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The city of Helmántica, our present-day Salamanca, lies at the central point of the so-called Ruta de la Plata (lit.: the Route of Silver). This, in turn, connected the rich gold mines and the northern ports with the southern section of the Peninsula. Helmántica was a city in the flourishing province of the Roman Empire known as Hispania. One of the most important vestiges of its role as an enclave on this route is the city's beautiful bridge, one of the best preserved examples of Roman engineering in Spain.
Salamanca, with a population of about 170,000 inhabitants, is the capital of a varied and heterogeneous territory. To the south lie the very high and enchanting mountain ranges of the Sierra de Béjar and the Sierra de Francia, while to the north-west a deep steep cliff cut out of the granite by the erosive action of the river Duero (Los Arribes) marks the border with Portugal.
From the southern mountains as far as its meeting point with the Duero, the eastern section of the province is crossed by the river Tormes. The city looks out onto this river from a high escarpment upon which it was rebuilt beside the old Roman bridge in the year 1102. Its construction was by order of Raymond of Burgundy, a powerful feudal lord who was in the service of Alfonso IX, the then King of León.
Between the mountains and the Duero, and to the west of the Tormes, the entire central area of the province is taken over by the most representative region known as El Campo Charro. This is a vast extension of holm oak forests where brave bulls graze in the meadows, all of which helps to explain the heraldic symbols of the city's coat-of-arms: a bridge above which can be found a bull and a holm oak.
The city of Salamanca is a true museum of architecture, and there are examples of constructions from all the different eras and in all the different styles. The buildings of Salamanca were constructed using stone from the nearby Villamayor quarry. It was as soft as sandstone, and during the 16C was finely worked to produce the marvellous filigree work of an art that became known as Plateresque. It is a stone that is composed of iron ore which hardens and rusts in contact with the air. Consequently, with the passing of time it takes on the beautiful golden colour which has always been associated with the city.
If the golden-coloured stone constitutes the material side of Salamanca, its spirit is found in science and culture, in a university way of life of both intellect and youthfulness. The University was built in 1218 by order of King Alfonso IX at a time which more of less coincided with the appearance of the Universities of Paris and Bologna. The very soul of Salamanca is to be encountered in its faculties and libraries, as well in the hustle, bustle and merrymaking during the day and night in and around its Plaza Mayor -one of the most beautiful squares in Europe.
This soul is also expressed in the solemnity of the rustic horsemen (evidence of which can be seen in the magnificent monument by Venancio Blanco, located in the Plaza de España), and in the soberness of style of its bullfighters of the School of Salamanca.
Writers from all the different eras have told us about the city, either directly or through their characters: eg, Calixto and Melibea (with El Huerto and La Peña Celestina in the walls), the blind man and his young guide Lázaro (Lazarillo de Tormes) in their monument next to the bridge, and El Licenciado Vidriera -a novel in which Cervantes wrote- as commemorated on a stone tablet in the Plaza de Anaya- that 'Salamanca awakens the desire to return in all those who have enjoyed the peacefulness of life here'.
There are sculptures which remind us of the close ties between Salamanca and the most important figures of Spanish intellectual history to be found in the city's many squares: eg, that of Christopher Columbus (in the square of the same name); the university professor and poet Fray Luis de León (in front of the University); Santa Teresa (opposite her house in the square that now bears her name); the jurist P. Vitoria (in front of the magnificent Dominican Convent of San Esteban; Nebrija, the creator of Spanish grammar (next to the Church of San Marcos); the poet Gabriel y Galán (along with his characters in El Ama and La Montaraza in the square that bears his name); and not forgetting Miguel de Unamuno (represented in an outstanding sculpture by Pablo Serrano standing in the Gothic apse of the Convent of Las Úrsulas, opposite the Plateresque Casa de las Muertes). He captured so well both the spirit and the marvel of the city in the following verses: 'I keep your very soul in my heart.
If the traveller views the marvellous ensemble that is Salamanca from the other side of the river (where the Parador is located) he will see for himself the 'forest of lofty towers' that Unamuno spoke of. They are, in fact, the towers of its churches. The very first were built at the time of the city's foundation -one in each district or parish- and go to form 'Romanesque' Salamanca.
The Lower Middle Ages and, especially, the 15C marked an era of great struggles and conflicts between the aristocratic families of Salamanca. It was these factions that the friar San Juan de Sahagún, the city's patron saint, eventually managed to pacify. As a result, we have been left a legacy of splendid examples of Gothic civil architecture. This can readily be seen in the great palaces and sturdy towers of the great lords. Examples include El Clavero Tower, Abrantes Tower, El Aire Tower, the House of Doña María la Brava, and, in particular, the so-called Casa de las Conchas (House of Shells) or Rodrigo Arias Maldonado de Talavera Palace is it is also known. The most outstanding features of the latter are its beautiful Renaissance courtyard with 'Salamanca-styIe' arches, the filigreed Gothic grilles covering the windows, and the shells (the symbol of St. James) that cover the façades.
