08/11/2018 - 08/13/2018
I had been looking forward to my first visit to Salamanca almost as much as I had to our return to Madrid. Despite its relatively small size, the city is legendary as a center of learning and culture in Spain. The University of Salamanca, established in 1134, is the third oldest in the Western world and dominates the center of the city. And wherever there is great literature and great art, great food seems to follow.
Thanks to our late arrival on Saturday we didn't have time for anything except a quick al fresco dinner close to our Airbnb. On Sunday morning the municipal market was closed so we set off on our exploration of the old town. In Salamanca the sights are clustered within a very small area. Just north of our Airbnb was Plaza Mayor, one of the most well-regarded main squares in Spain. Early on a Sunday morning the square was pretty but largely deserted. We fueled up for the morning at an atmospheric tapas bar with a friendly staff.
La Casa de las Conchas is a 15th century mansion whose facade is decorated with hundreds of scallop shell forms, symbolic of the Order of Santiago of which the homeowner was a knight. The building is now a public library, and behind it are the twin belltowers of the baroque La Clerecía church.
A short walk south of La Casa de las Conchas is the Salamanca Cathedral, which is actually two joined cathedrals. When the Gothic new cathedral was constructed in the 16th century, it was built adjacent to the much smaller Romanesque old cathedral and actually leans on it for support. Later on, Baroque elements were added to the new cathedral. Although to cathedral is beautiful and majestic, what seems to fascinate visitors the most is the figure of an astronaut that is carved into the facade. Many people have chosen to believe that this carving demonstrates some kind of supernatural premonition of the 16th century masons who constructed the facade, despite the fact that it is well-established that the figure was placed there during a restoration in 1992.
We walked around the university area in search of an imposing medieval campus but there was nothing to be seen on the order of an Oxford or even a Princeton. All we found was a collection of relatively featureless stone buildings that did little to convey the weight of nearly nine centuries of higher learning. Behind the cathedral is a small but immaculate garden called Huerto de Calixto y Melba which overlooks the River Tormes at the base of the hill. The upper reaches of the new cathedral are visible above the trees in the garden.
The final sight on our walk through the center of Salamanca was the Convent of San Esteban. The ornate facade of this Dominican monastery is notable for its ornate Plateresque style. Soon after that, we had returned to our starting point in the center of the old town.
At this point I was scratching my head. I had expected to spend the entire day exploring the highly-anticipated town of Salamanca but we seemed to have covered all the interesting buildings and streets by noon. Perhaps I should have been warned that I had overestimated the city by the fact that the tourist guides all seemed to agree the most fascinating detail of Salamanca was the astronaut carving on the cathedral. Fortunately we had the car and I had a great back-up plan. Just an hour southwest of Salamanca is the Sierra de Francia. Within this mountainous region are several medieval villages that have maintained their historic character thanks to their relative isolation. A relaxing drive over hilly regional highways brought us to Las Batuecas-Sierra de Francia Natural Park as the children slept peacefully in the back. We stopped for lunch at La Alberca, the largest and most touristed town in Sierra de Francia. We ate in the idyllic setting of the main square, surrounded by half-timbered houses with impressive floral displays on their balconies.
Probably the most unique village in the area is Mogarraz, which clings to a steep hillside not far from La Alberca. In recent years the tiny town with just a couple of cobblestone streets has become well-known for hundreds of portraits that adorn the walls of the stone and half-timbered houses. The portraits were painted within the last decade by local artist Florencio Maillo, who based them on photos of town denizens that were taken for identity cards in the 1960's. The portraits were intended to be a temporary exhibition, but the residents enjoyed them so much they have requested that they remain hanging permanently. On the Sunday we visited, one would never know that Mogarraz has now been firmly enshrined on the tourist map. There was only one other car in the parking lot above the town and it was an easy task to find deserted sections of the main street to take our photos. Afterwards it was time to reward the kids with ice cream for their perseverance exploring the villages and then return to Salamanca.
