Salamanca

Salamanca:

The Land of Ranitas, Patitos & Hornazo

I understand that this title may raise a lot of initial questions… it did for me as well. I mean who could have possibly known that the symbol of Salamanca is a frog (rana), or that ducks (patos) roam the streets, or that the traditional treat “hornazo” is a pork pie?! Let’s just say that today I learned a lot from our day trip from Madrid to Salamanca.

map

Salamanca is a small university town in Castilla y León Spain, west of Madrid near the Portugal border. To get to Salamanca you can catch a local bus for about three and a half hours or you can take the RENFE high-speed train from the Chamartín station for an hour and 45 minutes, which is what we did. Tickets start around 20€ round trip. Before planning our trip, people warned us that you could not do Salamanca in only a day, but I definitely disagree. Salamanca is just as easy as going to Segovia or Toledo for the day! We accomplished all of our “must-dos” within the 6-7 hours that we were there. Honestly, any more time and I probably would have been scratching my head looking for more things to do. However don’t get me wrong, the size of the city does not detract from how BEAUTIFUL it actually is!

img_3154

Upon walking into the center of Salamanca, it is impossible to miss their claim to fame, the Plaza Mayor. While, yes, every Spanish city has its own Plaza Mayor, Salamanca’s is unarguably one of the most beautiful (I’d say up there with Madrid and Seville). Surrounded by old cafes and restaurants, the square has plenty of space for both tourists and locals to meander around and take endless selfies. One thing about this plaza that sets it apart from others is the endless archways and the small, circular bust statues of famous Spaniards between them. Even Franco has his own medallion – which is super controversial – perhaps I’ll save that story for another time.

So after wandering around Plaza Mayor, we stopped to grab a coffee at Cafeteria El Aula, nothing too special, but we needed the pick-me up. Then we continued to walk around the city for a while, a bit disappointed that there weren’t any Christmas markets, but enjoying the nice weather (it’s December and 55° F- Nicole didn’t even bring a jacket!)

img_3106
We climbed up that tower!
img_2981
Spanish donuts are called “Roscas” and here you can get your donuts “bathed” or “silly”.. Huh? Don’t ask.

We passed by the beautiful Iglesia de La Clericía, which was built in the 1600s, and we checked out the Casa de las Conchas (The Shell House), a 16th century Gothic building with symbolic shells plastered on the outside. The building is currently under construction, but there is a nice public library inside.

Then we continued to the main cathedral of Salamanca, which sits in an open plaza with flowers and pine trees, called the Plaza de Anaya. There are two parts of the cathedral, the old and the new. The old part was built in the 12th century, and the new in the 16th (…yeah so “new”). They are both connected and you can enter each for around 4€.  However, the most amazing part of the cathedral is actually the facade on the side of the building. The baroque stone carvings of dragons, griffons and priests cover the entire length of the building. The amount of detail is just incredible. Plus – its free! You really can stare at it as long as you want!

img_3105

I recommend doing the tower visit in the “new” cathedral, called Ieronimus. You get to climb up to different levels of the bell tower, go inside to see the old cathedral from a balcony, and (of course!) see great views of the city. We spent a while there just enjoying the views and the architecture of the cathedral. Although, because it was a nice Saturday afternoon it was pretty crowded. At one point while going up the bell tower, the visitors have to obey a timed traffic light because the stone, spiral stairways are just so narrow! But its so worth the climb.

img_3037
Definitely got a calf workout from the stairs!
img_3026
Nicole and I enjoying the sun at the rooftop cathedral terrace!
img_3045
Balcony view of the beautiful “Old” Cathedral.

After we caught our breath from all of those stairs, we walked through the local streets down to the old roman bridge on the Río Tormes to get a view of the cathedral from afar. It was really sunny and a lot of people were enjoying the day outside!

img_3075 Then we went to the a free exhibition about the Spanish Civil War in the General Archive, that has objects, photographs, and propaganda posters from the Franco era. It was fascinating to learn more about how the Spaniards view and showcase this time period.

IMG_3077.JPG
The left side shows poster of The Republic, and the right, Franco and the Nationalists.

