During our last long weekend off before school let out this past spring, Danny and I took a road trip first to the north and then to the west of Madrid. We started out with a visit to La Granja on Friday afternoon, and then on Saturday morning we got going early so that we could have a whole day in Salamanca. It's a medium-sized town about two hours by car from Madrid that is famous for its university. I'd been wanting to visit for a while, but felt it was a little far for just a day trip, so this long weekend seemed like the perfect time to fit it in.
The morning started out cloudy and chilly and seemed to be threatening rain at any moment, but thankfully nothing came of it, just lots of wind and gray skies (with an opportune break for a little bit later on). We began our tour of the city at the University of Salamanca, which was founded in the 1100s and is the oldest university in Spain and either the third or fourth oldest in the western world, depending on who you ask. There wasn't loads for visitors to see inside, just some old classrooms around the edge of a courtyard. I believe that I got a discount for being under 26 (at the time at least) but Danny had to pay €10...so all that being said I don't believe I'd recommend paying €20 for a couple to visit the interior of the university unless you have a great interest in historic colleges or are touring with a quality guide.
D - Though tickets may be overpriced, there were some really interesting things to see at the school. There was the American Redwood growing in the middle of the campus, the library with several antique globes, and the old classroom with centuries old graffiti-ed desks where a famous professor returned after years of imprisonment during the inquisition (for advocating the Bible be translated into a common language) and started his first lecture back with a nonchalant "as I was saying..."
Next we visited the 16th century Convento de las Dueñas and the nearby Convento de San Esteban, which was amazing and the gold altarpiece is really just surprising, breathtaking, and striking. We got to climb up to the second story to see where the choir sat and sang, which offered a neat perspective over the church and the massive songbook once used. Highly recommend checking out the cloister and adjoining chapel if ever in Salamanca - it was definitely a highlight for us.
D - So true! Believe me, living in Europe you become somewhat of an amateur old church expert, and it's really rare to be able to climb up into the second story choir of an old church. This church really stuck out to me because of its long and narrow body with the huge gold (so much GOLD) alterpiece up front.
We certainly couldn't leave Salamanca without a trip to it's cathedral, both old and new. The old cathedral was built in the 12th century, and honestly isn't anything too special...at least not compared to the connecting, grand, new cathedral of Salamanca. To be fair, we didn't get a very good look at the old cathedral as a wedding was taking place while we were there, but we were able to wander through anyways, an interesting experience in and of itself. The new cathedral, ahem, Catedral Nueva de Salamanca, was built between the 16th and 18th centuries and has some unique style elements carved on the outside, like an astronaut, and a faun eating ice cream...these were added during renovations in the 1990s, but they've stuck around ever since and you can see tourists searching high and low for them as they enter the cathedral.
D - Probably the most interesting part about the wedding was the decent amount of questionable wedding attire. I guess in Spain women wear fascinators as in the UK, but I think some of the outfits we saw defintiely crossed the line between different and outrageous.
Because Salamanca has a high student population (30,000 by some estimates!), tapas are good and cheap here. We were happy to come by a sampling of vegetarian and vegan ones during our day in Salamanca, and a lot of variety too. We had lunch at Cafe Atelier - great location in the center of town, good prices, and tasty food!
While the sun peeked out after lunch, we checked out the city's 300-year-old Plaza Mayor. Many regard it as Spain's most beautiful plaza, and it and the area surrounding it (the old city of Salamanca) has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988. I've also heard it's really special at night...we didn't have warm clothes with us and were feeling kind of lazy at that point, so we passed this time around, but if you get the chance, do check it out once the lights come on for a whole new perspective.
D - Besides old churches, living in Spain you also become sort of a Plaza Mayor expert. If you ask me, Salamanca's really is the best. It feels the most cohesive of all the ones we've visited; everything matches, there's often traditional music playing, and locals actually seem to hang out there.
Taking advantage of the momentary blue skies, we walked out of the old city for a bit and down to the Puente Romano, or Roman Bridge, which is thought to be from the time of either Augustus or Vespasian - either way, no later than around 80 AD. Of course, it has seen various restorations and changes throughout the years, but original parts do remain from Roman times. We enjoyed views of the cathedral and the city, and of course, the sky. :)
One of our final stops of the day was the Museo de la Historia de Automocion. We've gotten onto kind of a kick with these sorts of museums lately for no particular reason other than they're fun and we seem to enjoy them, so why not? We saw cars about as old as they come and some pretty new, modern models as well, and I thought that the number of cars on display was pretty impressive for a town the size of Salamanca (150,000 people). My only issue was that the signage was 100% in Spanish - although this certainly isn't the first time we've encountered something like this in Spain, it is very common in Europe to have signs in that country's language as well as English. I hear that it rains a lot in Salamanca, so if it does while you're in town, I'd recommend stopping in to the car museum - the staff was friendly, the admission cheap, and we had a good time looking around even without much background on what we were looking at.
Scala Coeli Torres de la Clerecia was our last stop before dinner during our day in Salamanca. We visited only for the views, and they were pretty special (aside from being miserably windy), I have to say. Many go up the cathedral's tower for a look over the city, but Danny (who planned out our time in the city) wisely suggested that we go up Scala Coeli Torres de la Clerecia instead, so that we could have a view of the cathedral along with our views of the city.
We had one of our cheapest meals out in recent history at El Rastrel Etic Cafe - I think each dish was €1 and our total was something like €7...and it was all vegan and delicious! A bit out of the very center of the city, but worth it for the price in our opinion.
D - In addition to one of the cheapest, it may have also been one of the most alternative restaurants we've ever been to. There were a lot of dogs roaming around (not strays, but ones owned by eaters), a lot of dreadlocks, and a lot of heavy metal t-shirts. We definitely stuck out, but didn't feel unwelcome by any means.
We had a great time in Salamanca. I'd say that a day is perfect for seeing it all - from when we started walking around until we finished dinner, we saw it all (at least all that we wanted to) in nine hours. Combine that with a two hour one way drive (from Madrid that is, or an hour and a half train ride if that's easier, which it probably is), and I think that makes the day a bit too long, so I may suggest staying over one night so you have a chance to see Plaza Mayor lit up at night - something we elected not to do, but certainly could have. However you do it, Salamanca is a Spanish treasure with it's combination of architecture, history, and reasonable yet delicious food (I'm assuming it's the same for non-vegans/vegetarians!).