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Trip Report 3 Nights in Salamanca

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As we come to the end of our extended stay in gorgeous Valencia, DH suggested that maybe we should spend a few days ‘somewhere’ else in Spain. I immediately come up with places that I would love to return to: Barcelona, Granada, Cuenca…. ‘No, somewhere we have not been before’. That required a bit more thought but (after a few minutes) potential getaway destinations get tossed around: Mallorca, Ibiza, Zaragoza, Salamanca. Hummmm. Salamanca. ‘Why have we not been to Salamanca before?’ DH asked. Honestly, there was no good answer.

Over the last 15 years we have taken several vacations in Spain. We did the ‘major highlights’ in our first trip (pre-Fodor’s) but somehow (timewise most likely) we neglected to include Salamanca though we went to nearby Avila and Segovia. In other trips it just did not make geographical sense.

Destination selected, the next thing was deciding how to get there. The first alternative were trains but from Valencia it was a bit complicated: AVE to Madrid, transfer from the Atocha to Chamartin station, (low speed) train to Salamanca and the trip took a good 7 hours and costed more than a few Euros. The fabulous Spanish bus system did offer better alternatives. At the end what did we do? Rent a ridiculously cheap car from Firefly and drive 6 hours to get there. I must very clearly highlight that DH does not mind driving long distances, so this might not be the best alternative for everyone. Still, it was a bit of a long day.

Using www.booking.com I made reservations at Hostal Plaza Mayor (http://www.hostalplazamayor.es/) for 97€ for the 3 nights. This hotel is certainly not a luxury accommodation but it is an outstanding value option. Location was superb, in Plaza del Corrillo, just off the Plaza Mayor (as in 20m from the arcade). The place begins to look a little dated but the room was above adequate, the bathroom smallish but immaculate and the shower had great water pressure and endless hot water. All the boxes were checked on my requirements list, so two thumbs up.

They offered a private parking but the kid in the reception was honest enough to point out that 24hr rate at any of the parkhouses could be cheaper. It was. 14€ instead of 18€.

We had had a decent breakfast before leaving so during the drive we did not really stop for lunch, just a bathroom break at an autogrill where we purchased outrageously expensive drinks and a bag of roasted mixed nuts. That is how we found ourselves starving at the dreaded hour of 6:00pm. We were smack in the middle of the deep, dark, empty, food void that extends from 4:00pm to 8:30pm. Should we get a few tapas to tide us over? Should we just gorge on tapas and forget about dinner? To complicate matters, I had not really found any outstanding restaurant recommendations.

The cherry on top was DH’s requirement to have dinner inside because it was cold and windy. ‘Why don’t you wear a long sleeved shirt at least?’ I asked (he was very clearly informed beforehand that it would be coolish and windy). ‘I didn’t bring any’. Uuuuuggghh. I was decidedly cranky.

Of course, my mood improved tenfold upon entering one of the most beautiful architectural spaces in the Western world. Though for purely sentimental reasons I will always prefer Piazza de S. Marco in Venice, Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor lived up to its reputation as the prime example of public Spanish baroque style. Just walking around the arcades was worth the trip (easily said as the non-driver, of course). Perfectly proportioned, its elegant arcades are decorated with medallions featuring distinguished Spaniards (and a few infamous ones chiseled off).

It was crowded. With kids. Lot of kids. I know, you are thinking: ‘Is she stupid or what? Doesn’t she know that Salamanca is a university town? With over 40,000 students pouring over books in its hallowed libraries during the day and partying hard in the evening?’ . Well, yeah, we knew, of course. But, still, nothing drives the point in as a huge plaza full of kids drinking beer and eating sandwiches (as many traditional Spanish bocadillos as Whoppers and Big Macs). Of course, there were lots of locals too. Of all ages, needless to say.

And then, as we took to the streets in our quest for food, our amblings let us to the front of the old historic University with its intricately carved Plateresque façade just when the afternoon sun turned the stone into the most incredible golden pink. The style is named because the stone is worked almost as if it was malleable silver jewelry.

Salamanca is called ‘La Dorada’ (the Golden) for good reason. Its historic buildings are constructed with Villamayor stones, these are rich in iron oxide, easy to work when newly quarried but turning as hard as marble after time. As the iron is exposed to the air, the stone gets reddish and when it is combined with the incrusted quartz it gives the most deliciously warm golden glow.

