A Day for a Cave in Gernika

Cave drawings in Santimamiñe caves near Gernika, Spain.

The one-legged man points to a street near the building, where a group of friends and I huddle in the cold rain, as he explains in Eusko-accented Spanish to our friend Patricio the directions to the Santimamiñe caves. It strikes me as strange that he is wearing one tennis shoe, identical to the two that Patricio is wearing.

“He said you go left up a hill for 40 minutes,” Patricio translates. “And then another 30 minutes up some stairs on the mountain.”

“Well, he does only have one leg,” I whisper under my breath. “We should be able to do it in only half the time.”

It was the fourth day of our visit to the Bizkaia region of the Basque country (or as it’s known locally, Euskadi). And we were attempting to reach the mountain where we’d heard about the grotto of Santimamiñe with its stalactites and stalagmites and the promise of prehistoric cave paintings. No need to go to Altamira with its three-year waiting list to see replicas along with half a million other people, all communing with the same piece of history.

Yes, that’s right, the Basque country, where ETA, their homegrown separatist movement, uses more muscle (and guns) than words to get their point across about a separate Euskadi country. The group remains a terrorist threat recognized by the U.S. government and was recently implicated in the Madrid train bombings that killed hundreds (although later the blame was later switched to North African militants). It’s a rough, leafy landscape where the people continue to speak one of the most singular languages ever heard, Euskera, that has no known roots with any other language spoken on the planet. If it weren’t for all the strange X’s, K’s and Z’s in the green signposts, I’d mistake it for the Appalachians.

A dozen of us arrived in Bilbao after an overnight trip by train from Barcelona. The trip seemed like a romantic idea at the time, but when we saw the poor shape that the northern bound trains were in — the broken lavatories, the crowded, smoke-filled dining car, and the sleeping cabins with six people piled on triple bunks — we knew there wasn’t much sleep in store for the night. So we were overjoyed when our hotel allowed us to check in at 9 a.m., three hours earlier than the Noon check-in time, so we could shower and take a quick nap before exploring the city.

Of course, we were there to check-out Frank Gehry’s masterpiece, the acclaimed Guggenheim museum. I was worried that after all the superlatives heaped upon it, I’d be disappointed, but I readily admit, it stood up to the hype, and I was happily wooed by the shiny titanium cladding outside and the organically curving white walls within. (So it seemed was Harvey Keitel, who we spotted admiring Richard Serra’s monumental “Snake” sculpture, on a break from the International Film Festival taking place in neighboring San Sebastián.)

But there were other attractions to see. Walking into one of Norman Foster’s recently finished metro stops with their snail-like protuberances, locally known as Fosteritos, became an event in itself as we transformed into inhabitants of a carefully designed underworld fantasy. We visited the Puente Colgante in nearby Portugalete, a “transporter bridge” which was the first of its kind when erected in 1893 and is one of two left standing in the world. It continues to ferry hundreds daily across the Ria de Bilbao in its motorized gondola. Santiago Calatrava’s eye-catching Zubi Zuri footbridge, composed of gleaming white, bone-like configurations, adds another wonderfully unique element to the city’s architectural landscape. With the rusty walls of the Euskalduna Conference Centre resembling the decaying hull of one of the ships formerly built in the port, it seems Bilbao finally has what its been aiming for — a blending of its industrial past with an international artistic focus.

By day four, we were bored with culture, restless with museums, and looking for an adventure. I read about the Bosque de Oma, or Painted Forest, in a guide book to art sites in Spain. A local artist had adorned 500 pine trees with brightly colored stylized figures and forms painted directly on their bark. They were located near the Santimamiñe caves. And all this was just a short trip from Gernika, site of the 1937 bombing that leveled the city and was immortalized in Picasso’s famous “Guernica,” gawked at year-round at the Reina Sofia in Madrid. It was shaping up for an interesting excursion, just minutes from Bilbao.

For a few euros, six of us hopped on a local bus that took us through the suburban streets of Bilbao to nearby Gernika. There we visited the Casa de Juntas, with its mythical tree — Gernikako Aretexa — the Tree of Gernika. The tree symbolizes the ancient roots of the Basque people and miraculously survived the bombing. But it turns out it died a few years ago, its petrified trunk enshrined in a garden gazebo, with a new tree generated from a shoot of the original growing strong nearby.

The Casa de Juntas is where the provincial government has met since 1979, and inside we found a monumental stained-glass window installed as a skylight, depicting historic scenes around a giant oak. Nearby is the Pueblos de Europa park, where we leisurely strolled with sculptures by Henry Moore and Euskadi native Eduardo Chillida.

