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.