It was beautiful. And a gaped. I gaped for a long time. I even found the famous frog that is ‘hidden’ in the façade. It is said to represent sin, but common legend tells that whomever finds it will have good luck either with their studies or finding a husband. Since I already did all the studying I plan to do and have a husband that I particularly like, I sent good-luck thoughts to all my girlfriends currently engaged in The Quest.

Only the loud noises coming from my empty stomach (and a few gentle pulls from DH) managed to pry me away from this place. We returned several times over the next few days, but nothing was as magical as that first time.

And then we proceeded to have one of the most disappointing dining experiences we ever had in Spain. Restaurant Rua Mayor was semi-randomly selected because it had a reasonably nice interior (remember the no long sleeve shirts?). I don’t have a data plan for my phone in Spain as wifi is widely available, so I could not do a basic search for reviews. This simple step would have revealed to us immediately that we should have gone elsewhere immediately, the reviews were BAD. Yes, it was in the most touristic street segment in town, but that has never been a big problem before.

Even as hungry as we were (this usually works to the restaurant’s favor), nothing we ate is worth mentioning. DH’s entrée was not ordered until after I was served mine, and THEN the waitress dropped it coming up the stairs, an accident like this can happen anywhere and would most likely been forgiven….had the meal been good. Since we had ample time to observe, we could see that people all around us kept sending dishes back so it was not only us being disappointed. We declined dessert though it was included in the menu. Overall, a complete waste of 40€ and calories.

We decided to cut our losses and headed to bed, hoping for a fresh start in the morning.

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    Full Day #1

    We started the day with coffee and croissants enjoying the hustle and bustle around the Plaza Mayor, as vendors and maintenance people hurried to finish their business before the throngs of tourists and locals arrived. I had somewhat put a plan that made geographical sense but that all came crashing down when the hodgepodge of opening hours was considered. There are probably better ways to plan this visit but, at the end it worked.

    A few important commentaries for context: First, I am passionate about history, art and, architecture, so what I find fascinating and totally worthwhile might greatly differ from what other people with a medium interest in the subject think. I’m a s@cker for cloisters; I have been known to walk (or make DH drive) endless kilometers to visit churches and abbeys with cloisters. I have a very high tolerance for museum/church visiting (and DH blessed with infinite patience) so others might find overwhelming doing all that we did in a single day.

    One last thing, I am Puertorrican, Spanish is my first language and I was raised in a particularly Spain-loving family. I did not major in Spanish studies but I was tempted. Spain and its history are kind of ‘my thing’.

    Keeping these things in consideration, I have rated on a 4* scale what we saw:

    Casa de las Conchas ** (Free entrance) The outside is covered up for restoration, but the courtyard is still worth entering with its lovely lions lining the gallery.

    La Clerecia **** Formerly know as the Real Colegio del Espíritu Santo it currently houses the Universidad Pontificia. It was built as a Jesuit seminary in the 17th Century and remained with them until they got kicked out of Spain. Two visits are possible: the Scala Coeli*** to the towers and the Vita Ignatii**** Touring of the building is only allowed with the guided visits. We first went up to the towers as we had time before the next building visit.

    I have struggled with a fear of heights since childhood. I have relentlessly and very consciously worked at dealing with this since I became an adult. I am very proud to say that I have made great progress and I’m able to do many things without breaking a sweat that would have left me paralyzed in my early twenties.. I have been up to the Munster in Zurich, the Strasbourg Cathedral, the Eiffel Tower, etc. with only a slight discomfort. I even jumped of a bridge recently!

    This ascent should not have been scary. The stairs are wooden but not wobbly, there is a back to each step so you cannot really see down at any point, the space is not overly confined nor was it too crowded. It was not even particularly strenuous as these things go! As much as I have tried, I cannot pinpoint why this climb turned into such a terrifying experience. As in panic attack, I can’t breathe, I can feel my heartbeat in my eardrums, my knees are weak, my back is wet and I want to puke kind of scary. Even writing this I get uncomfortable. Beats the heck out of me to the point where I’m willing to even consider past-life experiences. Go figure.

    Having said that, the view from the top is amazing! I even walked the gallery to go from one dome to the other. Beautiful! The tiled roofs and gray walls offset the open sky of the Spanish plains. Added bonus was seeing the stork nests with their young chicks at eye level.

    The descent was not better and it left me rattled for the guided visit to the church and buildings. In retrospect, I should almost have taken the tour again the next day to fully enjoy the beauty of the building, its cloister and its church when I was not reeling and almost ready to pass out. Even in that sorry state I could see that this was a masterclass specimen of the Spanish Baroque. The church was impressive, the main staircase a marvel and the sala capitular absolutely gorgeous. Oh…and the cloister! Overall it is highly recommended.

