Salamanca Dreaming

The Plaza Mayor is the magnetic nucleus of the town. Madrid’s Plaza Mayor may be slightly larger and more commanding, but Salamanca’s wins hands down in terms of sheer allure and aesthetic beauty. At night, the staggered lighting on each of the three stories throws its baroque shadows into the sky. Above each column lining the lower walkways are carved busts of kings, queens and other notable historical figures. Locals stroll about every evening nonchalantly socializing while groups of performers entertain the people seated at the terraces that line the inner walls. While there may be a good many foreigners and tourists running about, the townsfolk still visit the plaza with pride and vigour, in no way turned off by the volume of visitors. This year marks the 250th anniversary of the Plaza Mayor. The commemorative celebrations, which started in April and will run until October 16, are marked with concerts, plays, forums and exhibitions all of which will occur within the plaza and throughout the old city of Salamanca.
One possible cohesive factor tying all of Salamanca together could be found within the secrets of its rocks. All of the buildings are made from stones from Villamayor and contain high iron concentrations. The effect is a colour somewhere between carrot and clay or peach and sand: an extremely warm, golden hue that lends mere bricks the effervescence of ageless royalty and affluence. What further links the old with the new are modern buildings standing next to ancient churches or convents. The architecture may differ but this timeless, unique colour blends the entire town to a moderate auburn. Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno once described it as “autumnal rosebush, with its yellow light, illuminated in the evening Renaissance of the leaves.”
Both of the town’s cathedrals are impossible to miss, as each can be seen from far outside the city. Not content with the original cathedral that began construction in the11th century, a second was built (finished in the 18th century) standing adjacent to the original. Appropriately, they are known as “La Antigua” and “La Nueva” respectively.They tower above the rest of the town and exemplify an architectural style known as Plateresque, which is the natural fusion of styles resulting from the transition from Gothic to Renaissance. It is unlike anywhere else in the world. La Antigua best represents the Romanesque style proliferated from a Spain assuredly free from the Moors. La Nueva shows the last remaining strokes of the Gothic period. They essentially appear to be one, as the new borders the old.
Another vital attraction within Salamanca is the Roman bridge which crosses the River Tormes to the southwest of the city. This viaduct connects old Salamanca to the highways and outskirts with its 15 arches which had to be reconstructed in the 17th century after water damage. Further driving home the Roman theme, the statue of a male pig (who through time and gravity has lost its head) stoically remains at the mouth of the bridge. This cement pig, pre-Roman Salmantine art, is considered to be the guardian of the city. Catching a sunset here is well worth the efforthe vantage point from the bridge brilliantly enhances the sinking sun directly into the western horizon.The river flows toward the sunset and disappears amid a cluster of trees standing in the river’s body.
Wander further through the city and you invariably pass La Casa de las Conchas (The House of Shells), which was built by a knight named Maldonado for Fernando and Isabel in the 1500s. Around 300 shells cover its façade, making it the only building in Salamanca of its kind. It doubles as both the Salamanca library and cultural centre. Next to the House of Shells is Salamanca’s elephantine University, the oldest in Spain and once considered to be “one of the four leading lights in Europe” by Pope Alexander IV. You will find no other university in Spain that has had such an extensive list of famous historical characters walk its halls, including Christopher Columbus (who conferred his famous proposal with the University’s scholars here), Copernicus, Miguel de Unamuno and Hernan Cortés to name just a few. Its popularity has fluctuated with the tumultuous times since it was opened in 1218 by King Alfonso IX. Lately, its attendance has risen from 20,000 in the 80s to 30,000 in the 90s, mainly due to its long-standing erudite tradition and the widely held belief that the purest Spanish is spoken there. (Well that and the fact that it is easily one of the most beautiful structurally designed campuses in the world.) Suffice it to say, the University’s presence lends Salamanca a youthful ambiance throughout the year and you are almost as likely to hear English as you are Castellano in the streets.
A subtle yet profound contrast may smack you with a realization: as old as the town is, it is seamlessly integrating into the modern age. The most evident example includes unique, digitalised pedestrian crossings which impart a futuristic touch to a city that encases and displays its 1,000 year old heritage. Other subtleties can be seen by merely looking around anywhere in the historic quarter. All over there exists an enmeshing in the architecture such that even the modern lamp posts that line the streets blend in. They are not mere fixtures of utility but necessities of purposeful design. They all appear to be quite new, constructed in a type of retro-gothic architecture. Each post continues vertically beyond where the light juts out, giving it a sort of semi-arched contour (much like the support wing of a flying buttress).
Salamanca is truly a shrine to Spain’s history and blossoming modernity. It’s one of only three Spanish cities that UNESCO named a World Heritage City and in 2002 it was honoured with the European Capital of Culture title. With half the age and a small percentage of its artefacts, it is truly a miniature Rome: a well preserved, vibrant and dynamic monument to Spain’s abundant and resonant history.
Useful Facts:
Museum Offerings
Salamanca has the typical museums such as Bellas Artes and a Modern Art museum but the quirky ones deserve a look too–all either free or up to three euros. Examples include ‘La Medida del Tiempo’ (The Measurement of Time) a museum of clocks which houses antique time pieces from all over the world the oldest from the 1600s; El Museo de la Historia de la Automoción (the Museum of Self-propulsion) that houses the first vehicle made in Spain in 1885, the first car ever propelled by an internal combustion engine and the first automobile prototype from the 1420s; el Museo de la Fábrica de Harinas (Museum of the Flour Factory); Los Sonidos del Ayer (The Sounds of Yesterday) which has an impressive collection of Jurassic radios; Artilugios para Fascinar (Fascinating Equipment) which has a permanent collection of the work of filmmaker Basilio Martín Patino – all related to the audio/visual word of cinema; Museo Taurino (Bullfighting Museum).
Outside of Salamanca, an inveterate wonderland of discovery beckons a venture. Some of the unusual attractions include, bull ranches where bullfighters-in-training learn to sidestep and lunge, the Bejar Mountains or Las Batuecas, a wildlife reserve for lynxes and rare mountain-goats and horseback riding.
Like other provinces in the north of Spain, Salamanca has delicious cuchinillo al fuego (roast suckling pig); hornazo and chichas ( typical regional empanadas); and chochos, made with anisette are sweetly satisfying. Privy to the province is the much talked about guijuelo, Salamanca’s prized version of cured ham; cheese from a nearby town named Hinojosa del Duero; beans (alubias) grown in the region are exceptional; and Las Almendras de Santa Teresa are divine.
NH Palacio de Castellanos (€136-210), tel: 92 326 1818
Hostal Plaza Mayor (€60-69), tel: 92 326 2020
Eurostar Hotel (€30), tel: 92 319 4021
Trento: Main courses cost around €12-17 and the menu of the day is €18-very centrally located offering imaginative dishes at good prices.We suggest the sweet peppers stuffed with salt cod.

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