hills there are still mysteries.

Garabandal is a village close to the Picos de Europa. There, on the evening of June 18, 1961, four young girls playing on a hillside saw a vision of the Archangel Michael. The following day he appeared again and told them that if they came back on July 2, they would see the Blessed Virgin. Word spread, and on the appointed day - a Sunday - the girls were followed by a vast crowd, who saw them apparently consumed with ecstasy at a vision which only they could see. They received and passed on messages both of hope and of coming apocalyptic doom. More visions followed, and the girls took to wandering around the village, in and out of houses uninvited. Such behaviour would, in normal circurnstances, have resulted in a hefty clout from the nearest broom, but now the intrusions were welcomed as an honour. The apparitions lasted until November 1965, during which time only one other person, a 38-year-old Jesuit priest, Father Luis Marie Andreu, claimed to have seen the Virgin. That was on August 8, 1961, and so overcome was he that he went straight home and dropped dead of joy.

In her final visitation, the Virgin promised to return one day to proclaim a new era in human history. This will be preceded by a warning, followed by a miracle. Details of both were given to the girls, but they were allowed to reveal only that the miracle would occur on a Thursday at 20.30. Swarnped by the technological wonders of our age, we may well have lost the ability to distinguish genuine miracles from computer graphics, but in the ancient mountains of Cantabria, who knows? Who knows?
About the Author
With more than 20 years of experience in the travel industry Rudi van der Zalm is the founder of one of Europe's most popular websites for rural holidays in Spain . A wide selection of country houses in Cantabria and rural lodgings in Santander can be found at http://www.rural-tour.com
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