The Road to Santiago.

October 8, 2004

Photo of Santa Juliana Church and Monastery.
Santa Juliana Church and Monastery

Polanco to Cóbreces

I had gotten a good night’s sleep so I got up early for a change. I was packed and ready to go when Mimi and Luna (the girls from Barcelona) appeared from their room. I said good-bye and that I would probably see them that night at the monastery in Cóbreces, if all went well.

I stopped at the Bar Quin for a café con leche and to give the albergue keys back to Mrs. Asuncion. Before I left, I asked her if I could take her picture. She primped first and then struck a casual pose — still a girl at heart.

Photo of Mrs. Asuncion.
Mrs. Asuncion

The road became hilly as I walked toward one of the better known areas in Spain — the town of Santillana del Mar and the nearby famous Caves of Altamira. Just before Santillana, I heard a car honk and the driver pulled over and motioned to me. Oh, oh! What have I done wrong now?  I didn’t recognize him at first, but it was Bautista, the hospitalero of the albergue in Santander. He wished me well and told me to write to him when I get home.

I was glad to be back at Santillana del Mar again after many years. This is a medieval village considered by some to be the most perfectly preserved in all of Europe. It’s been designated a National Monument. That means that the buildings and streets aren’t supposed to be changed.

Although I noticed many superficial changes, the overall impression was still the same. I’ve been to Santillana del Mar four times before and each time I’ve been inspired by its character which creates the feeling that you’re dropping back in time. When you stroll along the old streets, it’s not hard to imagine what life was like during the Middle Ages. The last time I was here, the farmers still stabled their cows on the first floor and the women still did their laundry in the trough near the well.

Photo of coat-of-arms.

The town consists of about 30 stately stone residences (really mansions), built in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. Each has its own coat-of-arms. Its illustrious history includes a time when it was the capital of Asturias and the home of many noble families of Castile.

However, the village goes way back before that. It grew up around the monastery which was started in 870. It subsequently was a “place of pilgrimage” for hundreds of years. In the 12th century, it was converted to a church, lacolegiata de Santa Juliana, and then elevated to a cathedral. Its cloisters have some beautiful Romanesque features. The town’s name is a contraction of Santa Juliana whose relics (i.e., bones) are in the treasury within the church.

Now, the stables have been converted to gift shops and several of the mansions are hotels — and rather expensive. I stayed in one of these hotels once and was awakened at 5:00 in the morning by the bellowing of a cow close by who wanted (very badly) to be milked. (Maybe that’s why they’re not here any more.)

You may have heard of Los Cuevas of Altamira, especially if you’ve taken an art apprecia­tion course. These caves are famous, along with caves at Lascaux in France, for their primitive art. Experts date these huge paintings of bison, wild boar, horses, and deer, to 25,000 BC. They have been dubbed the Sistine chapel of Paleolithic caves. Unfortunately, carbon dioxide from people’s breath has been detrimental to the paintings, so access to the caves is severely limited. Instead, a small, nearby exhibit has been made available with replicas of the paintings. Since I had seen this exhibit before, I decided to forgo stopping there.

I walked instead an extra half mile to stop at the Zoo of Altamira, a rather small but inspired collection of animals. I always visit here when I’m in the area. I really enjoy zoos, particularly this one, which is well respected in Spain. It has an extensive selection of los patos  (ducks), which I especially appreciate. As a teaching fellow in biology at Boston University graduate school, I would take my students to the local zoos to demonstrate certain important concepts.

I have gotten to know the director and his wife over the years since I first visited here in 1977. At that time, they had just begun to build the zoo and gather animals. Then, they specialized in animals which were similar to the ones in the nearby cave paintings. Later, they expanded to include more birds and some exotic animals. They once gave me a tour behind the scenes and I could see their love and concern for the animals. (The zoo is also involved in a program of breeding and documenting the parentage of the tiny primates ,known as marmosets, to be released in their natural environments.) They’ve explained their on-going programs and introduced their animals personally to me, including a panther, which they raised from birth. Unfortunately they were away this time, so I left a note and continued on towards Cóbreces.

Before leaving the area, I stopped at the bar El Bisonte Rojo (The Red Bison). I told the owner that I had been there 27 years ago and then again in ‘85, ‘91, and ’96. He couldn’t care less — so much for building customer loyalty.

Instead of taking the mountain paths, I took the direct route to Cóbreces along the local roads. It wasn’t too bad, but was boring, with cars whizzing by. Boring eventually became strenuous, and I started to tire. But then I saw, in the distance, my destination — the towers of the Monastery of Cóbreces. That’s where I would find shelter for the night. I realized, then, how important towers were in the past, serving as beacons. When you suddenly spot evidence of your destination, you quickly get an extra burst of energy which carries you forward. This would have been important to the pilgrims of the past.

I found the entrance to the monastery and passed through a doorway which was open. In the office, I was greeted by a monje (monk) who stamped my credencial and then proceeded to show me the facilities. The albergue was a series of 10 rooms upstairs — each with a single bed, a double bunk bed, a small table and an adjoining private toilet and shower.

At the time, there was only one other peregrino, a man from Germany. I wondered if it was the man I had met earlier, but I didn’t get to talk to him since he was sleeping. An hour and a half later, as I was going out for supper, I saw Luna and Mimi coming down the hill. They had taken the traditional route and said it was very scenic but long and hard. They were really tired (and they’re young), which made me feel like I had made the right choice.

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