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Home » Tourism & Travel Guides » Travel Guides » Salamanca Travel Guide » Itineraries » The Magic of Stones

Salamanca Travel Guide

The Magic of Stones

In these parts of Villamayor stone, rich in iron oxide, easy to work when newly quarried yet as hard as marble when dry, will make churhc, university, college or cathedral, shell motif, spire, capital or coat of arms.

Should the stonemason so desire, the stone will become pure filigree and will seem to have emerged from a silversmith's anvil, be it in the form of some mythical arabesque, intricately entwined relief, a frog trapped within a skull or an astronaut in mid-space odyssey, floating through a sea of almost unimaginable ornamentation. And when the rays of the setting sun reflect and refract upon its surfaces, the stone turns to pure gold, appears to glow from within and unleashes its full magic. The Main Square (Plaza Mayor) (1). Undoubtedly this is one of the most stunning arcaded squares in Spain. Designed by Alberto Churriguera, it was built from 1729-1755 in the Baroque style. Note the medallions on the pillars and spandrels, representing presonalities closely linked to the city's history (Unamuno, Fray Luis de León, etc). The play of light and shade is enhanced by the effect of the Villamayor stone being subtly set off by the grey of the granite, particularly on the façade of the city hall (Ayuntamiento), the work of García Quiñones.

Leaving by the Plaza del Corrillo, an irregularly shaped square, one comes to the 12th-century Romanesque Church of San Martín (St. Martin's) (2), constructed by the first Christian reconquistadores to arrive in the city (reconquistador; those who reconquered Spain from the Moors). It is built on the traditional groundplan of a nave and two aisles, with pointed barrel vaulting over the nave and groin vaulting over the aisles. The relief on the Bishop's (Obispo) Door depicts St. Martin tearing his cloak (i.e., to share it with a beggar). If one follows the Rúa Mayor (rúa or Calle; street), one comes to the House of Shells (Casa de las Conchas) (3), one of the best examples of 15th-century civic Gothic, with clear traces of Italian Renaissance influence. The façade is decorated with more than 300 scallop shells, due to the fact that its first owner, Rodrigo Árias, was a member of the Order of Santiago (the scallop shell is traditionally associated with St. James, Santiago). Set within these shells, is a beautiful paired Isabeline window (this is the colonette-style window known in Spanish as ajimez) and two exquisite Gothic grilles. The inner patio (courtyard or quadrangle) is framed by mixtilinear arches, which are such a typical feature of Salamanca that the style has been dubbed Salmantino. The building houses the Tourist Information Office. Standing opposite is the Clerecía (Baroque Church and Seminary) (4), designed by Juan Gómez de la Mora and begun in 1617. The church forms part of the Jesuit College (Universidad Pontificia). Church and seminary were the initiative of Margaret of Austria, wife of Philip III, in an attempt to make reparations to the Society of Jesus for the wrong done to its founder, St. Ignatius Loyola, by his imprisonment in Salamanca at the hands of the Dominicans. The towers, designed by García Quiñones, somewhat distorts the façade's otherwise primitive air.

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Go down Libreros street to get to one of the city's most impressive architectural sights. The University (5): this Gothic-style structure was built on the orders of Pope Luna in the years 1415-1433. In 1529 the main façade was erected between two buttresses and is the archetype of the style that has become known as Salamanca Plateresque (Plata, Spanish for silver, denoting the style's resemblance to silver filigrees). Five decorative vertical lines of decorative stonework rise through three horizontal registers. Prominently displayed in the first register, immediately over the twin doors with their basket-handle arch surmounts, is the medallion depicting the Catholic Monarchs holding a single sceptre, in representation of the unity of Spain. Visible above their heads are the yoke and arrows symbols of the monarchy, and running round the border is an inscription engraved in Greek that reads: The monarchs for the university and the university for the monarchs. Ferdinand, Elisabetha. To the right as one looks at the façade, three skulls will be seen on the broadest pilaster, and within the lefthand skull is the famous frog, said to represent sin. In the centre of the second register, above the Order of the Golden Fleece and flanked by the two-headed eagle of the Holy Roman Empire and the crowned eagle of St. John, symbol of the Kingdom of Spain, is the imposing royal escutcheon of the Emperor Charles V. Lastly, on the third and uppermost register, there is the figure of a Pope, possibly Benedict XIII or Martin V, both protectors of the University in their time, addressing clerics and prelates. To the right and left of this group are the heads of Venus and Hercules. Note that as they get higher, the figurative and arabesque reliefs grow in size. Leading off from the university quadrangle are the lecture rooms. Among these are: the lecture hall that once belonged to Francisco de Vitoria theologian and founder of international law; the class where Unamuno taught; the Paraninfo (Great Hall); and the well-known room used by Fray Luis de León and kept just as it was in his time. The library and a museum will be found on the first floor.

At the far end of the patio, presided over by its statue of Fray Luis de León, stands the building of the Minorite Schools (Escuelas Menores) (6), now home to the University Museum, with its heraldic portal, Plateresque entrance-way coat of arms, and mixtilinear arches, granite and columns and 18th century Baroque balustrade gracing the inner courtyard. Salamanca Museum (7).

