Postcard from Valencia, Spain: Grotesque guardians watched over silk exchange

While orange trees abound along the streets of Valencia, mulberry trees were more important as a cash crop in the 1400s. Not for the fruit, but because their leaves provided food for the very hungry caterpillars striving to build cocoons and emerge as moths. The moths only live about five days, but lay hundreds of eggs before their passing.

For Valencian farmers, the cocoons were the most important result of the short life cycle. After a dip in boiling water killing the pupa who so industriously wove it, a silkworm’s cocoon can be unraveled to produce a strand of silk ranging from about 1,000 up to almost 3,000 feet long.

So unravel the Valencians did. They unraveled so much, that by 1482 the fortunes amassed and riches anticipated from future trade enabled the silk merchants to begin construction of a major Gothic edifice worthy of housing their transactions.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, La Lonja de la Seda has a hall with soaring palm-tree-like columns for conducting transactions, a tribunal hall for adjudicating commercial disputes and even a prison for those found at fault.

Ah, but there are devils in the details. Although the Virgin Mary crowns the entryway and there is a nod to the crown on the side, many of the embellishments throughout the secular compound feature up-to-no-good-looking creatures. Was the ornamentation designed to warn dishonest merchants to stay away or to represent merchants thumbing their noses at the power of the church?

Less expensive fabric from Japan and China began dominating the silk market in the 1800s, but the streets of Valencia still house numerous shops continuing to vend fine silk brocade, with windows displaying their use in women’s fashions of centuries ago.

Oh, and the model wearing one such dress? She simply popped into camera view on a walk the same day we visited the silk exchange.

Postcard from Toledo, Spain: A Cathedral fit for a royal capital

When Alfonso VI (1040-1109) of Castile captured Toledo from the Moors in 1085, he made the hilltop city his capital. Although royals moved their seats around Spain and Portugal, the city benefitted from the rule of numerous kings.

Construction of the city’s Gothic Cathedral, dedicated to the Assumption of Mary, was begun in 1227. The main six-story central carved altar, bookended by royal tombs, was added around the year 1500.

Felipe II (1527-1598) stroke a blow signaling the city’s decline in importance when he moved the capital permanently to Madrid in 1561.

Although Toledo’s population is around 80,000, every day thousands of visitors jostle through the crowds filling the narrow streets in the historic part of the city to tour the Cathedral. Fortunately, there is ample room inside to accommodate a crowd. The main nave alone is both longer and wider than an NFL football field.

When we were in the Cathedral, most of the area near the main altar was roped off for temporary seating for an evening organ concert. Disappointing yes, but, holy Toledo, the pipes resounding through that enormous space must have been magnificent.

Postcard from Salamanca, Spain: Stonemasons’ soaring work pays homage to patron saint

Saint Stephen earned the honor of serving as the patron saint of stonemasons the hard way. An early convert from Judaism to Christianity, Stephen traditionally is regarded as the first of the faithful to be martyred for his beliefs in the Holy Trinity. He was stoned to death for his alleged blasphemy, so he often is depicted bearing a trinity of stones.

But the stonemasons constructing the Dominican church and adjoining cloisters in Salamanca over a century or two beginning in the 1500s created a monumental tribute to their patron saint. His massive church stretches 275 feet in length and rises more than half that high at the transept. Primarily Gothic on the interior, the church’s façade reflects the Plateresque detailing in vogue at the time of its completion.

And, given that we are always on the lookout for our hometown saint…. Alas, an ancient statue of Saint Anthony has lost something major. While Baby Jesus rests safely in Saint Anthony’s hands on the façade of the church, inside he is missing. We don’t know how many hundreds of years ago the kidnapping occurred, but the shadow of the statue of the empty-handed patron saint of misplaced or stolen items seems attempting to follow the advice of the children’s chant imploring: “Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony, turn around. I’ve lost something that can’t be found….”