Category: salamanca.

Salamanca: Spain's answer to Oxford

Salamanca has bags of medieval charm, and is still as abuzz with student life as it was 800 years ago

Sue George,


Old and new cathedrals in Salamanca. Photograph: Peter Adams/Peter Adams/Corbis

Eight hundred years’ worth of students have made their mark on the stunning yellow-stone city of Salamanca. The students of 2009 are doing their best to add to the buzz, I think as I walk past gaggles of chattering youth in this, Spain’s answer to Oxford.

I am in Salamanca for a couple of days, anxious to cram in as much sightseeing as I can take before my legs go numb. And there’s a lot to see in this stunningly beautiful city, choc-a-bloc with history. Although Salamanca’s historic centre is confined to a smallish area – surrounded by wide roads that keep most of the traffic out – there is something beautiful to see around every corner.

First stop – the Plaza Mayor to consult the tourist information centre, and pore over the guidebooks with a coffee. The Plaza Mayor – the grandest main square in Spain, and dating from the early 18th century – is the centre of the city, to which all roads seemingly lead, and is surrounded by colonnaded walkways containing 88 semi-circular arches. Most of the arches contain cafes and bars, whose tables spill out on to the square. Looking up, I see that above each archway is a small sculpture inside a round frame (known as a medallion). While most are busts of royalty, other notables who figured in the history of Salamanca, plus writers such as Cervantes and even Franco also appear.

Armed with a Salamanca card which, for €22, lasts 48 hours and allows entry to pretty much everything you’d like to see inside the city, I set off.

While Salamanca had been important in Roman times and the centuries thereafter, the turning point in its history was 1218, when the university was founded. The period around the end of the 15th century was the city’s high point, which lasted until the 17th century. The architecture from this era remains throughout the city, and it seems every street has a building decorated with elaborate plateresque and Renaissance plasterwork – churches, university buildings, libraries or homes.

First off, I’m visiting the two cathedrals. The old and new cathedrals are right next to each other – the much smaller, older one seemingly protected by the newer. Construction on the new cathedral began in 1513 – and was only finished 220 years later. It’s the largest building in the city, highly decorated in the Plateresque style – outside, there’s every kind of decorative motif, pinnacle and fearsome-looking gargoyle that you can think of. Inside, it’s a rather different story – with vast open spaces and grandiose looming pillars to inspire awe in the worshipper. The sculptor Churriguera, working at the beginning of the 18th century, made sure that there was a great deal of elaborate ornamental decoration in the choir stalls, chapel and retro-choir.

The old cathedral, built in the years from 1150, is a far more austere building in a Romanesque style. Except for the altarpiece – lavishly decorated and exquisitely painted in the 15th century with 53 small images depicting various scenes from the life of Christ – this cathedral seems much more intimate.

Next, I climb the towers of the old cathedral and step outside; there’s great views over the surrounding red-tiled roofs, the new cathedral, the bishop’s palace and the university buildings next door, to the wide windows of the Parador on the hillside and the open land in the distance. Inside, the high stone balconies overlook the inside of the new cathedral to which it is linked, which seems like a very long way down indeed.

Back outside, I wander around the back of the new cathedral to look at the Ramos Door (there are several elaborately decorated entrances). It, too, is covered in carvings. When the stonemasons restored it in 1992, a floating astronaut, a naughty monkey with an ice-cream cone and a stork were added, and they certainly make me smile.

But I am off to the university buildings now to find a certain carved frog that inspired those 20th-century carving comedians. Apparently, good luck (in exams or otherwise) is guaranteed to those who spot it. It’s on the Fachada de la Universidad, on the beautiful stone carvings near to the sculptures of Fernando and Isabel (the monarchs who founded the university). Up a bit, right a bit – oh, and there it is, not looking terribly frog-like any more.

