This academic year I have taken two trips to Santiago de Compostela, one in December and one during Holy Week in April. The first time did not go well. I arrived with an upset stomach, which quickly escalated to full-blown food poisoning. Unfortunately my Airbnb was in Ourense so I was stuck there until our return train in the evening. It was a mediocre day.
But my recent trip was much more enjoyable. We took the night bus up from Madrid, which leaves at 12:30 at night and arrives at 9:00 the next morning. This is no comfortable way to travel. But it did give us an opportunity to see an Easter procession.
To an American, a Spanish Easter procession initially presents a frightening aspect, since the hoods strongly resemble those worn by the Ku Klux Klan (the Klan took it from the Spanish and not vice versa). But once this initial shock passes, the viewer is presented with an impressive religious spectacle. The hooded figures carry floats with religious figures on their shoulders, marching in unison, pounding walking sticks in a jarring metallic march. A band walks behind them, at times playing mournful and discordant tunes on their trumpets.
No trip to Santiago is complete without a trip to the cathedral. Though I had been to Santiago several times before, December was the first time that I had seen the cathedral without scaffolding. The authorities are engaged in a years-long restoration effort, so that much of the cathedral’s famous façade had been covered up in previous years.
The Pórtico de la Gloria was still undergoing reparations when I visited last December. So it was a relief when, this April, I was finally able to see the iconic doorway. In the past you could just walk into the cathedral and examine the statues for free. But now go through a special entrance, pay a modest fee, and go with a guided tour. And no photographs are allowed.
The money and the trouble are, however, entirely worth it if you enjoy medieval art. For the Pórtico de la Gloria is one of the finest pieces of medieval sculpture that I have ever seen.
Unfortunately, neither of my two recent trips to Santiago allowed me to see the famous Botafumeiro. This is the immense incensor that the priests swing from the ceilings of the cathedral. I went to a mass in December, on the feast day of the Immaculate Conception, thinking that such a special religious holiday would merit the use of the incensor. But no luck. I sat through the entire mass clutching my stomach, dizzy from the pain, only to walk out disappointed.
I thought that I would have another opportunity during Holy Week. But, again, I had bad luck. Though restoration work is finished outside, now the inside of the cathedral is covered in tarps and scaffolds. There will be no mass held inside the building until 2021, or so I was informed.
We did, however, visit the Cathedral Museum. This is surprisingly large, and contains two of the Botafumeiro incensors, as well as many works of religious art. I was also surprised to find a few tapestries based on Goya’s designs. But the best part of the visit may be the view of the Praza do Obradoiro, the grand square where the Camino de Santiago ends. As on any other day of the year, the square was full of supine pilgrims, resting after a long journey.
One of my favorite places to visit in the city is the Museo do Pobo Galego, or the Museum of the Galician People. It is a fascinating ethnographic exhibit on the traditional lifeways of the region, housed in an old monastery.
Behind the museum is the Parque de Bonaval, one of my favorite parks in the city. Since this used to be the grounds of a church and a monastery, it is unsurprisingly that grave plots remain, though I am unsure if they still contain bodies.
At the top of the park’s hill the visitor can also find an excellent view of the surroundings of the city.
Another excellent park is the Parque Alameda in the center of the city. It captures the bucolic charm of the Galician forests.
Best of all, this park offers an iconic view of the city and its cathedral. I took two shots with my new camera, one in winter and one in spring.
There is a legend that, if you see the frog on the façade of the old university building, you are destined to return to Salamanca. Well, I saw the frog on my first trip, three years ago. And sure enough I returned.
Salamanca is without doubt one of the best daytrips from Madrid. Like so many places in Spain, it is extremely photogenic. Here is the evidence.
Recently I revisited Peñalara—the biggest mountain in Madrid’s Guadarrama range. I had already been to the mountain four times, but never before in the dead of winter. I doubted that there would be any snow at all. But I was wrong. The landscape was completely covered with snow and ice, smoothed slick by the wind. Rebe and I tried to climb to the peak, but we couldn’t even get halfway. The ground was too slippery, the wind too strong, and the fog too dense.
But it was still a lovely time. As a New Yorker, I sometimes find myself yearning for a proper winter in Spain. Going to the mountains gave me a taste of the cold without my having to live in it. It’s a perfect daytrip from Madrid. The only negative aspect was that, this time, I had to pay almost 30 euros round-trip to get there. Rebe, on the other hand, traveled for free, since it was included in her youth metro pass. Oh, the lost dreams of youth.
Recently I returned to Sevilla for the third time, to show my brother the enchanting city. (For my original post, click here.) I used the opportunity to take pictures with my new camera.
Our first stop was the Plaza de España, a place so attractive that anyone with any camera can take a fine photo.
The plaza was built for the 1929 Ibero-American exposition to showcase the wonders of Spain. The architectural style is a cross between Spanish Baroque and Neo-Mudéjar. Along the semi-circular building there are nooks with ceramic images of every Spanish province, accompanied by illustrations of important events in Spain’s history. Running parallel to the building is a little moat in which you can rent a boat and paddle about.
Next we went to the Alcázar—Seville’s Moorish palace. Curiously, the most famous part of the palace was not built under Muslim rule, but under the Christian king Peter (alternatively called “the cruel” or “the just”). He employed Muslim workmen to construct a kind of homage to the Alhambra in Granada. Later kings added to the palace, and maintained the large and lush garden surrounding the building complex.
After the Alcázar, we went to Seville’s famous cathedral—one of the biggest in the world.
Nextdoor to the cathedral is the famous Archivo General de las Indias (General Archive of the Indies). The building was designed by Juan de Herrera (also respondible for El Escorial and the palace in Aranjuez) in the 16th century, to be used by the merchant guild, it was later converted to be the central storehouse of documents pertaining to Spanish colonization. As such, it is now a repository of immense value to historians, and was thus included in Seville’s UNESCO designation.
The building itself is stately and restrained, consisting of two stories around a central courtyard. Every wall is lined with binders on glass-covered shelves, containing millions upon millions of pages.
The building also contains some delightful paintings by Murillo.
Because went in December, outside the cathedral the streets were full of stalls selling nativity figurines.
Our next stop was new for me: the Monasterio de la Cartuja (Carthusian Monastery, or charterhouse). This is an old religous complex, located across the Guadarrama River, that was also used to manufacture ceramics—which explains the conical chimneys that stick up all around the central religious buildings.
More recently the center has been converted into a modern art museum. It was completely free to visit. Outside, in the courtyard, a band was playing rock music (with the volume turned up a bit too loud) while children danced on the grass.
Some of the permanent artworks (see below) were charming. But the temporary exhibition spaces (housed in the empty church and among ornate graves) were extremely disappointing—self-important post-modernism at its worst.
After this, we crossed the Guadarrama River again, and went to see Setas de Sevilla (“Mushrooms of Seville”)—enormous, bulbous wooden figures that sprout from the center of the city. These were constructed in 2011, and have succeeded in becoming one of the city’s most distinctive sights.
Later, we decided to visit the Basilica of Macarena, which is famous for housing the Virgen de la Macarena. This is a wooden devotional figure, considered the patroness of bullfighters, widely known through the Catholic country.
On the way there, we dipped into another church, where we witnessed another wooden Virgin playing its role in worship. Congregants lined up to kiss the Virgin’s hand, after which a young man would patiently rub away the saliva with a rag, thus preparing the hand to bless the next devotee.
The Virgin of the Macarena did not disappoint. She is ensconced high in the altar, looking omnipotent and tragic. But the dedicated believer can go behind the altar and ascend some stairs, to examine the blessed figure up close.
Our final stop was a flamenco show in the center of town. As usual, I loved every minute of it. Seville never disappoints.