This 15th century palace bears a certain resemblance to the House of Shells and originally belonged to Fernando Alvarez Abarca, erstwhile physician to Queen Isabel the Catholic. It houses a fine art collection of paintings and sculpture, including an outstanding pietá by Luis de Morales. The graffiti featuring the word, "VICTOR", are references to the academic achievements of illustrious figures associated with the university. Turning into Calle Calderón de la Barça, one is surprised by the impressive sight of the New Cathedral (Catedral Nueva) (8). It was built at the behest of King Ferdinand the Catholic when the Old Cathedral became too small. Work on a late Gothic-Style design commenced in 1513 under the supervision of Juan Gil de Hontañón, son of Juan who continued the work, introducing Renaissance touches, such as the decorative addition of medallions. Towards the end of the 16th century, Juan de Ribero took charge of the project, envisaging a square-cut east end flanked by two towers, a plan that eventually came to nothing.

The Lisbon earthquake (1755) caused serious damage. The tower had to be reinforced and Sagarvinaga was charged with building a new lantern. The main façade, facing Calle Cardenal Plá y Deniel, is an example of Flamboyant Gothic and contains an amalgam of decoration; on the typanum there are two different reliefs, a Nativity scene and the Adoration of the Magi, and above this a third, depicting Christ on the cross. The Ramos Door, on the Plaza Anaya, is much in the same vein, its richly decorated tympanum and relief of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem ensconced within an ogee arch. If you enjoyed the challenge of searching for the University frog, try to spot an astronaut, the brainchild of the new stonemasons responsible for restoring the jambs whose stone had deteriorated. A treasure trove of art awaits inside. The main chapel, choirstalls and tracoto (the retrochoir or wall enclosing the choir) are all by (Churriguera (18-century). Then there is the Golden (Dorada) Chapel and the Retable of Christ of the Battles, containing the Romanesque carving that accompanied El Cid is his exile. Move round the church to get to the Old Cathedral (Catedral Vieja). Begun in 1550, the building work continued into the next century, hence explain the presence of typically Romanesque elements alongside eminently Gothic features. It through the New Cathedral that ones enters the Old. The original cruciform grounplan had a nave and two aisles with their corresponding apses but when the New Cathedral was constructed, one entire side was razed. Rising above the transept crossing is the popular scallop-tiled Cock Tower (Torre del Gallo), one of the city's classic landmarks. It consists of a ribbed umbrella lantern set on a two-tiered drum, reinforced by four circular turrets. Clearly Byzantine in influence, the view one gets from the idyllic Patio Chico (small square) is truly impressive. Note too the point of union between the two Cathedrals, the visible transition from Romanesque to Gothic.

The altarpiece in the central absidal chapel is an ensemble of 53 panels painted by Nicholas of Florence in the 15th century, narrating the life of jesus and Mary. At the very centre of this gorgeous symphony of colour is the city's patron saint , the Virgin of the Vega (vega; fertile plain or valley bottom). Gothic murals line St. Martin's Chapel. The cloister was destroyed during the Lisbon earthquake and rebuilt some years afterwards. The St. Barbara Chapel was where doctoral students spent their pre-examination night: for candidates who passed, there were pealing bells, feasting and celebrations, but for those who failed, there was only a silent exit by the Carros Door. See also the New Chapterhouse (16th century), nowadays the Diocesan Museum, with works by Francisco Gallego, Juan of Flanders, etc. En route to the Patio Chico, one passes Salamanca's leading example of the Modernist movement, the House of Lis (9), now a Gallery of Art Nouveau and Art Deco. If time permits, this is a good point from which to visit the Roman Bridge (10), erected in the time of Trajan. Only the first 15 arches nearest to the city are original, the remainder having been swept away by the food of 1626. Standing on a column is the statue of the Verraco Ibérico (boar) (11), also sometimes known locally as the Toro or bull, in allusion to the pre-Roman, reputedly Celtic, inhabitants of the area. St. James' (Iglesia de Santiago) (12) preserves a 12th century Romanesque-Mudejar style apse. This church enjoyed a certain degree of importance on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela thanks to it's position by the Silver Route bridge. Close to the Old Cathedral and to the right of the Patio Chico is the Garden of Calisto y Melibea (Huerto de Calisto y Melibea) (13) a reference to the star-crossed lovers of Fernando de Rojas' world-famous work La Celestina. Skirting the Cathedral one gets to the Plaza Anaya, the site of a superb architectural group: the Student' Hospice (Hospedería)(14) by Joaquín de Churriguera; the Church of San Sebastián (St. Sebastian's) (15) by Alberto de Churriguera (1731), with a statue of the saint set into a niche on the façade; and the Anaya Palace (16). Founded in 1401 by Diego de Anaya y Maldonado, the original edifice was Salamanca's oldest university residence. The present neoclassical-style building (almost an exception in this city) was designed by Juan de Sagarvinaga in 1760. Adding the final touch to the group is one of the university doorways on Rúa Mayor, a street which leads back to the starting point.

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