Salamanca has been called Spain’s ‘Golden City’, due to the way that the sun illuminates its honey-coloured sandstone buildings. Its old town has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is full of delightful, historic buildings that provide a peek into the different cultural influences that shaped it. Whilst the old town’s architectural history may be the major draw for tourists, it is also home to a delicious array of wonderful restaurants that provide a temporary respite from sightseeing. It proved to be an amazing destination for our recent sojourn.
The city dates back to the Iron Age and has been conquered and ruled by several cultures during its history. Hannibal and his Carthaginian army, complete with elephants, laid siege and conquered the city in 220BC. The Romans took over in the 1st century and built the large bridge that still stands over the River Tormes. Starting around the 5th century, the Visigoths and the Moors took turns occupying the city, bringing their own cultural influences. By the 12th century, the city was under the control of the French and Galicians. This saw the construction of the Cathedral and the University, as the city gradually began to take on its current appearance.
During our three-day getaway, we set about exploring what the lovely ‘old town’ has to offer. We were not disappointed!
Casa Lis – Museo Art Nouveau and Art Déco
Located near to the Cathedral, the Casa Lis Museum is a great option for a rainy day. The building itself is gorgeous and charming with its stained glass ceiling and glass partitions. Its focus on art nouveau and art deco results in a pleasant variety of exhibits that are not often seen in other art museums. There are some intriguing porcelain items and some lovely crystalware, including pieces by Lalique and Faberge. There is also a huge collection of porcelain dolls. Whilst not a primary focus of the museum, there is a nice selection of paintings. Additionally, at the time of our visit, there was a temporary exhibit of works by Picasso, Salvador Dali and Joan Miro which was a wonderful bonus. And, to top it off, admission was free that day (the usual admission fee is only €4).
The Roman Bridge
Whilst it has been renovated over the centuries, a sizeable section of the current stone bridge was constructed by the Romans in the 1st century. The 15-arch Roman bridge has been extended with the addition of a newer section, to create a total of 26 arches. It is no longer open to vehicular traffic, but pedestrians and cyclists still use it to cross the Tormes River.
I wandered down the steps and onto the grassy banks alongside the bridge. I was enthralled by the sudden change of my surroundings. I found myself transported to a virtual oasis, next to, yet separate from the hustle and bustle of the city. Winding rivulets flowed briskly past stands of rushes whilst swifts flew rapidly around the bridge, darting down to the river surface to feed on insects. It was a magical moment that would be missed by those who remained on top of the bridge. The lower vantage point also provides a better view of the arches of the bridge. Definitely worth taking a few minutes to explore.
The 19th century Plaza Mayor is the central focal point of the old city. We tended to head towards the plaza each day and then branch off from there to visit the nearby attractions. Construction of the plaza began in 1729 and, surprisingly, it was designed to be used for bull-fighting. Nowadays, the sides of the square are filled with shops and restaurants. It has been described as one of Spain’s most beautiful plazas and contributed to the UNESCO designation.
It was raining when we visited the plaza on our first night in the city, so it was rather deserted. The wet ground acted like a mirror, reflecting the beautifully illuminated buildings. The plaza was at its prettiest that night!
Casa de las Conchas
The Casa de las Conchas (House of Shells) dates back to the 15th century, when it was built as a mansion for the family of Rodrigo Maldonado de Talavera. The most striking feature of the exterior of the building is the application of over 300 shells in the Mudéjar style.
In addition to being a stately family home, the building has been used for a variety of purposes, including a prison and barracks. It currently houses a public library and is a tourist attraction.
The internal courtyard is equally as attractive as the exterior. Stone columns support a decorative balcony that overlooks the courtyard on all four sides. Each column is decorated with lion heads that hold coats of arms in their mouths. Gargoyles project from the roof, presumably serving to ‘spit’ rainwater from the roof into the courtyard below. From the upper balcony, there is a nice view of the adjacent Torres de la Clerecía (Towers of the Clergy).
Torres de la Clerecía
Looming over the House of Shells are the Torres de la Clerecía (Towers of the Clergy). Construction commenced in 1617 to create a centre for the order of Jesuits. For an admission fee of €3,75, tourists can climb the steep winding stairs to the top of the towers, from where they can enjoy views over the old town.
