• Las Merindades: caves, canyons and horse farming in northern Spain
  • Madrid, Mar 24 (efe-epa).- In the far-flung reaches of northern Spain, where the regions of Burgos and Cantabria meet, lies one of the Iberian Peninsula’s most alluring landscapes: Las Merindades, an area comprising several towns and hamlets scattered across vast plateaus where grazing livestock roam near spectacular river canyons nestled between the snow-capped peaks of the Cantabrian mountain range.

    The area is also home to one of Europe’s greatest underground complexes: Ojo Guareña, a sprawling network of Karstic caves covering almost 70 miles carved out by the river Guareña, which flows into a sink and penetrates through the soft limestone bedrock.

    It is full of silos, man-made holes layered with baked clay that were used to store grain in medieval times.

    Archaeologists still study these caches, which have much to tell about our ancestors, just like the ancient cave paintings and bone remains unearthed in these remarkable caverns.

    Inside the gloomy caves, locals built a sanctuary in honor of Saint Barnabas.

    Captivating 17th-century murals showing his life, martyrdom and other religious scenes cover its ceilings and walls.

    The striking exterior facade, etched into the rock, is visited by pilgrims on the saint’s feast day in the early summer.

    Nearby, Spain’s mightiest river, the Ebro, still flows as it has done for millions of years.

    The forces of erosion have created a deep valley flanked by spellbinding cliffs, where the majestic Griffon vulture nests.

    Gliding with ease through the crags, the splendid birds can often be seen scanning the landscape in search of tasty carrion.

    But in such a scarcely-populated rural area, livestock actually make up most of the population.

    One of the main breeds is the Spanish-Breton horse, a cross of native Andalusian Pure Spanish mares and imported draft horses from Brittany.

    A sturdy, muscular breed with a thick mane and tail, it was once prized as a war horse during Spain’s late colonial wars, especially in the military campaigns against insurgents in Morocco's Rif mountains.

    After being replaced on the battlefield by modern tanks and trucks, it was enlisted to help plow fields.

    But today, the Spanish-Breton is mainly used as a source of meat.

    According to the Burgos' Spanish-Breton Equine Meat Producers Association, horse meat contains fewer fats than chicken meat and has low cholesterol levels.

    It is also a healthy source of iron, Omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin B, and constitutes an interesting alternative to other red meats for those who keep an omnivorous diet, despite the misgivings some may have when it comes to eating these beautiful animals.

    One way to enjoy this delicacy is the so-called railway pot, a dish that was born during the advent of railroads in Spain, when steam trains would transport coal from the mines in León to the northern port cities of Bilbao and Santander.

    Railway workers used the excess coal to cook this flavorful stew, leaving it simmering inside a clay pot for many hours in order to achieve maximum zest.

    However, breeding this horse species is done not only for the delight of gourmands.

    The Spanish-Breton is listed as endangered and would face extinction if the few farmers who currently ensure its survival were to stop breeding it.

    Being deprived of this elegant creature would be a terrible loss for the biodiversity of not just Spain, but of the planet itself.

    By David Latona