    It was still way too early for lunch but I needed to settle down and pacify my queasy stomach. We stopped at Cafe el Ave. Maybe a stiff drink would have made it better quicker but a slowly sipped Tinto de Verano with lots of lime eventually did its job. We were (mostly) ready for the next site.

    Universidad de Salamanca **** x **** As a Hispanic person, I have been hearing about this University since 4th grade Spanish class and 6th grade Social Studies. This is one of the oldest universities in Europe (claims to being the oldest are somewhat plausible) and was considered to be the cradle of Spanish Renaissance. These are the halls where Fray Luis de Leon teached and Vittoria composed. Being here meant something to me, so all these superlatives are totally biased (as if an unbiased trip report could be possible!). Even as the inquisition raged, scholars remained lighthouses of illustrated thinking (well…relatively).

    The very nice attendant told us not to bother with the audio guides since we could read Spanish. We took a good two hours to go through the recommended route, tour groups whizzed by in 20 minutes. I was very grateful for independent travel. The upper level has a marvelous artesonado ceiling and one of the most beautiful libraries I have seen.

    Cielo de Salamanca / Patio de las Escuelas Menores ** (Free entrance) There is not much to see here but it is such a lovely visit that it would be a shame not to go in. A cute little
    Since I was still not 100% we decided to plunk down for lunch back at Café El Ave. I always thought (and it might be) rude/crass to share a ‘menu del dia’ between two people but servers actually have offered to do so many times. These offers usually range between 8 – 15 € for lunch and are the backbone of the Spanish restaurant system. You get bread, a first and second course and/or coffee and dessert. Many include a drink which can be soda, beer or wine. There is no better deal in Spain… except for Bocadillos (sandwiches).

    We shared the ‘ Patatas Meneas’ and a ‘ Revoltillo Charro’ both typical dishes of the region. Forget what you think you know about French cuisine….. no one can do eggs better than the Spanish. Any ‘revueltos’ (eggs scrambled with whatever) from any nondescript cafeteria can put a lot of Michelin star contender restaurants dishes to shame. A few glasses of wine and we were good to go for the rest of the afternoon.

    Old and New Cathedral **** This complex is unique as the old Romanesque cathedral was not demolished to make space for the new Gothic cathedral, instead it was incorporated almost as a side chapel. Both are gorgeous works of art. Even for Romanesque the old one is luminous and fairly open, the new one is –of course- all about height, lightness and airiness. The choir in the new cathedral is a masterpiece. The audio guide is a bit rambling, I often wish that these things came with an abbreviated version.

    After the morning’s experience tower climbing, I did not have the stomach to tackle the cathedral’s towers. I’m sure they must have been awesome.

    Colegio Arzobispo Fonseca * The entrance to this building is included with the University ticket. It is currently the University’s Hotel/Distinguished Guest Residence. You can visit the cloister and the chapel. It is a bit out of the way –steep uphill- and only worthwhile (and maybe even then) for cloister buffs like me.

    Convento de las Ursulas ** This was one of the awkward visits where the enthusiastic nun in charge of the visit follows you around hyping up all their ‘stuff’. Yes, the church is quite nice. But for this one, the true treasure is the octagonal tower with the open top and you can see that from the outside.

    The plaza outside is one of Salamanca’s quaintest places to have a drink under the flowered linden trees. We enjoyed looking at the adjoining Casa de las Mujeres and Palacio de Monterrey (entrance not available) while sipping extra cold white wine in the afternoon sun as we waited for our next opening time.

    La Purisima *** +/-*) Rating plus one star if you are interested in baroque painting, subtract one (or two) if not. Ribera’s Immaculate Conception has been reproduced ad nauseum but seeing the original is truly enlightening. The church itself is nice too.

    Roman Bridge * If you are around, go see it. We have been through a LOT of roman/Spanish towns and were not particularly impressed. The park is nice.

    As we walked over the bridge I actually mentioned to DH that since we had seen all the 'biggies', only if he wanted, we could consider leaving a day early and stopping halfway down to Valencia so that the trip back would not be as long. DH (THANK GOD!) opted to stay put and have another relaxing day in Salamanca. To think about what we would have missed!


    After that we were done and went on the search for dinner. A few drinks at Casa Paca gave us ample time to decide that it was a great place for tapas but not to spend the big bucks for dinner. Instead we decided on Tapas 2.0. (http://cocinaconilusion.blogspot.com.es/ ). And what a good choice it was!

