Summer’s green is turning to autumn’s gold—the new school year is about to begin. As our granddaughter Clare heads back to university at King’s College in Halifax, my thoughts turn back to the autumn Magellan and I visited the third-oldest university in the world (est. in 1218), its library so stunning I (almost) wanted to enroll and live in “La Dorada,” the Golden City.
Have you guessed the city?
A few hints about its famous university. Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, was an alumnus. Hernán Cortés, the man for whom an island in BC is named, studied there. And Christopher Columbus, after making his case to a council of geographers, expounded on the new world from its lecterns.
Now you know it’s in Spain.
When we asked Marc and Anne, a couple we met in Priorat, on where to travel in Spain, Marc said, “Whenever I’m within a hundred kilometres of Salamanca, I go there.” A year later, we were exploring this two-thousand-year-old open-air history museum of glowing coppery-gold buildings fashioned from Villamayor sandstone into Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. Here are the six main subjects we studied for 24 hours in the “Oxford of Spain” and the grade we assigned to each.
Magellan and I loved Salamanca from the moment he parked our rental car right in front of the Hotel Rector—unlike other places we’ve travelled to in Spain, there were no five-point turns in a claustrophobic underground garage. The chic woman who checked us in provided a good map, highlighted the spots we wanted to see and recommended others. She was such a learned guide, we mailed her a mini bottle of maple syrup as a thank you—a product she’d seen on TV but couldn’t imagine the taste of “honey from a tree.” On her recommendation, we went to El Meson de Gonzalo for tapas, locking ourselves onto a stand-up spot at the end of the counter for a late lunch. A young man, noticing me walking back and forth trying to interpret the blackboard menu and report back to Magellan, who was guarding our spot, translated and suggested a few plates. When we went to pay our bill, we were told he had taken care of it! Salamanca’s tourism professor?
Grade: A+ (4.33)
Walking across the Roman bridge (Vía de la Plata, the old Roman route linking northern and southern Spain, passes through Salamanca) over the River Tormes, we were smitten with the universality that characterizes university towns— rarified antiquity commingling with youthful liveliness. The Old and New Cathedrals (they’re attached; you go through the Old Cathedral to get to the New) dominate Salamanca’s skyline. From the Ieronimus, the medieval towers, we got a close look at the Cathedral rooftops and a view of the golden city.
Grade B+ (3.33)
Of my favourite attractions in this UNESCO city, the cloisters at the Convento de las Dueñas was second only to the university. The Convento de las Dueñas is a small, irregular pentagon with a rose garden in the middle. Climb the stairs to the first floor and you’ll see ornate stone capitals decorated with grotesque, devilish scenes from Dante’s Divine Comedy. I don’t know my Dante but this was weirdly beautiful. At the more conventional Convento de San Esteban, the Escalera de Soto staircase contributed the most to the grade we awarded these two monuments.
Grade: A (4)
Subject: Museo Casa Lis
What is it that makes people collect such zany objects? Museo Casa Lis was built in the early 20th century by a wealthy Salamancan merchant who loved Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Today, it’s a collection of 1,600 magpie objects—mostly his art and kitsch—glassworks, fans, toys, porcelain dolls and figurines of risqué dancing women sculpted in bronze, marble and chryselephantine (ivory, gold and other precious metals). Most of this failed to impress but receiving top marks from us was the stained glass covering the two-storey atrium.
Grade B+ (3.33)
Subject: Plaza Mayor
Considered the most stunning arcaded square in Spain, the colossal Plaza Mayor features baroque 18th-century “Churrigueresque” architecture, named after its main architect Alberto de Churriguera. It was rainy the day we were there, dampening the lively atmosphere for which this pedestrians-only plaza is renowned.
Grade: A (4)
Subject: The University
An architectural gem, the university is the golden crown in Salamanca’s large jewel box. Delicate, the university’s plateresque façade was made to look like silver filigree (plata is silver in Spanish) but it’s pure rock expertly carved by Salamanca’s early stonemasons. Lovely, but the antiquarian beauty of the library made me weep. You can’t enter the library, you can only peer down to see the books (160,000 volumes dating back to the 11th century and thousands more from later times), ancient globes and Latin inscriptions signifying the subject areas. Originally, Salamanca’s Colegios Mayores were founded as charitable institutions for poor students. Today, there are colleges of liberal arts, sciences, medicine and law for more than 32,000 students—and it’s internationally renowned for its success in teaching Spanish language and culture.
Grade: A+ (4.33)
Salamanca, we believe you’re a major contender for the best university city on the planet. You, La Dorada, scored an Honours GPA of 3.9/4.33!
Our photos kind of suck (taken before we had the idea for latitude65, if that’s an excuse) so here are some good ones taken by professionals with access to the library.
In the old town, a former aristocratic residence was converted into the thirteen-room A+ Hotel Rector. Comfortable rooms, a tasty breakfast and a relaxing lounge with excellent books on arts and culture.
In case you want to study Spanish for a year, here’s the link to the University of Salamanca.