Back when I was first learning my way around Spain, I spent a summer with a Madrid family whose pueblo of origin was up in the hills of the south of New Castile‘s province of Salamanca. And so it was that en route to that mountain town that summer that we pulled into the capital city, 110 miles (175 km) from Madrid, for a visit – and I found myself in a casco viejo (old quarter) not merely handsome and atmospheric but majestic in a way I have seen in few if any other cities. It’s a place of history and culture, a UNESCO World Heritage Site whose Renaissance architecture of golden sandstone gleams impressively both day and night – in the brilliant Mediterranean sunlight and then illuminated by floodlights after sundown. Yet at the same time, its streets are lively both day and night, because this is home to one of the country’s most prestigious universities (and one of Europe’s oldest) along with myriad study-abroad and Spanish-language programs for foreign students.
The epicentre of it all, as in many other Spanish cities, is the Plaza Mayor (above), built in the 18th century and opined by many to be the country’s comeliest. In the eye of the beholder, as always, but undeniably impressive it is, especially at night.
Old Town highlights not to miss include not one but two cathedrals – instead of the usual pattern back in the day of building new churches on the site of older ones, this time they left the 12th-century Romanesque Catedral Vieja intact and built a Baroque Catedral Nueva in the 16th century right alongside it. Fun, right? Anyway, the new cathedral has the tower which dominates old Salamanca’s skyline, while the the old one features one of Europe’s finest altarpieces.
One of the most famous buildings in town is an early 16th-century manse called the Casa de las Conchas (House of Shells), because of the 300-plus bas-relief scallop shells caved on its façade – symbolising the original owners status as a knight of the Order of Santiago de Compostela. There are of course also a plethora of churches, monasteries, and convents, one of the most impressive of which is the 16th-century Convento de San Estéban, still a going concern run by the Dominicans. Museums abound, as well – the most notable including the Museo de Salamanca, especially strong in Catholic religious art, and the Museo de Art Nouveau y Art Decó. But the coolest thing is to just wander and soak up the amazing atmosphere and energy of this city, partake of its tapas and tasty Castilian cuisine, as well as its ebullient nightlife.
If you want to get a good look at the Old Town and catch a pretty good action movie at the same time, check out 2008’s Vantage Point with Dennis Quaid, Sigourney Weaver, WIlliam Hurt, and Forrest Walker. And for more tourism info, check out the info at Salamanca.es.