    I had a Foie Micuit with a pineapple sauce and pickled onions (**) and DH had the beef tartar (****) for first courses. DH then had an updated and spicy version of ‘ Callos a la la Madrilena’ (****) and I had an outstanding free range chicken ‘Meloso’ rice (***).

    At 45€ this was a steal of a meal. We are still thinking of that tartar. I should have asked for the callos recipe.


    We went to bed after that and slept like the dead until 9:00am the next morning

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    Wow, thanks for all the great detail, and the restaurant recommendation! Also the warning about those steps. I feel for you... I used to have a very good head for heights, but the older I get the worse it gets. I think I'll stay on the ground and admire the cloisters. I'm another big fan of cloisters, but I'm an even bigger fan of Art Nouveau and the AN museum in Salamanca sealed the deal for my visit. Maybe you got there on day two?

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    Full Day #2

    We took a stroll around the Market, looking for a place to have a coffee (and because I like markets even more than cloisters). It was nicely laid out and the building interesting as well….But we came in from Valencia, where the Central Market is a jewel of Modernist architecture and the produce is unbelievable. All the Valencia markets have outstanding quality products.

    Anyway, I was not particularly impressed. We found the bar but skipped it. We eventually had good really good before the guy plopped it into the microwave oven without asking, effectively killing the dough. This happened again the next day at a different place, by then I should have gotten smarter but, no. So, these pies are awesome (and a good value) but you need to tell them beforehand if you prefer them at room temperature.

    I neglected to mention that the previous day we had stepped into the Jardin de Calisto y Melibea** A very cute garden behind the cathedrals used by Salamancan kids to smoke weed and make out. Still, a good stop to rest and enjoy greenery.

    We were ready for what was supposed to be a relaxing day with only a few minor sites to visit, the kind that barely get a mention in the guidebooks and only then as ‘off the beaten path’.

    Palacio de las Salinas** Only the courtyard is open for visiting but well worth the few minutes that it takes to step in. The sculptural supports depict naked nobles being pulled by demons into the underworld. Hardly my choice of decoration for a private residence, ya’know, whatever floats your boat.

    Convento de las Dueñas (Las Dominicas) *** The 16th century cloister is considered to be one of the masterpieces of the Spanish Plateresque style. It is absolutely gorgeous. It still has 10 cloistered nuns so it still maintains ‘that special air’ of calmness that invites to contemplation. And we were there by ourselves, so that helped too. The first floor of the cloister is very simple but elegantly proportioned, but it is on the second floor where the magic happens. I could have spent the entire day looking at the capitel of each columns. The sculpturing is so tridimensional that the figures almost extend from one column to the other, giving the impression of false arches.

    San Esteban (Convento de los Dominicos) **** I have no idea why I was not aware of this monumental convent before coming to Salamanca. I had it in my ‘if we had time’ list because I had seen it mentioned in one of those internet articles that highlight cities. I could have easily left Salamanca without seeing this place. And that would have been a shame.

    In other cities, a treasure such as this would be the crowning jewel of their tourist attractions. In Salamanca, it loses (understandably) to powerhorses such as the Cathedrals and the University. But anyway, we were there and I had no background information whatsoever. No audioguide but at least their booklet was fairly informative.

    Not only is the complex (it is big!) architecturally significant but historically it was also the stage for transcendental events. Cristopher Columbus allegedly finally got approval from Ferdinand and Isabela to sail to the new world in here. Santa Teresa de Avila, Santa Teresa de Jesus and San Ignacio de Loyola walked these halls.

    But the more excited I got, for the first time ever in Spain, I also began to fell a profound sense of sadness and loss. These were also the halls from which the New World Crusade was launched: decimating half a continent, enslaving the locals in the name of the Holy Mother Church, obliterating native cultures and robbing them of every resource. Fray Bartolome de las Casas –a well known figure in Puerto Rican history- was here (he tried to save the few remaining Taino Indians in the island by importing the first African slaves).

    As I stood in the Old Chapter House, I could not help but think of the ‘glorious sons of the convent’ buried there, true Men of Conviction. So strong in their Faith that nothing was more important –not even life itself- than conversion of the Unbelievers. Soldiers of God ready to tackle legions of heathens…. Sounding familiar? 16th Century Jihadist indeed. Human race has not progressed much in the last –ahem- few millennia.

    And that is without going into St. Esteban’s and the Dominican Order’s role during the Inquisition. I was in a somber mood.

