Our only previous visit to Salamanca was almost twenty years ago. It’s a visit I can only recall with the foggy vagueness that a couple of decades in time and space will allow. Memory isn’t helped by the fact that the one thing I recall only too clearly, was that we arrived on a Friday evening and the whole town seemed to be in fiesta mode. Large and youthful crowds thronged the streets and plazas, eating and drinking. Music filled the air in the exquisite Plaza Mayor.
Caught up in this exuberance, we joined in with the festivities until well into the early hours of the morning. The resulting hangover severely curtailed our sightseeing plans for the following day. I’m certain we visited most of the important sights, but I have almost no memory of what we did or where we went. While I’m not proud of our lack of self restraint, the upside was that this trip to Salamanca was like visiting a town we’d never been to before.
If that seems like an exercise in making the best of a bad lot, our previous experience also set a high bar for our expectations of the city. This time though, we were visiting outside of the university term time, and Salamanca’s big student population definitely added a vibrancy to the city of 20-years ago that we didn’t feel this time around. That, at least, meant we saw most of the things we’d planned to see and have total recall of the experience.
We arrived in Salamanca after driving from Madrid. I’m always surprised, and secretly delighted, by the fact that once you get out of Madrid the roads of Spain seem to be empty. The soaring temperatures meant that we had to deploy the air conditioning for most of the trip though. In the real world we don’t own a car, so I didn’t feel too bad about this, but it was hard to shake the feeling that we were contributing to the climate crisis.
Salamanca sits at an altitude of around 800 metres, which should make it cooler than the plains to the south. Not this year. The mercury was pushing mid-30sºC every day, and in Salamanca’s tightly-packed streets the heat was pretty oppressive. This is the sort of climate that led to the invention of the siesta, and adopting an early morning, late afternoon sightseeing routine, punctuated by power-napping, wasn’t a hardship.
We started our explorations in what is considered by many to be the finest plaza in the whole of Spain, the Plaza Mayor de Salamanca. Famously built to host bull fights, it’s the town’s 18th century centrepiece. It would probably be in my top three Spanish plazas, but it faces stiff competition from Cordoba’s Plaza de Corredera and the Plaza Mayor in Madrid for top spot. It’s still magnificent, and best experienced in the early evening when it comes alive.
We had a lazy, and a little overpriced, lunch at one of the many restaurants on the plaza before exploring the streets towards the Catedral de Salamanca. These streets are crammed with Gothic palaces, intimate squares, atmospheric lanes, ancient churches and dozens of tapas bars. It’s hard to get a sense of the true size of the cathedral from the street, it’s best seen from across the River Tormes, but the sheer bulk of it is clear from walking around it.
It was roasting in the streets so we popped inside to take advantage of the cool interior and to explore the 1,000 year history of the building – actually two cathedrals side-by-side. There’s an entry fee, but you get an unintentionally hilarious audioguide in the price. The newer Gothic cathedral is impressive, but the older Romanesque cathedral has more atmosphere and interesting wall paintings. A clamber up to the roof for views over the town brought us to ‘siesta time’.