Saturday, September 13, 2008

Oh the places you’ll go or, how many cathedrals, churches, convents, and monasteries can one country have?

The first day we were in Salamanca, everything was closed for a city-wide party, so we didn’t get to see anything but the outsides of the buildings we wanted to visit.

The second day, we visited the cathedrals of Salamanca—that’s right, there are two here: the new and the old. Many of you gentle readers may not know that cathedrals have side chapels which contain art dating back many centuries. We know this because of the amount of dust that has accumulated in these chapels. The “new” cathedral, which was built during the 16th century, contained many of these dirty little chapels. Apparently, no one who works there knows about Swiffers. The “old” cathedral, which dates to the 13th c. has been cleaned at least once since then. Ken was able to view several works of art that will be helpful for her work, including a large altarpiece in the old cathedral and some nicely preserved 13th c. mural paintings.

The comic relief of the day was provided by Ken forcing Mother of Ken to climb up into the medieval towers of the old cathedral while wearing a skirt. Access to the tower is provided by the narrow Spiraling Stone Stairs of Death (SSSD). There was no handle, no way to see how much farther you had to go—it was an endless, exhausting ascent.

Mother of Ken climbing the stairs:

We emerged to find ourselves surrounded by birds and centuries of accumulated bird offal—oh, the humanity! The tower that we exited:
The balcony you see at the top of this photo is where we were walking:
Crippled by an inexplicable fear of birds, accosted by jabbering tourists, speechless and terrified, Ken and Mother of Ken inched their way along the precipice to the door that lead to the balcony at the clerestory level of the nave. Once inside, terror mounted for Mother of Ken when she realized the height they had attained. Spurred on only by her desire to be closer to the earth, we soldiered on and descended the SSSD of the opposite tower, which were made even more treacherous by the metal, arrow shaped “decorations” embedded in the stairs. Mother of Ken’s heel caught about every third step, threatening to catapult her into a dizzying fall toward the bottom of the stairs.
More stairs--this time made of metal:

Upon reaching the bottom, we needed a cocktail.

Later in the day, we visited the Dominican church and convent of St. Stephen and the Convent of las Dueñas, which belongs to the Dominican sisters. They sell confections in a little shop off of the cloister and they maintain a pretty garden in the cloister that includes several long stem rose bushes.

Thursday, we took a day trip to Avila, which is about an hour east of Salamanca. We were trapped in a train compartment with the four most obnoxious Spanish teenagers that exist for the ride to Avila and we got the hell off of the train as quickly as possible when it stopped. However, we were unable to escape the teenagers and their equally obnoxious friends who greeted them at the station.

We stopped first at the Romanesque Basilica of St. Vincent, where we saw a few cool works of art and then we walked to the cathedral. The cathedral of Avila was slightly cleaner than the new cathedral in Salamanca, but they didn’t provide much information about the building or the works of art inside, so you just had to wander around and guess what you were looking at. Ken found one painting that will be helpful for her dissertation and Mother of Ken avoided further tower climbing.
The Roman wall around the old part of the city of Avila:

A view from outside the Roman wall, overlooking the area around Avila:

After eating an awesome lunch (see next post about the food so far for more), we walked to the Dominican convent of St. Thomas and found a 18th century chapel dedicated to St. Vincent Ferrer that Ken didn’t even know was there. A helpful cleaning lady turned on the light for us so that we could see the chapel better and Mother of Ken stood guard while Ken took a few photos without flash.

On Friday, we stayed in Salamanca with the goal of seeing all of the convents and palaces on the map. We started at the Clarisan convent, where we had to ring a doorbell so that kind, tiny, tiny nun who was in charge of visitors could come and get us and drag us up three flights of stairs to the old choir loft. She pointed to a small door at the top of yet another staircase and told us to go up and look around. Imagine our surprise when three elderly ladies suddenly appeared at the top of the stairs, exclaiming about what they had just seen. Once they were safely down the stairs, we climbed them (open, metal grate stairs), we found ourselves above the present ceiling of the convent church inches away from the original painted wood ceiling from the 13th c. We inched along the permanent scaffolding that had been installed, keeping our eyes heavenward so as not to freak out about how high up we were on the less than firm walkway. There were two walkways that we could use to walk across the roof of the nave to the other side. This was a wood beam ceiling and all of the beams were painted with lions and castles and geometric and vegetal shapes, most of the painting was fairly well preserved, although the painting on one side of the nave was worn away in places. After climbing around in the ceiling, we made another treacherous descent into the upper choir, where we had a lovely view of the city. There is no obstacle too great in our quest to discover all of the medieval art that is left in this city.

Along with the medieval art, this convent also possessed a dynamic Museum of A Bunch of Crap That No One Knows What To Do With. This consisted of musical instruments, farm tools, expositions of shoemaking, baking, and primitive country living. The second floor of this “museum” was a room full of dishes, children’s toys, a collection of key chains, and a case full of crucifixes.

In the afternoon, we went to the Convent of the Ursulines, who make sure to make clear in their literature that they are “real Franciscans.” We were greeted by another nun who was even smaller than the one from the morning and she unlocked the “museum,” which was a small room at the back of the church with a random assortment of antiquities. Once she let us in, she locked the gate and pulled a sheer black curtain over the door, leaving a small space through which she could peer out and holler at people not to take pictures in the church. We did not want to cross her, so we walked quietly and reverently around the small room, conveying our appreciation for the art by ooh and ahhing as she smiled in approval. After she released us from the museum, we were able to tour the church before leaving.

Saturday, we embarked on a pilgrimage with the goal of seeing all of the small parish churches built before the 16th century in Salamanca. We stopped first at San Benito, which is apparently never open as we have tried to visit this church on several occasions. Next, we went to the church of St. John the Baptist, where Mother of Ken made the discovery of the day when she saw St. Vincent Ferrer’s name inscribed on the outside of the building. When we tried to go in, we found a chair with a jacket on the back in the foyer outside of the church, the door to the nave locked, and no one sight. Ken did find an e-mail address for the church on a parish poster so that she can e-mail someone to ask about the St. Vincent inscription.

A short walk later, we found ourselves at the church of St. Mark, which is a 12th century church with a circular plan and some really cool mural paintings. After leaving St. Mark’s church, we walked to the Church of the Holy Spirit, which belonged to the Order of Santiago in the 13th c. There was no medieval art inside the church, but there was an astounding sculpture of a so-called miraculous image of Christ wearing a black velvet and gold embroidered skirt. Don’t confuse this with other so-called miraculous images of Christ wearing a skirt found in other parts of Spain—they are all different!

In all of these churches, there were people praying, so we didn’t linger for more than a few minutes, allowing us to take a scenic trek back to our hotel. Mother of Ken likened this journey to the Bataan Death March or the Oregon Train with the addition of speeding Spanish motorists. Note to selves: Always look both ways twice before setting foot in a crosswalk in this country.
The Roman bridge in Salamanca that we walk across every day:

The Iberian (pre-Roman) bear at the end of the bridge--it is missing its head:

The Rio Tormes:

A boxer looking out of his apartment at us:

1 comment:

Leah said...

Open metal grate stairs are the bane of my existance. You would've just had to leave me at the top of those stairs if you had me with you. Or I would've slid down on my rear end like a toddler.
Also, as God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.