Salamanca has one of the oldest universities in Europe, the oldest in Spain for sure. The large Spanish and international student populations keep the city lively, in fact so lively that many older residents wonder if and when they ever get any studying done. If they aren’t completely distracted by the numerous bars and nightclubs, they certainly would be by the stunning architecture constructed primarily in sandstone and overlaid with Latin inscriptions in red ochre.
In 220 BC the Carthaginian Hannibal besieged the Celtic Iberian Peninsula during an end run to Rome. Later the Romans invaded and the city became an important commercial hub on the Silver Route (Ruta de la Plata) from the Asturian mines in the north to Andalucía in the south. After the fall of Rome, the city was invaded by just about everyone who had an expansionist eye.
Things began to look up for Salamanca when the university was founded in 1218 and it eventually became the equal of Oxford in England. Christopher Columbus lectured about his discoveries and several explorers of the Golden Age were students. Much, much later, Salamanca became the center for liberal resistance following the Spanish Civil War and the forty years of Franco’s rule.
The Old City was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988, and today the University is well known for the teaching of the Spanish language. The students and tourism drive the economy of the city, with practically one in six residents a student.
We had wanted to visit Salamanca when we were travelling through Extremadura, but instead of continuing further north into Castile and Léon, we turned east towards Madrid and postponed our visit till we could take our daughter along with us. After she joined us in Madrid, we made several day trips out to the surrounding cities and of course Salamanca was one of those cities.
We turned off the highway towards the city once we spotted the massive towers on the stunning cathedral, visible for kilometres in all directions. We turned again into a small street and started looking for a parking space for our car. It was a Sunday afternoon so we expected to find a spot easily but there didn’t seem to be many places to park for anyone in the area. We pulled up in front of some huge garage doors that were plastered with old posters and felt we could park there because the doors didn’t look like they had been opened since the cathedral was built centuries earlier.
We’d read that the city was easily seen on foot, so we set off along the quiet lanes enjoying the warm spring weather and the lovely stone buildings all around us. Salamanca has been called the ‘Golden City’ because of the warmth of the Villamayor sandstone, taken from a quarry near the village of the same name, not far from Salamanca.
As we walked along, I admired the flowers on the towering trees and noted the mild perfume in the air. Adia easily identified the trees as chestnuts, there are many on the street where she lives in Victoria. We spend a lovely hour or more wandering through the city center and especially enjoyed seeing the Latin lettering on many of the old buildings. This was something I hadn’t seen before and it lent an unusual beauty and air of romance to an already romantic city.
As we walked down one street closed to traffic, I noticed a man standing with a wooden table covered in drawing paper, rulers and charcoal pencils. After passing by, I peered over his shoulders and realized that he was drawing the lines of perspective on the paper in preparation for sketching the beautiful church at the end of the lane. I motioned to Anil and Adia to come and have a look and then told them what he was doing.
To my surprise, he spoke to us in English, confirming that I was correct and asking us if we were Canadians. It turns out he is from Ottawa. I must really make a point not to assume that others don’t speak English, what if I had criticized his work and he had overhead me?
We carried on to admire the façade of the University’s main entrance, and to hunt for the small frog perched on a skull carved amongst the dramatic Plateresque carvings. We had read about the challenge in our Lonely Planet, and found ourselves standing with several other tourists intent on spotting the illusive amphibian themselves. We were the only ones with a guidebook containing some clues, and in the end we had to resort to the clues to locate the ‘froggie’.
I don’t know how we managed to while away several hours in Salamanca, though I do remember climbing the hundreds of steps of the cathedral tower in order to see the city from another vantage point. The afternoon was winding down and it was time for us to think about getting back to Madrid before dark. As we were walking past the striking San Esteban church, Adia and Anil carried on ahead of me while I stopped to take some photos.
An elderly man was walking towards me and I made a point of setting up the photo so that he was in the bottom right hand corner of the picture. He must have heard the camera click, but he wasn’t aware that he was caught by my lens. As he turned towards me I could see that his vision was almost completely obscured by cataracts in both his eyes. He spoke to me in rapid Spanish but managed to make me understand that he wanted me to take his photo.
I happily complied and when he heard the second click, he saluted me with an upraised hand and set off shuffling towards home with the groceries once again. I usually try and take unobtrusive photos of local residents but here was a situation where this gentleman actually wanted his picture taken. We headed to our car only to find we had been given a €60 parking ticket. Rats!
The ticket was in Spanish but we were able to figure out that if we paid it promptly, the fine would be reduced to ‘only’ €30. But how do we go about paying a parking ticket in a strange city on a Sunday. The difference between the amount of the two fines warranted some effort on my part, so I went into a café across the street and asked the bartender for help. Luckily he spoke English and was able to explain to me that I could pay the issuer of the ticket when he came by again.
Apparently, he makes a circuit and passes by every hour, we had only just received the ticket so we probably had 45 minutes to wait for him to return. Double rats! The bartender also explained that we should have noted the blue lines on the street indicating that it was a pay parking stall and that we should have purchased a ticket at the dispenser at the end of the block. Well, we did learn something new that day for sure. But what a high price for the lesson!
While we were mulling over what to do, a large car pulled into an empty stall next to our car and four older macho looking men stepped out. I decided to ask them for advice and when they learned that we were just visiting from Madrid they told us to just ignore the ticket. They were adamant that the tickets were just for Salamanca residents and that the city wouldn’t forward the fine to the rental car agency and that we could rest easily that it wouldn’t be passed on to us.
We decided to take their advice and restated their assertions ‘Ticket, what ticket?’ I’m happy to report they were entirely correct and we were never charged the €60 or indeed the €30 fine. Phew!