SALAMANCA WAS DECLARED a UNESCO World Heritage site,
a distinction whose particular significance seems gloriously vague, but
the result is that the town remains well-preserved. The old cathedral,
in fact, might be in better condition now than when Hutton saw it. The
university is probably in much better shape than when he visited:
"It is a rather sad world you discover in the little
old college...Children as of old, for nothing seems to change in old Spain,
sparely fill the benches that should hold undergraduates. Never have I
seem a ruin so terrible."
Today the university is booming, thanks largely to the
thousands of international students who pass through it each year for advanced
Spanish courses. The buildings and streets of the university are well-preserved,
and the older classrooms, where St. Ignatius Loyola, Barca de la Calderon
and Miguel de Unamuno studied and taught, are maintained as museum spaces.
It's strange though, to walk through these ancient streets and feel much
as one does in any university town -- besieged by so much youth and youthful
energy pent up in the loose discipline of modern education.
Our guide, Yolanda, casually regales us with tales of
medieval university life in a claxon voice. On one stairway in an old building,
she points out the allegorical carvings on the stairwell that illustrate
the trials of the student in earlier days.
"Here is shown the progress of the student to knowledge.
At the bottom of the stairs you see the student, and at the top is knowledge
and wisdom. In the middle you see the temptation in the form of the prostitutes."
Salamanca had, in the form of the Barrio Chino, a thriving
whore's quarter, much frequented by students and teachers alike. There
were rituals that involved top students writing their names on the walls
in a mixture of bulls' blood and olive oil ( a tradition preserved now
for notables visiting the school), dunkings in the river for failures,
and a reward for finishing exams in the form of a "salty pie".
"Here we have the street where the oldest prostitutes
in the town lived. It is called, how you say, the Street of the Three Coños...?"
"Coños. Cunts." Dennis offers, happily.
"Yes, the Street of the Three Cunts. This is where the
oldest prostitutes in the town lived." Yolanda shouts out to us, and the
nearby square. How does she know about this? I don't imagine it's in the
"I prefer Canadians with these tours," Yolanda tells Marguerita
later. "Americans get very offended with some of these things."
In another square, Yolanda is telling us about the carved
frieze -- a delicate lacework of stone that runs around a three-sided square
near the cathedral. Several details are pointed out, and the group dutifully
scribbles in their notepads and takes pictures.
"I would like you to look at the detail near the center
of the frieze." Her voice rings out over the square. "There you will see
the figure of a naked man touching his masculine member."
Sure enough, in medieval stone, a little naked man, one
leg propped up on the looping ribbons of golden sandstone, is masturbating
furiously. Dennis loses it completely. Michael switches to a long lens
to get a shot.
"Would you look at that," Dennis cries, almost
joyfully. "There he is. Look at him go at it!"
Maybe it's the hangover, or the lack of sleep. Maybe it's
the jet-lag, from which I haven't fully recovered, or the dollops of protein
surging through my system from the endless meat, but Yolanda's spiel is
making me giddy and light-headed; I'm having a hard time supressing belly
laughs at inappropriate moments. My condition isn't helped by Vincent,
much more irritated by her shrill voice, impatient with the tedium of a
guided tour, who sidles over to me and whispers: "Can you imagine what
she sounds like when she's having sex?"
The bastard. I'm a goner now.
We're in a college cloister, on the arcaded second floor
looking down over the enclosed plaza, when Yolanda points upward and shouts:
"The rooms on the top floor were built for the prior of the college for
to help with his wet dreams." Dennis, Bob and I look at each other with
looks of panic and indredulity. "He had his apartment built to look over
the Barrio Chino."
I walk away from the group to another window, looking
over the cloister and up at the prior's windows. I grip the balustrade
and try to suppress shudders of laughter, my eyes running with tears. An
older man, perhaps a professor or a university bureaucrat, stops behind
me, looking concerned, probably wondering if I'm having some kind of breakdown.