For dinner we decided to change things up by eating outside the old town. It was a fairly long walk north to Calle Van Dyck, which was reputed to have Salamanca's highest concentration of tapas bars. It was interesting to see the sudden and complete disappearance of older buildings once we crossed Avenida de Mirat into the modern town. We found ourselves in an area that was devoid of character and rather gritty. The tapas street was a far cry from Calle Laurel in Logroño. There was only a smattering of restaurants without much atmosphere, and hardly anyone on the sidewalk. Fortunately the place we finally chose provided a decent meal, but not a memorable dining experience such as we'd had elsewhere in Spain. Before tucking in for the night we returned to Plaza Mayor to see the brilliantly-illuminated facades and enjoy the growing energy. The square was far busier in the evening than it had been when we had eaten there early in the day.
In the morning we only had the municipal market left to see, but it was largely a disappointment. Partly because it was a Monday, the market clearly wasn't at full strength and there was little in the way of foot traffic. Also, it seemed Salamanca was suffering from the same syndrome that affects Madrid in August where the locals abandon the city for the coastal areas. Many of the stalls looked like they were closed down for much more than a weekend. Perhaps that explained the lack of energy in the Salamanca's streets and restaurants as well. We left Salamanca somewhat underwhelmed but hopeful that we would find a more vibrant city if we ever return in the spring or fall when the university is in full session.
We had a busy day on the road that would culminate with our arrival in Madrid. We deviated northward to see two medieval castles, La Mota and Coca. La Mota is a relatively modern reconstruction of a medieval fortress that had fallen almost completely into ruin by the early 20th century. The walls were surfaced in neat lines of brick separated by thick layers of mortar, giving the castle a pinkish, shimmering appearance.
We arrived at Coca Castle during the mid-day closure which did not trouble us as we were eager to press on to Segovia. Coca's brick exterior was remarkably similar to that of La Mota, leading me to think that La Mota's restoration was probably based on the appearance of Coca although La Mota was originally constructed centuries earlier.
Segovia is a small town that sits in an area of Castile y León that is reminiscent of American flyover country. We were surrounded by large brown fields of recent harvested grain that looked like they had been burned by the merciless sun. Trees were sparse. Segovia itself, however, has been blessed with a bounty of unique and majestic buildings that makes it a worthwhile destination for a traveler. Foremost among these is the Aqueduct of Segovia, which along with the Pont du Gard in France is considered one of the most impressive Roman aqueducts still in existence. The aqueduct occupies one end of the expansive Plaza Azoguejo, which makes it visible for quite some distance as one approached from the west. Up close, the dimensions of the structure are breathtaking and it is hard to believe from its excellent preservation that it was constructed almost two thousand years ago. Having visited the Pont du Gard as well, I feel that the Aqueduct of Segovia is more visually impressive because of its urban location and its composition of unmortared granite blocks. In fact, I can comfortably say that it is probably the most splendid remnant of Roman civilization I have ever encountered including the Coliseum of Rome. We found it hard to tear ourselves away from this colossal beauty and explore the rest of the town.
Although Segovia is substantially smaller than Salamanca, it has a much larger historic area. The small modern neighborhoods occupy the eastern fringes of the town like afterthoughts. Between the aqueduct and the Segovia Cathedral there was no shortage of interesting narrow streets, some with intriguing views over the lower levels of the town.
There's no shortage of majestic cathedrals in Spain but I found Segovia's version to be one of the most appealing. The enormous Gothic structure dominates the expansive Plaza Mayor with a seemingly endless array of ornate spires spaced around the multi-level exterior.
From the cathedral it's just a short walk further west to the Alcázar. The stunning medieval fortress grows out of top of a steep cliff with a river gorge on either side. The facade is an imposing rectangular block topped by an array of turrets that looks like the model for the rook in chess. The Gothic steeples that top the lower turrets at the corners of the fortress are reminiscent of La Cité de Carcassonne. Inside the castle were plenty of relics of medieval warfare for the kids to frolic on.
I took the two older kids up the steep staircase to the top of the central tower, from which we had amazing views of the cathedral and the surrounding countryside.
We could have happily spent more time in Segovia, but once again we had to meet our Airbnb host in person in Madrid and we couldn't arrive too late. Surprisingly we had found much more worth seeing in our midday stop in Segovia than we had over a two-day stay in Salamanca. Regretfully we saddled up for the last leg of our month-long European road trip.