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“Have you ever visited the Altamira Caves, in northern Spain?” I asked my friend and former colleague, Beatriz. She had not. Bea had been the Spanish teacher at the school where I teach for several years before returning to her native Spain. We had kept in touch over the years and I knew she was now married and had a child but had not met either. It was time for a reunion! Bea proposed a quaint posada in Cantabria and took care of making the arrangements. As I had a bit more time for my spring break than she, I decided to combine more sight-seeing in France with our reunion in Spain. I flew to Toulouse-Blagnac airport, picked up a rental car, and headed south on a warm sunny April afternoon.

I love the French countryside in spring with its freshly plowed, earthy brown fields, exquisite pastel-colored flowering trees, and incredibly vibrant green pastures! I wanted to explore the Ariège département, an unspoiled region of France and I headed into increasingly smaller villages as I drove toward the Pyrénées, which loomed with snow visible on the high peaks. One of many highlights for me was the 14th century église Notre Dame de Tramesaygues in Audressein, nestled alongside a river, which sheltered wonderful frescoes on the ceiling and walls of its entryway. The road was clear as I drove past the signpost for the Col de la Core, but the summit was closed due to snow. Descending into tiny villages in the broad valley below, farming appeared to be the only way of life apart from signs indicating sabotier (maker of wooden shoes, worn in muddy fields). I sensed inhabitants here held firmly to their traditions.

The landscape and weather changed dramatically as I headed west and downhill into St Jean Pied de Port, a noisy destination where I encountered endless queues of trucks braking and shifting/grinding gears, all enroute to Spain. In pouring rain, I wandered cobblestone streets in the old part of town, many of which bore directional markers for les Chemins de St-Jacques de Compostelle, el Camino de Santiago de Compostela, or the St James Way (depending on your dialect), the traditional pilgrimage route to Santiago, Spain. This ancient route played a vital role in the Middle Ages, encouraging cultural exchanges between Spain and the rest of Europe. Today, modern-day pilgrims and hikers pause to gather necessities here before beginning (or continuing) their long walk over the Pyrénées.
At the coast, I joined the autoroute linking France and Spain and, in several hours, had made good time to Santander, capital of Cantabria. From Santander, Bea, via cell phone, helped me negotiate several unmarked secondary roads leading to the Posada Lunada, which I doubt I would have been able to find even if I could speak Spanish! I had a warm reunion with Bea, and met her charming husband Oscar, and adorable son, Enrique, all of whom had arrived an hour earlier from Madrid. The posada was every bit as welcoming, with a cheery fire in the central communal room and an owner eager to extend hospitality in his family-owned home.

Altamira was both exciting and disappointing as, like Lascaux Cave in France, it has been sealed off to the public to protect the precious cave paintings found within. An exact replica is open and we dutifully queued with many others to gaze at the beautiful paintings which covered the man-made ceiling and walls. I learned that the real cave is only one to two meters (three to six feet) high in the section where the paintings exist, so viewing the paintings in an upright position was a plus! Attached to the Altamira complex is an excellent museum and we wandered about looking at the lifestyle of early man. We wanted to visit other painted caves in the area and Bea managed to find one where we could get same-day tickets. With a guide, we journeyed into the bowels of the earth where we were shown magnificent paintings and drawings, in red ocher and black charcoal, depicting numerous animals alongside mysterious symbols. The cooler temperature and uneven, slippery steps reminded us that we were indeed below the earth’s surface, unlike the constant room temperature and level floor at the Altamira complex. Enrique, who was only three at the time, was exemplary throughout the visit. I was worried that he would be frightened of the life-size animals and darkness, but he took it all in stride upon his father’s shoulders. Afterward, we had a restorative, lingering lunch at a nearby hotel, where we sampled a variety of delicious, hearty, simply prepared foods and wine.

Another day, we strolled around Comillas, a lovely seaside resort, where we enjoyed lunch at one of the terraced restaurants on the beach. Comillas was also home to El Capricho de Gaudi, a whimsical mansion considered to be one of Gaudi’s first works of relevance and one of only three buildings outside of Catalonia. Painted bright red and covered with relief tiles replicating sunflowers, the house was imaginative both inside and out, topped by a minaret tower and employing decorative wrought iron railings through-out. Exploring the park high above the village afforded wonderful views of the village and bay beyond in a late afternoon sky which heralded an oncoming storm. The following day was spent driving around looking at Romanesque churches, many of which were located in very rural areas. The rainy mist and ubiquitous emerald green moss lent a surrealistic feel to these locales. We stopped for a coffee in a particularly beautiful village, where we were the only customers in the café.

As it was Easter week, Bea was emphatic about attending the procesiones de semana santa (religious parades of Holy Week) in Santander. We started off by having lunch at a restaurant on the beach in this very old Victorian seaside resort town, the largest in Cantabria. Bea and I shared arròs negre, a traditional seafood paella whose black color comes from squid ink, which also enhances its flavor. We wandered the streets, visited the lighthouse museum, and eventually found standing room on the edge of a street as the light began to fade. Penitents with high domed caps, veiled faces and belted gowns were gathering at most street corners, some with musical instruments, ready to enter the procession as it neared. Immense floats of various religious figures soon came into view, some truly stunning spectacles. The crowds were appreciative and respectful and, according to Bea, nothing approaching the size of what they were in Madrid or other big cities across Spain. I was thankful for that!

All too soon, it was time for us to part ways. Bea, Oscar and Enrique headed back to Madrid, amid promises to get together again, while I headed back to France for the final leg of my trip. I stayed in some great auberges offering wonderful, regional food in quiet villages, encountered some beautiful stone barns and chateaux along the way, and took lots of pictures which, hopefully, will inspire new work. A great spring break!
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Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Venetian Lagoon 2013

 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Venetian Lagoon 2013
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Venetian Lagoon 2013
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Venetian Lagoon 2013
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Venetian Lagoon 2013
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Venetian Lagoon 2013
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Venetian Lagoon 2013
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Venetian Lagoon 2013
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Venetian Lagoon 2013
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Venetian Lagoon 2013
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Venetian Lagoon 2013
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Venetian Lagoon 2013
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Venetian Lagoon 2013
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Venetian Lagoon 2013
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Venetian Lagoon 2013
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Venetian Lagoon 2013
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Venetian Lagoon 2013
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Venetian Lagoon 2013
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Venetian Lagoon 2013
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Venetian Lagoon 2013
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Venetian Lagoon 2013
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Venetian Lagoon 2013
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Venetian Lagoon 2013
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Venetian Lagoon 2013
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Venetian Lagoon 2013
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Venetian Lagoon 2013
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Venetian Lagoon 2013
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