Underground adventure on the Spanish coast. Nerja's cathedral-size caves harbor huge stalactites - even dance concerts

A celebrated cave, La Cueva de Nerja, is what attracts many visitors to this picturesque village. The drive from M'alaga to Nerja, 32 miles to the east, cuts through trendy Costa del Sol resort enclaves of modern high-rises, panoramic coastal scenes, vast stretches of sugar cane sloping down to the sea, and towering tomato crops, encased in plastic sheeting. Nerja itself, with a population of little more than 10,000, is a village of narrow, twisting streets that sits on a series of low cliffs in the foothills of a mountain range. This ancient town was originally called Naricha (meaning rich spring water) by early Arab inhabitants.

La Cueva de Nerja is an awesome archaeological bed that had been sealed for three millennia. The cave depicts the cultural sequence that took place from Paleolithic to modern times. It is of singular importance to the study of primordial man, his habitats and approximate life style, and it has considerably increased the knowledge of various stages of development, remote though it may seem.

Its discovery belongs to rather recent history. One afternoon in January 1959, at a shallow pond that leads to a small cavern near an abandoned cemetery, a group of youngsters gathered to go bat hunting. Once inside the limited opening, they realized they couldn't proceed because the entrance was blocked by two barlike stalactites.

Five boys returned the next day, armed with hammer and chisel, and managed to destroy the barriers. One youth fell head first into a deep hole. The others tumbled quickly after. When their eyes became accustomed to the darkness, they could see the outlines of a skeleton in a corner. Frightened by their macabre discovery, they dropped immediate plans for additional exploration and ran home.

The boys had fallen into what is now known as the Hall of the Cascade, so named because of the dazzling profusion of stalagmite pillars. The hall is enormous - over 30 yards wide - so large that annual ballet festivals are held here each August, with some 600 guests attending programs conducted by such troupes as the Ballet of Monte Carlo, the Ballet of Tokyo, and the Royal Theatre of Copenhagen.

Adjoining this spectacular chamber is the Nativity, or Sala del Belen. A limestone tableau, resembling the cr`eche in Bethlehem, rises from a corner. Next comes the Hall of the Elephant's Tusk, so named on the basis of an erroneous theory that a tusk was found in fossilized form.

From here a staircase leads down to the Hall of Cataclysm, the most astonishing of these cathedral-proportioned arenas. In the center, surrounding a gigantic, columnlike formation, mammoth blocks lean in chaotic directions. Experts speculate that this gargantuan jumble occurred more than 15,000 years ago, to judge from a painting inscribed on a fallen stone. Some of the configurations look like frozen waterfalls. In other overpowering sculptures, giant descending stalactites join the stalagmites rising from the floor to form a single column.

A few galleries, basically inaccessible, are not open to the public. Paintings from Paleolithic times have been found in obscure areas. To approach one secluded studio, it is necessary to jump through a small opening near the roof of the Hall of the Cataclysm and enter a series of narrow, crawl-along passages.

In the tiny enclosure is a sketch of three fish in red, the first one painted in outline, the other two with tails superimposed. A painting on a stalactite, that of a goat, appears also in red, drawn from a vertical position. More paintings indicate the style and technique of the Solutrean period, which lasted from 19000 to 15000 BC.

Perhaps the most significant discovery of the caves were human remains of the four Cro-Magnon Age people, exhumed in the cave's entrance during one of the first excavations.

Scattered fragments were also found, as well as the skeletons of 10 adults and three infants in a collective burial ground. Research confirms that the cave was inhabited, or at least used, by man, from some 20,000 years ago, until the end of the first Bronze Age, around 1800 BC.

Females wore choker-style necklaces fashioned from pieces of limestone, deer teeth, and possibly bird feathers. Bracelets were contemporary in design, with deep parallel lines skillfully etched and rubbed with a vermilion pigment to accent the motif. The people used charcoal for fires and clay pots, a type of cookware again in vogue.

The cave is open every day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., May through September; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., September through April; and closed for a two-hour siesta during the latter months. There is a playground, alfresco caf'e, and restaurant near the entrance and a coastal view that has no counterpart.

The city of Nerja boasts fine sand beaches, and the popular Balcon de Europa (Balcony of Europe), a broad esplanade lined with palms and horse-chestnut trees jutting out into the water, offers a stunning vista of rocky coves and shimmering sea. Occasional performances by flamenco dancers and local pop groups are staged here, but the exciting, colorful flow of people provides the real show.

Practical information

For more information on travel to Nerja or the Costa del Sol, contact your travel agent or the National Tourist Office of Spain, 665 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10022, or call (212) 759-8822.

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