Salamanca is the most graceful city in Spain. For four centuries it was the seat of one of the most prestigious universities in the world and at the intellectual heart of the burgeoning Spanish crown’s enterprise – the conquistador Hernán Cortés and St Ignatius of Loyola were students while Columbus came here in 1486 in an initially unsuccessful attempt to persuade a university commission of enquiry to back his exploration plans. City and university declined in later centuries, and there was much damage done during the Napoleonic Wars, but the Salamanca of today presents a uniformly gorgeous ensemble from Spain’s Golden Age, given a perfect harmony by the warm golden sandstone with which its finest buildings were constructed. It’s still a relatively small place with a population of 160,000 but an awful lot of those are students, both Spanish and foreign, which adds to the general level of gaiety.
You’ll need to set aside the best part of two full days to see everything in Salamanca, and even then you might struggle – time has a habit of flashing by in a city so easy on the eye that simply strolling around often seems like the best thing to do. Highlights are many, starting with the most elegant Plaza Mayor in Spain before moving on to the two cathedrals, one Gothic and the other Romanesque, and the beautiful surviving university buildings. After this, it’s down to individual taste when it comes to deciding exactly how many stately Renaissance palaces, embellished churches, sculpted cloisters, curio-filled museums and religious art galleries you’d like to see.
Two great architectural styles were developed, and see their finest expression, in Salamanca. Plateresque is a decorative technique of shallow relief and intricate detail, named for its resemblance to the art of the silversmith (platero); Salamanca’s native sandstone, soft and easy to carve, played a significant role in its development. Plateresque art cuts across Gothic and Renaissance frontiers – the decorative motifs of the university, for example, are taken from the Italian Renaissance but the facade of the Catedral Nueva is Gothic in inspiration. The later Churrigueresque style, an especially ornate form of Baroque, takes its name from José Churriguera (1665–1725), the dominant member of a prodigiously creative family, best known for their huge, flamboyant altarpieces.
You’ll know when you’ve arrived at Salamanca’s central honey-trap, the Universidad de Salamanca, also known as the Universidad Civil, by the milling tour groups, all straining their necks to examine the magnificent facade. It’s the ultimate expression of the Plateresque style, covered with medallions, heraldic emblems and floral decorations, amid which lurks a hidden frog said to bring good luck and marriage within the year to anyone who spots it unaided. The centre of the facade is occupied by a portrait of Isabel and Fernando, surrounded by a Greek inscription commemorating their devotion to the university. There are several sections to visit, though the fee paid at the main entrance covers just the tour of the main building’s lecture rooms and library.
The university’s old lecture rooms are arranged around a courtyard. The Aula Fray Luís de León preserves the rugged original benches and the pulpit where this celebrated professor lectured. In 1573, the Inquisition muscled its way into the room and arrested Fray Luís for alleged subversion of the faith; five years of torture and imprisonment followed, but upon his release he calmly resumed his lecture with the words, “As we were saying yesterday…”
An elegant Plateresque stairway leads to the upper storey, where you’ll find the old university library, stuffed with thousands of antiquated books on wooden shelves and huge globes of the world. There’s a faded magnificence here, which gives some idea of Renaissance Salamanca’s academic splendour.
The Universidad de Salamanca was founded by Alfonso IX in 1218, and, after the union of Castile and León, became the most important in Spain. Its rise to international stature was phenomenal, and within thirty years Pope Alexander IV proclaimed it equal to the greatest universities of the day. As at Oxford, Paris and Bologna, theories formulated here were later accepted as fact throughout Europe. The university continued to flourish under the Reyes Católicos, and in the sixteenth century it was powerful enough to resist the orthodoxy of Felipe II’s Inquisition, but eventually, freedom of thought was stifled by the extreme clericalism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Books were banned for being a threat to the Catholic faith, and mathematics and medicine disappeared from the curriculum. During the Peninsular War, the French demolished 20 of the 25 colleges, and by the end of the nineteenth century there were no more than three hundred students (compared to 6500 in the late sixteenth century). The university saw a revival in the early part of the twentieth century, particularly under the rectorship of celebrated philosopher and man of letters Miguel de Unamuno. Today, numbers are higher than ever (around 30,000 students) and Salamanca Uni has a certain social cachet, though academically it ranks well behind Madrid, Barcelona and Seville. It does, however, run a highly successful language school – nowhere else in Spain will you find so many young foreigners.