Exactly two years ago, I cycled into a very wet Salamanca in Spain. Below is an extract from ‘Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie‘ recounting my day in the city. Aside from providing me with some beautiful buildings, frogs and reminiscences of teenage reading, it was also where I spotted the quotation that is now in the front of the upcoming book, published on May 11th and available, as they say, in all good bookshops. Perhaps even a few rubbish ones…
The magnificent Plaza Mayor, the hub of Salamancan life, didn’t look so magnificent through the prism of a dark, rainy evening – and even less so from the perspective of a cold, wet cyclist whose only desire was to thaw under a hot shower. Finding a hotel wasn’t a problem, and within 15 minutes of arriving in the city I had (brace yourself) stripped naked and was standing in a bath waiting to be drenched in a good way.
Another 5 minutes later and I was standing (fully clothed) back at the reception desk.
‘I’m sorry sir but we don’t have any other rooms. The shower will be repaired in the morning.’
My second choice of hotel, the Estrella Albatros, not only had vacant rooms but also showers that functioned, and warmth could return to my numbed body.
The magnificent Plaza Mayor (remember, that hub of Salamancan life) did look much more magnificent through the prism of a bright Sunday morning. Even more so from the perspective of a cyclist who had now thawed, dried out and benefitted from a good night’s sleep. I found a bar in one corner of the plaza and filled in my diary, noting down the statistics of the previous day’s cycling. The ride from Plasencia to Salamanca had been 133 km, bringing the total for the ten days of cycling from Tarifa to 754 km, or an average of 75.4 km per day. My late afternoon of toil and suffering had been worth it and the goal of completing the 7,500 km to Nordkapp in 100 days seemed a little more attainable. I deserved a day off and I was about to benefit from one.
Salamanca was full of frogs. Handbags, T-shirts, postcards, mugs, paperweights… Anything that your average tourist could possibly purchase was embellished with one. The street vendors were selling plastic ones with remarkably authentic croaks for only €2. But why? Walk down the Calle Libreros along one edge of the main building of the Universidad de Salamanca until you arrive at two red doors and you might find out the answer. Top tip: bring your binoculars.
The entrance, with the intricate facade above it, is known as La Puerta de Salamanca, or the door of Salamanca. If you stand in front of la puerta and can find the tiny frog amongst the mass of stone swirls, seashells, bearded men, crests, flowers and birds, it will, allegedly, bring you good luck. Even if you have remembered your binoculars, you’d be hard-pressed to find the little blighter. He sits on top of a skull on the right-hand side of the 400-year-old façade, more than a little worn down by four centuries of weather. Second top tip: if you can’t find it (very likely), google it. That’s what everyone, including me, appeared to be doing.
The origins of the frog are a little ambiguous and the three possible theories resemble a round of Call My Bluff. Was it… put there for students to find and give them good luck in their exams? A symbol of sexual temptation to warn the then all-male cohort of students away from disease-ridden prostitutes? Or a certain Doctor Parra who failed to save the life of Prince Juan – represented by the skull – who died in 1497 at the tender age of just 19? Discuss.
Leaving the Salamancan set of a 1970s panel game, I chose to get my dose of culture at the other university, the Universidad Pontificia, and was duly escorted around the building with a group of Spaniards, in Spanish. I was required to persist with the tour of all things Baroque in order to access the tower. It appeared from the street that it would offer good views over the city and surrounding countryside, and I wasn’t disappointed. Looking south, beyond the fat layer of red tiles of the old city of Salamanca and a thinner band of modern suburbia, I could clearly see the mountains that I had climbed on the previous day. Turning to the north, I saw no mountains, just a distant patchwork of hazy green, yellow and brown fields. My onward journey promised to be a little less strenuous, for one day at least.
Returning to street level and the constant croaking of plastic frogs, I did what should be done in all old towns and cities: I went for a wander in the hope of getting lost. I wasn’t totally successful, in that a few minutes later my attention was drawn by a banner hanging from a first-floor window of the Centro Documental de la Memoria Histórica. Below an old black-and-white photograph of a soldier wearing a thick overcoat and a tin hat, with a rifle slung over his right shoulder and a wicker basket of food in his left hand, it read:
‘Documentos de una guerra: España 1936–1939’
When I was in my mid-teens, the first travelogue that I ever read was Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. It recounts Lee’s journey from his home in the Cotswolds to London and then, in the summer of 1935, to Spain. He started his own journey across Spain in the Galician port of Vigo, before heading east via Zamora – my next stop – and Valladolid to Madrid. Playing his violin to earn a little money, he continued south to Seville and then towards the sea at Cádiz. He wasn’t a great fan, referring to the city’s ‘dismayed and half-mad citizens’. He then travelled to Tarifa to drink whiskey with fishermen and a ‘mysterious dandy’ from Cuba – no mention of healthy breakfasts – before being rescued, reluctantly, by a British destroyer in Gibraltar.
It’s difficult not to read As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and Lee’s subsequent books about his experiences during the Spanish Civil War in a romanticised haze, especially from the distance of over 80 years, and there’s a part of me which would have loved to rediscover that seedy Cádiz of 1935 and meet its ‘dismayed and half-mad’ population.
If a counterbalance were needed, however, it was provided in abundance in the Centro Documental de la Memoria Histórica, where there was little romanticism on display in the exhibition of Civil War documents. The posters, photographs and paintings organised into sections labelled ‘political ideas’, ‘republican propaganda’, ‘repression’ and ‘exile’ emphasised just how divisive and brutal the fight between Franco’s Nationalists and the Republicans had been. I wondered what was going through the minds of the other visitors, especially those who had lived a significant part of their lives under the rule of the dictator Franco.
In reality, I know that the harsh life of Spain in the 1930s would have me scuttling back to twenty-first-century Spain faster than an EasyJet flight to Malaga. Since Franco’s death in 1975, the Kingdom of Spain has rebuilt itself as a strong and enduring democracy, whose citizens now enjoy all the freedoms that most other countries in Western Europe have had since the end of World War Two. Far better to be travelling in 2015 rather than 1935. Perhaps.