After we went to Casa de Lis: Museo de Art Nouveau and paid a couple of euro to tour around the museum, that was actually an old mansion from the 19th century in the middle of the city. Each side of the building, including the ceiling, has gorgeous mosaic stained glass windows. The museum exhibits paintings, glass dolls, vases and jewelry from the end of the 19th century into the 20th. I really love the Art Nouveau style, it seemed like a fun time to experiment with new colors, designs and materials.

img_3085
This is the main glass ceiling in the center of the building. They said no photos, but… I couldn’t resist. Don’t worry I was sneaky.
img_3089
Here is the museum cafe where you can enjoy your slightly overpriced coffee while enjoying how the sun shines through the colored glass.

We grabbed some food at Cuatro Gatos right on Rúa Mayor, which was a really inexpensive, easy lunch. If you ever find yourself in Salamanca, try to go to Café Mandala or Café Novelty (the oldest café in Salamanca from 1905). Or you can try some of the local dishes, cocido – a hearty chickpea stew, or a hornazo, a baked dough with eggs and spicy pork sausage. Spain never fails to provide plenty of jamón delicacies. Take a look at this shop, simply named…. “Love Ham”. Genius.

img_3076

Like I mentioned before, Salamanca is a huge university town, home of “USAL” (Universidad de Salamanca), one of the most highly regarded universities in Spain. It was founded in the 12th century, and is well known for the elaborately carved facade, which unfortunately for us is being remodeled right now. It is tradition with the facade to find the hidden frog, which is resting on a skull on the right side. Supposedly if you see the frog you get good luck! And for this reason, the shops in Salamanca are full of these funny little frog trinkets. Who would have known.

Another beautiful part of the university is an old painted library ceiling with zodiac signs. It is free to go see, but it was kind of hard to find, in the corner of one of the university plazas. In order to preserve the painting, the room is almost completely dark and no photos are allowed. But it was still cool to see. If you’re curious, this is what it looks like according to Google.

Image result for cielo de salamanca
Once again, not my photo. I wish!

On the other side of the plaza we found a free photography exhibition, that showed the recent students’ work. There were gorgeous high wooden ceilings and old stone walls.

The sun was beginning to set as our day in Salamanca came to an end. We had to catch our train back to Madrid around 6:30. So we walked back to the station, and stopped to enjoy how the light illuminated the side of the cathedral, and how the clouds started sweeping over Plaza Mayor.

img_3136
View of the outdoor seating at Cafe Novelty in Plaza Mayor.
img_3169
The “New” Tower and cathedral facade.

Overall, we had a great day in Salamanca! I’m satisfied to officially check off yet another Spanish city and comunidad autónoma from my list. While Salamanca may not be as “fairy tale”-like as Segovia, or as old and rustic as Toledo, the city definitely has its own quirks and charm. And, oh wait…did I already mention? Just look at the plaza…

img_3152

 

Segovia

dsc_0487

A Stormy Day in Segovia

Wednesday November 9, I woke up, rolled over in bed and read the news about Trump becoming president. Needless to say, the whole day I was in shock, completely overwhelmed and confused. At first, I really thought that it was a joke. I partially felt guilty for not being in America to take part in such an important day, yet I was also a bit relieved to be removed from all of the political drama. On the metro I saw people furiously scrolling through their phones reading the news about Trump, I heard two Spaniards ranting about how “loco” Americans are. It all felt wrong. For one of the first times I actually felt ashamed of my own country. In order to escape the frantic Facebook posts, judgmental stares and relentless questions, Nicole and I decided to go to Segovia for the day. Segovia is small, historic town north of Madrid well known for the Roman aqueduct, giant gothic cathedral, and royal palace.

segovia-map

To get there we took a metro, a Cercanias train, switched at Chamartin and took another train which in total it took 2.5 hours and costed 3,80€ (with our Madrid metro cards). On the way back we just took the Sepulvedana bus for 7,90€ which only takes an hour. I highly recommend spending the extra 4€ to save the time and hassle!

Segovia has a very traditional Spanish feel compared to Madrid. It still has the same small streets, old stone churches and touristy areas; however, there are no bright lights, no metro stops or Gran Vías. It is quiet town with a significantly older local population.