Part way up the building is a room with some historical artefacts and information on the history of the Jesuits. There is also a small balcony that gives a view into the Royal Clerecía de San Marcos with its large baroque altar. As visitors resume the climb, they arrive at the two towers and the birds-eye views over the rooftops and across to the Cathedral and the Convent. A further climb up a tightly spiralled wooden staircase accesses the bell tower, where the old bells have been decommissioned. Well worth the admission fee and the climb.
University of Salamanca
Founded in 1134 and given the royal charter in 1218, the University of Salamanca is the third-oldest ‘still operating’ university in the world. The university oozes history which makes it an interesting place to visit. The normal admission price is €10, but the two ladies on the door took one look at Paul and I and quickly concluded that we were seniors, resulting in €5 tickets for us. Certainly not a complement, but we accepted the discount. Conversely, they looked at Bev and Angela and hit them with full price.
The front facade of the university is very ornate. Amongst the intricate carvings is a skull with a small frog sitting on top.
Upon entering the building, visitors have access to two levels, each of which has four sides, surrounding an enclosed square courtyard. The ground floor has several historic lecture theatres that date from the 16th to 18th centuries, as well as a 16th century Great Hall and a chapel that was built in the 18th century. But the Fray Luis de Leon Lecture Theatre stood out for me – essentially unchanged since the last quarter of the 16th century, its stark wooden-plank benches would keep any student wide-awake during lectures. Ouch!
A beautifully decorated stone Renaissance staircase leads up to the second floor, where the major feature is an amazing 16th century library. The library houses manuscripts that date back to the 11th century, housed in 17th century bookcases. Unfortunately, but understandably, the viewing public can only observe the library through a glass door. But it is magnificent. The upper level also includes the 19th century Senate Chamber and a beautiful, ornate ceiling.
Old and New Cathedrals
The Old Cathedral was constructed between the 12th and 14th centuries. The adjoining New Cathedral was built between the 16th and 18th centuries, being completed in 1733. They combine to make an impressive landmark.
We decided not to pay the admission fee to see the inside and contented ourselves with admiring the external architecture.
Food and Drink
All of the walking and sightseeing can build up an appetite but there are plenty of eateries that provide delicious food. During our stay we enjoyed our visits to some delightful restaurants.
On our first night, we followed a recommendation from our hotel receptionist and headed to Bambu, located a few steps away from the Plaza Mayor. The premises are divided into two sections – a restaurant in the rear and a tapas bar at the front. We opted to start out with wine and tapas. The tables in the tapas section were all full, so we started out ordering at the bar but as soon as a table cleared, we were able to sit down to enjoy our food. We sampled a few of the tapas along with a couple of glasses of the tasty house wine and then decided to move to another restaurant. However, when we got there, we weren’t very impressed. We had enjoyed the atmosphere and food in Bambu, so decided to return there and try out their restaurant section. The restaurant had an appealing selection of regional dishes. After much pondering, I opted for the pork cheeks which were delightfully tender in a rich sauce. A good choice! We all enjoyed our dining experience at Bambu – both in the tapas bar and the restaurant.
During our sightseeing around the old town, we passed the Lisboa Bar and noted its sign advertising vegetarian and gluten-free options. So, when lunch-time arrived, we back-tracked to give the place a try. The Portuguese owner was very friendly and accommodating. He speaks English and went through the menu, explaining which items were gluten-free. We opted for the prato do dia lunch menu that provides an option of three courses – including home made natas for dessert. We found it to be an unpretentious bar/cafe that serves simple, tasty food for a reasonable price (with gluten-free options).
An online tip took us to La Cocina de Toño for a tapas lunch. Located somewhat off the beaten tourist track, but within an easy walk from Plaza Mayor, this little gem seems to primarily cater to locals. Inside, it looks like a bar with just a handful of small tables, but they produce some delicious tapas. Each of us ordered three different tapas from the menu, as well as some beer or wine. Most of the items appeared to be freshly made and the lady behind the bar brought us one tapas plate (per person) at a time. As we finished one plate, another would be brought. This turned out to be perfect. We were able to enjoy each plate at a leisurely pace. By the time we had finished all three of our plates, we realised that we were full. We were all impressed with the quality of the food. The oxtail was probably the most outstanding item, as the tender meat just fell off the bone. But the lamb burgers, the codfish cakes, the thinly sliced octopus and the grilled pork were all delicious. And to top it off, lunch and drinks for four persons was just over €50. Highly recommended.
