Beautiful Salamanca, home to one of Europe’s oldest universities and a showcase of Renaissance and Gothic architecture.
Amid long days of dull grey clouds, cold sleety rains and buffeting winds we were gifted an afternoon of high blue skies and warm sunshine in which to see the dazzling red sandstone palaces, churches and public places of Salamanca’s historic centre.
We pedalled the nine-mile round trip from our campsite along the green waters of the wide Rio Tormes, originally crossed by Romans in the first century who built a stone bridge at the time of Emperor Trajana. Of its 26 arches, the majority are still indeed the original Roman construction.
We peered over its sides admiring the vibrant green river grasses that formed patterns in the water and spotted a young river otter rolling on a warm stone and putting down scent. It was a surprisingly green entrance to the city.
The bridge gave a good view of the hilltop setting of the old city and the flag stone lanes up to it were steep and teeming with people. It was our first experience of being amongst crowds since our arrival in Spain. International voices from all corners of the world were excitedly calling out and commenting on their surroundings, as well as wielding a million selfie sticks.
We pushed and squeezed our bikes up the narrow and bustling Rue Mayor and began searching out a place to tether them. Despite being a university city, and wholly pedestrian in the centre, there were no bike stands or evidence that anyone expected cyclists! We eventually found a lamp post in a quiet corner.
Salamanca’s University began life as a cathedral school and was granted university status in 1218. In 1254 it achieved a funding agreement from King Alfonso X which included provision for a librarian and became the first university in Europe to have a public library.
Its intricately carved entrance features almost an impossibly lace-like decoration of flowers and fauna, winding around human and fantastical figures well as a portrait of the Catholic Monarchs.
Today’s students are a mixture of nationalities and their presence in the Old Town guarantees a lively atmosphere and plenty of cheap eats alongside the many upmarket restaurants dimly lit with candles on linen tablecloths underneath the arcaded walkways.
Salamanca’s Cathedral is in fact two. The new cathedral was built over 200 years between the 16th–18th centuries and didn’t replace the old one but butt up next to it. To understand how the two fitted together we climbed up the steep and winding spiral staircases of the towers to walk across the rooftops.
The Gothic Catedral Nueva sits in front of and partly around the Romanesque Catedral Vieja. We strolled above the rooftiles of the old church, with the towering and studded spires of the new church in turn, above us.
The walkway gave a tremendous view of the heart of Salamanca. Perched up on the balustrades amongst the windy pinnacles of the spires and lizardy-looking gargoyles we looked out over the ancient university centre, the winding and packed shopping streets leading to the grand central square, and across the Rio Tormes out to the modern, industrial city.
An unexpected treat was our entrance into the new cathedral on a stone walkway high above the central nave. Peering down from the dizzying heights we could see the gigantic columns that form the many arches of the transept.
Next to us, and almost in reach were the still colourful emblems depicting notable medieval Salamancans, now thick with dust as they unable to be cleaned. A great crack through the stone work from the roofline tells of the earthquake in 1755 which caused great destruction throughout the centre of the city. Locals commemorate it every year by playing in noisy brass bands along the cathedral’s high walkways.
In a medieval city of learning and religion, there are many more beautiful churches, but we especially enjoyed the delicate façade of the Church and Convent of San Estaban.
In the late afternoon sunlight, its warm red stonework seemed to pulse with life, even though its centrepiece was a horrific depiction of the stoning of St Stephen. Visitors poured through its doors to see its double-galleried cloisters, but we went instead to have a few minutes of peace alone in the nearby gardens of the nuns at Convento de las Duenas.
Strange and twisted faces are carved onto the capitals of the Renaissance double cloister, at odds with the peace of the perfectly kept garden.
Private individuals also financed notable buildings and palaces. One of the most striking is the Casa de las Conchas built by Rodrigo Arias Maldono, a Knight of the Order of Santiago and witness to the signatures by Isabel and Fernando to the Treaty of Tordesillas.
The many sea shells that line all the sides of the mansion are a reference to symbol of St James, ever present in Spain and especially along the route of the Santiago de Compostela. We gave some money to a begging gypsy sat rather forlornly on the steps of the mansion and received a toothy smile and her blessing.
With the sun lowering we wandered to the grand Plaza Mayor. This magnificent square was funded by the Bourbon King Felipe V to thank the city for its support during the War of the Spanish Succession.
Designed by the great Spanish family of stonework sculptors, the Churriguera Brothers in 1729, it was finished in 1755. Once used for bullfights its now a wonderful place to wander amongst the stone arcades and admire the three stories of balconied and shuttered apartments above.
Crowds had gathered at the many cafes run by elderly and bad-tempered waiters, serving cold drinks in the hot sunshine on the west side or hot drinks in cool shade on the east side.
We bagged a table for two in the sun and enjoyed people watching, whilst not ever getting served. No matter, it crowned an enchanting visit to a wonderful and unique place. A terrific birthday present!