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travel: Making history all over again; Perrott Phillips visits some of northern Spain's most precious sites... but things in Altamira aren't quite what they seem.

MAGINE creating a life-size replica of the Tower of London or Durham Cathedral to relieve tourist congestion - and then finding even more tourists queueing up to visit the imitation.

This kind of virtual reality tourism has already happened at Altamira in northern Spain, where the prehistoric caves - famous for their stunning wall paintings - were once the area's top tourist attraction.

They still are ... sort of. Only they are now 200 yards down the road in a modern building. An exact copy, accurate to the last millimetre.

The trouble with Altamira was that it was too popular.

Experts called the caves "the Sistine Chapel of prehistoric art", but condensation caused by the breath of thousands of sightseers left the paintings in such a delicate state that, eventually, only 20 people were allowed in each day.

So five years ago, they opened the copy-cave.

A replica of the adjoining village of Santillana del Mar wouldn't be a bad idea, either. Often, you can't see the town for the tourists.

Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called it "the prettiest village in Spain". Cobbled streets descend from a 12th century Romanesque church, lined with noble mansions in honey-coloured stone with geranium-covered balconies and carved coats of arms above the doors.

Boastful family mottos were a medieval form of one-upmanship. One crest bears the slogan, "We marry our daughters to kings!".

I drove on to Spanish Switzerland, following the 20-mile chain of the Picos de Europa range.

This is Spain as it used to be, and one of the most spectacular drives in Europe. Empty roads run through deep, bottle-green valleys, past villages with wooden houses festooned with dried peppers.

As you near the Picos, the scenery seems to burst with pride. Here, bears, wolves, eagles, capercaillies and the rare moufflon goat still survive.

I spotted all of them. But only as hunting trophies on the walls of the welcoming Casona de Cosgaya, a 16th-century manor house now converted into a rural hotel. The Casona's 14 rooms are in typical local style, with views of the Liebana valley and the Picos.

But the rustic atmosphere ends at the restaurant, where I discovered another great secret of the Cantabrian region - the best food in Spain.

After a sumptuous seven-course banquet the bill was just pounds 24, with a bottle of Rioja thrown in for just pounds 5.50.

Just up the road, at Fuente De, is the Picos cablecar, which whisks you up the final 2,500ft in four vertiginous minutes.

Further on, picturesque Potes is the activity centre of the Picos, offering climbing, horse-riding, mountain-biking and more.

Away from the Picos, Cantabria manages to fit 90 clean, empty beaches into its 180-mile coastline.

At Suances, girls sunbathed in bikinis with the snowcapped Picos as a backdrop. El Pechon was more like a deserted Cornish cove. And San Vicente went the whole picture-postcard hog with a beach crossed by two bridges and topped by the ruins of a ninth century castle.

But why swim further than Santander? The Cantabrian capital has three vast beaches which merge into one at low tide, fitting round the fingered headlands like a golden glove.

TRAVEL INFORMATION

Perrott Phillips was a guest of the Spanish Tourist Office, and flew to Santander with Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) on its daily service ex-Stansted. Off-season and midweek flights from pounds 10 return

Brittany Ferries (08705 360 360 or visit www.brittanyferries.com) sails Plymouth-Santander. Its Spanish Collection programme includes five-day packages in Santander from pounds 188pp, including a two-night return cruise with ensuite cabin, transfers and three nights' B&B. Six night breaks from pounds 226

Double rooms at the hotel Casona de Cosgaya start from pounds 40. Call 00 34 942 733 077 or visit www.casonadecosgaya.com

For more information on Cantabria visit www.turismodecantabria.com' for Spanish Tourist Office enquiries, call 020 7486 8077 or e-mail info.londres@tourspain.es. For the 24-hour info/brochure request line, call 08459 400 180

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The medieval village of Santillana del Marthe (above) and (left) the picturesque town of Potes high in the mountains
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Jul 15, 2006
Words:679
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