It has certainly been raining a lot here in Asturias, so we booked a cave tour, thinking that would be a fun way to get out while still staying in. Back in August, I wrote about a group tour to we took to Covadonga. It was an enjoyable little adventure so we’ve kept an eye out for other local day trips offered by the tour company. A trip to Cueva del Soplao and Santillana in the autonomous community of Cantabria fit the bill perfectly.
The bus picked us up at 8:10 a.m. Given it is winter and very much off-season for any tourists, we were surprised when a full sized bus that could hold around 50 people rolled in to pick us up. We were assigned seats 45 and 46 in the back of the bus and this meant we would have a full bus after making a few more stops.
Our previous tour included many older adults but this one was exclusively older folks. Primarily couples with a few single gals, Phil and I were the youngest in the group by a good 20 years. As opposed to being summer tourists from the south of Spain looking to beat the heat, these folks seemed to be Astuians looking for something fun to do on a dreary December day.
Once everyone was aboard, we set out for the Saplao region in Cantabria (Asturias’s neighboring autonomous community to the east). After about an hour, we stopped at a cafe/souvenir shop so the group could grab a bite or coffee. There was already another bus in the parking lot and it looked to be a very busy establishment. Phil and I are big fans of the “when they zig, you zag” philosophy so we headed to the truck stop next door, that had an attached cafe of its own. At the nearly empty cafe, I pointed to the large loaf cake on the counter and asked “bizchocho?” She smiled and said, “Si, bizchocho,” seemingly surprised that I knew the name. “Para mi,” I responded. I became familiar with bizchocho on our trip to Galicia. I mean, breakfast cake? Heck yeah, breakfast cake. We shared that along with a tasty bocadillo (sandwich on baguette) of smokey pork loin and cheese.
About 45 minutes after our breakfast stop the bus started climbing high into the Sierra de Arnero mountains and shortly thereafter we arrived at Cueva del Soplao (Cave of the Blown). The cave was discovered by miners 1908. “El Soplao” (the blown) is a mining term that refers to the blowing air that is felt when perforating a tunnel from another one with less oxygen.
Our group was so big we had to break into two groups for our cave tour. Phil and I were in group two so we had about 25 minutes to kill before we saw the cave. We walked around the small gift shop and picked out a few post cards. As we neared the checkout counter, an amethyst crystal pendant caught my eye. It was quite reasonably priced so I thought, why not. I pointed out which crystal I wanted to the woman behind the counter and she in turn explained that I could get the pendant solo or with a necklace. She then she showed me my various options of necklace: silver chain, black cord, or silver slide. As we were talking, I could feel the woman in line next to me becoming impatient and she let out an audible sigh. This type of impatient annoyance, while extremely common in the U.S. is rarely seen in Spain, at least not in Asturias.
Here, if there’s a line/queue, you get in it and calmly wait until it is your turn. A line by definition means you are going to have to wait. If you can’t wait, don’t get in line. I wasn’t entirely sure if the woman’s annoyance was with me or with the sales attendant but I ignored it as I selected the silver chain. The sales attendant then nicely wrapped the necklace in a box. As she was doing so, I heard the woman next to me whisper something under her breath. She was standing on my left (I have a hearing deficit in my left ear) but I defiantly made out “…la leche”. It took me a second and then I realized she said, “me cago en la leche” which literally translates to “I shit in the milk”. This refers to mother’s milk and a longer form would be “me cago en la leche que mamaste (I shit in the milk that you suckled).” From my understanding, me cago en la leche can be used as a curse when being frustrated kind of like saying “dammit!” or “shit!”when you stub your toe or miss the bus, or it can be used as an insult.
After the under the breath curse, I turned and looked the woman in the eye. I caught her, looking at me in a disgusted manner to which surprise was quickly added when she realized I understood what she said. I feel like it was my first experience of someone having a “you damn foreigner” sentiment toward me (or at least my knowledge of such). I turned back toward the sales woman, paid, and Phil and I went outside to look around for a few minutes before our turn in the cave.
The fog accompanied the rain and although we could tell the vistas must be beautiful, high in the mountains, we were unable to enjoy them. We did snap a few picks of the monuments outside before heading back in to join the tour.
The tour began with a short ride on an old mining train down into the cave. Neither our guide nor the cave tour guide spoke English. We caught most of what the tour guide explained and enjoyed the breathtaking mineral formations in the cave, the largest and most diverse I’ve ever seen.
We were guided through several grand rooms within the cave, each more astonishing than the last. Sala de La Gorda and Sala de Los Fantasmas were a couple of the largest and most impressive.
After the tour, everyone hurried through the rain to get on the bus and we rode about a half hour until stopping for lunch. The restaurant had been waiting for us (lunch was included in the cost of the trip) with three very long tables pushed together in an L shape. The food was quite mediocre; we were served potato soup, that was 90% potatoes, then a second course of sliced beef and pureed potatoes; and cheesecake for dessert. As I said to Phil, “What it lacked in variety, it made up for in potatoes.”
The company, however, was good and the wine was decent. We sat near two couples and one single woman. We struck up a conversation, explaining where we were from and that we were learning Spanish, traveling around Asturias and Spain at large, and living in Gijón for a year. One of the women told us our Spanish was very good. We smiled and rolled our eyes a bit and thanked her. She responded with, “Well I don’t know any English and we’re talking, aren’t we?” While the conversation was basic, it was a true conversation. On our previous tour back in August, we were able to ask and answer questions back and forth with our lunch companion, Peter, but this time it felt like much more of a dialogue. Poco a poco.
After lunch we had 45 minutes or so of free time. Normally, we would have walked around the town and explored a bit. Phil looked online and saw literally nothing of interest in the town, no small museum, no church, nothing. That fact coupled with the rain lead us to sit at the restaurant and continue our visit with our compañeros.
After a rain soaked walk back to the bus, we were off again to the town of Santillana del Mar. I think everyone on the bus felt the same way we did; let’s skip this town and head home. It was rainy and cold and we were full of potatoes. But on we went.
The bus rolled to a stop on the edge of town. Where on previous stops, there was a rush to exit, this time, it felt like everyone was fighting to be the last one one. The guide informed us we had two hours(!) before we left. Slowly, everyone disembarked and walked down the cobblestone sidewalks into the center of town. I commented to Phil that it seemed unwise to drop a bunch of old people off and make them walk in the rain, down wet, uneven streets, over slippery leaves. They all made their way without difficulty or complaint. Old folks in Spain are a special kind of old folk.
The town itself was quite lovely with the aforementioned cobblestone streets and medieval charm. It is definitely worth a revisit should we find ourselves in Cantabria again. The town had a Parador Hotel (luxury Spanish hotel chain in historic buildings-I mention them here) located in the historic city center so Phil and I made our way there to order a coffee as has become custom for us. We dried off and warmed up a bit and greatly enjoyed the sitting area with large, cushioned chairs. We decided we could probably take a nap there without anyone bothering us but decided instead to walk across the street to a museum, Casas del Águila y la Parra (the houses of the eagle and the vine). The building itself is a magnificent example of civil architecture from the 16th and 17th century. Currently housed there is a photography exhibit highlighting the use of masks and natural elements in costume in cultural festivals around Europe (Spain, Italy, Germany, and Croatia).
We were surprised that we were the last ones to board the bus (we were five minutes early, dammit!). Phil and I both fell asleep on the way home, an impressive feat given the loud, Spanish folk music playing, and woke up just outside of Gijón. We bid a loud “Hasta Luego!” to our friends from lunch as we exited at our stop. Another Austrian adventure in the books.