Monday, October 24, 2016

Hola Desde España – Part Two: Salamanca, September 19-22, 2016

From Madrid we took the train (gotta love Spanish trains – basic, clean, comfortable and efficient) to Salamanca. We weren’t quite sure why we were going to Salamanca other than because it was written about in both of our tour books (thanks again for the Baedeker, Rob and Tom!) and described as having a lovely central plaza, the oldest university in Spain and an interesting cathedral. That, and it was more or less on the way (as trains go) between Madrid and our next destination: the Spanish Basque Country.

We are so glad we stopped in Salamanca. In fact, so glad that we are now talking about it as a place to study Spanish during some future sailing break. 

Sightseeing in Salamanca

Salamanca is a combination of charming architecture, interesting history and youthful exuberance all due in large part to it's ancient university. It reminded us of one of our favorite places in Mexico – Guanajuato.

Salamanca Streetscape

And Another

Propping Up The Old
Until It Becomes The Renovated

Bryce Strolling Across A Bridge
Originally Built By The Romans

Plateresque Architecture -
Convent of St. Stephen

We arrived just after the city’s biggest annual tourist event – the Feria de Salamanca, a week-long art and music fair. The hotels had dropped their prices and everyone in the tourist business was polite, but very, very tired. The daily English-language tour of the city was no longer being offered so we were left to our own devices – which worked out well.

We wandered a lot, used audio guides when they were available and visited the:

Casa de las Conchas / Public Library

The public library is housed in a beautiful Age of Discovery period building (built 1493-1517) called the Casa de las Conchas (House of Shells) because of the carvings of scallop shells that stud its exterior walls. Scallop shells are symbols (for reasons not clear to us) of the order of Santiago (St. James), and the original owner of the house was a member of the Order. [We failed to get a picture of the outside of the building but a quick internet search will make our description clearer.]

The building has been modernized to house the city’s library (large glass panels letting light into the reading room) and work continues on its beautiful interior courtyard.

Beautifully Reconstructed Ceiling

Restorer At Work

Restoration In Progress

But what really impressed Bryce was the coffee machine in the library reading room. Wow – is this a great country, or what?

A Coffee With That Book?

“Old” and “New” Cathedrals

The “old” cathedral was primarily constructed during the 12th and 13th centuries. By the 16th Century the local bishop (who apparently had some pull in Rome) decided it was too small and too dark and too old-fashioned, so in 1513 work was begun on the “new” cathedral which was finally finished in 1733 (practically yesterday in Salamanca time). Today, the cathedrals are toured as a whole, and we recommend the audio guide (it’s a Catholic church and a Catholic themed audio guide – just relax and go with it).

We spent a lot of time in both cathedrals, awed by their height, light and strength (which of course is the point of cathedrals . . . awing and inspiring):

Molly - Looking To The
Architectural Heavens

In Large Part, It's About Looking Up

A Caballero's (Knight's) Final Resting Place

Though our favorite cathedral moments were in the bell tower.

Bryce As Bell Ringer

A Bell Tower View

Climbing a Bell Tower -
Like Having Mast Steps

P1040652 (2)
Sign Says Don't Touch The Bells
-- Not A Problem For Molly

Molly was also awed (in a PTSD sort of way) by the Chapel of Santa Barbara where, in the early years of the university, students sat for their final examination. The process sounds like a hideous combination of an oral bar exam and a doctoral thesis defense. The student entered the chapel where he (always, he) was given several subjects and a day to prepare an oral presentation on each. At the end of the preparation period a committee of professors would determine which subjects they wanted to hear and the student would make his presentation on those – leaving much of his preparation on the cutting room floor so to speak. Following the student’s presentation the group would adjourn for dinner while the student dined on food sent through a grill in the wall (extreme exam proctoring!). After this break the professors would return to the chapel to challenge the student’s presentation. If the student was able to adequately defend his initial presentation bells would ring and he and his friends would go get drunk. If not – he left town.

The University of Salamanca

The University was founded in 1254 and originally educated scholars, teachers and church luminaries. During the Era of Discovery and thereafter it churned out civil servants to staff the government agencies charged with stripping the wealth of the Spanish colonies. Today the university is renowned for its Spanish language programs.

The colleges of the university are spread throughout Salamanca and parts of some are open to visitors, offering a fascinating peak into medieval higher education. [Side note: Molly chafed at the references to the university’s former male-only student body so she did some quick internet research. Her Jesuit-run law school notes proudly that it accepted women as early as 1956. Hmmmm. Sexism - it's all just in our minds, yeah?]

Long Ago Graffiti 

When The University And
The Church Were One

Bryce And His Audio Guide

Librarians: Even Excommunication
Didn't Eliminate Book Theft, Apparently

Plaza Mayor
Salamanca’s central plaza is quite lovely and lively, both during the day . . .

Plaza Mayor

Modern Cleaning Technique
For Medieval Plaza

. . . and at night:

Who Needs Disney Lights?

Dining Al Fresco

We celebrated Molly’s birthday (the number shall not be mentioned . . . ) at a restaurant on the plaza watching students first gather and then form teams and play games that looked a lot like versions of  “Red Rover, Red Rover” with alcohol. Great fun if you’re 20 years old – and fun to watch when you’re . . . older.

Other Sights

Many of the buildings in Salamanca that are open to visitors are convents – some operating and some re-purposed. We had an interesting visit to the Convento de las Ursulas where, sadly, we weren’t allowed to take pictures. The objects on display at the one-room museum weren’t spectacular – but the two little sisters (at 5’1" Molly towered over them) who giggled throughout our time there were totally cute and quite picture-worthy. When it was time to lock up and go pray these giggling women, still smiling, became ruthlessly efficient: everyone out, thank you for coming, gotta get praying here.

Another afternoon we were reminded that Salamanca isn’t just a charming living museum, but a modern city. We wandered into a clean energy car show on a plaza and Bryce spent a happy hour trying out his technical Spanish on some hybrid car salespeople. They seemed to understand his questions . . . though he didn’t always follow their answers!

Low Carbon Transportation

And we are sure there are other places to explore, given more time.

Salamanca Logistics

Queen beds are hard to come by in Spain – even for those old enough and tall enough (Bryce) to be willing to pay for more than a budget hotel.  Travel Tip: “Double” beds are often only two twins shoved together. It does make one wonder how the country has maintained it’s current birthrate. We were happy to find a queen bed at the Hotel Eurostars Las Claras.

The hotel had the added bonus of being a block away from Vinodiario (Daily Wine), an informal and charming restaurant with great food and an interesting wine list. If you travel to Salamanca don’t miss Vinodiario – the night manager is a wine-maker and loves to talk and pour wine.

And Then We Were On To Spain's Basque Country! 

1 comment:

  1. Studied in Salamanca for a few weeks in early 80's. If you do so please go during warm months. I was there in winter and university buildings are not heated so you are in class dressed with coat, scarf, mittens, earmuffs, hat, etc. The locals think nothing of that situation. Not fun. Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr...