We slid into Salamanca on a sunny Sunday in October, after a pleasant short ride aboard a clean and uncrowded Spanish train from Segovia.
The streets of Salamanca were characteristically quiet, typical for a Spanish city on a Sunday morning.
“Salad days” is a Shakespearean idiomatic expression to refer to a youthful time, accompanied by the inexperience, enthusiasm, idealism, innocence, or indiscretion that one associates with a young person.
Our Salad Days Abroad, At Last
Nothing is quite as special as studying abroad when you’re young and enthusiastic.
And no place we’ve seen for the experience is the equal of Salamanca, Spain, home of one of Europe’s oldest universities.
Alas, neither of us got the chance to be an exchange student during our youth.
That’s just the way it was, in our younger lives.
Ah, but life did present us with the opportunity, now in our 60s, to enjoy a memorable visit to Salamanca.
Yes, these were our salad days in Salamanca.
We had a joyful feeling that our time had finally come!
Sylvia and Pablo
Our landlady in Salamanca was available when we arrived and willing to let us into our apartment early. She was an exceptionally nice German woman named Sylvia, who with her late husband had raised a large family of six children in the apartment. She now lived in a smaller home on the outskirts of Salamanca.
The apartment was beautiful, perhaps the nicest of the many temporary homes we had occupied on our long travels around the world.
On a bookshelf in the living room we discovered an autographed book by the famed Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. Sylvia said it must have belonged to her husband.
On an earlier phase of our globe-trotting Vagabond adventure, as our astute readers may recall, we paid our respects to Neruda by visiting his house in Santiago, Chile.
To us, Neruda is an impressive and tragic figure.
Sylvia was pleased to realize she owned a book autographed by a noted Spanish language poet who had won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Discovering Salamanca, On Our Own
We spent that first Sunday afternoon as well as the next couple of days touring Salamanca on foot, without any agenda.
It was all very relaxed. We just allowed Salamanca to reveal herself to us, gently, at her own pace.
Our apartment was ideally located, just one block downhill and around the corner from the Plaza Major, considered by many people to be the most beautiful public plaza in all of Spain.
It was just a two minute walk from our large, quiet apartment to the Plaza Major.
The first thing that impresses a visitor to Salamanca is the antiquity and nicely-preserved nature of the city center.
There are all sorts of impressive medieval buildings, most of them in very good condition thanks to careful restorations.
Another aspect of Salamanca that is immediately apparent is the indisputable dominance of the Roman Catholic religion there.
Most of the major structures and institutions are Catholic, including the University itself.
In addition to a large number of antique churches, Salamanca features several massive old monastery complexes right in the heart of the city.
On the one hand, the visible dominating presence of the “Mother Church” has a certain reassuring quality, especially to Frank as a practicing Catholic.
On the other hand, though, just pause and consider: Isn’t the pervasive Catholicism of Salamanca really a silent reminder of the dreadful Spanish Inquisition.
“Of course it’s Catholic,” a cynic might say.
Indeed, Salamanca was the only city we have seen in all of our travels that has, not one, but two cathedrals.
The older of the two is a medieval-era church from the 13th Century.
Salamanca’s “new” cathedral is a massive structure dating to the Renaissance period.
Both cathedrals are inspiring and beautiful.
Salamanca “New” Cathedral
The third and an especially endearing quality of Salamanca is that it remains at heart a university town, which means it is a haven for students with all their youthful enthusiasm and appetite for learning.
In both Spain and Portugal, the students stay up late, drinking and singing, and the mornings are still. When attending class, many students wear academic robes and caps. It is delightful to be in their midst.
We have visited Cambridge University in England and Harvard University in Massachusetts, and we were duly impressed with both. But once you have visited Salamanca, these other universities seem almost derivative.
Down By The River
Salamanca is strategically situated on a hillside above the Rio Tormes.
A portion of the medieval city wall still survives near the banks of the river.
One fair day, we wandered by foot downhill toward the river. We were impressed with its strong current and wild, natural beauty.
We crossed the river on a modern vehicular bridge, wandered downstream a bit, and then crossed back over on a much older stone bridge reserved for pedestrians only.
Especially from the opposite bank, the views of Salamanca looking uphill from the river were lovely. It is surely one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
Looking up at the university from the river reminded us of how Georgetown University in Washington looks from across the Potomac River in Virginia.
Happy are the students who get to study at Salamanca University!
Our old friends Dave and David, who live in rural central Portugal not far from the Spanish border, were scheduled to meet us in Salamanca.
Dave and David often bring visitors to Salamanca on day trips from their home in Portugal, so they really knew their way around.
Loyal readers of this blog may recall our prior travels with Dave and David. We met up with them in three different countries during our vagabond adventure: last year in Brazil and France, and this past summer in the Lake District of Italy.
So, this was our fourth and most consequential meeting with Dave and David.
Why so consequential? Because, after spending a couple of days with us in Salamanca, they were going to take us on a tour of Portugal.
We had plenty of room in our ample apartment to accommodate Dave and David. The four of us enjoyed further explorations of Salamanca.
In the morning on the day our guests were scheduled to arrive, the two of us went shopping at the Central Market for items to make a Spanish-style hors d’oeuvres tray.
This was a tradition we had developed at several of our temporary homes in Spain as well as in Italy and France.
The tray we prepared included slices of cured Spanish ham, cold sausage, cheese, olives and bread and fresh fruits.
In the apartment refrigerator, Sylvia had kindly left (among other treats) several small bottles of tonic water. This gave us the idea of serving gin and tonic cocktails for Dave and David.
Remembering the “gin party” in Seville last year, we bought a bottle of strawberry-infused Spanish gin and some limes.
With the tray of hors d’oeuvres and the gin and tonic on hand, we were ready for cocktail hour when Dave and David arrived in the late afternoon.
It was the happiest of reunions.
As regular visitors to Salamanca, Dave and David knew about several local treasures they shared with us.
One of them was a modern-day carving of an astronaut on the doorway of the cathedral.
Accompanied by our guests, we also enjoyed something the two of us had discovered on our own: tapas!
These delicious little appetizer type dishes, served along with drinks at bars and taverns, often at no extra charge, are a great Spanish custom. The tapas tradition is faithfully observed in Salamanca.
Brian, Dave & the curious cathedral spaceman
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All too soon, it was time to leave Salamanca, a city we had come to love.
Packed into the car with Dave and David and our luggage, we headed towards Portugal on the road leading west out of Salamanca.