On Spain’s northern coast, sandwiched between Asturias and the Basque Country, is a little slice of land that makes up the province of Cantabria. Like the rest of Spain’s northern coast, influenced by the Oceanic climate blowing down from the Bay of Biscay, it is a lush and verdant region that gets plenty of rain. Though somewhat less popular as a tourist destination than its neighboring provinces, the region’s capital, Santander, is widely recognized for the eponymous international bank, Banco Santander—Spain’s biggest bank and second-largest company.
And it seems that the capital is bound to receive new visitors, thanks in part to the recently opened Botín Center. This building takes its name from the family that owns the bank (and who financed the project), and is designed to rival the Guggenheim in Bilbao, just a couple hours east by car. Like that Basque museum, designed by Frank Gehry, the Botín Center is a museum of modern art housed in a striking modern edifice, in this case designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano. I happened to visit Santander in April of 2017, when the building was complete but had yet to open its doors to the public. From the outside the museum looks like an alien spacecraft which has been neatly bifurcated. It is in a beautiful area, right on the water, a fact which has irritated some local critics, but which undoubtedly adds to its charm. Though I haven’t been inside, I read online that there is a room dedicated to drawings by Goya (on loan from the Prado) and another room dedicated to installations by contemporary artists. I hope to visit someday.
This center—looking incongruously futuristic against the serene waters of the bay, surrounded by fishermen—was, by chance, one of my first glimpses of the city. My Blablacar driver had dropped me off nearby. I was, as usual, disoriented and ragged, from having gotten up so early; and I still had several hours to kill before I could drop off my bag at my Airbnb. So I had little choice but to trek heavily around the city for several hours.
Santander is a maritime city, perched on a peninsula wrapped around a beautiful bay. The walk along the water is wonderfully picturesque, with stately building on one side and green mountains across the blue water—and it was especially nice since, when I visited, the sidewalk was the site of a street fair. Proceeding upwards this way, I walked by the memorable Palacio de Festivales, a municipal event space, and then the Maritime Museum, which has an aquarium and some impressive fishy fossils on display. I also saw the monument to the raqueros, or beachcombers, a whimsical group of faceless statues about to dive into the water. Continuing onwards, I got to the end of the peninsula, which consists of a lovely park area. There were several families having a picnic, and I am sure I looked fairly ridiculous as I strode by with my disheveled grey hoodie and my bulging green suitcase.
Walking on in this tiresome manner, I got to the Palacio de la Magdalena, Santander’s royal residence. This was actually built by popular subscription (the royal family was more popular in those days) and gifted to the king, in 1911. The royals did not have very many years to enjoy it, however, since the Second Spanish Republic (1931) and then the Civil War (1936) put an end to their annual peregrinations. The palace is built in a gaudy eclectic style, heavily indebted to the English; but it has an undeniably nice view of the sea. Nowadays it is used for conferences and suchlike things. Looking out from the tip of the peninsula, I saw the azure bay filled with little sailboats. My Santanderino friend, who himself has a sailing permit, informs me that this maritime pastime is very popular in the city. Certainly it is a good place for it.
As I walked on westward, more and more of the Cantabrian coast opened up into view, a rugged rocky coast bathed by serene waves (though I am sure it gets rather stormy sometimes). I walked by an open-air museum, grandly named the Museum of Man and the Sea, but which consists of three reconstructions of old galleons. I believe they were meant to represent the three ships which sailed with Columbus to the New World, the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María, though to my eyes they looked too small. A little further I encountered an open-air zoo, with walkways overlooking a pool in which seals were restlessly swimming.
Finally I reached Santander’s major beach: the Sardinero. This is about as nice a beach as anyone can ask for: with golden sand and ample space. Hotels and restaurants hemm in the coast, of course, while sailboats float out in the distance. In the summer I imagine the place is crawling with people; but when I arrived, a few months before proper swimming weather, the beach was charmingly empty, even peaceful. Looking back from the beach toward the palace, I was struck by how jagged and natural the coast appeared, despite being in the center of a city.
Now it was time to drop off my things. As usual, I had booked the cheapest Airbnb I could find, which was far outside the city center, deep in the industrial part of the city. Also as usual, I did not want to pay for a cab. So I walked an hour and a half, through the city, under the sun, sweating and stumbling, across highways and past strip malls, until finally reaching my destination. By saving money, I also stay thin.
Returning to the city was far less painful, not only because I wasn’t dragging around my bag, but also because my Airbnb host told me which bus to take. Thus in less than half an hour I was back in the center, ready to see more.
Though Santander’s history stretches back to medieval times—its position on the bay is a natural spot for settlements—the visitor will not notice any of the chaotic, jumbled, narrow streets characteristic of old cities. This is largely due to the great fire of 1941, which destroyed most of the old center and left thousands homeless. The conflagration occurred during the lean years following the Spanish Civil War, when the resultant poverty occasioned many accidents around the country. As a result of this catastrophe, the center is crisscrossed with wide, perpendicular streets and full of modern buildings. There is a monument to the blaze—several human figures, looking hopeless and lost—in the park near the Botín Center.
One of the buildings damaged in the blaze was Santander’s medieval Cathedral. What stands today is largely a reconstruction. The cathedral struck me as rather odd, with its stark, white exterior almost wholly devoid of ornament. To go inside one must climb a flight of stairs, for the cathedral is not level with the street. I remember going through one door, only to find it full of a congregation midway through mass. This was the crypt, which is used as an independent church, La Iglesia del Cristo. The cathedral stands on top of this crypt-church; this is why the space is so claustrophobic and full of thick supports. Though finely vaulted, the cathedral’s interior was not any more richly adorned than its exterior. I admit that I left the building feeling rather baffled, since at the time I did not know that the original church had mostly burned down, or that there were two separate churches in the same building.
Quite nearby is the original building of Banco Santander, a stately edifice that projects conservative dignity, very appropriate for a bank. You can pass through the central arch of this building to the other side, and then make your way to the Pedro Velarde Square. The plaza was named after a Spanish soldier who was involved in the much-mythologized uprising of May 2nd against Napoleon’s invading troops (a scene immortalized by Goya). A statue of this fierce patriot stands guard over the entrance to the square. The plaza is surrounded by a uniform row of attractive apartment buildings, much like the Plaza Mayor in Salamanca, making it an excellent spot for photos. I should also note that there are many fine restaurants nearby.
One of the city’s most intriguing sites is right next to this plaza, the air raid shelter, or refugio antiaéreo. As one might expect, this is not very conspicuous from the street, merely consisting of a stairwell. I was fortunate in being able to visit, since you normally need to reserve a spot in advance, and I had not done so. What is more, all visits to the tunnels are guided, which meant I would have to hitch a spot with another group. But by chance, as I approached the entrance to the shelter, another visiting couple (from Madrid) was inquiring about tours, too, so I was able to join theirs. Being a third wheel has seldom proven so educational.
The shelter was built during the Spanish Civil War. Though Santander was not of paramount strategic importance and was not the scene of major fighting, the city was nevertheless the target of bombing raids by the fascist forces. In Madrid, metro stations were refitted to be used as bomb shelters; but lacking a metro system, the people of Santander had to build shelters from scratch—and quickly. This shelter is not very big (maybe 100 people could have squeezed into it, briefly) and consisted of several interconnected concrete passageways. Our tour guide gave us some of the context of the war and the history of the tunnel’s construction. There were a few video clips, examples of uniforms worn by the fascist (many of them Germans) and Republican pilots, and sound clips designed to reproduce the feeling of being underground during a bombing. Although the shelter did not get much use, since Santander was taken by Franco’s forces fairly early on during the war, it remains a moving artifact of the new horrors of aerial warfare, dropping death indiscriminately on enemy cities—something the world had never seen before.
