So many of our best travel experiences have been unplanned and have been all the more wonderful for it. Take Frias, Spain’s smallest city, for example (see previous blog update). We had found a brief reference to this gem of a place in an article about Northern Spain. Later we found ourselves nearby and diverted from our route to pay a visit.
The day we were to leave Frias, we decided we had to change our outdoor plans as the temperature had plummeted. We decided it was an inside day and started researching nearby museums. It was then we learned about the incredible discoveries of the Sierra de Atapuerca.
This 285 hectare historic treasure trove contains caves and galleries that have revealed a rich fossil record of the earliest human beings in Europe – unbelievably from more than one million years ago and extending into the Common Era.
The significance of this extraordinary network was only discovered in the 1960s during the construction of a railway line when fossils and artefacts were discovered while deep trenches were being dug. Since then fossil remains of five different hominid species – along with evidence of their presence – have been found at the Sierra de Atapuerca sites.
There is a museum at the centre of the cave system where you can observe the excavations and see some of the finds. We were so excited to have discovered this amazing opportunity.
Our route there took us through a vast plateau following narrow roads interspersed with tiny villages.
It was a chilly three degrees when we left Frias but by the time we reached Atapuerca it was below freezing. As we drove out of the tiny village near the excavation site we noticed that it was one of the stopping points on the famous religious pilgrimage route – Camino de Santiago. It was icy outside so we weren’t at all surprised not to see any pilgrims!
We drove down a series of narrow lanes when, in the middle of a vast stretch of plain lands, we came upon an ugly shed-like building which loomed before us which we gathered, was the Centro de Arqueologia Experimental (Carex) museum.
Disappointingly it was all locked up – we learned later because of the icy conditions- but all was not lost as the much acclaimed Museum of Human Evolution was definitely open in the nearby city of Burgos.
This fantastic museum was first opened in 2010 after the Atapuerca sites were designated as World Heritage Status by UNESCO.
We spent all the next morning at this fascinating museum viewing fantastic dioramas of the Atapuerca caverns, fascinating fossils and findings from the archeological site, and well explained connections between the different hominids.
At 2pm the museum closed for siesta time and we were turned out into the icy air. As we exited the front doors it began to snow – proper big fat flakes that came thick and fast.
We made a dash for the street round the back of the museum where apparently there were some restaurants. We ran into the nearest one as it really was freezing outside.
As luck would have it, lunch was still being served and we relished an excellent fish stew and a delicious bottle of Spanish wine.
We went back into the museum and spent another fantastic four hours there.
There was a whole floor dedicated to the the history of human evolution and included Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. This floor had, among other things, a spectacular exhibit of ten ultra-realistic reproductions of human ancestors, modelled by the French sculptor Elisabeth Daynes.
The following day we drove 148 kms through the dramatic scenery to another fantastic museum – Museo Altermira in Santillana Del Mar – also declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
In this museum there is a fantastic, true-to-life replica of the Altermira Caves, discovered in 1868 and famous for the vibrant charcoal drawings and polychrome paintings of local animals and human hands crafted around 36,000 years ago.
Because these amazing drawings and paintings had started to deteriorate with the increasingly large number of people coming to view them, it was decided to stop allowing visitors to the caves and the idea of producing a faithful replica of the cave art at the museum was created.
After two days of fascinating but intense museum time it was time for a change of pace and, like a couple of homing pigeons, we decided to head once more to the coast where we were certain It would be warmer and that more surprises were waiting for us.