“Where’s this damn frog?” I said.
We were in Salamanca on a day trip. We’d taken the fast train and arrived early on a Sunday morning to see the city, which had been heartily recommended to me by one of my students. The city is situated in the southern part 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 (another town worth visiting). It’s a city with a long history, having existed at least since Roman times. There are so many historical structures that its entire Old Town (the city center) was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. But most importantly, it could be gotten to cheaply and quickly by train.
“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 hip 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.
“Wow, this is really fucking elaborate,” I said as I looked.
My girlfriend started laughing.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“In your blog you’re all eloquent and use all this pretty language. But this is you in reality. ‘Really fucking elaborate’.”
“Let’s just find this frog so we can go inside.”
“Oh, hey guys,” came a voice from our right.
We turned to find Z, one of our fellow students from Spanish class.
“Oh hey,” I said. “You’re here too.”
“Do you know where the frog is?” I asked.
“You know, the frog on the outside of this cathedral.”
Z shook his head, puzzled.
“I don’t know any frogs…”
“I was told to find the frog. People told me it’s very important.”
“Alright…” Z said. “Well, I got to go, see ya!”
He wandered off, and we continued to look at the building. 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 there indeed was the astronaut—something else I’d been told to find. 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. Thank God for that little girl; without her, we would never have found him, for he was quite small. What bishop would agree to have an astronaut carved onto the outside of a cathedral? He must be quite progressive. (From what I can find online, the astronaut was a kind of signature of the artist involved.)
“Let’s just go inside,” I said, after we’d taken our fill of astronaut pictures. “We’ll find the frog later.”
We went in. As we were paying for our tickets, I asked the ticket woman:
“¿Dónde está la rana?”
“Oh, it’s not here,” she responded (in Spanish). “That’s on the University.”
“But we do have an astronaut,” the security guard added.
We’d 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 11th 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. For a cathedral, it’s quite small—which I suppose is why it was replaced. The walls are covered with fading frescos in the simple and two-dimensional medieval style. The altar at the front is quite nice, especially the fresco of the Last Judgment that sits at the top. Jesus, with one hand raised wrathfully towards the damned, is standing above four angels who blow horns to celebrate the triumph. As usual, 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. I have little sympathy for this vengeful God, but who can deny the dramatic power of this art?
We moved on to the New Cathedral. This cathedral must be one of the tallest I’ve 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 was a 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 and found the University, to look for the frog again.
This time, looking at the right building, we found it pretty easily. The frog doesn’t look much like a frog; more like a bump sitting on top of a skull that forms part of the decoration of the ornate façade. I was told that anyone who sees this skull is destined to return one day to Salamanca. I wouldn’t mind.
We paid the entrance free (which I thought was overpriced) and went inside. Founded in 1094, and officially made a university in 1164, the University of Salamanca is the oldest university in Spain, and the second (or third?) oldest in Europe. (I can’t say for sure, because there is discrepancy on the Wikipedia pages; both Oxford and Salamanca claim to be the second oldest, while by common consent the University of Bologna is the oldest.) 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 this building is a museum of sorts, although the University of Salamanca is still in operation.
This place was fairly modest in size. It looked to me 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 school in New York, they were extremely small. The desks and chairs looked antique to me; 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 fainted paintings of two men holding candles. An information 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. You couldn’t walk inside; you could only stand in a glass cube, right in the entranceway. Two rows of book shelves ran around the room, full of visibly ancient books. If memory serves, there were books here that were made as far back as the tenth century. In any case, the room itself is beautiful, with old wooden tables and chairs, and globes scattered about. It was the kind of room that makes you want to become a monk and read Latin theology twelve hours a day.
Moving on, we came across some interesting pedagogical relics. Old maps hung on the walls—some of them hilarious 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 an influential music theorist hundreds of years ago.
It wasn’t long before we were back outside. 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.) The Roman bridge spans the Rio Tormes, and must be at least 500 feet (150 meters) long. 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 aged kids were sitting on the wall, chatting amongst themselves. Other tourists like us were taking pictures. My girlfriend tricked me into taking a picture with her. (She’s figured out that, if she asks a stranger to take the picture before asking me whether I want to, it works better, since I inevitably say no when she asks, but once the stranger is already holding the camera I have no choice.) The picture was dutifully taken. I will admit, the background of the Roman bridge and the New Cathedral in the distance does make for a nice photo.
Having gotten our fill of the bridge, we went back towards town. By now, we’d seen everything we wanted to see before we arrived, so we walked for a while with no definite goal. Salamanca is exceptionally good for this. Its 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.
We eventually reached the plaza mayor of Salamanca, one of the finest in Spain. It actually looks astonishingly 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 think might be apartments. (Does anybody live in these places? The constant tourists must be irritating.) The plaza itself is empty and flat, though filled with people. Surprisingly, there weren’t any street performers, but there was a man yelling loudly, selling lottery tickets.
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. To me, it seems to be basically espresso. You can order it 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 have café solo, straight espresso; or café largo, which is watered down espresso. For me, the taste of this coffee is less rich and complex than American brewed coffee; but it’s quite good, and moreover the quality is pretty standard. You don’t have to worry about finding a good cup of coffee.
