Often, when visiting another country, you want to see and experience what is special about that place. The history of the buildings, the culture of the people, and the cuisine are all elements that make a destination unique. Spain is one of those amazing countries to visit, and Salamanca is a city where visitors can experience all three in vivid detail. This city is a beautiful fusion of the old and the new, the current and the past. I visited Salamanca with my husband and three teenagers, and it made an unfading mark on our hearts…forever.
An extraordinary city
I found myself in Salamanca, Spain as part of a studies-abroad program. My husband works at a local university, and he was selected to oversee a large group of students for seven weeks for a summer session. This afforded my teens and me the opportunity to actually live in this warm and friendly city for just shy of two months.
Salamanca is an ancient city, founded in the 4th century BC by the Celts. Very soon after that, it was conquered by the Romans. Therefore, there is much history to digest in this part of Spain, both in the culture and in the architecture.
Rich in history
The United States is a fairly young country in comparison to many others around the world, and many of the edifices have not existed for more than a few generations, generally speaking. So it is pretty mind-boggling to see buildings and structures in Salamanca that are hundreds (and sometimes, thousands) of years old!
The University of Salamanca was founded in 1218, and is the 3rd oldest university in Europe. Students from around the world come to study (including the students for whom my husband was responsible) at this historic university. I was pretty taken by the buildings, and it was hard for me to not get a bad photo of any of them.
I was awestruck to walk on the Roman bridge of Salamanca. “Puente Romano de Salamanca” as it is called, is a stone arch bridge that is said to date back to the 1st century AD. A stone pig sits at the start of the bridge from the Salamanca side, and the bridge crosses the Tormes River near the south end of the city. It is right up close to the University, and we took our time to catch a panoramic view as we strolled the length of the bridge together. I was able to see the beautiful vistas of both the University and the city from a whole new angle. What a treat it was to walk across a structure from antiquity!
In addition, Salamanca retains many of the long-standing elements of Spanish culture. For example, Castellano, the purest form of Spanish, is still spoken here, which makes it a great place to learn and improve upon one’s Spanish-speaking skills. Salamanca also observes the siesta, a daily block of time in which the city takes a break: many stores close and people slow down to have lunch. This excerpt from my journal gives insight into how siesta is a part of everyday life:
We head out on foot between 12 and 12:30 to get anywhere that we need to go: grocery shopping (on a pretty daily basis), El Corte Ingles, the library, or other destination. We stay out until about 2, when things shut down for siesta, and head home to fix lunch, which is the biggest meal of the day.
Warm and welcoming people
Salamanca is a pedestrian city of about 170,000 people. One thing that my husband and I took note of is that people of all ages were out and about walking the city. Adult children walked arm in arm with their older parents, and elderly citizens navigated the walkways with ease. (I think that contributed to both the activity and youth of those advanced in age!) I know that we easily got in two to four miles of walking DAILY.
Everyone we came in contact with was friendly and helpful. We became friends with several merchants that we got to know during our stay. They appreciated my efforts in speaking their native tongue, and they patiently helped me learn more. One time I tried to compliment a gentleman who had just played music for us during our family dinner outdoors at a local establishment. I wanted to tell him that his music was beautiful, but instead I accidentally told him that his music made me angry! Needless to say, I was a little embarrassed, but he just smiled and we all laughed it off…I think he gave me credit for effort.
Incidentally, my teenagers got a great boost in their Spanish-speaking skills during this trip. They increased their vocabulary and fluency simply by communicating in Spanish every chance they got. Sometimes they stumbled over pronunciations or made a wrong word choice, or they just didn’t know how to say a phrase at all. Nevertheless, because they weren’t afraid to make a mistake (for the most part), they could pick up the language a lot easier. It’s amazing what can be learned when fear is not a factor!
The Plaza Mayor is the common meeting place for everyone in the city. The architecture is from the late 1700s, and it is located in the center of the city. The people of Salamanca meet friends and family there for lunch or dinner at the many eateries that surround the Plaza. There are also shops in and around the square, and we saw part of a summer concert that was held there in late June.
Tapas are a great way to build relationship and community in this city. Basically, tapas are an assortment of appetizers that you can get for great prices at any eatery in Salamanca. These items are usually offered at an inexpensive price, and a fountain drink is often included. Having tapas is a really big thing here, and you will see people out between 7 and 10 in the evening to eat them. I enjoyed eating tapas at tables outside in the fresh air: it’s a great way to sit back, eat food, and enjoy the company of the people you are with.
Fresh and healthy food
Grocery stores are plentiful and everyone walks to shop on a daily basis. The produce is always fresh and there is even a fresh fish market in the grocery store. You have your choice of unusual seafood such as flatfish, octopus, and squid, just to name a few:
Pork is ubiquitous here. Salamanca is known for its pata negra (a specially bred, specially-fed black pig) that produces amazingly flavored and tender meat. I ate a lot of paleta, a nice cut of ham that was like bacon, but much better. We also would cook pork, chicken, or beef daily for our home-cooked meals. Meat is surprisingly inexpensive here, and it is fresh and tasty.
My teens also loved the fact that there were special sodas available in stores in Salamanca that were not available here in the States (at least not in our area). We enjoyed Fanta naranja (orange Fanta) as well as Lemon Fanta and a Fanta/cola mix. And I drank my fair share of Pepsi, which was plentiful.
Salamanca is a city not to be missed. I’m so grateful for the serendipity of our opportunity to visit and experience it, and I would go back to visit in a heartbeat. There are many opportunities right in the city to touch and experience more than two millennia of history. The people of this city are generous in spirit, whether they are helping you to learn more about the Spanish language and culture, or you are eating great food with them and building community. After one visit, I know that I will always carry a part of Salamanca with me in my heart!