Seduced by Salamanca

 

GO CITYBREAK: SALAMANCAThis Spanish gem is one of those cities that manages to give the impression that you are discovering it for yourself – it is at once too small to feel overrun, and yet big enough to reward a few days’ exploration, writes DAVIN O’DWYER

THE IRISH connection in Spain began long before Irish theme pubs sprouted in every city in Iberia, and long before pasty white Irish holidaymakers flocked to their beaches to get sunburned.

In the case of the spectacular university town of Salamanca, the connection with Ireland goes all the way to the late 16th century. Back then, facing persecution at home, huge numbers of young Irish seminarians were forced to travel to the continent for their religious training. In 1592, a college was founded in Salamanca to provide an education specifically for Irish seminarians – by some accounts, the Irish College there was the first such school in Europe.

Over 360 years, until it closed in 1952, the college welcomed generations of young Irish trainee priests, and it’s hard to imagine how the young men must have found life in the heart of the Castille and Leon region in western Spain, not far from the Portuguese border.

Visiting now, however, it’s safe to assume they would have been delighted with the change in scenery, because Salamanca is a veritable box of delights.

The large cloistered building that housed the Irish College, Colegio Mayor Alonso de Fonseca, is now part of the city’s university, largely comprising accommodation for the huge numbers of visiting students and scholars.

It rests on a hill to the west of the old town centre, offering fine views of the red rooftops, and the winding streets of the city below are unlike anything you will find in Ireland.

SPAIN, OFcourse, is full of hidden gems, and it’s difficult to argue that Salamanca is somehow overlooked – after all, it has been a major educational and ecclesiastical centre for 800 years, its pedestrianised old town is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and it was European City of Culture in 2002, alongside Bruges.

But it’s one of those cities that manages to give the impression that you are discovering it for yourself – it is at once too small to feel overrun, and yet big enough to reward a few days’ exploration.

The surrounding landscape is flat and dusty, but Salamanca rises up on a number of hills by the Tormes River, welcoming visitors with its impressive skyline, dominated by the striking silhouette formed by the towers of its old and new cathedrals.

The co-existence of two cathedrals in the one town isn’t that unusual but in a most idiosyncratic arrangement, in Salamanca the two buildings come together in an odd confluence of Catholic grandeur, the Romanesque 12th-century church just about holding its own in the presence of the Gothic-meets-Baroque 16th-century latecomer.

The clash of styles neatly sums up the appeal of Salamanca, which boasts myriad different architectural schools within its walls.

Plateresque palaces nestle up against Renaissance convents, old Roman walls lead to striking art deco villas, and all the streets lead to one of the most magnificent squares in all of Spain.

Most of the buildings are a distinctive red, due to the piedra de Villamayor, a stone from nearby quarries, and as the sun sets, the city gleams a rich, golden ochre, a collective glow that is powerfully seductive.

The very fabric of the city tells its own account of the fascinating history of the area. From before the 4th century BC it was a Roman outpost, Salmantica, and Hannibal captured it in 212 BC during the Carthaginian Wars. The long Roman bridge leading across the Tormes has 15 exquisitely preserved Roman arches, and offers the finest view of the city, rising up before you as you cross.

By the 13th century, the city had become an educational centre, with Salamanca University being founded as far back as 1218, making it the third oldest in Europe. Columbus is said to have lectured here, and the list of alumni is filled with eminent Spaniards such as Hernán Cortés, Ignatius Loyola and the writer Miguel de Unamuno.

Many of the university buildings are adorned with faint red lettering – at the end of exam season, tradition had it that students would paint their names on the city’s walls using an ink made of bull’s blood. The faded remnants decorate the city to this day, a giant palimpsest remembering and recording generations of students past.

The main university building is the most impressive, boasting a spectacularly ornate Plateresque facade facing a statue of the theologian and poet Fray Luis de León in a long, rectangular square, the Patio de Escuelas.

Just off the square is the old library building, which contains the Sala Calderón de la Barca in which visitors can see the famed Cielo de Salamanca, a fresco depicting the constellations of the night sky on a half-dome ceiling, painted in the late 1400s by Fernando Gallego. See is perhaps the wrong word, at least at first – the fragile state of the paintwork means the room is in near darkness, and it takes a few minutes before your eyes can adjust to low light. But gradually, almost imperceptibly at first, the stars begin to twinkle, the figures in the sky appear out of the gloaming, and the cosmos comes alive.

