Saturday 25th April 2009, Salamanca
We spoke too soon yesterday when we said the weather had turned hot. Today it has been really chilly again except for the brief moments when the sun has burst out from behind the clouds. At such moments there is a real warmth that everyone soaks up like lizards. Too soon though, we are all donning our jackets and shivering again. This evening the rain has started and we are sufficiently chilly in Modestine to get out our fan heater!
Our camping book claims this site is two kilometres from Salamanca with a delightful cycle track and footpath running beside the river right to the roman bridge that leads into the city. Hooray, Hinge and Bracket can finally do something useful! So far they have been a dead weight on our Iberian travels as we have had no opportunity to use them. We set off along beside the river but it soon became apparent that the camping book compilers had never actually tried out the route. Humps, bumps, potholes, tree roots, low hanging branches and general degradation of the narrow footpath made staying on the saddle not only painful, but dangerous, risking us bouncing off into the river! For two kilometres read at least six. The river makes a great sweep around the city and the footpath finally runs out somewhere near the sports ground leaving us to work out our own route from there on! Eventually though we picked up another cycle route and reached the roman bridge from where there is a good view across to the old city of Salamanca.
Chaining our bikes to a lamppost we climbed the steep slope up into the old town. It is reputed, with justification, to be one of the most elegant cities in Spain. I have long wished to see it and it has been the main reason why we chose to explore the interior of Spain. Rather than being the first inland city on our Spanish wanderings, because we decided to explore further south in Portugal, it has turned out to be one of the last. So we have already seen so many beautiful old cities, each with unsurpassed splendours, that it is difficult to think of new ways to express similar impressions. I was afraid that the impact of Salamanca would be lost after the splendours of Segovia, Caceres and El Escorial. I need not have worried however. The buildings are really stunningly beautiful and there are so many of them! Everywhere is constructed in the same warm tawny coloured stone so that even recent buildings blend inconspicuously in with neighbouring palaces, monasteries and churches.
Salamanca has a population of around 160,000. Most of buildings in the historic centre date from the 14th to the 18th centuries. It has two cathedrals, side by side, the old and the new. As we arrived a wedding was taking place in the old cathedral, the poor bride looking very chilly with her bare shoulders. Entry to the huge "new" cathedral was free and the interior quite breath-taking. While the building is 16th century late gothic, interior decoration is a Spanish version of extreme baroque, known as churrigueresque after its chief exponent. Tombs, archways and windows have all been decorated in extravagant low relief not dissimilar to the Portuguese Manueline style but without the carved belts, buckles and baubles. The Spanish version is known as Plateresque (after silversmiths) or Isabeline (after Isabel of Castille) and we found it attractively different. The rest of the decoration was a riot of richly carved and decorated stonework and exuberantly painted altars. There must be literally thousands of little cherubs or puttis in the building and many of the columns, friezes and stone screens are decorated with fantasy creatures and vegetation.
That's it. I cannot possibly describe every building but Ian has a few pictures so I'll save myself several thousand words and leave you to look at the photos instead!
Christopher Columbus came to Salamanca in 1486 in an unsuccessful attempt to raise sponsorship for his travels to the New World from the faculty of astronomy. Here he met with the council of theologians in the ancient cloister of what is now the convent of San Esteban - a huge and beautiful 16th century building. (Columbus later gained the support he needed from Queen Isabel.)
The University of Salamanca, founded in 1218, is one of the oldest and most prestigious in Spain. There are many famous alumni of the university, including Hernan Cortés, Saint Ignatius Loyola and Luis de Leon. In 1573 Leon was arrested in the middle of his lecture by the Inquisition for alleged subversion of the Catholic faith. After five years of torture and imprisonment he was eventually released. He resumed his interrupted lecture with the words, "As I was saying earlier …"
The University is right in the heart of the old town, a series of attractive old stone buildings and pleasant formal gardens. Today students were receiving their degrees and the town was crowded with young people looking very smartly dressed, wearing blue sashes signifying success. They were each accompanied by proud parents looking very smartly dressed, wearing broad smiles signifying success.