    (Sidenote: if you are interested in the subject, I highly recommend ‘ Dogs of God: Columbus, the Inquisition, and the Defeat of the Moors ’ by James Reston. It is very amenable and not over scholarly read on an otherwise rather dry subject)

    The cloister is magnificent. The Soto Staircase is a dream as it raises seemingly unsupported to span three stories. The church with its outstanding Churriguera altarpieces is a destination by itself. The choir is more impressive from underneath with its incredible arch than the actual woodwork above. The side chapels were amazing! Particularly nice was the one dedicated to the Sacred Family.

    Given my previous ponderings, I almost choked when I saw a small chapel dedicated to San Martin de Porres, a Dominc lay brother born in Lima, Peru in the late 1500’s. He is the patron saint of mixed-race people and all those seeking interracial harmony. It would have been very fitting if it had been anywhere near as lavish as the rest of the chapels. In my mental state, I found it to be bordering on insulting. (BTW, I am not normally like this!). The second floor was

    At the end we spent more than two hours touring the complex and highly recommend it.

    Museo de Art Nouveau y Art Deco / Casa Lis ** (+/-*) Free entrance Thursdays 11:00am – 2:00 PM, no pictures allowed. Which was just at the time we were there. It was a mob scene. It was overcapacity and we had to wait for people to come out before we could go in. There is a temporary exhibit ‘Coco Chanel and her Friends’ which seemed to attract a lot of locals as well. The house itself is amazing with it stained glass dome, galleries and windows. It gets the extra star in my rating.

    I was not interested in the extensive Doll Collection so we moved quickly through. Even though Objects d’Art are not my thing either, the collection is worth the time. One is used to seeing so many cheap reproductions of decorative items that seeing originals is almost shocking with their master craftiness and true artistry. The Chanel exhibit was very well curated.

    The only slightly disappointing thing is that one does not get a good view from the gardens of the balconade closed in with green stained glass. This is best observed from outside the city walls. The café is a cute place to have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.

    We opted for a few tapas for lunch, not particularly memorable which was followed by a little nap. We thought that we did not really have anything noteworthy left to do so we lazied around a bit. We returned to San Esteban to take pictures in the beautiful afternoon sun. At that point I decided to go to one more place, as we were rested and had ample time before dinner.

    Convento de Santa Clara y Museo Etnografico*** (and I’ll even add 1 more * due to my very personal interests, no pictures allowed). This convent was founded in the 13th Century by Franciscan Clarisas (which I much prefer over Dominics) and it is still inhabited by a handful of strictly cloistered nuns. Timed guided visits are required but the attendant was so ecstatic to see visitors that she showed us around immediately, gave a short presentation of the highlights of each zone and gave us ample time to see things by ourselves while she discreetly waited outside. Two thumbs up.

    In the 1980’s maintenance work revealed that under the whitewash, an unbelievable wealth of 14th - 15th Century frescos and tempera murals were found. Since that was around the time pre-Euros started free-flowing into Spain, one of the best restoration projects I have seen was undertaken. It won several prestigious awards. It included the restoration of the lower choir and the church itself.

    It was then discovered that the 18th Century Churriguera renovation and construction of the new vault had completely respected and preserved the primitive wooden painted beams and the beginning of a moorish artesonado ceilings. The 1988 restorers, built a system of catwalks so that the space between the false vault and the old ceiling can be comfortable visited! One is able to see all the woodwork and paint at eye level (insert multiple exclamation marks here, yes I’m a geek).

    There are other treasures in the convent but those catwalks and bridges, steal the show. There is a humdrum collection of nacimientos (nativity creches) and an ethnic museum dedicated to the rural life of Castille. Interesting but nothing particularly outstanding.

    After that, it was all said and done. We had completed everything in my wishlists (except two churches which remained stubbornly closed).

    Dinner was at Restaurant del Corrillo. We had the 13 €fixed price menu: roasted red peppers filled with codfish (***) for me and spaghetti bolognese (**) for DH as 1st courses. I then had chipirones en su tinta(**** - baby squid in black ink with a second utterly delicious lemon sauce) over rice (this was listed in the 1st course menu) and DH had braised oxtail with fries (***). Menu included dessert and I had Arroz con Leche (milk rice) and when DH declined, he was brought (to his delight!) a few slices of manchego cheese dressed with oil.

    So… that was it. The return trip was equally long and uneventful.

    We were happy to have paid the full insurance on the rental car, we had feared the hail at the time, as we found two deep scratches in the bumper. The parking attendant in Salamanca had cleverly parked the car to hide this and we neglected to look before leaving. First time this has happened to us.

    Now we are off to enjoy our last two weeks in dreamy Valencia.

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