As you come out blinking into the narrow, reddish streets, it can take time to readjust to the fact that you’ve been in a venerable library building all along, instead of being transported someplace magical.

A few streets north is another of Salamanca’s storied buildings, the Casa de las Conchas palace adorned with carved scallop shells. The 16th-century town house was built by one Talavera Maldonado, a knight of the Order of Santiago, whose symbol, the scallop, inspired the unique decoration. The interior courtyard isn’t quite as distinctive, but worth a look.

While the Casa de las Conchas is an example of unusual design of a certain era, the Casa Lis represents pure design from a different time altogether. Built in the early 20th century, it’s a stunning art nouveau palace, with beautiful stained-glass and a large, ornate metal facade on its southern face.

In keeping with the building’s style is the collection it houses, an impressive range of art nouveau and art deco furniture, decoration and art owned by the Manuel Ramos Andrade Foundation. The museum is a perfect fusion of place and content, the surroundings as much part of the exhibit as the artwork itself.

HOWEVER, ITis at the northern end of the old city centre that arguably Salamanca’s most impressive attraction can be found – the magnificent Plaza Mayor, the vast square that acts as a kind of luxurious ballroom for the city.

The square was the unlikely setting for the presidential assassination thriller Vantage Pointa few years ago, and yet it was chosen as the film’s location for an obvious reason – most main squares in Spain are of a type, and their charms are largely similar, but once you’ve spent some time soaking up the atmosphere in Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor, all the others seem kind of derivative.

It is a combination of the perfect proportions, the ornate gilding, the tasteful, timeless grandeur, but Salamanca’s square swaggers with stylish self-confidence.

The cafes in the square might be overpriced and understaffed, but people-watching and time-wasting don’t get any better appointed than this.

It would be easy to presume that Salamanca is a large open-air museum, each architectural gem and historical monument acting as a different gallery, but that would be to discount the impact of the city’s students, who make for a lively evening atmosphere.

Bars and clubs are plentiful and buzzing, while the city remains a bastion of traditional tapas, and the city hosts various festivals during the year in that stylishly-debauched Spanish fashion, with food and drink served on the streets and fireworks filling the sky. Any of the festivals are probably the best time to sample the vitality that is central to Salamanca’s charms, its rare appeal.

Just as every old bar in Europe has a Hemingway anecdote, so every town in Spain has a Cervantes quote, and the great man’s observation about this beguiling town remains true to this day: “Salamanca conjures the will to return in all those who have enjoyed the calmness of its dwelling.”

Salamanca where to . . .

Stay

Value
: JCH Congreso Apartamentos, Tahonas Viejas 4-10, 00-34-923-272270, edificio-congreso.com Salamanca is too small for anything to be badly located, but these apartments hit the sweet spot of both excellent location and terrific price, being right by the university, and with two-person apartments beginning at €39 a night.

Mid-market: AC Palacio de San Esteban, C/ Arroyo de Santo Domingo 3, 00-34-923-262296, hotelpalaciodesanesteban.com. Former convent turned stylish boutique hotel? Why, that sounds delightful. Great location in the centre of town, this is part of the Marriott’s boutique AC chain. Rooms from €90.

Upmarket: Grand Hotel Don Gregorio, Calle San Pablo 80, 00-34-923-217015, hoteldongregorio.com. This was once the home of Salamanca’s bishop, but it’s now a luxurious 17-room boutique hotel with interior design to drool over. Just opened in the past year, it has raised the Salamanca accommodation bar a few notches. Rooms from €250.

Eat

Value
: Ruta de la Plata, Calle Melendez 13, 00-34-923-268616. If your dining approach is to find where the locals eat, then Ruta de la Plata should be your first destination. Proper meals at improperly low prices, with great tapas at the bar, all within stumbling distance of the cathedral.

Mid-market: El Alquimista, Plaza de San Cristobal 6, 00-34-923-215493, elalquimistarestaurante.com. This reasonably priced restaurant does good meaty Iberian cuisine in a charming building just east of the town centre.

Upmarket: Víctor Gutiérrez, Calle San Pablo 66, 00-34-923-262973, restaurantevictorgutierrez.com. The Michelin-starred Víctor Gutiérrez is the best restaurant in town, if Peruvian-flavoured cuisine is your thing. And when there’s a Michelin star on the door, who isn’t into Peruvian-flavoured cuisine?

Get there: Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies from Dublin to Madrid, about two-and-a-half hours from Salamanca by rail (renfe.com) from Madrid-Chamartin station. Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from London Stansted to Valladolid, an hour from Salamanca.