In the centre of the town is the Plaza Mayor. It is one of the largest anywhere in Spain. It is probably also one of the most beautiful, surrounded on all sides by a colonnade constructed between 1729 and 1755. There are dozens of restaurants and bars here, though custom was less lively than it might have been with warmer weather. The Plaza is the very heart of the town, a place where local residents come to stroll and chat with friends. They don’t seem to do anything other than stand around in small groups. Also in the square are many young tourists with their backpacks, coke cans and sandwiches. They sit together on the ground, or sleep using their rucksacks as pillows while Salamanca continues its daily existence around them.
By contrast we investigated the municipal market, devoted entirely to foodstuffs. Such places are always good for observing everyday life in a town, away from the main tourist spots. Here we browsed the stalls, fascinated at the dexterity with which knives, scissors and choppers were used to clean and fillet fish in seconds and still retain the full quota of fingers! The meat counters were piled high with assorted bits of pig, with trays of ears, snouts, feet and tails. There were also piles of brains and rows of dangling livers complete with spleens. Also on display were neatly laid out suckling pigs, their brief lives cut short by the butcher's knife. They are a popular speciality of Salamanca.
We bought a Spanish version of sausage rolls which we ate on a bench in the middle of the market watching shoppers making their purchases and chatting with the stall holders.
By chance we discovered a museum of 19th century clocks, of particular interest to Ian since many years ago he designed an extremely elaborate classification scheme for the London Clockmaker's Company library and catalogued their collections for them. This museum had some interesting long case clocks, some attractive pocket watches and quite a few very ugly bronze mantle clocks that made me grateful not to own one.
Nearby we discovered the public library in part of the building known as the Shell House and popped inside hoping for free internet access, but they were on the point of closing. The building though is magnificent with a central courtyard. We've certainly seen some impressive library buildings during our travels. The Shell House itself is decorated with 400 scallop shells. It was built in the early 16th century for a member of the Order of Santiago, hence the shells.
By this time we were feeling a tad weary and we still had to find our bikes and cycle all the way back along the bumpy riverside to Modestine. So we have noted a couple of museums open on Sundays and we will return with new vigour tomorrow to explore them.
Sunday 26th April 2009, Salamanca
Despite the continuing cold weather and the blustery rain showers we have been as good as our word, returning to the city along the difficult riverside route, and chaining Hinge and Bracket to the same lamp post. On our way we discovered a huge Sunday market on an area of waste ground near the sports stadium. This time it was mainly clothing, shoes, large white knickers, huge beige corsets that looked as if they'd been designed by structural engineers, fake perfumes, cheap jewellery and pirated cds. Although we have seen some very elegant Spanish people, in general they love tatty things and the market was well crowded with clothing that looked as cheap as the prices they were charging for it, selling faster than the stalls could be restocked. To one side was a second-hand section where anyone with a large unwanted crucifix, complete with a blood soaked Christ wearing his crown of thorns, could lay it out on the tarmac in the hope of finding a purchaser. His neighbour might well be selling a set of deer's antlers, a huge ceramic pot or a canteen sized battered paella dish. There were copper cowbells aplenty along with antiquated electrical appliances, rusty tools and wooden rakes missing half their tines. I just love European markets, so much more colourful than in England, and they are a fascinating place to watch real people. They actually buy all this stuff! There are short little men wandering around with a set of antlers under their arm or a crucifix over their shoulder, stopping to chat, browse or buy the missus a really lovely ornament of St. Theresa from the euro an item box in the corner. Next week they will probably be back trying to sell off this week's bargains once their wives have told them just where to put the antlers and statuette!