We spent some time admiring the Roman Aqueduct in the center of town. While the construction date of the aqueduct is not known exactly, recent research says that it was built around 112 AD. For being so old it is super well preserved!

img_1816

dsc_0490

We walked a bit, grabbed a quick lunch, strolled around Plaza Mayor and checked out at the massive cathedral. It’s impossible to miss! The tower of the cathedral is actually the tallest cathedral tower in all of Spain, even taller than La Giralda in Seville.

As we continued down toward the royal palace we impulsively decided to try a local dessert (which I suppose is now our new traveling tradition) called ponche, made of eggs, flour, sugar, cream, and marzipan. We split half of a loaf for 3€. It was delicious!

15003367_10154294289733371_4254684086664220724_o

We stumbled upon a free art gallery in an old museum with a pretty patio and listened to a man playing accordion in an open air plaza next to a church. Also along the main street are some small, touristy shops with local craftsmen, jewelry, pottery, baskets and vases.

At the end of the street there is a fancy gate into the gardens and castle grounds. The Alcázar of Segovia is perched on the edge of a rocky cliff, so you have nice views over the plains and tiny, old outskirts of town. Because of the massive amounts of tourists Nicole and I decided to skip out on going into the palace. But it was still nice enough to see it from the outside.

dsc_0513

dsc_0516

After breezing past the tourists we escaped out to stroll through the nearby, neighborhood area. There were stray cats, stone archways, graffiti and stone walls covered in ivy. Some of the apartments and houses look like they are straight out of a fairy-tale story.

The cobblestone streets were empty and quiet, which gave me an eerie-end of the world feeling (seemingly appropriate for our nightmare of an election day). But it was felt nice to be able to forget reality and enjoy the small details of the city, like these funny little sculpted men that I found on the side of an apartment door! Imagine how cool it would be to have these guys greeting you every time you come home.

The first time that I came to Segovia in 2015 it was over 100° F! So it felt quite different to be bundled up in jackets and scarves, definitely gave the town a new personality. And while it was a bit cold and grey, it felt good to not be in a crowded city on such a strange, emotional day. We were *almost* able to forget about the political chaos back at home.

The rest of the week at my two schools I was bombarded by questions from both students and teachers about the election. Many of the Spanish teachers approached me randomly and said, “Lo siento mucho” (I’m so sorry). In one of my classes instead of continuing with the lesson plan, we talked about American politics and history for the entire class. It turns out that these students (about 14-15 years old) had never heard of the Civil War, didn’t actually know what Martin Luther King did, and had no idea who Native Americans are. I was amazed at the lack of knowledge they had about American history, but then I realized… its not like I was ever educated on Spanish history in middle school either.

In regards to the election, they asked me various questions:

  • How did Trump win?
  • Who actually voted for him?
  • Did you cry when you found out?
  • Do you think we will have a third world war?
  • How many black people are in America? Did they vote for Trump?
  • Will he really build a wall?
  • Do you think Trump is the new Hitler?
  • Why can’t Michelle be president?
  • How did the Simpsons predict the future?

I didn’t know exactly how to respond (especially in regards to the Simpsons question – Like HOW? I still don’t get it). These questions were seemingly innocent in the moment; however, they terrified me all the same, and have been racking my brain ever since.

Today is Wednesday November 16, exactly a week has passed since the election. While I cannot truly tell the emotional state of my country from over here in Madrid, it doesn’t seem like Americans have fully accepted the reality of our new president. People here in Spain haven’t either! Spaniards have continued asking me about how Trump’s choices will affect climate change and international politics, but the truth is that it is too early to tell.

All that I do know is that whether Trump is president or not, at least places like Segovia still exist for us to escape from reality for a couple of hours. Next time you have a free afternoon in Madrid, or next time that Trump says something stupid (which will surely be soon) head to Segovia!

