Salamanca holds curious legends and mysterious tales that give us a revealing peek into the unique character of the people of Salamanca.
The city of Salamanca is home to an internationally celebrated university and a monumental urban center that displays a stunning quantity of historic architecture, where visitors feel as though they are exploring an enormous open-air museum. The city also holds curious legends and mysterious tales that give us a revealing peek into the unique character of the people of Salamanca and how its places and symbols got their names.
Let’s take a journey through history by delving into Salamanca’s most intriguing lore.
Tentenecio hill recalls an extraordinary anecdote from the city’s past. Saint John of San Facondo was taking a walk along the hill one day when he saw a loose bull that had escaped from a market charging at a woman and her son. According to legend, Saint John stepped in front of the wild bull, planted his hand between the animal’s horns and ordered him to “¡Tente, necio!” (from détente, necio, stop you fool), at which point the animal miraculously calmed down and left the three unharmed. The saint’s command has been the name of the street ever since, in memory of the miracle. Saint John was out walking another day near the main square when he discovered that a boy had fallen into a well. He attempted to rescue the boy with his cincture but it was too short, so he performed another miracle by raising the water level in the well high enough for the boy to get out unharmed. When you walk down calle del Pozo Amarillo, now you’ll know where the street takes its name.
La cueva de Salamanca (Salamanca cave) was opened to the public in the last few years of the 20th century after hundreds of years of concealment. Supposedly Satan himself taught classes to 7 students for 7 years in the cave under the condition that afterward one of the students would belong to the devil as payment for the instruction. Marques de Villena was selected from the seven to remain with the teacher. The chosen student was able to escape but not without losing his shadow –Marques would live shadowless for the rest of his days as a sign of his relationship with Satan. The legend spread and it even provided the source of inspiration for one of Cervantes’ short plays. The story even spread to Latin America where certain places in which magic rituals are held are called salamancas.
One of the most popular traditions in Salamanca is known as lunes de aguas. In the 16th century, King Phillip II passed a law stating that prostitutes must remain outside of the city during Lent and Easter week. After the religious celebrations, the priest in charge of providing spiritual attention to those that offered attention to the students would go look for the briefly banned women and return to the city with them crossing the Tormes River by boat. From the boat, the prostitutes waved branches as a sign of joy as they came home (which is where the use of the word ramera as a synonym for prostitute comes from), and those waiting to welcome them from the river bank anxiously awaited their arrival with hornazos (a type of meat pie traditional to Salamanca) as a symbol of the end of a period of abstinence. They say that these rameras commonly wore brown skirts with a pointed hem, which may have been the source of the well known expression in Spain “irse de picos pardos”, meaning to go out looking for company of the opposite sex.
On October 31, 1775, a great earthquake devastated Lisbon. The quake was so strong that it made the bells chime in the cathedral of Salamanca and slightly tilted its tower. To make sure the tower did not continue tipping more, a man by the name of Mariquelos, who was a member of the family in charge of tolling the cathedral bells, climbed to the top of the tower every year to check to see if it was still as vertical as the previous year. Mariquelos’ annual event had remained unobserved for several years when in 1985 the tradition of climbing up the outside of the tower was picked up again. Safety rules imposed by the cathedral council and common sense dictated that the highest portion of the climb be removed, leaving Mariquelos stuck in top.
Castilian women have a history of being vigorously protective of their home and family, a great example of which we can see in the story of Maria la Brava. It seems that 15th century Salamanca was divided into two opposing factions (S. Benito and Sto. Tomé) that constantly clashed in violent confrontations. In one of these skirmishes, both of Maria de Monroy sons (who belonged to the Sto. Tomé side) were killed. The killers escaped to Portugal, but the revenge thirsty mom trailed them to the city of Viseu, where she decapitated them both. She promptly returned to Salamanca with the heads and buried them with her sons as a gruesome tribute.
On February 5th Salamanca traditionally celebrates the festival of Saint Agatha, when women symbolically take control and leave men in charge of the housework. On this day the Águedas, as they’re called, occupy town hall and take over the position of the mayor. The festival carries on all day with dancing and celebrations that traditionally culminated in the symbolic burning of a figure of a man. Today this celebration is in decline as advances in women’s rights have changed local notions of gender roles in politics and most other professional fields.
We’ll cap off our tour of legendary Salamanca with a tribute to the intellectual and elegant Miguel de Unamuno, who served in several occasions as rector of the University of Salamanca. On October 12, 1936, in the midst of a civil war and during the “Fiesta de la raza” celebration, this adoptive Salmantino, standing before shouts of “¡Viva la muerte!” and “¡Muera la inteligencia!” from fascist supporters of Millan Astray (leader of the Spanish legion and Franco’s right hand man) responded with a speech that will be forever remembered by the now classic line “Venceréis pero no convenceréis” (You will be victorious but you will not convince), which cost him his position as rector and may have sped up his death. He died on December 31st of the same year while still on house arrest, which he was placed on after the incident.