Unfortunately, that’s when the rain started. We took refuge in one of the small restaurants nearby the tourist office on Artekale. There we experienced the hospitality of the Euskadi region. The menu del dia, the fixed price, three-course meal offered throughout Spain for lunch, included hearty helpings of “peasant food”: grilled pork, rice and eggs, stewed garbanzos with chorizo. Instead of each of us being served individual portions, a large bowl was brought out filled with garbanzos, and we helped ourselves. When we quickly finished and complimented the waitress on the cooking, she brought us another one.

We had been directed by the tourist office to walk the few kilometers to Kortezubi, the neighboring village where we could then find our way to the caves and forest, but decided, because of the ugly gray clouds, to take the local bus for a buck. A few minutes later the bus driver dropped us by a cluster of pre-fab buildings just outside Kortezubi.

And so here we are — tired and wet and excited to find a young, friendly, one-legged man who directs us up the fog-covered mountains. We start walking, a poncho and umbrella between us, thinking surely we’ve gone the wrong way as we traipse through people’s front lawns and avoid their overly friendly dogs and come upon a cow pasture. We make it up the hill and see nothing. We consider turning back when we spot a sign hidden in bushes pointing just around the corner.

Yes, this is the right place. On one side of the road is a sign pointing to the Bosque de Oma, another 30 minute trek up a mountain, through the rain. On the other side is a lodge with hot chocolate, coffee and toilets. Our choice is easy.

We check the schedule of tours and see that we’ve made it in time for the final 6 p.m. viewing that evening, but we haven’t timed it quite right and are an hour early. It also indicates that the cave tours are free, but it’s a first come first served affair for groups up to 15, so we decide to forget the painted forest and begin climbing the 630 steps (I counted!) up the mountain to the cave.

We arrive at the cave entrance, marked by a wrought iron gate with a faint light illuminating rock formations and dripping stalactites to find — no one. No one’s lined up, no ticket office, no little food stand or souvenirs, just us and the trees and a locked cave. We think maybe no one showed up for the last tour and we can get in early.

“Hello!” I yell through the bars to the cave. “I mean, Ola!”

Nothing.

So we wait near the entrance to the cave for 40 minutes before three more people show up, chatting in Spanish, and linger alongside us until we hear voices approaching from within the cave. A group exits, and we are faced with an older, graying man.

“Finally,” we think.

But no, it’s still 20 minutes before the next tour, and the man closes the gate in our faces and tells us to continue to wait outside in the rain while he disappears into the cavern. “What? Where did he go? Is he like the cave troll or something?”

He shows up on the dot to lead us, in Spanish, through the cave, where it’s dry, if chilly, and small lights are installed to illuminate the geological formations. We pass out of view of the entrance when he informs us that there will be no cave paintings today.

“Wait? What did he say?” I ask Patricio.

“He says the cave paintings are closed. They have been for five years.”

What did we come all this way for? Through the rain and up the mountain? Waiting and waiting and no cave paintings?

But we continue on as he intones tired jokes about one rock looking like a fried egg, this one that resembles melted chocolate. Although we piece together only part of what he’s explaining with our collective Spanish skills, it’s easy to tell his familiarity with the cave, and I imagine that he’s done this everyday, several times a day, for years. He’s not some young punk looking for a summer job, he has dedicated his life to this cave.

We slither through tight spaces along the kilometer-long path (there are in fact five kilometers of caves, but only a fifth are open to the public), descending approximately 600 meters into the heart of the mountain, using narrow ladders and marching single file next to dripping formations and eerie, mossy patches.

I appreciate how we would never be able to get this close to the rocks in the States. There’d be glass separating us from the awe of seeing the towering calcium deposits, extra-high guardrails between us and limestone, and childproof, liability-free lights that showed every detail instead of allowing us the mystery of the shadows. The tour guide would herd us all into a room for an incantatory spiel. There’d probably be escalators.

We chase each other through the tunnels, shouting to hear our echoes. There are moments where you feel totally alone in here, no crush of tourists and flashing cameras. It’s that childhood dream of finding a cave that is your very own that draws so many of us to search them out and line up with the other poor schmucks — an attempt at capturing the curiosity of our youth. And we seemed to have found it. Here in this middle-of-nowhere place. We’re free to do what we want, a rag-tag bunch of Tom Sawyers in Europe.

We forget about the dangers of being deep in this cave. I figure if one of us slips, falls and skins a knee, we can use the blood to daub on the walls. Who needs cave paintings? We’ll make our own.


A version of this essay was originally published at www.eclectica.org.

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