For a complete exterior tour of Salamanca's old and new cathedrals, take a 10-minute walk around the complex, circling counterclockwise. Nearest the river stands the Catedral Vieja (Old Cathedral), built in the late 12th century and one of the most interesting examples of the Spanish Romanesque. Because the dome of the crossing tower has strange, plumelike ribbing, it's known as the "Torre del Gallo" (Rooster's Tower). The two cathedrals are all part of the same complex, though they have different visiting hours, and you need to enter the Old Cathedral to get to the new one.
The much larger Catedral Nueva (New Cathedral) dates mainly from the 16th century, though some parts, including the dome over the crossing and the bell tower attached to the west facade, had to be rebuilt after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Work began in 1513 under the direction of the distinguished late-Gothic architect Juan Gil de Hontañón, and, as at Segovia's cathedral, Juan's son Rodrigo took over the
work after his father's death in 1526. The New Cathedral's north facade (which contains the main entrance) is ornamental enough, but the west facade is dazzling in its sculptural complexity. Try to visit in late afternoon, when the sun reflects off of its surface.
The interior of the New Cathedral is as light and harmonious as that of Segovia's cathedral but larger. It's a triumphant Baroque effusion designed by the Churriguera family. The wooden choir seems almost alive with cherubim and saints. From a door in the south aisle, steps descend into the Old Cathedral, where boldly carved capitals supporting the vaulting are accented by foliage, strange animals, and touches of pure fantasy. Then comes the dome, which seems to owe much to Byzantine architecture; it's a remarkably light structure raised on two tiers of arcaded openings. Not the least of the Old Cathedral's attractions are its furnishings, including sepulchres from the 12th and 13th centuries and a curved high altar comprising 53 colorful and delicate scenes by the mid-15th-century artist Nicolás Florentino. In the apse above, Florentino painted an astonishingly fresh Last Judgment fresco.
From the south transept of the Old Cathedral, a door leads into the cloister, which was begun in 1177. From about 1230 until the construction of the main university building in the early 15th century, the chapels around the cloister served as classrooms for university students. In the Chapel of St. Barbara, on the eastern side, theology students answered the grueling questions meted out by their doctoral examiners. The chair in which they sat is still there, in front of a recumbent effigy of Bishop Juan Lucero, on whose head the students would place their feet for inspiration. Also attached to the cloister is a small cathedral museum with a 15th-century triptych of St. Catherine by Salamanca's greatest native artist, Fernando Gallego.