You may not have heard of Cantabria. Despite being a popular destination for Spanish and French tourists, this northern province of Spain is relatively unknown to the rest of us. Cantabria boasts sandy beaches to relax on, plenty of regional food specialities to feast on and mountains and national parks to explore. Sitting on the coast of the Bay of Biscay, the region may not be receive the same amount of sun as Spain’s Mediterranean coasts, but the higher rainfall means the area is covered with lush vegetation, leading to it being part of what is known as ‘Green Spain’. I was recently invited over to Cantabria to check out the best of what the region has to offer. Here are my top three highlights.
My first stop was Altimera – a prehistoric cave containing some of the best- preserved prehistoric artwork in world. A World Heritage Site since 1985, the cave has been described by UNESCO as a masterpiece of creative genius and an outstanding illustration of a significant stage of human history.
Carbon dating of the art in shows that that cave was occupied for over 20,000 years. A rock fall closed off the entrance for thousands of years, preserving the paintings of bison, horses and other animals, until it was rediscovered in 1879.
The significance of the site was quickly realised and it became a popular tourist attraction – by the 1970s, over 170,000 visitors a year were exploring the cave. These high visitor numbers, combined with structural reinforcements added to the cave started to put the paintings at risk. After a period of visitor quotas, the cave was closed entirely in 2002 in an attempt to conserve the artwork.
Today, unless you are one of the five people chosen every week by ballot who are allowed to visit the real cave, visitors experience the artwork in a Neocave – an exact replica of the cave as it was 15,000 years ago. The original cave has been copied exactly, with the paintings added using the same techniques as the original.
As well as exploring the Neocave, you can visit the museum exhibits about prehistoric life and culture and take a stroll round the beautiful grounds which have been planted with species that would have made up the landscape when the cave was in use.
Santillana del Mar
Just a couple of miles from Altamira is the stunning medieval village of Santillana Del Mar. I took an evening stroll through village and it is easy to see why it is such a popular tourist destination. Everything is so well preserved that it is easy to think that the village is a reconstruction. But the 15th-18th century houses and mansions are original and many of them are still owned by the families that built them.
The cobbled streets, traditional buildings and view of the surrounding fields and hills makes the modern world feel a very long way away and the lack of cars adds to the feeling of walking through history – unless you have special permission, only residents are allowed to drive into the village. Even couples that get married there have to walk through the village to get to the church.
The village is often known as the ‘town of three lies’ as it isn’t particularly holy (Santo), it isn’t flat (llana) and it’s not by the sea (Mar). The village is, in fact, named after Santa Juilliana, whose remains were brought to the village 1200 years ago and now rest in its Colegiata church.
The village is very popular and gets extremely busy at peak times so you might want to carefully pick when you visit to avoid the worst of the crowds. If you time it right, however, Santillana del Mar is a beautiful place to explore.
Cabárceno Wildlife Park
For me, Carbárceno was the biggest highlight of my trip to Cantabria. This massive wildlife park – the largest zoological park in the world – covers 750 hectares and is home to around 1000 animals from over 100 different species.
The animals live in state of semi-freedom in very large enclosures – the elephant enclosure alone is larger than the whole of Madrid zoo.
Driving along the 25km of internal roads, you’ll spot bears, hippos, zebras, camels, wallabies and bison. You can also park up and visit the reptile and gorilla houses where you can get up close to these amazing animals.
If you love wildlife, it’s definitely worth paying extra for a behind-the-scenes tour. On these half- or full-day tours, you tour the park with one of the keepers in a 4×4. As well as being able to find out more about the park and its animals, you’ll get to feed the animals and visit areas of the park usually off-limits to the public.
The park is also home to Cantabria’s Bird of Prey Recovery Centre. Rescued birds are rehabilitated and, if possible, returned to the wild. If they can’t be released, they stay at the park where they are trained to take part in displays that both educate the public and allow the birds to exercise their natural instincts.
The park’s main focus is conservation and all of the species at the park are there for a reason – not just because they look pretty. The park work closely with organisations such as the European Endangered Species Programme to ensure that the animals are cared for properly and to help make sure that they survive for many years to come.
I visited Altamira as part of #CantabriaBlogTrip, hosted by the Spain in the UK and Cantabria Infinita. All opinions are my own.