After this, I decided to visit the Prehistory and Archaeology Museum of Cantabria, which is just down the road from the shelter. This was good to save for last, since it is open quite late—until 8 pm during the summer. Here I found myself descending underground once again, for the museum’s collection is below street level. Intentionally or not, the sun-less, cave-like interior of the museum adds to the evocative power of its exhibitions about early humans. I was in the right mindset to learn about stone tools and extinct bears. Even so, I did not expect to encounter such a fine museum. Somehow, I imagined that it would be mainly geared towards children; yet within minutes I was spellbound by the quality of the displays. It is superbly made.
Admittedly I was predisposed to be interested, since I studied archaeology in college and even tried my hand at making stone tools once. Even so, I think anyone can appreciate the scope of information and the skill in presentation to be found there. On display are hundreds of stone tools—choppers, knives, arrowheads—arranged chronologically, showing the increasing sophistication of human ancestors over time. There are also recreations of tools made from wood and antler (which normally do not survive the ages), accompanied by videos of people making and even using these tools. This was not all. There was a recreation of a shellfish midden, a refuse pile left by generations of ancient shellfish-eaters; there were fossils of extinct animals, many of them massive; there were stone megaliths covered with decorative carvings; and there were even some Roman artifacts. When I visited I was the only person there, and stayed until it closed. It was an enchanting experience.
Though this did not happen on the same day, for the sake of continuity I will mention my visit to the Hermitage of La Virgen del Mar. This is quite far from the city; I was only able to visit thanks to my aforementioned Santanderino, who kindly drove me there. The building of the hermitage itself is quite bare and basic. But its location, like that of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, is exquisite, standing atop an island (very close to shore) next to a rocky, windswept beach. It is a gorgeous, romantic place that preserves its peaceful, natural beauty, despite the constant trickle of tourists.
This fairly does it for my time in Santander. I was dividing my limited time—a single weekend—between this city and Altamira (which I will describe next), so I did not get to know Santander as well as I should have liked. Even so, I was left with fond memories. Both the city itself and its location on the shore make it one of the great cities of northern Spain, reminding me most nearly of La Coruña in Galicia—one of my favorite places in the country. The rugged coast, oceanic weather, attractive center, and cultural monuments make the city one more delightful stopping-place in the Spanish panorama. And as you will shortly see, Cantabria has much more to offer.
The cave paintings of Altamira are perhaps only behind those of Lascaux in renown. Luckily, the site of their discovery is quite close to Santander, making it an easy daytrip. In a car the trip is around half an hour. And there are fairly frequent buses (every two hours) that run from the city center to town nearest the caves, Santillana del Mar.
I arrived in this town on a Saturday morning, shivering with excitement. Ever since I saw Werner Herzog’s transfixing documentary on the caves of Lascaux—Caveof Forgotten Dreams—I have been fascinated by the artistic power of our early ancestors. As a child I wondered at the enormous antiquity of the artifacts from Egypt in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yet the span of time between us and the people who painted these caves is far vaster. That an image created from a human hand could survive so many years—that it could speak to us from an age when strange extinct animals roamed the earth, when the stars in the sky were shifted, when the climate was altered and cold winds blew down from nearby glaciers—and not only speak to us, but entrance us with its beauty—it seemed too miraculous to believe. And thus it seemed even more stupendous that I could, with my own eyes, witness this temporal miracle.
I should stop my melodrama to note at this point that I was not going to see the actual paintings. These are much too precious and delicate to be casually seen by the general public. The organization has a lottery that they hold on Fridays in the museum, to select five lucky people to visit the caves. Since I was visiting on a Saturday, this left me with scant hope. But after closing the caves to public visits in 2002, the authorities have constructed a replica (called the “neocueva,” or “neo-cave”) that can be visited freely. This is what I was going to see.
The bus dropped me off in the center of town. I had bought my ticket ahead, which had a timed entrance to see the neo-cave. (Because of restricted space, smallish groups are allowed in at staggered times.) My entrance was in less than an hour, so I had little time to spare. Without pausing to catch a glimpse of the town, I strode out into the countryside towards the hill of Altamira. Even through my anxiety and morbid determination, however, I could not help noticing that the countryside was absolutely lovely. Gentle rolling hills, green with grass, dotted with trees, crisscrossed with plots of farmland, spread out ahead of me. White mist clung to the distance, as black-and-white cows grazed before a lonely church; and to my right were the tiled roofs of Santillana del Mar. Spain has seemingly boundless reserves of beauty.
I arrived at the museum with 20 minutes to spare (of course). This was hardly a problem, since the neo-cave comprises only a part of the display. There are dioramas of ancient peoples, skulls of ancestral species, piles of stone tools, and smaller replicas of cave art. Not bad for three euros—a modest price which includes the neo-cave, too. I particularly liked the examples of shapes made on the cave wall by blowing pigment against a hand, thus creating a reverse hand-print. There is something elemental about this gesture, allowing us to shake hands with someone from a different epoch. Perhaps all culture is rooted in the attempt to cheat death—sometimes literally, as with weapons and medicine, and sometimes figuratively, as with art. These cave-dwellers lived short and difficult lives compared to us; but will we leave any art that survives half so long?
Finally it was time for me to visit the neo-cave. I joined a small group of waiting tourists, while a placid employee scanned our tickets. Finally, like the heavy gates to an ancient city, the doors of the neo-cave slid open. I could scarcely have been more excited if the caves had been real.
A single footpath leads down through the neo-cave, into the main chamber, and out again. Some introductory panels of information are posted along the way; and a glass screen projects a cave-dwelling family into the artificial cave—the Jetsons meet the Flintstones. All of this is got through in five minutes. The rest of the time is spent gazing up at the ceiling of the main chamber. Photos are not allowed, which is likely a good thing, since the combination of lighting, angle, and surface texture would make it difficult to capture the chamber. In any case, the paintings are reproductions anyway, so why reproduce them once over?
The main chamber consists of a roughly square space with a low, uneven ceiling, which has been covered with paintings. Most of these consist of hooved animals, most prominently bison. These are executed using charcoal and red ochre. The round bodies of the bison crowd around each other, sometimes overlapping, and conform to the bumpy, bulging surface of the cave. As a rough estimate, the average size of these figures is three feet across; and there must be several dozen individual figures. As is inevitable with prehistoric art, many mysteries remain as to the origin and function of these paintings. We know that they were completed during the last ice age, before the cave was sealed by a rockslide 13,000 years ago; but beyond that there is a wide range of possible dates. We may safely surmise that the bison were prey animals, and tentatively guess that these paintings were involved in some kind of ritual to ensure plentiful food. But we do not know if they were painted all at once—perhaps by a few brilliant painters—or over the course of generations, perhaps even used successively by distinct cultural groups. However we may guess, we do not know what these paintings meant to their creators. We cannot even rule out the possibility that they were made by neanderthals, not humans.
The neo-cave is lit up by discrete LED lights in the built into the floors, walls, and ceilings. It is tastefully done; but no electric light can replicate how these caves must have looked when seen by firelight. In the weak, quivering glow of the flames, these bison may have been terrifying apparitions, seeming to run and dance in the unsteady light. Given the location of these paintings and the light-sources available to people at the times, it seems unlikely that the creators saw them the way that we are inclined to: as works of visual art, to be contemplated for their great aesthetic beauty. But that does not mean that we are not free to view them this way. The bison are somehow both stylized and realistic. They represent the lumbering form of the animal—powerful, meaty, muscular—with relatively few, bold strokes, reducing the animals to their most essential features. Yet this does not render them to caricature, but turns them into elemental monsters, like fire or rain. Clearly these artists had carefully observed real bison, and fully understood the animals’ essential role in their survival.
After I emerged from the neo-cave, blinking and exhausted, I was left with that sense of empty purposelessness that accompanies the doing of any long-awaited thing. Now what? I strolled around the museum some more, but I had already had my fill of prehistory museums in Santander. Then the idea struck me to see if I could find the entrance of the cave.
