This post is one I’m moving over from my old blog. Hope you enjoy! =)
Before I write this post, I should give a quick disclaimer. Salamanca is, for me, the place in Spain which has had the most impact on my life. After spending two and a half years there, I developed a love for the city which will never go away. So, I’m probably more than a little biased, but, I will try to keep this post in line with my previous ones, and not glorify the city too much (although, it doesn’t need me to do that, it’s amazing in its own right).
Located in the region of Spain known as Castilla y León, Salamanca houses the oldest university in the country, and the 4th oldest in the world. Dating back to 1218, the University of Salamanca has a very rich history. The major river running through the city the Rió Tormes has been immortalized in Spanish literature as the birthplace of Lazarillo de Tormes. Although the story is fictional, and has an author unknown, the 16th century story has found its way into the hearts of Spaniards, and anyone who loves and studies Spanish literature would be deft to not be familiar with the story of the poor Lazarillo as he works his way through adolescence into manhood in a trying time in Spanish history. The story follows the protagonist through various locations in Spain, but legend has it that he was born in Salamanca, in the Rió Tormes, and the city has a statue commemorating his exit of the city with “el ciego” (the blind man) on the way to begin his life-long adventure.
There are several attractions that draw visitors to Salamanca. The first, and most obvious, is the University. Originally founded in 1134, but not given an official charter until 1218, the Universidad de Salamanca has the fame of being the place where language was first studied and encouraged. But the impact that this institution had did not stop there. It was at the Universidad de Salamanca where Columbus would lobby for support of his journey which would ultimately lead him to the Americas.
While all of the history of the Univestity is impressive enough in its own right, there are some specific traces which have been carried over into modern times. The most notable of these being the “rana” or “frog”. Hidden in the historic facade of the University, legend has it that if you can find the frog you will either 1)pass your exams or 2) fall in love.
The most famous of the “facultades” or departments of the University is the “facultad de filología” or the Philology Department, where students study languages, literatures, and cultures. Located in the center of the city, the three buildings making up this department can be found right next to the cathedral.
The “old zone” or “casco antiguo” in Salamanca is smaller than in other cities, but this doesn’t mean that it’s lacking in charm. When walking around the city, one would be hard pressed to not be overwhelmed by the beauty, cobblestone streets, historic buildings, and ornate facades decorating the churches. Starting out in the Plaza Mayor, considered one of the prettiest plazas in all of Spain, the visitor to this city will immediately understand why this city has been called “la ciudad dorada” or “the golden city”. The sandstone which was used in the construction of many of the historic buildings gives off a soft glow when illuminated at night all around the “casco antiguo”. The Plaza Mayor is one of the best examples of this.
The plaza is surrounded by shops and cafes, and on a warm spring or summer day, the terraces have their tables out and people come out to sit with friends or family and enjoy a café con leche or a caña. Although enjoying your coffee in the Plaza Mayor adds a certain charm to the morning, it should be noted that in the Plaza, prices are often twice or even three times what you would pay in other spots around the city. Regardless, a trip to Salamanca wouldn’t be complete without a relaxing afternoon drink in the heart of the city.
Exiting the Plaza through one of the arches directly across from the clock will bring the visitor even deeper into the “old zone”. There, you will find the entrance to the “Rúa”, the historic street leading from the Main Square to the Cathedral. Along this street you will find restaurants and tourist shops. It’s always a bustling street, with tourists, students, and Salmantinos rushing from one place to another.
More or less half-way between the Plaza and the Cathedral is the “Casa de la Conchas” or the Shell House. Simply seeing it will tell you why it’s name is very adequate. Covered in the Concha normally associated with the Galician city Santiago de Compostela, this historic building was constructed from the end of the 15th to the beginning of the 16th century. Originally belonging to a professor of the University of Salamanca who was also knighted in the Order of Santiago de Compostela (hence the shells) the building now houses a public library.
In front of the Casa de la Conchas is another University, la Universidad Pontificia. Historically a religious school it is now a private university. While not as well-known and renowned as the Universidad de Salamanca, this building is still worth a visit. There are two towers which make up the main facade of the university, and these are open to the public! For a small price, visitors can climb to the top, and get amazing views of the entire city.
Continuing down the Rúa brings you to the Cathedral, or better said “Cathedrals”. Another aspect that adds to Salamanca’s fame is that it doesn’t have one, but two cathedrals. However, if you were to look for both of them, you may be hard pressed to find them. They are actually built one on top of the other. The Old Cathedral was built between the 12th and 14th centuries. However, when the construction of a new, updated cathedral was started in the 16th century, instead of completely tearing down the Old Cathedral to build the new, the New Cathedral was simply added to the new. Although it is true that in almost every cathedral around Spain construction and “updates” were made to the original building, what makes this one different is that instead of simply changing the architectural style of the old, an entire new cathedral was constructed.
One of the best ways to see the inside of the Cathedral isn’t actually through the front door. Around the corner on the back side of the Cathedral is access to what is called “Ieronimus”. This is another tower tour, and I should warn you, that it involves walking up a lot of stairs. It is worth it though, when you are given views of both the Old and New Cathedrals, the roof tops, and the surrounding city. At night there is a special tour, in which the cathedral is illuminated, and a guide gives an explanation of the various rooms and artifacts that are located throughout.
The magic of this city does not stop at the end of the Rúa. On a nice, sunny afternoon, one of the best ways to get amazing views of the entire city (for free!) is to cross the historic Roman Bridge (Puente Romano), and walk along the running path on the other side of the river. Stopping at a “bocadillo” shop on the Rúa on your way and grabbing a sandwich of Spanish Ham on a baguette makes for a great picnic, and the benches lining the river provide the perfect place to relax and enjoy the sites!
If you’re feeling up to it, there is a small shack on the edge of the river which offers paddle boats that can be taken out and used for up to an hour. Fair warning, however, if it is a hot, sunny day, there is almost no way of finding shade while out on the river, except, of course, for when you go under the bridges.
While Salamanca may seem small, it has a lot to offer! Walking around the city, you will find various museums, gardens, and cafés filled with yummy tapas just begging to be tried. As is true with almost every city in Spain, the magic comes in discovering it for yourself–in getting lost along the winding roads, and stumbling upon a café or some other hidden away treasure. With this post, my main goal is to spark the interest of eager travelers to add this city to their list of destinations. Whether you spend a day or a week in the Golden City, you will see why this city makes its way into the hearts of all who visit. As Cervantes said, “… Salamanca que enhechiza a voluntad de volver a ella a todos los que de la apacibilidad de su vivienda han gustado.”