Well, today we were both in the mood for café con leche. Perhaps this was because of a video we’d both seen, shown to us by some friends here. The video was a presentation by Ana Botella, former mayor of Madrid, to the Olympic Committee to host the next Olympic games. It went viral because Botella’s presentation is very silly. One of her most mocked lines is her assertion that “there is nothing quite like a relaxing cup of café con leche in Plaza Mayor.”
“It’s not very relaxing,” our Spanish friend said, “because coffee is so expensive there.”
Well, we were now sitting in a plaza mayor, and having a relaxing cup of café con leche. The coffee was actually some of the best I’ve had in Spain. But when we got the bill, we felt considerably less relaxed, since the coffee was over twice as expensive as it is normally. You’ve been warned.
We got up and began wandering again. We kept walking until a building caught our eye. It was a religious building of some sort, and had an impressive façade. Underneath a large arch were dozens of friezes carved into the wall, of saints, of towers, with Christ on the cross in the center. According to what I can find online, this façade is one of the 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 architecture was supposed to mimic the embellishments of a silversmith. (This same style is on display on the exterior of the University of Salamanca building we’d visited earlier. It’s very pretty.)
Impressed, we walked inside. There we learned that this was the Convento de San Esteban, 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. (The Spanish seem not to have caught the American liberals’ newfound dislike of Columbus. Here, he’s something of a national hero.)
We paid the entrance fee and went in. I must not have been greatly impressed by what I saw, or else I was a bit tired by this point, because I didn’t take a single picture. Besides that, my memories of the interior are somewhat vague. Thus I will skip the description, and direct any curious travelers to the Wikipedia page, which is surprisingly complete and detailed. I do recommend a visit: there is an impressive church, a cloister, and a museum, with lots of fine religious art. We saw everything in about an hour.
On our way out, my girlfriend noticed a door in the wall with a sign next to it. We opened it, and found there a chair facing a wall in a small room. The sign said that this was some kind of audiovisual presentation. My girlfriend sat down in the chair. Immediately, a patch of the wall in front of her lit up, like there was a projector showing an image. On the screen, a nun sat down, crossed herself, and began to speak. The presentation was made to simulate a confessional, with the viewer as the priest. The nun was talking quickly and emotionally, but we couldn’t understand her, since she was speaking very quickly. Reluctantly, we left the repentant nun and left the building.
Once we were back in the street, I checked my phone to see if we’d missed anything. It looked like we had. Apparently, not only can you visit the cathedral, but for a separate price you can visit the church’s bell tower, Ieronimus. This promised a lovely view of the city, so we walked back to the cathedral to find the proper entrance.
The price paid, we began the ascent. I’ve visited towers before, in castles and cathedrals, and the worst part of the visit is inevitably the walk up. There are no elevators in these places. But Ieronimus was different. Each stairway led to a 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 gothic ornament; and to my right was the 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 many people get to walk on the roof of a cathedral?
We went back inside and climbed another flight of stairs. On this level, we followed a door that led further into the building. Suddenly 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. Below us, some tourists wandered about. From here, you could really appreciate the height of this structure. The people below us were already miniature, and we were only halfway between the floor and the ceiling. 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. Besides, the camera couldn’t capture the feeling of vertigo, the feeling that we were standing on the edge of a cliff, that the view engendered.
We walked to the other side of the balcony and then found ourselves on the roof again. The pathway led us under several small archways in the stone (one of which I hit my head against, causing my girlfriend to laugh at me). On the other end was a doorway leading to more stairs. A Spanish family was standing there.
“Is there space to go up?” I asked, in Spanish.
“No, no, we have to wait,” the wife said, pointing to a little sign that was counting down the seconds until we would be allowed to climb up.
There were only thirty seconds left on the clock, and soon we were following the family up to the bell tower. There were two levels in this tower that we could visit. The top one was the more interesting. Inside was an old mechanism for the clock—an impressive contraption, full of gears and chains—as well as several large wooden beams that ran through the space (don’t ask me why). Windows ran along the outer wall. The view from these were marvelous, though the thick netting that was stretched across every window (presumably to prevent accidents and suicides) somewhat impeded the experience. Above each one of these windows was a bell; and next to each bell, on the wall, was a machine with a hammer sticking out—an electric bell-ringer. I suppose this saves people the trouble of climbing all those stairs every hour.
After having our fill of the view, we waited for the countdown clock (there was one to ascend and descend), 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. It’s a fantastic experience.
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 Spain, normally so mountainous and dry, it was incredibly flat and verdant. The flatness was 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.
I tried to read, but I found the scenery so enchanting that I couldn’t look away. The train was going extremely fast; everything zipped by the window in a matter of seconds. Someone was driving his pickup truck on his farm. Two men were standing in a field, having a chat. Another man was herding a group of sheep across the road. Large sprinkler systems, which looked like metal jungle gyms, sat idly in the grass.
I finally gave up on the book and stared. 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 their lives like? Their routines? What did they think about at night, right before falling to sleep? What tunes did they whistle to themselves as they worked? What were their hopes and ambitions? What drove them to get up in the morning?
In our daily lives, we tend to automatically assume that we are important. This is an inevitable consequence of being trapped in our own egos. We only hear our own thoughts, we only experience our own emotions, we only know our own dreams. But this feeling, that we are the center of everything, is an illusion. Most of us acknowledge, at least in theory, that it’s not true. But it’s hard to break out of this ego trap, to really feel our own smallness in the scheme of things.
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.