By Robin Graham
Hogwarts in the sun.
The phrase keeps coming back to me as we wander the streets of Salamanca. The old university buildings are encrusted with gargoyles and crests, mottoes in Latin and Castillian, opaque windows with irregular crisscrossed panes; I’m not a fan of the series myself but I can imagine that this town would have an appeal to its readers similar to that of Harry Potter’s world, with its fetishized sentimental portrait of public school England.
Salamanca is Spain’s Oxbridge – its oldest and grandest university, and one of the University façades in particular seems to speak to the Potter aesthetic. For centuries, students and tourists have been challenged to find the frog hidden somewhere on the elaborately carved relief. The story goes that if students can pinpoint the little fellow they’ll pass their exams, and the successful visitor will win good luck.
A more convincing explanation for the whimsical addition to the façade is that it was placed there as a warning to young scholars against sexual temptation, symbolized by the frog. Salamanca in the middle ages was rife with sexual disease and students might easily fail their exams, a euphemism here, if tempted by the town’s prostitutes. When finally found, the frog perches on a skull, symbol of death.
Nearby, the Plaza Mayor is less Gothic, more Renaissance. Probably Spain’s grandest, it’s a near symmetrical burst of architectural bravado, not so much a square as an enormous building with this central space – row upon row of elegant balconies, some of them now hotel rooms and a perfect venue for over-priced coffee and gawking. Students sit in huddles on the ground to share the space whilst not spending money.
It wouldn’t be a Spanish city if it didn’t have an impressive cathedral. I’ll be truthful here, cathedrals usually bore me rigid, but Salamanca’s has become my favourite. Have you ever sat back in a pew and, tilting your head back, wondered about those impossibly high up galleries around the edge? What are they for? Who uses them? Never open to visitors, of course. Except, here they are.
It isn’t for the faint hearted. I’m not someone with a heights problem but I wouldn’t say I take it in my stride exactly, as I hug the walls and step sideways, slowly. There’s something about being this high up and indoors which is particularly dizzying. It’s more of a ledge than a balcony, just wider than a person, and the latticed stone balustrade is only hip high.
Suddenly Plaza Mayor makes a lot more sense – I’ll happily pay over the odds for a coffee and a seat whenever I get down from here.
Robin Graham writes about Andalusia, Spain and some other stuff. His stories can be found,with accompanying photography, at www.alotofwind.com. He’s a private person but, strangely, doesn’t mind being followed : @robinjgraham or liked (on Facebook) : alotofwind.com. Photography at http://robingraham.wix.com/de-la-luz#!portfolio