After living in Salamanca for almost two months, I finally took the time to explore the city’s beautiful cathedral this weekend. Though I pass it almost every day on my way to class, until now I had no idea how magnificent it was on the inside. I spent several hours wandering the chapel, climbing up narrow staircases to the towers, and gazing down on the city from the rooftop. My favorite part, however, was the bell tower. It was the highest point of the cathedral, and therefore had the best views, but the best part was that I just so happened to be in the tower when the clock struck noon. After a series of twelve loud dongs from the largest bell that jarred my eardrums and vibrated through my chest, all of the bells began to chime a tune together. Now, when I say all of the bells, I don’t just mean the ones around me. All of the bells in all of the towers around Salamanca were singing together, the melody beginning in one tower and continuing in another. Although a bit loud, it was a lovely sound, one that I do not often hear in the states. This peaked my interest as to how these ancient, towering belfries used to be such an integral part of the daily life in Spain centuries ago.
Long before everyone walked around with tiny computers in their pockets, the bell towers served as a timekeeping device, and one could count the chimes each time it rang to indicate the hour. Many bell towers still serve this function today, and though it may be a nuisance to some, many people, like myself quite enjoy the sound of the bells. Traditionally, the bells were also rung to signify events of religious importance such as mass or prayer times throughout the day, as well as weddings and funerals. Bellkeeps often lived in the towers with their families, as the bells had to be rung by hand each hour.
In 1755, the Lisbon Earthquake shook the city of Salamanca. The bells began to ring on their own and large cracks formed on the cathedral walls, causing the tower to lean slightly. Since then, it has been a tradition for a member of the bell ringing family (el Mariquelo) to climb the tower on October 31st to ring the highest bell to thank God that no similar catastrophes took place that year, as well as to check the angle of the tower to ensure that it did not continue to lean farther away from the cathedral. Though the last descendant of this family climbed the tower in the 1970s, the tradition has since resurfaced, and today I was able to view a recreation of the event, complete with traditional music, costumes, and dancing.
Although today we have little need for the bell towers, they continue to live on as a symbol tradition and community. The bells now ring themselves electronically, but if you close your eyes and listen to their ancient sound, you can take a step back in time and imagine how the people of Salamanca have listened to that very sound for over five hundred years. So, if you want to really experience the history of Salamanca, all you have to do is listen to the bells.
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