Once back in Salamanca we made for the Archives of the Spanish Civil War which has a permanent exhibition. Our efforts to understand the causes of the conflict were somewhat frustrated as labelling was purely in Spanish and the English handout we were loaned was out of date, all the exhibits having been renumbered to accommodate an additional section on the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross in helping the afflicted on both sides. There were lots of propaganda posters, harrowing photos of war victims and accounts of sieges, usually where groups of Republican fighters and their families were isolated for weeks out in the countryside, surrounded by the Nationalist military. On such occasions the Red Cross was sometimes called in to negotiate terms for surrender. Generally though, there appeared to be very few prisoners taken and the death toll in such situations was usually high. There was an impressive black and white collage, made up entirely of a mosaic of miniature wartime photographs in the archive, depicting Picasso's nightmare picture of Gernika epitomising the horrors of the war. (We passed Gernika, near Bilbao, in the heartland of the Basque country earlier on these recent travels.) In a primarily Republican area Gernika was selected by the Nationalists early in the Civil War as a target for a massive civilian bombing raid. In 1937, planes lent to Franco by Hitler carried out four hours of saturation bombing on the town centre, killing over 1600 people and destroying most of the town.
We left the exhibition with more questions than answers. There is just so much that is totally incomprehensible about civil war, where cities and even families must be divided. We remember being told when we were in France, staying in the Languedoc, that during and after the Spanish Civil War thousands of refugees fled across the border, fearful of reprisals once Franco came to power. They settled in the French villages and integrated into the community, never to return to Spain. In our little village of Ambre-les-Espagnolettes alone we noticed that many of the graves in the village cemetery bore Spanish names and our neighbour there told us she had learnt Spanish as a child playing with refugee children living in the village.
Next we visited the town museum housed in the Alvarez Albarca Palace. The mediaeval building with its tower and courtyard was more interesting really than the exhibits which not particularly remarkable being largely religious paintings by obscure painters and a few effigies and statues.
The University museum next door, in the cloisters of the amazingly attractive Minors' Schools had even less to offer. Its main, indeed only, item on display, apart from a few trendy modern photographs, was the remains of a remarkable 15th century ceiling painted for the University Library by Fernando Gallego. Known as the Cielo de Salamanca it shows signs of the Zodiac and various heavenly constellations. It was originally three times the size but the rest was destroyed by the shock waves from the Lisbon earthquake in 1755.
Having already done three museums and a Sunday market we sat in the university gardens in the freezing cold to eat our picnic sandwiches along with a disreputable looking tramp who'd discovered a half finished glass of beer on a nearby bench. To this are we fallen! We'll be joining the beggars and gipsies we see at the entrance to every church and cathedral next!
Our final attack on Salamanca was to visit the very different Art Nouveau and Art Deco museum. This was delightful, both for the building and for the exhibits. Everyone was obliged to hand in their cameras so we have no photos but it was so good to browse the exhibits without cameras going off at every second. The heyday of the period was from around 1900 to 1930. The building, constructed for Art Nouveau enthusiast Don Miguel de Lys at the start of the 20th century, was a wonder of coloured and decorated glass built around a central display area, the floors covered in tiles of the period and was every bit as important and impressive as the exhibits.
On display were exquisitely beautiful and graceful statuettes of dancers in bronze and ivory by artists such as Demetre Chiparus and Ferdinand Preiss. There were Art Deco glass figurines and ornaments, perfume bottles and jewellery, all designed by René Lalique. There was a huge collection of fans as well as lace, porcelain and furniture of the era. There was an impressive collection of dolls, their heads made by specialist companies such as Jumeau, Bru and Steiner, and there were also toys and games of the period. For us though, the most outstanding exhibits were the many and varied painted glass vases and lamps designed by Emile Gallé, of the Nancy school, with their translucent colours, the painted designs of leaves, flowers or birds standing out in low relief. These objects dated from between 1900 and 1915. Anyone interested can read more about the Nancy School and the glass produced by the Daum company there in our blog dated 25th June 2007.
Our second day in Salamanca has been delightful and we pedalled back along the river well contented with our visit. We arrived "home" feeling very chilly and retreated inside Modestine with mugs of tea just before the rain returned. Tomorrow we move on, probably northwards but who knows?