Sunday, August 1, 2010
SALAMANCA: THE NATURAL SETTING
Salamanca is fundamentally a medieval university town that still strongly retains that character. Traveling by bus, car, or train, it’s over two hours from anywhere, halfway between Lisbon and Madrid, on the river Tormes. I can only imagine what a journey it was for students to get here back in the 13th century when the university was founded. The town is a little oasis of ancient tan stone buildings and green trees sitting right in the middle of the central plateau. The land all around the city is deserted, flat and dry, all dust and bleached dead grass this time of year. It looks a lot like the African savannah, yellow grass with the occasional tree, in this case scrubby live oaks or cork oaks. To me, one of the characteristic smells of this part of the world is dry grass baking in the sun. There’s a short time during the spring when the grass is green and filled with wildflowers, but they come and go quickly between the cold winter and the hot summer. Because of the altitude, winters are cold, with occasional snow.
Last night we walked down to the Roman bridge over the Rio Tormes, an arched stone structure that is about 2000 years old and still functional. The water is low this time of year, but still flowing, full of wriggling gray fish. As soon as the sun goes down, the bats come out and fly over the still water that stands in pools next to the fast-flowing part of the river. The bats swoop down to drink and chase the insects that fly over the surface of the water. There's one in the photo, close to the border between the water and grass. I was happy to see that the bats are still here, alive and well, active as ever. In the evening it’s a pleasure to feel the cool air and humidity rising up off the river and smell the water, wet earth, damp vegetation, and wet stones.
Because of its natural setting, Salamanca always gives me the impression of being a gnarled and weathered survivor, a pile of rocks in the middle of a dry field, oppressed by the sun and the wind and the sky, a slowly compacted pile of rocks out of which only the hardiest vegetation can grow. The tallest building is still the cathedral. When I make a scent to typify Salamanca it will have to be something austere, based on earth, dry grass and water.