Spain,  Travel

Salamanca: a taste of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque

Of all the places that I visited on my September 2018 road trip in Northern Spain, I was most enamoured by the Autonomous Community of Castile and León, as it’s called. It’s the largest autonomous community but not over-populated or teeming with tourists. The region is home to eight World Heritage Sites, and UNESCO has recognised the Cortes of León of 1188 as the cradle of worldwide parliamentarism, pre-dating the Magna Carta. 

Unsurprisingly, I was drawn back to this region to savour more of its history and culture. Salamanca, the old city of which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to the third oldest university in the western world and the oldest in the Hispanic world (charter granted in 1218, according to records), and is a well-known centre for the teaching of Spanish to non-native speakers.

Cervantes was a student at the University of Salamanca

The city’s ancient origins pre-date Roman rule – founded by a Celtic tribe – but eventually became an important commercial hub under the Romans. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Salamanca was conquered by Visigoths, followed by Moors, and then re-conquered by the Christians.

Like almost all cities in Spain, there is a Plaza Mayor – a huge one with 88 arches. Built between 1729 and 1755, it is stunning. The weather was more than kind in September so the Plaza Mayor had its fair share of visitors, mostly domestic but some foreign. There was lots of activity, including social activism. It seemed to be the season for it – earlier in the year, I saw a large rally for independence in Girona (Catalunya).

The city is also known for its two cathedrals: the Old Cathedral built between the 12th and 14th centuries in Romanesque and Gothic architecture; the New Cathedral built between the 16th and 18th centuries in late Gothic and Baroque style. As expected, a grand edifice with several chapels, statues and symbols. Guided tours are available, but the audio guide was more than enough for me.

View of the cathedral from my hotel (try to ignore that crane)

Salamanca is on one of the routes of El Camino de Santiago, and visitors can see the scallop shell symbol of the Order of Santiago in the city. Specifically, the unusual façade of La Casa de las Conchas, built in the late 15th century by a Knight of the Order, is adorned by more than 300 shells.

Casa de Las Conchas is now a public library

Of course, ¡la gastronomía!

The concierge at my hotel recommended El Mesón de Gonzalo, just off Plaza Mayor, for my first meal in Salamanca. Not being in Plaza Mayor itself meant that the restaurant was relatively quiet. It was una bienvenida riquísima to the city.

Amuse bouche of foie gras served with local bread
Starter: Braised asparagus with ham
Main: Tuna sashimi with garlic and tomato emulsion.
A local specialty: a meat pie of sorts. This is the pork variety
Who can resist a plate of zamburiños? Not me.

El Mercado Central

Fresh produce and green markets are a staple anywhere. I enjoy visiting the local markets to see what locals buy. This one was indoors; the hall was bright and cheerful.

Uncharacteristically not crowded, yet

I liked the vibe here; Salamanca is indeed a cultural capital of Spain – in 2002, the EU named the city as the European Capital of Culture. I get the feeling that it’s not as high profile a destination as, say, Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and a few other cities. That suits me well, though. Far from the madding crowd is how I prefer it.

I must give a shout-out to the hotel I stayed at – Hospes Palacio de San Esteban. I was unaware of its status as I was searching online for a hotel that was conveniently located in proximity to the main sites, and if it was a converted historical building, the better. The hotel exceeded my expectations in terms of location, breakfast, and overall service. It had a lovely garden where one could relax with a cortado or café con leche after a day’s sight-seeing. I’d stay there again in a flash. Highly recommended.

¡Hasta pronto, España!