Just a quick observation: apparently people like to read about other people’s distress because my last post about me getting robbed got about 50+ views thanks to the link I posted on Facebook! So if I am to understand, terrible things should just happen to me all the time so I can then blog about it so people will be interested in reading this blog. Got it!
The weekend of Halloween, October 30th, my roommate Nicole, my friend Sarah, and I went on a day trip to Salamanca, a city about 200 kilometers west of Madrid. It is apparently known as la Ciudad Dorada (golden city) because many of the buildings in the Old City are made out of sandstone. Sort of reminds me of Toulouse and its Ville Rose nickname. 🙂 I actually have a cousin who studied abroad in Salamanca last year and he was always raving about the city in his blog so I was excited to see what it was all about. Also this was not a school trip and I had never been there before. Double plus.
We (Nicole and I) got to Salamanca an hour before Sarah did because we got tickets on the express bus. So we wandered into the Old City (not too hard to find from the bus station–just follow the tower of the cathedral) and found the tourist office and picked up a map. Once Sarah’s bus got in, we set off to explore the city. And I’ve got to say Salamanca did not disappoint.
As it seems to be the trend with most Spanish cities, Salamanca has ties to the Roman era (it’s also got a puente romano) but I’ll spare you the details, I’m kind of sick of the Romans too. The city was also inhabited by the Moors at one point but there’s not really any Mudejar architecture surviving today. We walked around the city admiring the sandstone buildings. One building of note is la Casa de las Conchas (now a library and means House of Shells), a building whose facade is decorated with more than 300 shells. I definitely loved that building, I have no idea why the front of it is decorated with shells but I think more buildings should be designed like this. A lot of buildings seemed to be religious in nature so it was hard to tell what was a monastery or a convent and what was not. I mistook about 4 or 5 buildings for the cathedral which I realized was dumb when I stood in front of the cathedral later that day, since it’s pretty big.
The first thing we visited was the edificio historico (historic building) of the Universidad de Salamanca. The university in Salamanca is the oldest in Spain and one of the oldest in Europe. Founded in 1218 by the King Alfonso IX, it is one of the top rated universities in Spain and well-known for attracting a large number of foreigners who come to Spain to learn Spanish. Among its famous alumni, you can count Miguel de Cervantes. You know, the guy who wrote Don Quijote (and to this day I have no idea what the heck the most famous piece of Spanish literature is about). Also Hernan Cortes, the explorer who pretty much destroyed the Aztec Empire in Mexico.
Inside the university’s oldest building, it was kind of built like a cloister with a bunch of rooms off the rectangular breezeway. I’m not sure if students take classes in this building anymore. It’s probably just used for official ceremonies, but some of the classrooms are set up to look like back in the day. One room had rows and rows of long thin wooden benches with a long thin plank of wood that was supposed to pass as a desk. Looks like desks were just as uncomfortable back then as they were today, which is comforting to know students suffered just as much as we did.
As most of you know, I love libraries so for me the coolest thing was the old library. Unfortunately you can only stand in the entryway and admire the library from behind some glass. Maybe not as cool as the library at Trinity College in Dublin, but it was pretty awesome. Some of those books had to be over 500 years old, predating the printing press. And there were these huge globes lying around on the floor, it totally looked like something out of the medieval ages. In fact the whole building was very medieval and gothic, with vaulted ceilings and tapestries and stone stairways.
Once we finished our tour of the university building, it was time to find the frog. What is this you ask? Well, the facade to the main doorway of the old university building is kind of famous. It’s rather ornate and detailed with skulls, people’s faces, various animals, and what have you. There is one frog on the facade and if you happen to find it in the multitude of engravings, you get good luck or something like that. We stood there for awhile trying to find it and we eventually did thanks to eavesdropping on the helpful Spaniards who kept mentioning it was sitting on top of a skull.
We next went to Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor, built sometime around the 18th century and seems to be much bigger than Madrid’s Plaza Mayor (also noticeably missing: the almost requisite man riding on a horse statue that Spaniards seem to be fond of). Salamanca’s City Hall is housed in the Plaza but I didn’t realize that until after I left the city. There was some kind of book fair going on so it was hard to get pictures without including the book vendors as well. The plaza is considered to be one of the best squares in Europe according to Wiki. I liked it, but I wasn’t too sure if it deserved that title.
