In lively Salamanca, Spain, even the architecture is animated

By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 28, 2010

We thought we'd been tricked. After studying the leaves and vines carved around the west door of Salamanca's New Cathedral for 10 minutes, we still couldn't locate the astronaut, the monkey with an ice cream cone or the stork carrying a branch in its beak. We decided that the purported carvings were urban legends, most likely concocted as a joke on gullible tourists.

Then a panhandler strolled over and offered to point them out. We gave him a euro and he reached up and gestured: Here . . . and here . . . and here. Sure enough, there was the graceful stork, the gargoyle-like monkey, the astronaut floating in his spacesuit: modern whimsies planted on the biggest, most pious building in town.

Begun in 1513, the grand cathedral represents the last gasp of Gothic architecture in Spain. But when it came time to renovate the west portico in 1992, even the Archdiocese of Salamanca couldn't resist some subtle winks in stone.

We were quickly learning that Spain's university city savors wit above all, rewarding the observant Slow Traveler with subtle glimpses of earthly delights. The major buildings are constructed of a local sandstone that glows like El Dorado in the golden light of dawn and sunset. The soft stone is particularly well suited to carving, and the resulting city could easily star in a graphic novel.

And why not an ice cream-licking monkey on the cathedral? After all, the most famous image in Salamanca is that of a small frog perched on a human skull, part of the visual forest of decoration around the entrance to the Salamanca University's original college. The anonymous craftsman who carved it there in 1534 clearly got to surrealism four centuries ahead of Salvador Dalì. That sense of cosmic absurdity is characteristic of Salamanca. The city has been full of dons and students since the university was founded in 1218, and their restless minds have always given Salamanca an intellectual verve.

Even today, students believe that spotting the frog will bring good luck in their exams, and the amphibian's fame has leapt beyond the academy. Frog kitsch fills the souvenir stalls, and visitors feel compelled to wander the original university warren -- just two blocks from the cathedral -- to try to discern the elusive amphibian amid the sculptural clutter on the college facade. (It's about two-thirds of the way up the doorway on the right, and almost impossible to photograph.)

Those frog-seekers have their backs turned to the heroic statue of Fray Luis de León, a 16th-century poet and scholar locked up for four years during the Spanish Inquisition. His crime? Translating the biblical "Song of Solomon " into Spanish. Essentially a minor poet and commentator on Scripture, de León became the poster boy for intellectual freedom and is best remembered for his one-liner upon returning to the classroom in 1576 after his release. The story goes that he stood at the lectern and deadpanned, "As we were saying yesterday. . . ."

De León's classroom is one of several stops on a self-guided tour of the old college building. His lectern does indeed resemble a pulpit, and the rough wooden benches are austere enough to satisfy an Inquisitor. The dons didn't miss a chance to instruct: Friezes on the building stairwells depict the temptations and virtues of the three ages of man. Yet the rhythmic arcades give the college a wonderful Renaissance grace. Most rooms are closed to public view, but the lingering odor of incense wafts from the chapel, and glass doors reveal the ancient library, where books ascend toward the ceiling and globes tilt on their stands.

It's a short trip from earth to sky -- just across a patio -- to see the "Sky of Salamanca," a tantalizing remnant of a ceiling mural painted by Fernando Gallego in 1473 for the vault of the old university library. The painting's magical vision of the universe unites classical astrology and state-of-the-art astronomical knowledge of the 15th century, a generation before Copernicus and more than a century before Galileo. Over the centuries, the painting has faded to ghostly pastels faintly lit in a darkened room. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, mythical chariots, biblical angels and ancient warriors grew vivid against a blanket of stars and planets. Perhaps the classiest souvenirs in the city are the silk scarves, tote bags and T-shirts bearing reproductions of this ethereal scene that you can buy in the university's official store.

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The presence of 30,000 students makes Salamanca livelier than other Spanish cities its size. The main streets stretching north from the university (Rua Mayor) and the cathedral (Calle San Pablo) are jammed with boutiques, restaurants, tapas bars and, on the upper levels, cheap hotels. Those same streets lead from the intellectual and spiritual enclaves of the city to its civic and social center, the Plaza Mayor.

This square is one of the largest and prettiest in Spain. The baroque palace of city hall -- a half-story taller than everything around it -- bustles in the morning and late afternoon with the business of paperwork and permits at which the Spanish excel. That leaves the rest of the plaza for the other special Spanish talent: socializing. Tables spill out from the snug restaurants and cafes under the arcades into the plaza itself. It can be hard to claim a spot late in the day, when Salmantinos pause for a "leche helada" (a thin but thirst-quenching milkshake) or a "blanco y negro" (vanilla ice cream melting in a bracing double shot of espresso). When the sky begins to darken and the lights wink on, an audible "Ah!" sweeps the plaza.

The streetlights seem to cue the "tunas." These bands of students clad in 17th-century academic robes and armed with guitars, lutes, mandolins, accordions and tambourines wander among the tables to perform and pass the hat. They tend to sing music-hall tunes, with the occasional light-opera piece thrown in, and the Spaniards often sing along. Tourists who don't know the words applaud the spectacle wildly.

In all the social hubbub, it's easy to overlook the architectural details of Plaza Mayor. But this being Salamanca, there's a treat for the careful observer. In this case, it's the sculptural medallions between the arches. They depict more than 80 historical Spaniards, from kings and poets to saints and scoundrels. The square itself is a model of Enlightenment-era order and symmetry. It's not exactly what we expected from a design by Alberto Churriguera, the youngest of three architect brothers whose family name is synonymous with the decorative excesses of Spanish baroque.

When Spain was rolling in colonial gold between 1690 and 1750, José Benito, Joaquín and Alberto Churriguera were the country's leading architects. The brothers began their careers as Salamanca stone carvers, which might explain why they so vehemently abhorred an undecorated surface. All three ultimately played a role in completing the New Cathedral, which was finally consecrated in 1733. The main altar, in fact, was designed by José Benito.

But we think the best place to appreciate the Churrigueresque is the intimate church of the Dominican Convento de San Esteban. Six grand, twisting columns surround the templelike tabernacle of the main altar. Every inch is gilded, giving a lustrous shimmer to the leaves and vines that wind around the columns and the saints and angels that peer from the niches. Though it is tempting to suggest that "garish" must be an English corruption of the architects' family name, in the quiet of the church, José Benito's madly decorated altar seems less a gaudy showpiece than an exquisite prayer in gold.

The cloistered nuns of the Dominican order are the custodians of our hands-down favorite Salamanca stone carvings. Visitors are admitted only to the 1533 central cloister and patio of their Convento de las Dueñas, adjacent to San Esteban. At first glance, it is the sweetest, most tranquil spot in Salamanca, with two levels of columned arcades surrounding the grassy courtyard and fragrant rose garden.

But we knew enough to take a second look. A mystic visionary must have carved the capitals on the upper gallery, conjuring the blessed and the damned alike. They represent a stone catalog of the sacred and the profane: griffins and angels, turbaned heads of menacing Moors, and tales of sin and damnation. The devil -- literally -- is in the details.

Details: Salamanca, Spain

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