Napoleonic Wars Refought In Spain

Spain, Napoleonic Wars
The second of May is a date that every Spaniard knows. In 1808 on that date, the Spanish people rose up against Napoleon and started a long struggle to kick his troops out of the country. They’d been occupied the year before when Spain’s weak king had foolishly allowed French troops march through his territory to invade Portugal. Napoleon, being Napoleon, decided to keep both countries.

The Peninsular War, as it was called, was long and bloody. At first the Spaniards were outmatched, but they developed an effective guerrilla war that stymied the invaders. In fact the term guerrilla (“little war”) originated in this conflict. The English moved in to help and in 1814 their combined forces kicked Napoleon’s troops back into France.

All across Spain in the first week of May, communities hold festivals to commemorate battles and celebrate local heroes. Here in Cantabria in northern Spain, the municipality of Camargo holds a reenactment in honor of Pedro Velarde y Santillán, an artillery captain who was born in the town and died heroically on the first day of the uprising.

Camargo is a small place that most foreigners and even locals miss. We’ve lived ten minutes away from it for a year and we had to look up how to get there. Despite this obscurity, they put on a good show. A big street fair sold food and local crafts. Strangely there was French cheese and wine for sale, a rarity in a country with enough excellent cheese and wine that there’s no need for imports. I suppose it was in the spirit of the occasion.

%Gallery-187602%Modern and traditional stalls sat side by side. Kids took burro rides while their parents looked through traditional clothing or modern trinkets made by local craftsmen. A local Moroccan restaurant had even set up a tea stall and hookah stand. Why not? Some Moroccans ended up in both armies. I wasn’t too happy to see a mother let her 10-year-old boy take a toke from a hooka, though. You should keep dangerous, addictive drugs like tobacco away from children.

In a nearby park reenactors portraying Spanish and French troops drilled and answered questions from curious onlookers, while a fencing master gave sword-fighting tips to the kids. Soon the reenactors marched into town, firing off their flintlock muskets with an ear-splitting roar. French cavalrymen rode around the crowd shouting to the Spaniards that they were going to occupy the country forever and sleep with all the women. The Spaniards called them “sons of whores.” All in good fun.

So if you’re passing through Spain in early May, keep an eye out for one of these festivals. There’s an especially big one in Madrid, which was the flashpoint of the uprising, but you can find them in most regions, even in little towns like Camargo that you’ve never heard of.

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

Springtime In Green Spain: Time To Get Out Into The Countryside, And Under It!

Green Spain
Green Spain has finally emerged from a miserable winter into a glorious if unreliable springtime, so it’s time to get out and enjoy the region’s natural beauty.

The northern coastal strip of Spain consisting of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Region has the best outdoor and underground adventures the country has to offer. Its combination of scenic hikes and extensive caves is thanks to the predominance of karst, a type of stone the weathers quickly with water. As you can see from the picture above, rain turns exposed karst into strange, picturesque shapes. When water flows underground it carves out long caves.

One of the best places to see this at work is the Parque Natural de Collados del Asón in Cantabria. Less than an hour’s drive from both Santander and Bilbao, this 11,700-acre natural park is cut through by the Asón River and several smaller streams. Those and the frequent rainfall have scoured the terrain into a series of gorges and cliffs. A network of trails provides lowland rambles past traditional farmhouses and challenging climbs up to rugged and snowy peaks. The dark mouths of several caves beckon to you from the trailside, but these aren’t places to explore without training and preparation.

The weather was glorious the day we went. When you have a fine day here in the north, you get outside. Luckily, you don’t need good weather to get some exercise. The next time I went out we were pelted with a chilly northern rain, perfect conditions to explore Green Spain’s other outdoor attractions – its caves.

Caving is big here, with several organizations and adventure travel companies ready to show you the ropes. And for many caves, ropes are what you’ll need. As water cuts through the stone, it often finds fissures and plunges downwards, gradually widening them into vertical shafts. Rappelling into Stygian darkness is one of the best thrills caving has to offer.

One cave where you don’t actually need ropes is Cotera Cave, not far from the famous prehistoric painted cave of Altamira, 20 minute’s drive outside of Santander. The entrance isn’t terribly inviting – an almost invisible trail snarled with brambles leads to a low opening where cows take shelter from the rain. Cows, being cows, have left more than their hoof prints behind.

%Gallery-186970%Picking out way past the cow patties we turned a corner and entered a large chamber. Sadly, the walls were covered with graffiti. The vandals weren’t very adventurous, though, and we soon left their ugliness behind.

