We are refreshed. A cup of coffee and a piece of hornazo– a local pastry made of ham, bacon, sausage, cooked eggs and even chicken- a Spanish empanada if you will, and we are ready to head up the tower of the Cathedral. We’ve eaten enough protein to get to the top of the tower (210 steps if you go to the bell tower) and consumed enough calories to necessitate a few more hours of walking. Let’s go.
I have been thinking about the difference between the Salamanca landmarks that we are going to see today and the architecture of Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona. Gaudí is famous or infamous for his churches, his houses and his parks. Within the Catholic Church, Gaudi, a devout and self-effacing layman, is the subject of a credible case, enthusiastically supported by the people of Barcelona, for beatification as a saint. He lived and worked in the late 19th and early 20th century. Gaudi’s architectural legacy is definitely the product of his powerful imagination and is carried on within his masterpiece, Sagrada Familia Basilica, by an entire school of disciples. No less so the four places we will look at today, each built hundreds of years before Gaudí was born.
Take a look at the towers of Sagrada Familia, begun by Gaudi in 1882, still under construction but nearing planned completion through a vigorous campaign sponsored by the City of Barcelona.
Now look at the towers of the Salamanca cathedrals built in the 12th and 16th centuries. Both are products of rich imagination.
Below on the right is the Torre de Gallo- the rooster tower of the old cathedral. On the left is the Mocha Tower of the New Cathedral.
For 3.75 euros it is possible to take what is called the Ieronimus Tower Tour. I have not taken it because I did not know it existed. This tour takes you up both towers with various historical and sacred exhibits set up in rooms along the way. There are observation platforms on each level, overhead views of both cathedral interiors and even a traffic light system on the descending narrow staircase. Trip Advisor rates it #2 in things to do in Salamanca and says it is most spectacular in the late afternoon or early evening. Next time I will check it out.
What I do know is this. I went up a staircase which gave a wonderful view of the interior of the new cathedral.
I continued out onto a terrace with the most closeup views of the details of the old cathedral tower. Between the little balls surrounding the windows, the fish scale roof and the curly pinnacles it looked like a drip sand castle or maybe a candy cane house. Add the red tile roof, the stone cutout railings, and the basic shapes and it looks like a kindergarten project – a combination of folded paper cutouts, structures made from those colored wooden blocks we all played with and maybe a few legos thrown in. The view over the countryside wasn’t bad either. I look forward to taking it to the next level but for now there is more to see back on the ground.
We make our way to the University of Salamanca, a medieval child at 800 years old in 2018. The main facade of the University is in the style known as Salamanca Plateresque (in the style of the silversmith from the word plata – Spanish for silver). This style of architecture, likened to silver filigree, flourished in Spain from the late 15th to early 16th centuries. This facade is one of the best examples in Spain.
As is characteristic of this fashion, the entire surface is of the building is covered with a proliferation of scrolls, medallions, decorative shields, pinnacles, flowers, fantastic creatures, kings, queens, popes, skulls and even a frog.
Three horizontal panels are divided by five vertical columns. In the center of the lower section are the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. The middle panel features the shield of the Kingdom of Spain, flanked by the Roman double Eagle. The upper level has the Pope, seated, offering his protection over everything.
Among the various decorations, it is this frog that gets the most attention and is the most famous. Finding this frog perched atop a skull is a challenge for both students and tourists alike. For students however the stakes are higher. Allegedly a symbol of sin and and a warning against lust, it is believed that once the student finds the frog he or she will have good luck as a student and success with exams. For a group of tourists, the only reward is bragging rights.
Compare this with Gaudí’s facade where every inch is also covered. In both cases, someone’s imagination has been set free. Those creative doodles have been cut in stone.
Back at Salamanca University, we pass through the quadrangle on our way to see the original classroom where Fray Luis de Leon taught in the 16th century. It is his statue presiding over the facade that we passed outside. Fray Leon came here as a student at age 14 and graduated at 30 after a rambling educational and spiritual journey. At 31 he was elected a theology professor and taught and translated biblical and classical literature. He wrote novels, poetry, and a book entitled The Perfect Wife, a handbook for the newly married that proved such a popular wedding gift that it was published in six different editions. Imprisoned for four years for heresy and for translating the Bible into Spanish, upon his exoneration Fray Leon returned to his classroom four years later. He began his lecture, “As I was saying yesterday…”
Four hundred years later, those same words were repeated by Miguel de Unamuno. He returned to the University after a 14-year exile for supporting the Allies in WWI. Unamuno, a literary jack-of-all-trades: poet, playwright, philosopher, novelist, was twice elected Rector (president) of the University. Highly influential throughout Spain, Unamuno died in 1936 under house arrest for his opposition to the Franco regime.
Here I must make a correction. In an earlier blog I snidely remarked that only men sat in the examination chair in the Santa Barbara Chapel of the Old Cathedral. How wrong I was! Both Luisa de Medrano and Beatrix Galindo aka La Latina studied and taught here as early as 1508. There is some evidence that both women heard Christopher Columbus when he came to the University to speak about his proposed travels.
Upstairs we see the University Library with its 160,000 volumes of books including a collection of incunabula – books printed between the invention of the printing press and 1501.
True to form. Too much to see; too little time.
In 1904 Gaudí built Casa Batlló, known as the House of Bones. As with many of his buildings, this too included exotic window treatments, ornate ironwork and repeated motifs.
Across the street from the University is the Casa de las Conchas. This House of Shells, a 15th century palace, is decorated by 300 scallop shells. The original owner was a proud member of the Order of Santiago. Saint James’s scallop shell symbol is everywhere, from the balconies to the locks. There is a tradition that behind one of these shells is a store of gold. Unlike the scallop shells on the Camino de Santiago markers, none of these appear to have been pulled off.
Finally we come to the Plaza Mayor, known as the Living Room of Salamanca. King Felipe V ordered this plaza to be built (1729-55) as a place to stage bullfights. With its irregular square shape, 88 arches of villamayor stone and granite, today it is full of tourist shops, restaurants and ice cream parlors.
Bullfights ceased here in the mid 1850s, but even now aspiring toreadors are honored in front of the city hall.
Honored too with medallions on the pillars and spandrels are people associated with the history of Salamanca.
Franco’s medallion was removed from his pillar on June 9, 2017, no doubt with many of the local Spaniards watching from one of the 247 private balconies that surround the plaza.
Gaudí too had his pillars and medallions in his Park Guell in Barcelona. His proposed gated community there was a failure, but his imaginative columns and medallions have succeeded; for now they live on.
It is time for us to leave Salamanca. We began our visit to the city by crossing the Roman Bridge over the River Tormes. We began our tour today eating hornazos.
In our pre-Covid 19 world we would have been in Salamanca the day after Easter. If we had come one week later we could have participated in Lunes de Aguas – Water Monday. This holiday pulls together all the threads of our visit.
Years ago that same Filipe who built the Plaza Mayor was concerned about the morals of the students at the University. To help them maintain their Lenten disciplines he had all the prostitutes in the city ferried over to the far side of River Tormes They were required to remain there until the Monday, one week after Easter. Their reentry into the city was met with much joy and revelry. Students flocked to the banks of the river to celebrate. To this day, students and families continue the tradition partying on the riverbank by the Roman Bridge. Who could think this one up? A little imagination on the loose goes a long way.
Hasta mañana. We’ll walk some more on the Via de la Plata and head for Portugal, where Michelin-star dining at the Pousada de Braganza awaits us. Imagine that!