Salamanca, ancient history in The Golden City

Salamanca feels old. Walk around the beautiful historic centre of the city and you’ll find yourself wandering ancient streets, between buildings that date back to the early 12th century. These include the University of Salamanca, one of Europe’s oldest, which was granted its charter in 1218. Salamanca has been around for way longer than that though. It was already important and rich enough for Carthaginian general, Hannibal, to put it to the sword in 217 BC.

Hannibal’s defeat, the destruction of Ancient Carthage, and the the rise of Rome, saw Salamanca become a strategic Roman trading centre. Sitting on the Ruta de la Plata, along which silver from the north flowed to Sevilla, it grew wealthy. The Roman bridge, that has spanned the River Tormes for over 2,000 years, is just one of the highlights of a visit to Salamanca. It seems remarkable that, in the 21st century, you’re able to walk across a perfectly functional Roman bridge.

Salamanca, Spain

Roman Bridge, Salamanca, Spain

Cathedral, Salamanca, Spain

Salamanca, Spain

Casa de las Conchas, Salamanca, Spain

Convento de San Esteban, Salamanca, Spain

On the city side is a statue of Lazarillo de Tormes, the main character from Salamanca in an anti-clerical 16th century novella banned by the Spanish Inquisition. We strolled across it under a fierce sun, people cooled off in the water below and lazed on the river beach. On the opposite side of the Tormes a pleasant park provides views back to the city and over the cathedral. On a peaceful morning, the city reflected in the water, it’s gorgeous.

We crossed back on the Puente de Enrique Estevan and walked uphill to the Convento de San Esteban. This ornate 16th century monastery is most famous for having housed Christopher Columbus. He lived in Salamanca between 1486 – 87, when defending his idea of sailing west to find the Indies against Salamanca’s scholars. In the early evening sunlight, the facade glows golden. In this light, the city’s many sandstone buildings earn it the nickname, The Golden City.

Leaving the church behind we wandered upwards past the cathedral to the university, weirdly serene outside of term time, and on to the delightful Casa de las Conchas. This palace is named after the 300 scallop shells that decorate the facade, and is the former home of Rodrigo Maldonado de Talavera, a member of the Order of Santiago. No prizes for guessing the symbol of the Order. You see the scallop shell everywhere in this part of Spain – it marks the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela.

Despite a reasonable smattering of tourists, especially older Spanish tour groups, the city has the feel of an open air museum when the students aren’t around. We made our way through streets empty of traffic and people, and marvelled at the ornate facades of historic churches and palaces. It’s not just history on offer here though, Salamanca’s reputation for mouth-watering food is well known. Excellent tapas bars serve delicious regional wines, and there are a clutch of top notch restaurants.

Salamanca, Spain

Roman Bridge, Salamanca, Spain

Salamanca, Spain

Salamanca, Spain

Iglesia de San Millán, Salamanca, Spain

Casa de las Conchas, Salamanca, Spain

For all its fine dining, the signature dish of Salamanca is the humble hornazo. A baked pastry traditionally filled with ham and egg, It’s now offered with a variety of fillings – including, whisper it, vegetarian options. It’s a great snack to take on long car journeys. The local wines were just as eye-opening as the food, and we sampled several grapes that we’d never previously come across. The rufete wines of Bodega La Zorra were a firm favourite.

Our final night in the city saw us in the buzzing barrios of Garrido and Buenos Aires, renowned for their nightlife and plethora of tapas bars. During term time, the streets in these interesting neighbourhoods are packed with students. Even though it was much more slow paced when we were there, we enjoyed an evening searching out the best tapas places. History is all well and good, but no one comes to Spain without plans to sample plenty of local delicacies.

Hot and bothered in Salamanca, Spain’s ‘Golden City’

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.

Cathedral, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Cathedral roof, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Cathedral, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Cathedral, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

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.

Escuelas Mayores de Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Cathedral, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Cathedral, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

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’.