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.
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!
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!)
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…