a wandering woman writes

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

La Cueva de Salamanca

Saturday I packed up my camera, my notebook and my favorite odd talismans and wandered off in search of the notorious Cave of Salamanca. The iron gate that welcomes you to the cave faces a cuesta I've climbed a hundred times before, just off Calle Pablo across from the Plaza del Concilio de Trento. It's a wide passageway of shallow stone stairs rising from San Pablo to the Cathedrals, and, further on, to the garden of Calixto and Melibea.

For the first time, I found the gate wide open. No sign, nothing to indicate what might lie beyond, just an open gate and a bread crumb path of plaques and cloth banners to guide me through. The cave was restored for the Iberian American summit hosted by Salamanca last October, and now is open, daily and unattended, for free wanderings, like the Casa de las Conchas and La Salina.

The cave of Salamanca is actually not a cave at all, but the crypt of the ruined 12th century church of San Ciprian. Cave or not, it has a sinister reputation. According to legend, here Satan himself taught fortune telling, palm reading, spells and black magic to 7 students for 7 years. Some say he took on the form of the sacristán (caretaker) of the ruined church during the lessons, others a hand on a chair, still others a male goat. However he dressed himself, all of the accounts agree on the students' tuition: one human soul. At the end of the 7 years, so the story goes, the students drew lots to see which of them would settle the bill by spending the rest of his life in the cave of Salamanca - in service to Satan.

A plaque greets you as you enter (liberally paraphrased from my scribbled Spanish notes):

Every city has its special places in which history and legend cross.....
Some say a temple on this site was first founded by Hercules, other by the Arabs or Celts. There are those who say it leads to a labyrinth of secret tunnels running under Salamanca. Or worse, directly to the underworld.

The plaque is black, by the way. The reflection you see in the photo is the ruin of the church behind me, and the photographer, yours truly, if you look hard enough.

According to the plaque, this cave made Salamanca's reputation as a powerful place of satanists and black magic. Latin Americans began to use the word "salamanca" to describe dark hidden places where shamans practiced black magic. A long list of Spanish authors, Cervantes, Torres Villaroel, and Calderon de la Barca among them, wrote about the cave in their works. Even Sir Walter Scott mentions the cave of Salamanca in a poetic passage about a wizard.

Touring the restored area, you roam around an open courtyard, which I suspect was once the cave, accessed from the sacristy above. You also get a fascinating look at the original wall, Roman at the base and Arab above, that encircled Salamanca before the present wall was erected in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Despite its dark history, the site is beautifully restored. Steel walkways and staircases carry you through a restored tower, up to 2 balconies and into a dark hole where you see an excavated piece of the primitive wall, along with the archaologists' chart describing the earth and artifacts found at each level. The balconies host a haphazard exposition of pieces unearthed during the the excavation: Roman tombstones, romanic columns from the original church, an iron door from the tower, stone tombs from the necropolis of San Ciprian.

The church of San Ciprian was one of the first churches built as part of the Christian repopulation of Salamanca in the 12th century. In a delightful bit of irony, Salamanca dedicated the church that would become notorious for black magic to San Ciprian, who was a wizard before converting to christianity. In the 16th century the crumbling church was torn down, and its stones used in the construction of Salamanca's New Cathedral. All that remained of the church, tucked into this dark hole in the wall of the city, was half of the sacristy and the 23 stairs descending into the darkness of the crypt.

The tower that stands over the site is known as the Tower of the Marques de Villena, although it apparently never belonged to that unfortunate gentleman. The guide posts in the cave called de Villena a celebrated "nigromante" - a practitioner of black magic. Back at home my Biography of Salamanca describes Enrique, Marques de Villena as an avid student of the sciences: astrology, mathematics, alchemy and philosophy. I wonder if that was enough to win a "black magic" label in 16th century Salamanca?

Legend names the same Marques de Villena as the student who lost the draw on the day tuition was due. Locked in the crypt, he used all that he had learned to trick the maestro and win his freedom. He hid himself in a clay jar until Satan, panicked at the site of an empty prison, rushed out in pursuit of his prisioner, without closing the crypt door. The Marques made it out alive, but lost his shadow, which stayed behind in the crypt, in the hands of Satan, who had grasped at it desperately as he struggled to stop the fleeing prisioner. The Marques, says the legend, walked the rest of his life through the sunny streets of Salamanca - without ever casting a shadow.

From "The Ride to Melrose" by Sir Walter Scott

A wizard of such dreaded fame
That when, in Salamanca's cave,
Him listed his magic wand to wave,
The bells would ring in Notre Dame.

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  • Sounds like fodder for Crysta, MaeMae and Mandi to me...hmmm...was just thinking this afternoon how I have been missing them and not feeling much connection. Thanks for re-connected them to me! Glad that I popped on for a moment, even though I've got tons of school work I "should" be doing...have a beautiful day!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:44 PM  

  • It reads delicious ... happy little envy-waves from the kiwi in Belgium

    By Blogger woman wandering, at 9:10 PM  

  • Hey to both of you!

    Happy to be fodder, Donnette, as long as I get to read the results. :)

    By Blogger wandering-woman, at 9:06 AM  

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