This sunny sandstone city boasts Spain's grandest plaza, its oldest university, and a fascinating history all swaddled in a strolling college-town ambience.
Northwest of Madrid (2.5 hours one-way by car, bus, or train), Salamanca is youthful and untouristy, displaying its mighty monuments and clusters of cloisters with quiet pride. Take an evening paseo (stroll) with the local crowd down main street — Rua Mayor — and through the main square, Plaza Mayor. The many students help keep prices down. The young people congregate until late in the night, chanting and cheering, talking and singing. When I asked a local woman why young men all alone on the Plaza Mayor suddenly break into song, she said, "Doesn't it happen where you live?"
Plaza Mayor, built from 1729 to 1755, is the ultimate Spanish plaza and a fine place to nurse a cup of coffee (try the venerable Art Nouveau–style Café Novelty) and watch the world go by. The town hall, with the clock, grandly overlooks the square, and the Arco del Toro (bull) leads to the covered market. Imagine the excitement of the days (until 1893) when bullfights were held in the square.
Salamanca's university, the oldest in Spain (est. 1230), was one of Europe's leading centers of learning for 400 years. Columbus came here for travel tips. Today, while no longer so prestigious, it's laden with history and popular with Americans, who enjoy its excellent summer program. The old lecture halls around the cloister, where many of Spain's Golden Age heroes studied, are open to the public (for a fee). Some of the rooms are still used by the university for prestigious academic ceremonies.
The ornately decorated grand entrance of the university is a great example of Spain's plateresque style (Spain's version of Flamboyant Gothic), masonry so intricate it looks like silverwork (plata means "silver"). The people studying the facade aren't art fans. They're trying to find a tiny frog on a skull that students looked to for good luck.
In the Hall of Fray Luís de León, the narrow wooden beam tables and benches — whittled down by centuries of studious doodling — are originals. Professors spoke from the Church-threatening cátedra, or pulpit. It was here that free-thinking brother Luís de León returned, after the Inquisition jailed and tortured him for five years for challenging the Church's control of the word of God by translating part of the Bible into Castilian. He started his first post-imprisonment lecture with, "As we were saying..." Such courageous men of truth believed the forces of the Inquisition were not even worth acknowledging.
Near the university you'll find the old and new cathedrals. These cool-on-a-hot-day cathedrals are share buttresses, and are both richly ornamented. The "new" cathedral, begun in 1513 and finished in 1733, is notable for its ornate plateresque facade and sumptuous wood carving. In the old cathedral (12th-century Romanesque), sit in a front pew to study the 53 altarpiece scenes from Mary's life and the dramatic Last Judgment fresco — notice Jesus directing condemned souls into the literal jaws of hell.
If you're crazy about cloisters, stop by the Church of San Esteban, dedicated to St. Stephen (Esteban) the martyr. The church contains a recently restored cloister, tombs, and a museum with illustrated 16th-century choir books (may be closed in 2008). Before you enter the church, notice the plateresque facade and its bas-relief of the stoning of St. Stephen. The nave is overwhelmed by a 100-foot, 4,000-piece wood altarpiece by José Benito Churriguera (1665–1725) that replaced the original Gothic one in 1693. Quietly ponder this dusty, gold-plated cottage cheese, as tourists shake their heads and say "too much" in their mother tongue. Next door, the much simpler Convento de las Dueñas is a joy. It consists of a double-decker cloister with a small museum of religious art. Check out the stone meanies exuberantly decorating the capitals on the cloister's upper deck. The nuns sell sweets daily except Sunday.
For a fun meal, do the tapas tango. Bars offer a great selection of tapas, or appetizers, featuring all kinds of foods — seafood, salads, meat-filled pastries, deep-fried tasties, and on and on. Wash down your tapas with iced gazpacho (spicy tomato soup), a cool treat on a hot day. The covered mercado on Plaza Mercado is ideal for picnic gatherers. And if you always wanted seconds at Communion, buy a bag of giant Communion wafers, a local specialty called obleas.
Salamanca, with its low-cost accommodations, inexpensive food, and monumental sights, offers up small-town Spain on a Plateresque platter.