This is very easy to do, for the cave stands within five minutes of the museum compound. You cannot get very close, since it is closed off with an ample fence (I bet vandals and thrill-seekers occasionally try to break in); and in any case, there is not much to see, just a little doorway covered with a barred gate. It was hard to believe that beyond that small portal lay one of the most remarkable finds in the history of art.
After being sealed by a rockslide around 13,000 years ago, the cave became a natural time capsule. Apparently the cave’s entrance had become revealed by the 19th century, since by then it was visited by locals. One of these locals was Marcellino Sanz de Sautuola, a well-to-do Spaniard who both happened to own the land and have an interest in archaeology—a fortunate coincidence. After being led into the cave by his young daughter and realizing the importance of the paintings, Sautuolo cooperated on the original publication announcing their existence. Sadly, academics dismissed his claim of the paintings’ great antiquity, and he died before the truth was realized—an unfortunate coincidence.
Now I was absolutely famished, so I descended the Altamira hill back to Santillana del Mar, once more passing through the delicious countryside. Contrary to what you might expect, Santillana del Mar is not actually on the sea, only somewhat near it (15 minutes by car). I had assumed that there was another Santillana somewhere in Spain, but I cannot find any, which leaves me wondering why they thought it necessary to add “del Mar” to their name. In any case, this pueblo is routinely included in lists of beautiful Spanish villages, and for good reason. Long before the Altamira caves were discovered, it was a stopping point on the Camino de Santiago, which meant that a fair amount of monied pilgrims travelled through these streets. The result is an extremely handsome village, well worth visiting even if you do not, for some insane reason, visit the Altamira site.
For lunch, I went to a restaurant whose name I unfortunately did not write down. It was one of the best meals I have had in Spain. I sat on a balcony overlooking some of the surrounding countryside, drinking an ice-cold red wine, with a brash, fruity flavor. Because I was alone, and had ordered the daily menu, they gave me a full bottle of wine all to myself (which I mercifully decided not to finish). For the main course I was served cocido montañés, the typical stew of Cantabria. Now, many regions of Spain have their own type of stew; and they are all broadly similar, consisting of beans and cured meat. This particular variety is made with white beans and collard greens, making it somewhat lighter than other cocidos. With wine, cocido, a salad, and a slice of cake in my belly, I waddled back to the bus stop to return to Santander.
I left Cantabria thinking of the mysterious power of shelter. The cramped church underneath the cathedral, the air raid shelter underneath the street, and the caves of Altamira—all of them created a similar emotional atmosphere, at once safe and unsafe. These spaces protect us from what is outside; and yet the claustrophobic darkness within is unnerving, and even frightening. A Jungian might say the visitor delves into a deeper layer of the unconscious, while a Freudian might be content by pointing out that caves remind us of a mother’s womb. Leaving psychoanalyzing to one side, I will only point out that, thousands of years ago, our ancestors were driven into caves to hide from the elements and to make contact with spirits; and now, thousands of years later, we are making caves for the same reasons—to hide and to pray.
[See real cave entrance, story of their discovery, eating in town
A couple months ago I took a quick trip down to Córdoba. I had gone before, but this time around I had a new camera. Luckily for me, very little skill is needed to take nice photos in Córdoba. It is a thoroughly pretty city; and the Andalusian sun lights up every shape and makes every color glow. Here are some of the pictures I took.
(If you would like to more about the city of Córdoba, you can see my post—now with updated pictures.)
My first goal was to photograph the statues of all three Cordoban philosophers: Maimonides, Averroes, and Seneca:
Next I wanted to get photos of Córdoba’s Mezquita, the Great Mosque of the Spanish Moors:
After the Christians conquered Córdoba, they fortunately did not destroy this wonderful piece of architecture. But they did modify it. Most controversially, a Renaissance-style cathedral—with a chorus, nave, and altar—was built into the middle of the old mosque. For my part, though I regret the destruction of a part of the historic building, I think the effect is wonderful:
I also saw something new on this trip. As you may know, one of Córdoba’s most famous attractions are its patios, which are decorated with flowers every May as part of a city-wide competition. Visitors can enter these patios for free and can vote for their favorites. This charming custom has been added to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2012, and is now more popular than ever.
Unfortunately for me, I visited after the competition had wrapped up. But the museum of the Palacio de Viana—an old aristocratic residence—has a year-long display of Cordobese patios. I highly recommend a visit.
One need not pay to enter a monument to be surrounded by beauty in Córdoba, however, as the well-preserved city center is itself a monument:
And here is the Roman bridge, with the Mezquita in the distance:
Though I missed the patios, I did make it in time for Córdoba’s annual festival. The cities were filled with horses pulling carts filled with men and women in elaborate costumes. The men wore suits with broad-brimmed hats, and the women wore frilly, brightly colored dresses. Outside of the center an amusement park had been set up—creating an odd juxtaposition between the traditional Cordobese costumes and the Coney Island atmosphere.
As I hope you can see, Córdoba is one of the loveliest cities in a country full of conspicuously lovely cities. I highly recommend a visit
A train trip brought me from A Coruña, at Galicia’s northern tip, to the region’s southwestern edge: Vigo. The city sits on the southern side of a sizable estuary, the Ría de Vigo, which makes for an excellent port. This, and the city’s advantageous position on the Atlantic, has rendered it the commercial hub of Galicia.
The city’s name comes from Latin, vicus spacorum, or “small village,” as the Romans had a fortress here. A legend tells that Isabel the Catholic, after winning a battle against the Galician nobility, ordered all the olive trees in the region to be uprooted; but one stubborn tree in Vigo resisted. Thus the city’s nickname is La ciudad olívica, or “The Olive City” (though I don’t remember seeing any olive trees); and the city’s coat of arms features the famously resistant plant.
As I had just left A Coruña, that city of glass balconies and open parks, Vigo could not help but strike me as grey and industrial by comparison. The biggest city in Galicia by population, Vigo has a busy port and a thriving shipping business. It is a city of working people, with the architecture to match. Even its historic center gives the impression of being somewhat run-down and neglected.
Nevertheless, a walk through the city was not without its visual pleasures. In one traffic circle, a column of metal horses ascended into the air. Empty factory buildings—the windows smashed, the walls vandalized—foregrounded a splendid ocean view. As I walked along the port I observed the slumbering ships and the skeletal cranes standing by, the gateway to an ocean world I barely know.
I want to pause to single out the Bar Carballo for special praise. I ate there twice, and both times was totally satisfied. The tortilla de patata is perfectly creamy, and the empanadillas—meat-filled pastries—are easily the tastiest I have ever tried. Best of all, the food is extremely filling and cheap. If I lived in Vigo I would be a regular.
Eventually my walk along the port led me out of the city center. Soon I found myself surrounded by a tree-filled park, which then opened up to reveal Vigo’s massive beach, the Praia de Samil. The sand extends 1,115 meters, or almost a mile; and on the day I went, in mid-April, it was totally covered with people.
I must admit that beaches inspire mixed feeling in me. On the one hand there is the natural beauty—conspicuous in the Praia de Samil, with its views of the Cíes Islands. There is also the human spectacle of beachgoers, which cannot but tickle the fancy of anyone with anthropological curiosity. On the other hand I feel uncomfortable in the face of so much exposed flesh, frying in the sun. And the sublimity of the winds and the waves is, for me, disturbed by the legions of people yelling, running, splashing, and playing games. In sum, I like to observe beaches but I do not like being on them. This is in marked contrast to most Spaniards, of course, who generally love beach holidays. And thank heavens they do, since their country has some of the finest beaches in the world.
Speaking of fine beaches, Vigo is home to a beach even lovelier than the Praia de Samil: the Praia das Rodas. Indeed, in 2007 The Guardian even proclaimed this beach the best in the world. But to get there you must take a ferry, since it is on the Cíes Islands that sit in the estuary a few kilometers off shore. These three islands are Monteadugo (“sharp mountain”), Montefaro (“lighthouse mountain”), and San Martiño (“Saint Martin”). The first two essentially form one continuous island, since they are connected by their shared beach.