For our final night in Salamanca, I searched Trip Advisor for the top-rated restaurant that has gluten-free options. Vinodiario was the #1 option out of 533 restaurants. Unfortunately, the earliest reservation that we could get was at 10.30pm. That’s much later than we normally eat, but we took the available table. We arrived at the restaurant an hour early, hoping to get a seat at the bar and, perhaps a table would open prior to 10.30pm. But the place was totally full, with no space at the bar. This turned out to be a blessing.
With an hour to kill, we walked a short distance from Vinodiario and came across Gran Cafe Centenera, located at Gran Vía, 93. The windows were blacked out and the door was closed, but there was an image of Ray Charles above the door. Curious, we walked inside and found a cool-looking bar with musicians warming up on stage. It turned out to be a great spot for a couple of pre-dinner drinks. And we would have missed the experience if Vinodiario wasn’t full. The draft beer was excellent. And a couple of the musicians played a mean harmonica as they warmed up and adjusted the sound system. As we waited in anticipation for the start of the set, we began to wish that we had an even later dinner reservation, so that we could enjoy the show. An old man sitting at the bar rolled a cigarette and smoked it, right there on his stool. We got the impression that he was one of the bar’s regular characters. At the end of the bar, a customer’s Yorkshire Terrier yapped at the harmonica player. A sign behind the bar invited us to ask for a Blow Job. The place had a great vibe and we were glad to have found it. Unfortunately for us, the clock approached 10.30pm and the band hadn’t started their set. Sadly, we had to leave to eat dinner (we returned after dinner, hoping to catch some of the band, but they were packing away by then).
When we got back to Vinodiario, our table was ready. We soon experienced the high level of service that reviewers have mentioned online. Our smiling waiter was friendly and helpful as he told us about the daily specials and recommended that we order a variety of plates for us to share. The daily specials sounded so good, that we ordered most of them: white asparagus, freshly picked wild mushrooms, rocket salad with goats cheese and pine nuts, grilled vegetables and boneless ribs. Whilst we were waiting for our order, the waiter brought a plate of cheese, drizzled with olive oil. All of the food was delicious and those five plates were sufficient for the four of us. We still had a little room for dessert, which was also delicious.
The combination of pre-dinner drinks at Centenera and a delicious dinner at Vinodiario made for a memorable evening. We would certainly return to both places if we find ourselves back in Salamanca.
Paul, Angela, Beverley and I made the journey to Salamanca on our Honda Goldwings. The trip was my first opportunity to travel with my newly acquired trailer. What a great decision it was to buy it. It allows us to pack a few extra items of clothing and contributes to a more enjoyable trip.
It appeared that Salamanca was fully-booked for Easter, so we scheduled a trip a few days after the holiday weekend. Flexibility isn’t an issue when you are retired! Located about 375km from our home in Porto, the city is easily accessed by road and is well suited for a motorcycle journey.
Unfortunately, as our departure date drew closer, we realised that we were going to have a rainy ride into Spain. It turned out that we also had to contend with some strong, gusty cross-winds and cold temperatures. Certainly not the best weather for motorcycling, but we struggled through. The return journey was much better, with warmer, dry weather and mild winds. We also took a different route back that seemed to be quicker.
Our ‘home’ for the trip was the Apartahotel Hall 88. Critically for us, it has ample parking space in its underground car-park so that we could safely park the bikes and trailer for the duration of our stay. Unfortunately, the hotel charges €13 per day for the parking. However, they permitted us to put both of our bikes into a single parking bay and only charged us for the single space, helping to reduce the cost. The rooms were clean, comfortable and quiet, allowing us to rest peacefully when not out sightseeing, eating or drinking. The hotel is situated within a 15-20 minute walk from the old town, where the attractions are situated.
We opted for the hotel’s buffet-style breakfast each morning. Hot food was limited to eggs, bacon and hot-dog type sausages. Whilst it was convenient to have a breakfast option within the hotel, the quality of the hot food options wasn’t the best. The scrambled eggs were always dried-out on top and only lukewarm. The fried eggs tasted much better. There was also a selection of cold meats and cheeses, as well as pastries. Some improvements could certainly be made.
Our sojourn to Salamanca was a great success. It is a convenient location to reach by road from Porto, with almost the entire distance being on motorways. We loved the old town and thoroughly enjoyed the food there. An excellent three-night stay!