From the cave paintings at Altamira to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the entire history of Western art is represented along the Camino del Norte. The colorful and realistic portrayals of animal figures in the caves of Altamira are world famous, though it is only one of a number of caves with where Paleolithic art reached a peak from 17,000 to 13,000 BCE—there are a total of 17 caves in the northern Spain inscribed on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites.
Another artistic high point took place in the Middle Ages—you won’t think of them as “dark” ages after seeing churches like San Miguel de Lillo and San Julián de los Prados with their elegantly spare exteriors and rich interiors decorated with both Visigothic and Arab-influenced details.
The highlight of culture today in northern Spain is the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Since it opened in 1997, architect Frank Gehry’s building has helped put Bilbao on the art world map. The sweeping structure revitalized the port and has become a contemporary icon of the city. Its collection is home to works by some of the world’s most important contemporary artists including Jeff Koons—whose floral puppy stands guard outside, Robert Rauschenberg, and Anselm Kiefer. The permanent collection in Bilbao is often supplemented by pieces from the other Guggenheim museums as well as traveling expositions.
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