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.
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.