With an area of 4.4 square km, and an official population of three (the guards), the islands have never been important human settlements. But it is an important seagull settlement—in fact providing a home for the largest colony of seagulls in the world. Aside from the beaches, the surface of the island is mostly covered with eucalyptus and pine trees, blowing in the strong ocean winds. And I have read that the whales and sharks enjoy prowling in the water surrounding the islands—though I did not see any gargantuan backs or ominous fins emerging from the waves on my trip.
Due to the islands’ small size and status as a nature reserve, the number of visitors per day is strictly limited to 2,200 people. Thus I recommend booking a spot on a ferry in advance. (I should also note that these ferry companies only operate during Holy Week, when I went, or in the summer months.) But do yourself a favor and give yourself more time on the islands than I did. Thinking that they were small enough to see in a couple of hours, I only gave myself a short window with which to explore the islands; and the ferry company did not let me change my return time. I did have enough time to see everything, but no time to simply sit and enjoy the justly famous beach.
I arrived at the port, picked up my ticket from the booth, and boarded the ferry. The trip lasted about fifteen minutes, which was enough time to give half of everyone on board a sunburn. As we approached the islands, the Praia das Rodas came into view. It was almost as lovely as The Guardian’s rapturous description: “a perfect crescent of soft, pale sand backed by small dunes sheltering a calm lagoon of crystal-clear sea.”
The lagoon referred to is a feature of the beach’s location between two islands: Water laps the shore on both sides of the sand, the one open to the ocean, the other sheltered with a stone walkway that breaks the waves. I would think that this situation could easily lead to erosion, moving or even destroying the beach; but what do I know about these matters?
Aside from its terrific natural beauty—the water as blue as a postcard, the sand pretty enough to star in a movie—the beach benefits from the limited number of visitors. Visitors are sprinkled at wide intervals over the beach, allowing for calm enjoyment of the scene.
The visitor can explore the two islands, Monteadugo and Montefaro, using walking paths that lead up and into the interior. At times it is easy to forget that one is on an island, so completely do the trees close out the sea. But then the trees give way to reveal a commanding view of the surrounding ocean. Monteadugo is the larger island, and thus has more ample walking space. Yet Montefaro is also worth exploring, if only for the winding, stair-like path that leads up to the commanding lighthouse at its highest point.
By the time I had walked the distance of these two islands, the hour of my departure was nearing, and I had to rush back to the ferry. I was sad to go. Every inch of the islands is attractive; and the relative lack of people makes it possible to enjoy the scenery without disturbance.
The ferry deposited my back in Vigo, where I had dinner and went to sleep. The next day I was taking the train to Oporto, just a hundred miles or so south of Vigo. But that is for another post.
Today I went on a school trip to learn more about the Battle of Jarama, an important and bloody battle of the Spanish Civil War, which took place near my high school. We went with a group of Spanish and Dutch students, who are visiting for the week in an exchange program.
It was, incidentally, amusing to see the students side-by-side—the blond northerners and the dark-haired Mediterraneans. It was one of the first nice days of the year. The Dutch, for whom it was as hot as summer, were wearing bright colors and short sleeves, while the Spaniards felt fine in long-legged pants and dark colors. Climate does make a difference. Another contrast I noticed was how the two groups spent their time. The Spaniards sang together on the bus rides, while the Dutch took every opportunity to play games involving touching their hands and feet together in a rhythm; the boys played slap and the girls a game like patty cake.
Our first stop was at the Arganda Bridge, now called the Puente de la paz by residents of the town. It is an old steel bridge that runs over the Jarama River. In the past it formed part of the highway between Madrid and Valencia; but now it sits, alone and unused, near the Rivas lagoons, while cars buzz by on the new highway in the distance.
To understand the importance of the bridge, a little historical background is required. After the commencement of the military coup, in 1936, the government of the Republic relocated to Valencia in order to get away from the front lines of the fighting. Franco’s forces soon almost entirely surrounded Madrid, hoping to take the city. The highway to Valencia then became the city’s only lifeline. Thus the road was heavily defended by Republic forces. The Jarama River, which ran alongside the highway, formed an important natural barrier that could be used in its defense. In this area only three bridges crossed the water, of which the Arganda Bridge is one.
To illustrate how crucial was this crossing, it suffices to know that it was over this modest bridge that the paintings of the Prado were carried during their evacuation to Valencia. According to our guide, the trucks couldn’t even fit on the bridge, so the paintings had to be taken out and moved by hand. Later on, during the Battle of Jarama itself, the Republican forced tried to destroy the bridge; but their explosives failed to break or dislodge the structure. As a result, on February 11th Nationalist forces successfully crossed and established a bridgehead.
From this bridge we went to the Cerro Melero, a hill near the Hospital Universitario del Sureste. There you can find an open-air museum that preserves some of the trenches used in the Republican line. These trenches formed the second line of defense, in case of a Nationalist attack on the city of Arganda del Rey. The eminence offers a commanding view of the valley below; standing there, you can almost see the enemy forces scrambling underneath you. To protect from aerial attacks (both German and Italian fighter pilots participated in the battle), the trenches were built with an air raid shelter 32 meters long. Standing on other side of the hill is a sculpture of a cube split in two, symbolizing the Civil War. On its base is inscribed a fragment of Pablo Neruda’s famous poem, España en el corazón, lamenting the war.
Our next stop was the memorial to Suicide Hill. This morbid name comes from the brigade of British soldiers who sustained heavy loses defending the hill. According to our guides, these volunteer fighters were barely trained and poorly equipped; and they were up against seasoned veterans of Spain’s wars in the north of Africa. Nevertheless, they fought stoutly, holding off the enemy forces from taking the nearby village of Morata while losing over half of their 600 men. A stone cairn was the only thing to mark this spot for many decades, formed spontaneously by visitors piling up rocks. Yet repeated vandalism—a problem for any monument to the war, since it is still deeply controversial in this country—prompted some locals to invest in permanent masonry, so that it at least cannot be easily knocked over.
Not far from here the American volunteers, called the Lincoln Brigades, fought and also suffered heavy losses. One of the survivors, Alex MacDage, wrote lyrics to the tune of “Red River Valley” commemorating the event; and some years later Woody Guthrie recorded the song, which begins thus:
There’s a valley in Spain called Jarama It’s a place that we all know so well It was there that we gave of our manhood And there that our brave comrades fell.
We walked from this point to the Cota 700, a hill named for its height of 700 meters above sea-level. There we found some stone fortifications still standing from the Republican front line. The guide explained that the machine gunners were stowed in chambers separated by strong stone walls, so that if a bomb struck one of them it would not take out the rest.
Across the valley we could see the hill of Pingarrón, which was controlled by the Nationalist forces. After the halt of the Nationalist advance (largely thanks to the brave fighting of the International Brigades), the Republican forces repeatedly tried to counterattack and take this hill. Yet the lack of cover between the two lines—only a few scrubby olive trees—and the strong Nationalist artillery made it impossible.
Not far from here, surrounded by fields of olive trees used as hunting grounds, is another monument. Standing on a stone base is a sculpture of two giant hands, one covering the other. This is the work of Martín Chirino, a sculptor from the Canary Islands. It represents the open palm of the fascist salute united with the communist fist, symbolizing the unity of the opposed sides. As with everything related to the war, it has proven controversial. Its base is frequently vandalized with spraypaint, so that somebody must come regularly to paint over the political graffiti. The statue is certainly not calculated to please many, since supporters of neither side are inclined to see each other with sympathy. After all, by now both have felt the sting of defeat, the Republicans after the war itself, the Nationalists after the fall of Franco’s regime.