Cotera is a wet cave. For much of the route we sloshed through ankle-deep water as more dripped on us from above. This action creates the formations that make caves so alluring. Cotera appears to be a fairly young cave since there aren’t many large stalactites or stalagmites. Instead, we had baby formations in the form of soda straws, which with enough water leaving mineral deposits on them will eventually grow into stalactites.

At times, the cave narrowed down into tiny crawlspaces we had to worm our way through. Often these shafts took lung-crushing right turns or plunged down at 45 degrees so that we scooted down slick clay into a welcoming puddle. In this sport a “taste of adventure” tastes like wet clay, and the grit gets stuck between your teeth.

Once the cave had covered us in grime, it decided to wash us off by making us crawl along an underground stream with a low roof. There was no choice but to get on our hands and knees and splash trough chilly water. We spotted a couple of underwater passageways leading off into the unknown.

We let them stay a mystery. Cave diving – a combination of spelunking and scuba diving – is extremely dangerous and best left for the truly crazy.

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

Caving In Northern Spain

caving, Spain
After living a year in Santander in Cantabria, northern Spain, I had a problem. I was chronically, unutterably, and perhaps terminally bored. Santander is a sleepy regional town, and while weekend hikes and trips for Gadling helped ease my boredom somewhat, I was still not getting my drug of choice – a long-term, low-level adrenaline high.

There’s nothing like it. Do something captivating and somewhat perilous for a period of a few hours to a few weeks and you’ll feel more alive than any amount of booze or drugs can ever make you. My trips to Iraq and Somaliland were two of the biggest benders of my life, but they also came with a bad case of withdrawal. So, at age 43 in a town I didn’t like, I needed to find a regular adrenaline fix.

How about learning an extreme sport in a foreign language with a bunch of people half my age?

Yeah, that should work.

Cantabria is one of the best regions in Europe for caving, and luckily the Federación Cántabra de Espeleología offers annual classes. I already had some experience caving in Missouri and New Mexico, but that was 15 years ago. Plus techniques are somewhat different in Europe and technology has changed over time. So I took a beginners’ class. This is not the sort of sport where you exaggerate your ability. That could land you in serious trouble.

%Gallery-181190%The course started off with a series of lectures that provided me a long list of Spanish words I hadn’t picked up making the rounds in bars. This was followed by a practical class at an abandoned quarry. While most of my fellow students were from the local university, I was glad to see a couple of others who looked like they knew what it was like to have kids instead of just be one.

We spent all day learning to ascend and descend. Unlike rock climbing, the point isn’t to take the most challenging way up a cliff, but rather get up there as easily as possible in order to save energy for exploring the cave. You wear a harness similar to a climbing harness. For ascending, you tie into the rope with a Croll, which has a blocking device that allows you to go up the rope but stops you from moving down. Another device that locks into the rope is called a puño (fist) and has a strap with a loop that goes around your foot. The puño has a blocking device like the Croll and you move up the cliff by doing a series of one-legged deep-knee bends, worming your way up the rope like a caterpillar.

For descending you switch to an locking pulley called a Stop that allows you to safely rappel down. Switching from ascent to descent requires securing yourself with the aid of two carabiners on ropes tied to your harness and making sure you disengage and secure the equipment in the proper order.

Beginners at a sport always expend far more energy than they need to. I was no exception. Once I got to the top of the quarry wall for the first time, I started switching over from my ascending gear and securing my Stop so I could descend. Each step is safe if you do it right, because at least two devices are securing you to the rope or wall protection at any time. Despite this, my mind was still in rock climber mode and I was trying to do it all with one hand as my other hand gripped a ledge. One foot was on a good hold and the other had a halfway decent smear.

This, of course, was entirely pointless since I was properly secured through my gear. Just then one of the instructors popped his head over the cliff top.

“Why are you hanging on?” he asked.

I didn’t have an answer for him.

“Let go,” he told me.

I let go.

“Now hang there for a minute.”

OK, lesson learned. I got back to work.

“It’s easier with two hands, isn’t it?” he said.

We finished the day worn out but successful. The class all made it through the techniques without injury, even that older foreign guy who made everything more difficult for himself.

Now came the real test: Cañuela Cave in the beautiful Sierra de Cantabria. Our instructors were easy on us and picked a cave with little technical work. The entrance is like an airplane hanger, a huge hole in the hillside sloping into darkness. Not far in, the tunnel starts to narrow and the floor gives out. The only way to continue is along a rounded hump that slopes off at a steep angle to the jagged rocks below. A rope is secured along it and by tying in with the carabiners attached by short ropes to our harness we were able to traverse this pretty quickly.