Cuenca

If you want to go somewhere where no one speaks English, Spaniards spend hours gossiping and eating jamón in bars, and bulls still run in the streets, then Cuenca is the place to go. Drive two hours east of Madrid (best way to get there is by bus for €11.45) and you’ll reach the tiny village perched on the side of a cliff.

cuenca-map

img_0638
View of Cuenca from the Parador

The casco antiguo of Cuenca is World Heritage site of medieval buildings and stone cathedrals. Cuenca is also known for its casas colgadas (hanging houses) which are built literally on the edge of the cliff. One of the most famous sights is from the bridge called Puente de San Pablo, where you get the best view of the casa colgadas. There are swallows that live in cliffside nests that fly around the bridge and dive down into the gorge.

On the day that we went there was a huge festival called San Mateo. People were out drinking and singing in the streets all day starting when we arrived around 11 AM. In Cuenca they celebrate San Mateo every year with a traditional running of the bulls ceremony. So I had no idea what to expect! We wandered around the town for a while appreciating the festive atmosphere, colorful buildings and sunny weather. Some of the shops were closed because of the festival, but we were able to find another local dessert to try called alajú, which is basically like sticky almond bark covered in paper. Not my favorite (no offense Cuenca).

Around midday we pushed our way through the crowds back to the main plaza in front of the cathedral to watch the running of the bulls. Some streets in the center of town are blocked off, they let the bull loose, and people try to poke and taunt the bull. A bit mean, yes, but at least they don’t kill the bull like in the bull fights. It was super crowded, so it was hard to find a spot with a good view that was also not potentially dangerous. They set up “barricades” on the side of the streets that were just small wooden fences. We chose to stand on the top of the cathedral stairs… turned out to be a bad choice. At one point the bull got angry and ran up the stairs. People started screaming as the bull came closer and closer and rammed into a guy who fell on the ground in panic. I was probably two feet away from the bull with nothing in between us. Quite a scary moment!

We walked back up to the bus stop and watched the sun set over the valley. Overall it was a great day! A bit strange being the outsider tourist watching a local tradition, regardless it was really interesting to see. And Cuenca itself is a beautiful city to wander around. Can’t say I will be back any time soon, but if you are in Spain around the time of San Mateo, I would definitely recommend it.

img_0662

Toledo

Madrid is fabulous, but if you’re itching to get away from city life for a day, Toledo is a great option. Toledo was the old capital of Spain, a beautiful ancient city that is now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Center. The historic quarter is a labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets, cathedrals, and shops surrounded by the Río Tajo and a giant stone fortress wall that was built during the Roman occupation.

Getting there from Madrid is very easy (and free for students)! From Sol you take the 3 down to Legazpi and change tracks and catch the 6 to Plaza Eliptica. From there you can take the ALSA bus to Toledo. The ride is about 45-50 minutes. Tickets are normally around 10€ but with the student metro cards (abono) you go for free.

toledo-map

The main plaza is called Zodocover, so from there we just started exploring. We walked around and went to the El Greco Museum to see the site of El Greco’s house and some of his lesser-known paintings. Toledo is known for its handmade crafts and goods, so we got to see a ton of medieval shops with silver swords and jewelry and bakeries with treats from the convents. The nuns are famous for making “the best marzipan cookies”…. and after having tried one I can attest to that!

The main cathedral in Toledo is breathtaking, along with the view of the city from across the Río Tajo (get there on Bus 71 from Zodocover). Strolling through the narrow streets all was quiet but the chorus of church chimes. It felt like such a breath of fresh air after being used to the hustle and bustle of Madrid. Because Toledo is such a small city it is very easy to see the whole city in a matter of hours. And because it is much more traditional than Madrid, be careful of siesta hours. Restaurants and shops may be closed midday which can be tricky to plan around if you’re out looking for something specific.

We got a late lunch at a small cafe called “La Flor de La Esquina” and sat outside in a little plaza in front of a church watching people and feeding the birds our leftover bread. After wandering around a bit more we headed back to the bus station. Overall, Toledo is a cheap and easy way to escape the modernity of Madrid for a couple of hours. It almost feels as if you get to go back in time and enjoy a more authentic Spanish lifestyle right in Madrid’s own backyard. While yes it is a small city, there are plenty restaurants, museums and plazas to explore. I will definitely be going back soon!