The university buildings form a beautiful complex based around several patios. In the patio de las Escuelas Mayores is a statue of Fray Luis de León. He was arrested by the Inquisition for translating the Song of Solomon into Spanish and, famously, returned to his lectures after five years’ imprisonment with the words: “As I was saying yesterday …” Inside, his old classroom is kept the same way he left it in 1572.

The lovely courtyard of the Escuelas Menores is just around the corner and, off it, the university museum has an unusual exhibit. Stepping gingerly into a pitch-dark room, the gloom gradually clears to reveal to us stunned tourists a domed ceiling painted pale blue and covered in gold stars. This delight, known as the Sky of Salamanca, is a fragment of a 15th-century painting that covered part of the university library, and represents that period’s view of the astrological heavens.

Nearby, there’s the picturesque Casa de las Conchas, which is decorated with large, carved scallop shells. It was built in the 15th century as a palace for the court doctor and his new wife, the companion of Queen Isabel. The shells were part of his wife’s heraldry and were also connected to the Order of Santiago, to which he belonged. You can wander to the courtyard inside, but it also has a contemporary use as a fully functioning public library.

The Clerecía – now the Pontificia university – was erected by the Jesuits in the 17th century to serve as a seminar. It’s just across a narrow road from the Casa de las Conchas. From here, the Jesuits were instructed on how to spread Catholicism throughout the world. Its vast baroque church is a towering landmark over the area.

Going towards the river, I step into the Convent of San Esteban. This also has a highly decorated facade, sometimes referred to as an altar in stone, which shows the stoning of San Esteban (St Stephen). The retablo inside is Churriguera’s first sculpture in Salamanca.

Bringing the city’s history into more recent times, I visit the art deco and nouveau museum. Known as Casa Lis, the museum looks out over the river, its long, blue stained-glass windows making it an exhibit in itself. I learn precious little about the history of art nouveau/deco (particularly as few of the exhibits are dated) but, as well as an eclectic exhibition of period artefacts, I do get the opportunity to see an enormous and bizarre collection of dolls, including a whole circus – replete with acrobats, trapeze artistes and animals.

It’s definitely time for a rest now and I go back to the Parador where I am staying. Unlike most Paradors, which use historic buildings, this Parador was only built in 1980. But its USP is still history – specifically its views of the city. Many of the rooms look out over the city, with the sun reflecting on the cathedral during the day, and the lights of the old city sparkling after dark. For honeymoons (or similar) the junior suites offer rooms where the bed itself looks right over the city.

But for solitary me it’s back to the Plaza Mayor and dinner at Mesón Cervantes – a smoky, buzzy bar where tapas, egg dishes, burgers and salads hit the spot for a range of tourists, families and young people. Main courses cost around €15.

Back out in the square, the multitudes are being entertained by a strolling band dressed in medieval costumes. They may well be students during the day. But, like their medieval counterparts, they add a sprinkling of intellect, beauty and sheer fun to this lovely place.
Route of the Spanish language

Salamanca is centre of a fascinating driving route that takes in significant points in the development of the Spanish language, now the third most widely spoken language in the world. This route – which starts just north of Burgos, and goes south-west through Valladolid and Salamanca, before it turns to take in Ávila and Alcalá de Henares – covers the area in which Castillian Spanish first changed from a dialect to a proper language.

Notes in Spanish were first listed in the margins of a Latin text, held at the monastery of San Millán de la Cogolla, just outside Burgos, around the 11th century. Burgos was also the home of El Cid, the knight who featured in a 12th-century epic poem. In subsequent centuries, the universities of Valladolid and Salamanca gave the language further authority.

Salamanca is the furthest westerly point on this route; turning east from there takes you to Ávila, where the 16th century reforming mystic Santa Teresa da Ávila wrote about her visions and spiritual theories. Then, just north of Madrid, is the university city of Alcalá de Henares, the home town of one of the Spanish language’s most renowned practitioners – Cervantes, creator of the unforgettable character Don Quixote.

• For more information (in Spanish) on this route, go to

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Category: salamanca
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