Now all daylight was behind us and we started to see rock formations such as stalactites, stalagmites, curtains and more. The route opened up into echoing galleries and then narrowed down into smaller rooms. One room was nearly circular and fringed with stalactites reaching almost to the ground, making it look like a giant petrified birdcage.

A bit beyond, we had to use the Stop to descend a cliff. A second, deeper one came later. I couldn’t see the bottom from my vantage point. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m scared of heights. All through university I went rock climbing in order to conquer my fear. I never did; I only learned to ignore it and get on with what I was doing. Discovering that you can live with the source of your fear without being affected by it was the most important thing I learned in university.

I thought I may have trouble with caving, but it turned out I didn’t. At the quarry I was too busy fiddling with the new equipment to even notice. In the cave, not being able to see the bottom made going over the edge easier somehow. No, that doesn’t make any sense – phobias never do.

More wonders followed: a lone bat clinging upside down to a rock, stalactites formed at an angle because of air currents, fossils stuck into the wall. Check out the gallery for just a small selection, and stay tuned for more underground adrenaline highs. I’ll be going into more detail about the world underneath our feet and the sport that helps you explore it.

[Top photo by Sean McLachlan. Bottom photo of yours truly wearing his helmet at a rakish angle taken by Dani "that guy in the caving class whose last name I should have learned."]

caving, Spain

World’s Oldest Cave Art Found In Spain

Archaeologists analyzing prehistoric paintings in Spain have discovered the earliest example of cave art.

El Castillo Cave in Cantabria on Spain’s northern coast was one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites investigated for the study. The earliest dates were a minimum of 40,800 years ago for a red disk, 37,300 years for a hand stencil, and 35,600 years for a club-shaped symbol. The red disk is at least 4,000 years older than anything previously found in Europe and arguably the oldest cave art anywhere.

These early dates have sparked an interesting debate. The paintings are from the transition period between Neanderthals and the arrival of modern humans. No cave art has been firmly attributed to the Neanderthals and scholars have long debated the level of their intelligence.

Researchers used uranium-series disequilibrium dates of calcite deposits overlying art in eleven caves to determine the dates. Like radiocarbon dating, this technique measures the change in radioactive isotopes. Unlike the more common radiocarbon dating technique, however, which studies the half-life of carbon 14, this technique studies the rate of decay of uranium 234 into thorium 230, a process that happens at a precise rate. It can date calcite up to 300,000 years old.

Very thin films of calcite were sampled from just above the paintings. Being on top of the paintings, they are younger than the art, thus the paintings could be centuries older than the minimum dates given.

The results have been published in the journal Science. Meanwhile, the team is sampling more cave art in the hope of finding even earlier dates.

The Sex Toy Vending Machines Of Spain

vending machines
You’ve probably heard of the vending machines in Japan that sell used panties supposedly worn by schoolgirls. It appears Japan isn’t alone in having sexual vending machines in public places. Not far from my home in Santander, on Spain’s northern coast, I came across this innocuous-looking little cubbyhole. Its vending machines offer hot food, soda and snacks 24 hours a day.

It’s in between a bar district and the residential neighborhood where I live, so I popped in here one night for some potato chips to absorb some of the wine I’d drunk. It turns out I could buy more than potato chips. Further inside, out of view from the street but still completely open to the public of all ages, was a vending machine selling sex toys.

The picture is on the next page, and no, it’s not work safe (duh!).Vending Machines
Whatever entrepreneur thought this up was a genius. When you’re coming back from the bars late at night you always need something. If you’re a married guy like me, it might be something as mundane as a snack. If you’re getting lucky with someone you met on your fifteenth round of sangría, you might need some flavored condoms. If you didn’t meet the person of your dreams, you can at least cuddle up to a giant black dong for only €16.50 ($21). Just don’t forget the lube for €6.50 ($8.29) or you might wake up the next morning with more than your head hurting.

This isn’t the only dildo vending machine in Spain. A friend of mine came across one in a youth hostel where she was staying with her two little daughters. The girls saw it first because they were attracted by all the shiny colors. They asked what the dildos were and their mother, quite wisely, I thought, answered honestly and with just enough information to satisfy their curiosity. They shook their heads at the weird things adults get up to and soon forgot about it.

Spain isn’t some decadent place full of loners seeking out dirty vending machines. You can also find vending machines selling books. So far I have yet to see a vending machine that sells books and dildos. I’ll be sure to tell you if I do.