Our last stop was in the little town of Morata de Tajuña, in a charming restaurant and inn called the Mesón El Cid. Apart from the restaurant, terrace, and pool, the establishment has two free museums: one dedicated to the ethnography of local agricultural ways, the other dedicated to the Battle of Jarama. These are both the work of Gregorio (Goyo) Salcedo, a mustachioed man, now over seventy, who is from this area. His interest in history was sparked by necessity. Growing up in the harsh and scarce times after the war, when the economy was in the doldrums and hunger was common, he and his father and brothers would collect old guns, shells, and equipment from these battlegrounds to sell for scrap. “If the war was hard, so was the postwar,” he said in a newspaper interview; “it was another war.”
Soon he became interested in these artifacts for their own sake, and began collecting them. As his collection grew, so did his network, as former soldiers and their relatives got in contact with him. Eventually he converted an old garage into a museum, and quite an impressive one. There are thousands of photos, along with stories of individuals who fought and died in the battle. There are pieces of artillery and anti-aircraft, helmets, shells, uniforms, gas masks, guns, knives, flags, and every other manner of war paraphernalia. There is even a reconstruction of a Civil War-era schoolroom. That all this was collected, catalogued, and displayed by one man, is a testament to how much a private citizen can do for the sake of history. It is by far the best and most complete exhibition related to the Civil War that I have seen in Spain.
Like the sculptor Chirino, Salcedo strives for neutrality. As he says in that same interview: “Here there are no sides; all were human beings who fought, suffered, and died. We cannot forget that in war we are all victims, we all lose.”
Like so many battles, the Battle of Jarama was as inconclusive as it was bloody. Despite thousands of casualties on both sides and weeks of fierce fighting, the Nationalists did not break through and the Republican forces did not retake their lost ground. The war shifted elsewhere in the country, and the front largely held until the conflict’s final stages. Yet the soldiers who gave their lives to prevent the nationalists from cutting off Madrid—especially the foreign soldiers, poorly trained and equipped, who chose to come to Spain to fight against fascism—cannot but inspire the visitor with their example of moral and physical courage.
During my first stay in Galicia, on the Camino de Santiago, I was constantly impressed by the beauty of the landscape and the charm of the culture. Granted, in Galicia you will find little of the world advertised by Spanish postcards. Here there are no Moorish palaces or olive trees, but granite huts and rolling grass hills. Instead of scorching the earth, the sun hides behind clouds. Here the people play the bagpipes rather than flamenco.
Yet if I were forced to choose any part of Spain as my favorite—no easy task—I would decide on Galicia. For me the region has a strange romantic charm that never fails to get under my skin. The deep green of the landscape, the mild weather and overcast skies, the grey granite rock that so abounds—all this gives Galicia a lush, rugged, and ancient aspect that I find deeply appealing.
And this is not to mention the Galician culture. Despite their reputation for being a reserved people, every Galician I have met has invariably been warm and welcoming. I am even fond of the accent, which is distinguished by its throaty pitch and sing-song tone. As in all the north of Spain, the food in Galicia is rich, hearty, and delicious—with high-quality beef and seafood—and, here more than elsewhere, very affordable too. Indeed, in general Galicia is an extremely economical place in which to travel and live, which is no small thing.
Though the interior of Galicia is charming in the extreme—a seemingly endless bucolic pasture, filled with fields and farmers—the province cannot be properly appreciated without a visit to its coast. The granite geology of the region has resulted in one of the most dramatically beautiful coastlines in a country known for its beaches. So, without further ado, here are Galicia’s two biggest coastal cities: A Coruña and Vigo.
It is not clear where the name of A Coruña came from. It is not even clear what to call the city: officially it is A Coruña, but many Spaniards call it La Coruña. (“A” is the Gallego word for “La,” or “the.”) In Roman times the city was known as Brigantium, named after the Brigantes, one of the Celtic tribes that once populated this region.
Indeed, you may be surprised to know that, back in the foggy mists of time, the Celtic peoples dominated this grassy region. It is due to this fact that bagpipes are part of traditional Galician culture; and this is just one example of a surviving remnant of that ancient race. Galicia even officially joined the Celtic league—along with Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Cornwall, Brittany, and the Isle of Man—in 1986, only to be kicked out a year later because the Celtic language has gone extinct here.
Nevertheless, Galicia does have its own language, Gallego, which is one of the four official languages of Spain. A Romance language closely related to Portuguese, the language is widely spoken and used in daily life in Galicia, though admittedly not as much as Castilian. During the nationalizing currents of the Enlightenment the language almost went extinct, but underwent a revival, or Rexurdimento, in the nineteenth century. Not coincidently, this was also the age of Catalan’s Renaixença, as people responded to the Romantic emphasis on local, rural cultures.
I got off the night bus from Madrid in A Coruña at around seven in the morning, cramped, cold, and exhausted. It was Holy Week and at least it wasn’t rainy. After nursing a coffee and dropping off my things at the Airbnb, I walked towards the peninsula that forms the city’s old center.
Though there are no spectacular buildings to be found, I found the center of A Coruña an enchanting place to stroll about. Narrow streets open up into ocean views; seagulls constantly float past on the seaside breeze.
Most distinctive are the glass balconies, called galerías, that hang over the streets. These can be seen all around A Coruña’s central square, the Plaza de María Pita, where the stately city hall presides. Incidentally, this square is named after a local heroine, who helped to defend the city from an English attack in 1589. This brave action was rewarded with a military pension by Philip II; and her Gallego battle cry—Quen teña honra, que me siga, “Those who would have honor, follow me”—is still well-known.
The glass balconies are even more apparent on the seaside avenue, Avenida Marina, one of the most picturesque parts of the city. From there I walked to the Paseo Maritimo, one of the longest maritime promenades in Europe. Handholding couples, sweating joggers, and spandex-clad cyclist went by, while old men waited next to fishing lines for an aquatic nibble. Across the water I could see the green hills on the other side of the bay. I especially appreciated the elegant forms of the rust-colored streetlamps that adorned the street.
Walking on this way, I eventually reached the park at the end of the peninsula. Here is where A Coruña becomes truly grand. The grassy hills slope down into a craggy mound of rock, lapped by the ocean tides. Statues and megaliths dot the grass, in a playful imitation of Stonehenge amid the English countryside. A curious structure is the Casa das Palabras (House of Words), a kind of enclosed courtyard of obvious Moorish inspiration. An informational plaque declares that it was the burial ground of Muslim soldiers who died in the Spanish Civil War, whose bodies have since been relocated. According to the website, the current function of the building is to serve as a meeting point between different cultures, though it doesn’t look like it gets much use.
The star attraction, of course, is the Torre de Hércules, or the Tower of Hercules. A legend tells that the Greek hero battled a monster on this spot for three days until finally slaying the beast; then he buried the monster’s head underground, and ordered a city to be built. The coat of arms shows the severed head of the vanquished foe, upon which the Tower of Hercules shines proudly.
The tower not for defense, but is a lighthouse, probably the oldest continually functioning lighthouse in the world—a fact that earned it the status of UNESCO World Heritage in 2009. Built in the 2nd century by the Romans, it is the only Roman lighthouse to survive the centuries. Yet the graceful form that greets the eye nowadays—sprouting 55 meters, or 180 ft, into the air, making it the second-tallest lighthouse in Spain—owes far more to the Enlightenment-era reconstruction, completed in 1791 by Eustaquio Giannini. Inside the structure the Roman masonry survives, though it does not look like much to the untrained eye. In any case, the fact that the Romans would need a lighthouse on the remote northwestern edge of the Iberian peninsula speaks for itself.
The lighthouse is best appreciated from across the park’s little bay. From there you can see the dramatic rise of the rocks out of the water, like the back of some scaled beast, ascending into a gently sloping grassy hill, the cool green speckled with yellow flowers—all culminating in the tan tower standing high above the waves. After I walked over to inspect the tower, I sat myself on some of the rocks overlooking the sea in order to read a little. I was in the middle of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. In one part Spengler says that Western man’s deepest urge is to be alone with infinity; and as I sat above the crashing waves, looking out at the ocean beyond, I felt the strange peace of being a silent witness to something far bigger than myself.
The other major sight in A Coruña is the Monte de San Pedro, which is quite a walk from the city center. On the way there, I passed A Coruña’s massive beach, which sits on the northern side of the peninsula. Though technically divided into two beaches, the Orzán and Riazor, it forms one continuous spread of sand. The view from the far end, facing the peninsula, is astonishing in the vast sweep of shore curving into the distance. You may also pause to observe the hulking form of A Coruña’s football stadium.
The most stylish way to go up the hill is via the glass elevator on the northern side. The elevator ascends diagonally up the hillside, going slowly enough to give the visitor a chance to peer out of the glass ball at the ocean scenery. But I was in the mood to walk, so I took the long way around, trekking all the way around the hill before going up from the southern end.
The Monte de San Pedro sits strategically over the bay, giving a wide visibility in many directions. This is why it was made a naval fortress during the twentieth century, though it never saw any actual fighting due to Spain’s neutrality in the World Wars. Now the big bunkers and guns form part of a park, their gargantuan barrels slowly rusting away—which is the best thing a gun can do, really. The main attraction, however, is simply the view. From the western side one can see the Galician coastline, with a group of four flat, rocky islands off the shore. From the east all of A Coruña is visible, with the Tower of Hercules standing proudly from across the bay.
These are just some of my fondest memories of A Coruña. The city is easily among the finest costal cities in the north of Spain, one to which I would gladly return.
We were in Salamanca on a day trip. We had taken the fast train and arrived early on a Sunday morning to see the city. Salamanca is situated in the southern half of Castilla y León. If you head away from Madrid in a straight line, oriented north west, you will reach Salamanca after passing through Ávila.
The city has long history, having been founded by pre-Roman tribes. From the middle ages to the present day, it has remained one of Spain’s most important cultural centers. As a result, the city possesses so many fine historical structures that its entire old center was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988. And it is convenient, too, being easily accessible via train from Madrid, making it one of the best (though one of the longest) day trips from the nation’s capital.
“Where is the frog?” I repeated.
We were standing outside the Cathedral of Salamanca, looking for a frog on its façade. You see, everyone told us that ‘finding the frog’ was one of the iconic things to do here, and I would be damned if I didn’t find it.
We walked from one side of the cathedral to the other, both of us scrutinizing its complex ornamentation. No luck. Then we moved to the front entrance again. There, we observed a little girl pointing to the doorway.
“¡Astronauta!” she said.
“Oh, the astronaut!” I said.
We got closer and, indeed, there was the astronaut—something else I’d been told to find in Salamanca. He was floating in the relief of leaves that framed one of the doors, one hand gripped onto a cord so he didn’t float away.
“Let’s just go visit the cathedral,” I said to GF.
We went in. As we were paying for our tickets, I asked the ticket woman:
“Where’s the frog?”
“Oh, it’s not here,” she responded. “That’s on the university building.”
“But we do have an astronaut,” the security guard added.
We had been searching on the wrong building.
The Salamanca Cathedral is divided into two sections, the Old Cathedral and the New. The Old Cathedral was begun in the 12th century, and completed in the 14th; the New was begun in 1513 and finally consecrated in 1733. The new one was built in such a way that it sort of engulfs the older structure. They now sit side by side, connected with a doorway.
From the outside, the New Cathedral is certainly the more impressive: it is the tallest building around, towering over the many other beautiful cupolas that fill the skyline of Salamanca. It presents itself to the viewer as a monumental collection of spikes and spires; it rises upwards in three levels that sit over one another like stairs. Like so many cathedrals, it is a stylistic medley; at first glance the decoration looks gothic, but the cupola is baroque.
Our audioguides took us into the Old Cathedral first. The building is notably small—which I suppose is why it was replaced. The walls are covered with fading frescos in the stylized Romanesque style. The main altar is striking, especially the fresco of the Last Judgment that sits at its top. Jesus, with one hand raised wrathfully towards the damned, is standing above four angels who blow horns to celebrate the triumph. To His right are the saved, a multitude of figures in white robes with hands outstretched in prayer; and to His left are the damned, a cowering crowd of naked bodies, vainly trying to run.
We moved on to the new building. It must be one of the tallest cathedrals that I have seen. And yet, the structure somehow managed to seem massive but not inhuman. I didn’t feel squashed by the weight of religious intensity, as I do in some cathedrals. In fact, I felt quite comfortable as I walked around—though quite cold, as it was colder in there than outside. It was especially gratifying to stand in the center, right under the cupola, and look up at the painting of the Holy Ghost (as usual, symbolized by a dove) hundreds of feet above me.
It is lovely cathedral (and you haven’t seen the last of it in this blog post). But for now, in just under an hour, we left to find the university, once again in search of the frog.
Like any university, the University of Salamanca is composed of several buildings. The infamous amphibian is located on the façade of the historical Escuelas Mayores. If you are looking at the right building, it is not too hard to find. From afar, the frog does not look especially froglike—more like a bump sitting on top of a skull that forms part of the decoration of the ornate façade. It is said that anyone who sees this skull is destined to return one day to Salamanca. I have not yet, but I plan to.
This old historical building now serves as a sort of museum. We paid the entrance fee and went in.
Founded in 1134, granted a royal charter in 1218, and formally recognized as a university by Pope Alexander IV in 1255, the University of Salamanca is the oldest university in Spain, and the third oldest (after Bologna and Oxford) in the world that is still in operation. Throughout its history, the University of Salamanca has played an important role in Spanish intellectual life. Bureaucrats for Isabella and Ferdinand trained for their posts here; and Christopher Columbus laid out his plans for his voyage to the geographers at this university. Today the university is still one of Spain’s most important, with roughly 28,000 active students. This is why Salamanca is full of young people.
The museum building is fairly modest in size. It is designed like a cloister, with hallways surrounding a square courtyard. From this hallway, we walked from room to room, reading the information panels and peeking inside. The majority of these were lecture halls; and compared to the lectures halls in my state university in New York, they were extremely small (which is not a bad thing). The desks and chairs are themselves historical; some even had scratches from idle students, scribbling on the wood with their pens.
We walked up an ornate staircase to the second floor. On one wall were paintings of two men holding candles. A panel informed us that these were saints, and were painted here to discourage students from urinating on the walls at night. I wonder if it worked. Nearby was the old library. Since the book’s are extremely old and delicate, the visitor is only allowed to stand in a glass cube right in the entranceway. Two rows of bookshelves run around the room, full of visibly ancient tomes.
This was apparently the very first university library in Europe, founded by Alfonso the Wise, of Castille, in 1254. In any case, the room is beautiful, filled with old wooden tables and chairs, with globes scattered about. It is the kind of sight that makes one want to become a monk and read Latin theology twelve hours a day.
The rest of the building was full of old pedagological relics. Old maps hung on the walls—some of them hilariously misshapen, but many impressively accurate. A small wooden figure of a man, with removable parts, stood nearby—an old anatomy doll for practicing surgery. There were stuffed birds and oversized models of flowers. Further on, we also saw a giant book of music, used by music theorist hundreds of years ago.
On our way back down we again passed the Aula Unamuno, a lecture room named after one of Salamanca’s most famous professors, the Basque philosopher, poet, and novelist Miguel de Unamuno. Not far from here, in the Paraninfo of the university, Unamuno took part in one of the most famous incidents in Spanish intellectual history. The year was 1936, the first year of the Spanish Civil War. The Francoist general José Millán-Astray was attending a ceremony in the university in celebration of the Día de la Raza. During this ceremony Unamuno dared to say a few words against the war, provoking the general to bang the desk and shout: “¡Mueran los intelectuales! ¡Viva la Muerte¡” (“Death to intellectuals! Long live death!”).
