I sit at a table with my best beloved, Don Bell, husband of less than two years. Bathed by the late afternoon sun, the golden buildings, dating from 1729, accommodate us. We are guests in one of the perfect European out-door living rooms. The occasional car or bus moves slowly around the perimeter; young men and women in gaggles of two or three stroll in opposite directions, flirting; families with clinging or scampering children mosey along; older grey-haired couples, some supported by canes, slowly walk. It is the afternoon paseo in the summer of 1959.
To celebrate my recent graduation from college, my parents invite me, my husband, David, our best man and his soon-to-be fiancé and my 2 younger brothers on a road trip from Paris, along the Galicia coast of northern Spain to Santiago de Campostella. We arrived in this pilgrimage destination on the saint’s day of St. James. The cathedral doors opened wide and tall, fully twenty-five feet up. Mooris dancers, flutists and drummers filled the square. The sensor belched fire as five men and boys heaved on the rope sending it from one arm of the transept to the other. It gave no mercy to anyone standing in its way.
From Santiago de Compostella, we drove our red mini-van with German license plates to Avila, Leon and Salamanca. German license plates were significant. In 1959 Franco’s Spain, the Guardia Civil patrolled every highway, especially vigilant in the north, where resistance to his fascist regime was legendary. Pairs of Guardia stopped our van more than once, demanding papers and the reason for our visit. Invariably I was in the far back seat and, being the only one speaking Spanish, had to stick my head out the rooftop and explain. Good practice for a newly minted BA in Spanish Lit.
In this memory moment, Don and I are alone at the edge of the square, savoring our love, our luck and our future. He orders Tio Pepe, a dry amontillado Jerez (sherry) preferred by his Oxford friends on previous visits to Spain. The glasses gleam; the pale liquid pours from the waiter’s hand. Don lifts his glass to inspect the color, the clarity, to sniff the contents. He discovers a speck of cork, calls to the waiter, who has turned to other guests. Senor, el Jerez no sirve. The sherry is no good.
My stomach clenches. I am embarrassed for Don, for the waiter, for the situation. I am also full of admiration as this prince among men demands the best and only the best. A new bottle appears, passes inspection. We relax into the moment, taking a sip and returning to marvel at the whole scene.
All this, complete with the stomachache, swims through me as I stand in Old Town Salamanca, April 2015. Our Road Scholar trip by boat up the Douro to the Spanish border includes a day bus trip to this 2000-year-old city. So much that I had forgotten comes rushing back to me. Don with his Michelin guidebook, David corroborating, pointing to the arches, decorations, structure of the 12th C. cathedral, giving my family and me a lesson in medieval architecture. I half listen to the present day guide who holds her whisper machine as our eighteen-member group follows her fast-paced lecture about the monumental building.
In the cloisters of the University, I am overwhelmed again to the point of tears as I stand in the classroom of Miguel de Unamuno. When most of my classmates in college were reading Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, I was wading through Niebla, a novel in which the main character argues with his creator about whether or not he will commit suicide or be killed. This fascination with Being was a hallmark of Unamuno, author of The Tragic Sense of Life, and other members of the generation of ’98. I wrote about them in my honor’s thesis.
Unamuno was thrown out of the University of Salamanca because he criticized the Spanish dictator, was re-instated and later died under house arrest at age 72 because he rebelled against Franco. My professors in college were intellectual refuges from Franco’s Spain. It made me an anarchist, I tell you.
Joan and I found following the schedule on the Road Scholar trip challenging at times. We laughed and called each other anarchists.
Medallions atop columns in the cloister reveal Unamuno’s face, Cervantes’ face, Ponce de Leon, the explorer of the Americas who studied in Salamanca.
I linger in the library established by Alfonso el Sabio, 13th C. king of Castile, Leon and Galicia. A shudder of expectation and awe sweeps through me as I remember ordering a book from his era from the University of California’s rare book collection. It weighed at least 20 lbs; was bound in old cracking leather. The binding was four inches thick with ridges of dull gold at the top and bottom of the spine and several bands along its edge. I put on the required white cloves, accepting the volume from the curator like a novitiate receives her Book of Prayer, and began to turn the pages. I am distracted from reading his lengthy poem, Cantigas de Santa Maria, by the flourishes of letters, ‘f’ and ‘s’ interchangeable as puro Castellano evolves from the Latin spoken at his court.
In the court of this scholar/king, Jews, Muslims and Christians exchange ideas in Hebrew, Arabic and Latin. He encouraged the translation of texts from these three languages into the Castilian, which became the language of higher learning in Spain.
Looking into this magnificent room full of ancient books, globes, and other artifacts of learning, I wonder if our world will ever know collegial exchange among heads of state again. Even as Alfonso the Wise died, his world sank into civil war and a renewed effort to expel the Moors. Two centuries later, the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel conquered the last Arabic ruler, uniting all of Spain as a Catholic nation. Moorish influence in architecture, food and the language itself pervades across the southern two thirds of the Iberian Peninsula.
The university isn’t the only electrifying site in Salamanca. Another great love of mine is represented in the Museum of Art Nouveau. Don was a collector of Art Nouveau pieces and the whole museum is dedicated to the art of the late 19th and early 20th century. The building itself was constructed in 1905 as a private palace and opened to the public in 1995. The museum was not on our tour, so if you visit Salamanca, and want an unusual art experience, don’t miss it.
Getting to the Spanish border, we passed through five locks, one of which took our riverboat about 40 feet up. The total elevation from Porto to the Spanish border is about 2625 ft. in 124 miles. As far as I can figure, that’s about a 45% gradient in the last segment. These dams were built for hydroelectric power. About 50% of Portugal’s electricity comes from hydro or wind (and they are planning to harvest electricity from the wave action of the sea!) The river narrowed so we were within feet of the shore on both sides of slender gorges and lichen-encrusted cliffs. Once our boat tied up for the night at the tiny village of Vega de Terron, several in our group took a walk under the stars. Tras os Montes and Alto Douro, the region in the northeast of Portugal, is wild country, craggy and full of poppies, lavender, cowslip, ice plant and heather. On my early morning walk on the Spanish side, I met an old woman placing fresh flowers in front of a shrine to Fatima, the popular saint who cures everything. She asked if I was from around these parts. I was happy to be able to speak to her in Spanish, telling her I was from the United States.
It was a long coach ride to Salamanca at just under two hours, but the scenery in the International Douro Natural Park (it straddles both Spain and Portugal) and across the fields of the Iberian meseta, or plateau, to Salamanca is unusually wild and rugged, with dramatic gorges flanking the river, wide pastures carpeted with wild flowers and large fields dotted with ancient oak trees planted for the pigs that are farmed for the famous jamon iberico. Here are some photos of the famous ham.
I’ll write more about Lamego, Coimbra (Portugal’s university town), Sintra and Lisbon in another post. The intensity of feelings brought on by being in Spain after so many years required my complete focus for this writing. I suspect you have had similar experiences of revisiting places that brought back memories the intensity of which surprised you. Please share the “dreaming Salamanca” stories of your life.
Travel is a pilgrimage to the inner life as well as to new geographical and cultural places, don’t you agree?
Be well, Do well and Keep Moving.