The nobility of Salamanca were extremely powerful. A member of the Maldonado family formed part of the group that led the revolt of the Comuneros against King Carlos V at the beginning of the 16C. From these times there still survive many palaces. Amongst others can be found those of Rodríguez de Figueroa (the present-day Casino), that of Garci Grande (now a savings bank), La Salina Palace (the Provincial Council Offices), the magnificent and well-known Monterrey Palace (belonging to the powerful Dukes of Alba and an outstanding example of Renaissance civil architecture), and Orellana Palace (belonging to the Marquis of Albaida) that dates from the beginning of the 17C.
During the final years of the 15C and the start of the 16C the Plateresque style came into its own. This followed the fusion of late-Gothic with the beginnings of the Renaissance style. Although there were still sonic Gothic constructions to be found in the 15C (eg, the Church of San Benito), the most representative work of this symbiosis is undoubtedy the Cathedral. Work began on it in 1513, right in the middle of the Renaissance era, and it was built right beside the original, which, fortunately, was not demolished as a consequence. For the people of Salamanca it was, and continues to be known as the New Cathedral.
Inside, the traveller can admire the Golden Chapel, the image of El Cristo de las Batallas which was carried by El Cid, and works by the great sculptors of the past, including Juan de Juni, Gregorio Fernández and Benlliure. The outside of the Cathedral is of unrivalled magnificence. To one side stands the courtyard known as El Patio Chico, where the two cathedrals can be seen together, and there is also a beautiful Romanesque apse. To the other side is the large Plaza de Anaya from where the best views of El Gallo Tower can be enjoyed. From here, a small street (Calderón street) links the cathedral area with that of the university. It was in this street that Unamuno had his office during his time as University rector.
The University itself (that is the new construction that was built by order of the Catholic Monarchs) is a masterpiece of Spanish-Plateresque architecture. It has a central medallion bearing the figures of Ferdinand and Isabella and surrounded by an inscription in Greek which reads: 'The Monarchs to the University, the University to the Monarchs'. Higher up is the coat-of-arms of King Carlos V. There is a tradition among students that if one can find the figure of a small frog sitting on the top of a skull amidst the great profusion of decoration on the façade, then it will bring good luck.
Inside we find the classroom where Fray Luis de León taught and where, after returning from spending several years in prison at the hands of the Inquisition, he began his first lesson with the famous words: 'As we were saying yesterday...'. There is also a fabulous ISC Library containing over 165,000 books, and a Plateresque staircase carved with scenes of the bullfights that the university doctors who had passed their exams offered to the rest of the students. The blood from the bull was used to paint laudatory comments on the walls of the University and its Halls of Residence, showing the name of the new doctor. The courtyard known as the Patio de Escuelas is the location of the former University Hospital (today the Rectorate), as well as the Lower Schools. The latter has a fine courtyard with typical 'Salamanca-style' arches. In addition, there is the Old Library which houses the painting by Fernando Gallego called 'The Sky of Salamanca'.
The convent itself has a fine staircase and a splendid Plateresque courtyard. Yet another courtyard, also in the Plateresque style, can be visited in the Convent of Las Dueñas which stands opposite the Convent of San Esteban. The Jesuits constructed their own theological and juridical College opposite the one that had been established by the Dominicans. Moreover, some years later in the 17C they were to build the magnificent Baroque Seminary (La Clerecía), which has a large church with a fine dome, as well as a splendid ensemble of other constructions around the latter's enormous courtyard.
During the 18C Churriguera created the marvellous Plaza Mayor -an architectural masterpiece of great beauty and an important aspect of the day-to-day life of the city. The traveller is highly recommended to take a leisurely rest there.
The House of Lis is an interesting Modernist structure and a fine example of architecture in iron. The 20C saw the building of the streets known as Gran Vía and España, which were very typical in style and made great use of stone and arcades.
The city is a museum to stone and architecture. It was for this very reason that the Marquis of Almarza was led to write the following verses in the church that he built opposite his own palace, and which can be found in the secluded San Boal square: 'I have brought together, in my great construction, the spirit of its beginning and the glory of its completion’.
The city has been declared Mankind Heritage by UNESCO.
The pleasures of the city of Salamanca should not detract from the interest that the rest of the province has for any traveller. The Sierra de Francia, with its exceptional microclimate, has many delightful Villages which still maintain the charms of times gone by. Examples include Mogarraz, Miranda del Castañar and La Alberca. From the latter it is possible to go on up to a splendid viewpoint, known as La Peña de Francia, or carry on down to the narrow valley that goes to form Las Batuecas.
In the Sierra de Béjar the town of Béjar itself is a reputed textile centre. It preserves the Palace of the Dukes, and a visit is recommended to the Municipal Museum which exhibits sculptures by Mateo Hernández. Also of interest is its bullring -one of the oldest in Spain. The beautiful mountain village of Candelario is well worth visiting, too. Here, its narrow streets have water running down them in channels, helping to give the place a cooling atmosphere.