After that, siesta had kicked in so we broke for lunch (and I ate the best tarte de chocolate there and definitely got my money’s worth with the amount served just for 12 euros!). After siesta, we tackled the cathedral. I realize I always make it sound like I’m preparing for warfare when I enter a cathedral… well let’s just say sometimes that’s how I feel mentally.
Salamanca actually has 2 cathedrals, as crazy as that sounds. An “old” one and a “new” one built right next to each other. We first visited the Catedral Nueva which finished being built sometime in the 18th century so it’s really not all that new. It’s got both Baroque and Gothic architectural elements mixed in but honestly I can’t tell the styles apart. Apparently as they were building the new cathedral, Baroque was being phased out and being replaced by Gothic so that’s why the cathedral ended up with the 2 styles. However, to me a cathedral is a cathedral. Everything else is extraneous information. It is really pretty inside though, it’s got a gorgeous cupola in the middle of the cathedral and I like the designs on the ceiling.
The Catedral Vieja was kind of a waste of time though. We had to pay to get in (boo), a whole lot smaller, and well there wasn’t that much to see. Apart from the ornately painted wall behind the main altar (apparently called an apse) and some random little chapels in the cloisters, it was boring.
After Nicole climbed the cathedral tower, we decided to go to the outer part of the Old City and cross the Roman bridge. While crossing the bridge itself wasn’t very exciting, we got some great pictures of the Tormes river with the Salamanca skyline against the setting sun. That’s when I understood why the city is nicknamed the Golden City. The cathedral and other tall buildings made out of sandstone reflected a golden color against the horizon as the sun began to go down. The bike path along the river was also really nice as it curved along beneath the trees whose leaves were starting to change colors. It definitely was looking like fall!
As night began to fall, we decided to check out Casa Lis, an art deco and art nouveau museum. I’m not really sure how to put this museum into words. When we first entered, the museum had this gorgeous multicolored mosaic/stained glass window kind of ceiling with night stars going on that was really funky and totally gorgeous! The museum had a lot of figurines of female dancers which were so delicate looking and beautiful. One wing of the museum was dedicated to all things cabaret and Josephine Baker popped up a lot amongst the figurines and sculptures. There was also one room with lots of dolls in it. I’m not a huge fan of dolls (apart from American Girl) because I think old dolls are creepy looking. There was more stuff in the museum but I can’t remember what else was in it, just that I really liked this museum. Unfortunately I was not allowed to take pictures in it so all I have is my memory to rely on here. But oh hey I just found the English website so this is what else I saw: glassware, pottery, chryselephantines (the ivory and bronze dancer figurines I was talking about), porcelains, vases, enamels, jewels, bronzes, toys, sculptures, fans, textiles, antique postcards and paintings. Cool stuff! On top of that, the building the museum is housed in is built like a mini palace and is just as lovely.
As we meandered by the museum’s cafe, we caught sight of the sky and gasped. One of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen. The sky was clear with no clouds and I just can’t even begin to describe the way the colors all sort of melted into each other as darkness set in. It was so amazing.
After Casa Lis, we bypassed the cathedral again to hear some kind of screeching birds congregating around the top of the building. We first thought they were bats but upon closer inspection through our camera zooms, they were some kind of black birds. I’m not too sure why thousands of them like to hang out on top of the cathedral and screech (they do not chirp, it is a very unpleasant caterwauling kind of sound) but anyways I guess it’s one of the mysteries of Salamanca.
Our last stop was back to the Plaza Mayor which we wanted to see lit up at night since by this time it was completely dark. I found it to be more impressive at night than by day. The lights really highlighted the paleness of the stone that the buildings around the plaza are built with. It was a bit surreal looking.
And then we took the bus back to Madrid where predictably we got stuck in traffic and I literally bolted for the bathroom the second we got into the bus station (over 3 hours of driving so give me a break here).
So the verdict is I absolutely loved Salamanca and I think it is truly a Spanish gem. But then I think I say this about a lot of Spanish cities.
To my fellow Americans, be thankful for what you have today (and every day!). For example I am thankful that I got new house keys yesterday! Not so thankful I had to pay to get them replaced though. Still, it’s progress on replacing the stuff that got stolen.
And on a last note: Happy Thanksgiving America! I will be missing that fabulous pumpkin pie with a vengeance (and my family but the pie more). Spain has got good apple pie but it’s just not the same, let’s face it. It’s weird to miss Thanksgiving. I’ve done it before, but I’d much rather be with my family. But I get to see them soon for Navidad, so it’s all good!