I don’t have a great track record with my attempts to visit prehistoric paintings. All my other travel plans seem to work out just fine, but not this one. My attempt to visit the Lascaux cave paintings in the Vezere Valley in France failed when I discovered that the Lascaux caves are not in fact in Lascaux, the tiny mist-shrouded village I was standing in, but are in fact over half an hour’s drive away. Meaning on this particular occasion, I didn’t have time to visit them before they closed. I assumed this was a one-off error in my traveller’s judgement though, so regarded my trip to the Valle de las Batuecas in Northern Spain as a done deal.
After leaving the golden hues of Salamanca behind me on a wet and windy night, I arrived in La Alberca, a mountain village a few kilometres from the valley in which the prehistoric paintings are located. Although not far away, I was still faced by a supposedly precipitous series of hairpin bends as the already winding road descends into the valley. It certainly looked hair-raising on my sat nav anyway, hence the decision to stop in La Alberca for the night: so that the road could be tackled by the light of day. Sleeping in a small Volkswagen Transporter van with a metal roof, you are automatically aware of the weather conditions outside, and I can safely say that this night was as wet as a night could be. And speaking as someone hailing from Cumbria (the very wettest corner of England), I can assure you that I know my rain. However, I foolishly decided that this torrential downpour which was keeping me awake was actually a good thing, as it surely would mean that dawn would bring the promise of a dry day.
My plan was to explore La Alberca in the morning, then make the trek to Valle de las Batuecas and then back again on foot, avoiding the need to drive the hairpin bends at all. Alas, this was not to be. Dawn brought not just more rain, but also a four hour hail and snowstorm. After ascertaining that La Alberca was both the perfect image of medieval rustic beauty I had been promised, and also intolerably wet and cold – not least because the houses jettison the contents of their drainpipes into the middle of the already narrow cobbled streets – my dog Sally and I retreated to the relative comfort of the van. After several hours wrapped in a blanket feeling more than a little bit sorry for myself, I decided that neither a sixteen kilometre hike, nor driving down potentially snow and ice covered hairpin bends were safe options. And so I decided to give up on the paintings, resolving to give Sally a walk around the rest of La Alberca (as we had only managed a couple of streets on our first attempt), and then leave for lower level destinations while it was still possible.
As I left the main square, with the stoic stone church squatting defiantly in the centre, dodging cascades of water as I made my way back to the van through narrow streets between overhanging timber framed buildings, I caught the sound of many voices on a gust of icy wind. And if there is one thing my travels have taught me, it is that if you hear a crowd in a place where you wouldn’t expect to find one, like a bitterly cold snowstorm of a village, it is certainly worth investigating. I stumbled into another square to discover a festival in full swing. Traditional music was playing, people were dancing under the cover of the overhanging buildings, children were cooking sausages on sticks over open fires, and a medium sized black pig was making his way through the crowd. Large cauldrons of the most delicious smelling food were scattered around the edges of the square, and everyone seemed to be either eating, drinking, laughing, or a combination of all three.
Intrigued, I walked around, noticing a man hand-making sausages for the children to cook, carved wooden bowls piled up on tables, women in their traditional dress ladling out food to all who wanted it. Sally meanwhile was happily noticing (and consuming) all the scraps that had fallen to the floor. As there seemed to be no money changing hands for the steaming bowls of food, my desperation for a hot meal drove me to try my hand at getting a share. Soon I found myself enjoying black pudding, sausage casserole, liver and onions, fabulous pinkish olives, all accompanied by thick chunks of crusty fresh bread and followed by some moist spiced sponge cake. There were other dishes as well, but unfortunately I had arrived too late in the day to take advantage of all the porky delights that were on offer. After soaking in the atmosphere, I tore myself away to go back to the van. Subsequent research has informed me that I had in fact wandered into the San Antonio feast day, an annual event in which San Anton (the black pig I had seen) is raffled off after spending the previous six months wandering the village eating scraps from the villagers.
But of course, I knew none of this at the time, and had simply enjoyed my unexpected opportunity. Buoyed by my new-found pork-fuelled courage and the glimmer of sunlight through the clouds, I decided to drive down to Valle de las Batuecas. The thought of a four kilometre hike from the valley bottom to the paintings seemed more bearable even if the bad weather were to return; and I told myself that as the road looked clear of snow and ice in La Alberca then surely the hairpin bends would be passable.
And indeed they were, although the road was sufficiently steep and winding to convince me that I would not be attempting to drive back up it. The path to the paintings leads to a little monastery, then onwards beside a small river to the head of the valley. I easily reached the monastery, admiring the jagged rock formations, the clear mountain stream and the trees dripping in lichen, with the smells of good food and wood smoke still clinging to my clothes. The monastery itself turned out to be the picture of tranquil calm, in perfect isolation and total contrast to the festivities in La Alberca. But when it came to getting around the monastery beside the clear waters of the river I had been previously admiring, I found I had a problem.
For that torrential rain to end all rains of the previous night had of course swollen this little river to far beyond its’ usual size. It now completely covered the path by the monastery, and not just as a little puddle, but as a deep torrent. I finally had to admit, that this was yet another set of prehistoric paintings I was destined never to see.