To the north-west lies the area of Los Arribes, marked out by a series of enormous reservoirs, such a Villarino, Aldeadávila and Saucelle, which provide a great deal of hydroelectric energy. On the road towards Béjar there is the Santa Teresa reservoir (on the river Tormes) which is an important location for the practice of water-sports. Between here and Salamanca is Alba de Tormes -the place where Santa Teresa of Ávila is buried. Of interest are the four Mudéjar churches, the medieval bridge, and the tower of the long-since-disappeared Palace of the Dukes of Alba.
To the west of El Campo Charro, not far from the border with Portugal, stands the town of Ciudad Rodrigo. It has a delightful Gothic Cathedral which has fine cloisters and certain Romanesque elements. The streets in the town are the location of many palaces bearing the coats-of-arms of aristocratic families, and go to show the town's former splendour. Examples include those of the Marquis of Altares, that of Montarco, and the Castle of Enrique de Trastamara (today a Parador). Ciudad Rodrigo, which is famous for its resistance to Napoleón's army, has some magnificent walls with a star-shaped ground plan in the style of Vauban.
The rivers, particularly as they flow through the mountains, are replete with trout, tench, barbel and carp. In the streams it is still possible to find certain kinds of crab. There is an abundance of small game throughout the province, including wood pigeon, partridge, rabbit and hare, and it is also possible to find examples of large game in the southern mountains, particularly around the area of Las Batuecas. Wild boar can be hunted in the mountains and have even been known to come down as far as Ciudad Rodrigo. There is also an abundance of fox in the mountain areas, as well as to the north of the province between the Tormes and the rivers Huebra and Yeltes.
In Salamanca: Chanfaina (a rice dish with small pieces of meat and chorizo sausage); Chichas (pickled pork that is fried and minced); Roast suckling pig; Hornazo (Easter cake), meat pies, chorizo sausage, ham and hard-boiled eggs. Confectionery: chochos (hard aniseed cakes), and the typical bollo maimón (a kind of large sponge cake).
In Peñaranda de Bracamonte: magnificent roast suckling pig. In the Sierra de Francia: roast or stewed kid goat; all kinds of fruits and pork products, particularly hams. In the Sierra de Béjar: the typical calderillo bejarano (a meat and potato stew). In Guijuelo: hams, pork loin and pork products in general, the best being those of Iberian pigs. In Los Arribes: well-known cheeses from Hinojosa de Duero and ring-shaped almond cakes from Saucelle.In Ciudad Rodrigo: el farinato (the people from Ciudad Rodrigo are known as farinatos) -a kind of false sausage made from flour and lard which is usually eaten with fried eggs. Typical confectionery conies in the form of almendras de Santa Teresa (almond cakes) at Alba de Tormes and rosquillas (ring-shaped cakes) from Ledesma.
In El Campo Charro: the Ciudad Rodrigo Carnival has been classed as being of interest to tourists. Every year it marks the start of the bullfighting season in Spain. The typical encierros (where bulls are driven through the streets to the bullring) are a unique spectacle. Young hopefuls come to these festivities in search of 'a chance' to become a famous bullfighter.In the mountain area: in La Alberca around August 15th and 16th they hold El Ofertorio (the 15th) and La Loa (the 16th), typical religious celebrations in honour of the Virgin of La Asunción. La Loa is an ancient popular 'mystery play' whose main characters are the Devil, the Fool and the Heroes.
In Los Arribes: around the area of reservoirs on the river Duero they hold the Festivities of El Almendro (the Almond Tree) at La Freneda, the last village in the province of Salamanca which stands on the fringes of the Portuguese border. They take place when the almond trees are in blossom (usually in February), and one of the main attractions is going to the market in the Portuguese village of Barca d'Alba.
In Salamanca: one of the city's most typical celebrations is that of El Lunes de Aguas, immediately after Easter. It harks back to Golden Age times when the city's prostitutes had to cross over to the other side of the river Tormes before Lent began. When Holy Week had finished the students of Salamanca went to bring them back in boats that were decorated with branches ('ramo' in the vernacular). This would seem to be the origin of the Spanish word 'ramera, meaning prostitute. Normally on this day, families get together at the Gargabete country estate where they eat the typical born (Easter cake).
The main festivities of the city take place around mid-September and the bullfights attract the country's best bullfighters and the finest bulls from the most famous stock farms. Consequently these festivities are known as the 'Bull Fairs'.
Alba de Tormes: typical ceramics, including the famous earthenware jugs.
The mountain areas: home of the rich and decorative rustic gold and silverwork with Baroque filigree. The emblem of Salamanca is the silver bud which appears in cufflinks, brooches and keyrings.
La Alberca: embroidery with clearly defined characteristics and typical motifs. There are also carpenter's workshops where walnut is carved with the similar motifs to be found in the local embroidery.
El Campo Charro: Salamanca is a province specialising in excellent leatherwork, particularly walking boots and the equipment needed for horse-riding.
Salamanca also has workshops where all kinds of local crafts are produced, including wickerwork, basket-making, wrought-iron work and some very interesting reproductions of antiques in alabaster and wood.