Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Getting all academic in Salamanca




Salamanca made it on my must-see cities in Spain list mostly because I liked the name. Don’t you think it’s a rhythmically pleasing combination of syllables with a distinctly Spanish tone? That and all the guidebook descriptions consistently starting with declarations like “Spain’s most graceful city” and “perhaps the most gorgeous town in Spain” solidified my inclination toward the Castilian destination.

Salamanca is to Spain what Oxford is to England and Bologna is to Italy. It’s home to some of the world’s (once) most prestigious universities, circa 1200 and financed by the likes of Ferdinand and Isabel. The small city also offers some of Spain’s most notable architecture, which reminded me overwhelmingly of intellectual Oxford. Disappointingly, the chilly, dark weekend weather with the occasional gusty sleet outburst seemed to hamper any student life. The town seemed devoid of any undergraduate energy. We only encountered a trace of the supposed hordes of young Americans attracted by the legions of language schools. (Although we did come across a couple sleazy bachelorette party parades.)

However, the intricately ornate academic buildings towering in golden sandstone could not disappoint. The town also boasts a magnificent Gothic cathedral and impressive palaces and solemn convents, all harmonious with its revered institutions of higher learning and many with stately courtyards. But perhaps Salamanca’s most prominent architectural feature is its expansive, quadratic Plaza Mayor, reputedly the most elegant in Spain and a former bullfighting venue.

Completely out of step with all the scholarly medieval architecture is the Museo Art Nouveau y Art Deco. I must say my delightful Wisconsin friend Leah and I fully appreciated (low brow or not) the partially stained glass turn-of-the-century mansion adorned with delicately molded roses and all the belle époque statuettes and chic Parisian perfume bottles it housed.

We took refuge from the nippy conditions of the Castile Leon province in the cafés and restaurants cramming Salamanca’s pleasant pedestrianized streets in the Casco Histórico. Leah and I each enjoyed a to-die-for-sweet bombon, a three-layer espresso with liqueur and condensed milk, in a happening café/bar with wooden rafters and exposed brick. Later we had a more-posh-than-expected dinner in a hip (albeit not effortlessly so) restaurant. The general customer service we received in the town was characteristically Spanish, meaning the customer isn’t always right and rolling one’s eyes at a client is acceptable. I don’t rush to admit it, but sometimes I miss the United States.

Our lodging experience was a different matter. We were thrilled have upgraded to a real hotel (notwithstanding the two-star rating and paper-thin walls), sharing a room in a well-located historic building by the Casa de las Conchas, a much-photographed mansion with a sea shell façade from the 1500s, for the price we usually pay for a hostel dormitory. Sunday morning the indulgence continued as I ordered a deluxe Spanish breakfast. Rather than the typical diminutive croissant and coffee, I had a zumo, (fresh-squeezed orange juice), a Napolitan (a substantial pastry), and Cola Cao (a ubiquitous Spanish brand of powdered chocolate).

Our weekend ended on a lower note. We’d been warned that Salamanca had a one-hour time difference from Madrid, but upon arrival to the bus station we noted no time change and discounted the warning as misinformed. But somehow when we punctually arrived to catch our departure bus we found that all the clocks suddenly read an hour later. We had missed our bus, forcing us to buy new tickets. It wasn’t until that night that we found an explanation for the oddity. We hadn’t slipped into a twilight zone; Our trip had fallen on daylight saving weekend.

The ride home provided a glimpse of the fabulously diverse landscapes of the Iberian Peninsula. Within minutes, the views shifted from boulder-strewn pampas to rolling green plains of farmland before winding into hilly groves of olive trees. In between naps I spotted a medieval-walled village and a ruined tower atop a rocky cliff.

Not bad for a country larger than California but smaller than Texas.

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