Unamuno responded to this fascist sentiment with the famous phrase, “Venceréis, pero no convenceréis” (“You will vanquish, but you will not convince”). This is one of the many reasons why this quixotic philosopher is among my intellectual heroes. There is, by the way, an excellent cubist statue to the mad Basque standing nearby; and the house in which he lived during his rectorship of the university (he was named rector three separate times) has been converted into a museum. Unfortunately I have yet to visit—I suppose the frog will compel me to return.
Our next stop was the Roman bridge. This was built in the 1st century as part of the Vía de la Plata, or Silver Road, an old Roman road that used to connect Mérida, in Extremadura, to Astorga in the north. (Apparently it was called the “Silver Road,” not because it was for transporting silver, but because the finely made Roman road reminded people of silver.) This path is still used today, by pilgrims hiking the Camino de Santiago.
The Roman bridge spans the River Tormes, and stretches to nearly 360m (well over 1,000 ft). In style and shape, it is similar to the Roman bridge in Córdoba—short and squat, wide enough for perhaps five people abreast, resting on a series of arches. The river underneath the bridge is somewhat marshy; trees and grass stick up from the water in dense tufts.
We walked along for a while, stopping now and then to enjoy the view. Joggers went past us, dressed in their neon exercise jumpsuits, their breath leaving a trail of fog in the cold air as they huffed and panted. Couples, old and young, strode along the bridge holding hands. Some high school kids were sitting on the wall, chatting amongst themselves. Other tourists like us were taking pictures.
After we got to the end of the bridge, we turned back towards town. For a while we walked with no definite goal, since Salamanca has such an exceptionally fine historical center. The entire downtown area might as well be a museum of architecture. Cupolas fill the sky; towers and spires hang above you wherever you turn; finely ornamented facades adorn every other building.
Two buildings stand out for special mention. The Church of Saint Mark is one of the oldest buildings in the city, an eye-catching, squat, circular structure from the eleventh century. Walking into its stark and nearly windowless interior is a memorable experience. There is also the Casa de las Conchas, a gothic mansion covered in friezes of scallop shells—one of the most iconic symbols of the Camino de Santiago. It was built for a man named Rodrigo Maldonado de Talavera, who was a chair of law in the university and a member of the Order of Saint James. According to a legend, the family hid some of its most precious jewels under one of these shells.
We eventually reached the Plaza Mayor of Salamanca, one of the finest in Spain. It looks quite like the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, except Salamanca’s is slightly more impressive. Both are perfectly square. Both are enclosed by a uniform building. Here, its bottom level consists of several arches, and under these are many shops and restaurants. The upper levels are rows of windows that I believe belong to apartments. (Does anybody live in these places? The constant tourists must be irritating.)
We decided to sit down at a café to rest and drink some coffee. We both ordered café con leche, one of the typical styles of coffee here in Spain.
As a side note, Spanish coffee is quite different from the American variety. Their coffee is our espresso. You can order this shot of bitter caffeine in many ways, however. One of the most common is the aforementioned café con leche, which is about one-third coffee to two-thirds milk (the milk can be steamed or cold, according to your preference). Another common style is café cortado; this is about two-thirds coffee to one-third milk (and consequently has much less liquid, since the amount of coffee is standard). You can also have café solo, straight espresso; or café largo, which is watered down espresso.
Well, today we were both in the mood for café con leche. The coffee was expensive, but was actually some of the tastiest I have had in Spain.
We got up and began wandering again. We kept walking until a building caught our eye: the Convento de San Esteban. Its façade is impressive: underneath a large arch are dozens of friezes carved into the wall. This is one most impressive examples of the plateresque style, which is only found in Spain. The name comes from “plata,” the Spanish word for silver, because the architectural ornament is supposed to mimic the embellishments of a silversmith. This is the same style that is on display on the exterior of the University of Salamanca building and on the cathedral.
The Convento de San Esteban is a Dominican monastery built during the Renaissance. This is supposedly where Columbus stayed when he came to Salamanca to dispute with the professors of the university. (Actually it was the building that was knocked down to make way for this one.) We paid the entrance fee and went in, and recommend you do the same: there is an impressive church, a cloister, and a museum, with lots of fine religious art.
Once we were back in the street, I checked my phone to see if we had missed anything. It looked like we had. Apparently, the cathedral’s bell tower, Ieronimus, is a separate visit from the cathedral itself. This promised a lovely view of the city, so we walked back to the cathedral to find the entrance.
The price paid, we began the ascent. Visits to old towers are commonly arduous. There are no elevators in these places, and the stairs can be steep and narrow. But Ieronimus was different. Each stairway led to an exhibition room, where there were artifacts and panels with information. Thus we had frequent breaks from the climb, allowing us to rest a bit, learn something about the cathedral’s history, and then keep going.
After continuing on like this for a while, we eventually reached a level where we could go outside. A walkway led onto the roof of the cathedral. To my left were the marvelous flying buttresses, bedecked with ornament; and to my right was the Romanesque tower of the Old Cathedral. Beyond I could see the river, sparkling in the sun, and the Roman bridge with its crowd of tiny people. It was fantastic. How often in life does one get a chance to walk on the roof of a cathedral?
After further ascent, we found ourselves standing on a narrow balcony, high up above the floor of the New Cathedral. In the distance, at the far end of the building, mass was being celebrated. The amplified voice of a priest boomed through the space. From here, you could really appreciate the height of this structure. I tried taking some pictures, to capture this feeling of extreme verticality, but I couldn’t fit the whole space into one frame. I tried taking a panoramic photo, sweeping my camera from the floor to the ceiling, but this caused everything to look bent and distorted.
Another door led us out into the roof; we passed under several archways in the stone (one of which I hit my head against), and then another doorway lead us to more stairs. A little sign on the wall was counting down the seconds until we would be allowed to climb up to the bell tower. (This is to avoid the chance of colliding in the stairs, because they are too narrow to ascend and descend at the same time.)
The tower has two levels. The top one was the more interesting. Inside was an old mechanism for the clock—an impressive contraption, full of gears and chains. Windows ran along the outer wall, providing for a magnificent view, though the thick netting that was stretched across every window (presumably to prevent accidents and suicides) somewhat impeded the experience.
After having our fill of the view, we waited again for the countdown clock, and began our way down. We had to go to the train station to catch our train back. I felt sad to leave, though. It was so much fun exploring this tower that I regretted having to go. If you find yourself in Salamanca, make sure to visit Ieronimus.
Once again, our trip was at an end. We boarded the train and shot off towards Madrid.
Outside the window, the day was still sunny. I later learned that this Sunday broke records in Salamanca for the warmest temperatures in January. It certainly didn’t look like January out the window. The sky was bright and blue, and the ground was covered with green. The train went past miles and miles of farmland. For mountainous and dry Spain, the landscape was incredibly verdant and flat—the flatness only occasionally broken by groups of trees, farm buildings, and metal telephone poles. Other than that, nothing but a delicious, and seemingly endless, field of green stretched out before me.
Looking out at this scene, a feeling came over me, one which I often feel when looking out the window of long train rides or car rides: A sense of my own smallness. The world is such a big place. Whole lives were lived in these fields, for generations and generations. Farmers lived and died here, practicing an ancient profession of which I know nothing. What were they like?
This is why I think sitting on a train, watching the world go by, is so valuable: We get a taste of how big the world really is, how many people are living in it, how many different jobs and towns and ways of life there are. It is one of the most edifying feelings I know.
Thus was I transported back to Madrid, gazing out the window, lost in thought, after a lovely day in Salamanca.