The University City of Salamanca

by Willie Vergara



Let me take you to Spain’s university city of Salamanca, one of the four cities I toured in 2007 with my wife Tess and daughter Ria. Note: The other cities visited were Madrid, Seville and Toledo. You may wish to revisit my article entitled "Holy Toledo!" in this same section of our website.

This city is not far from the country’s capital of Madrid (120 miles) and is a nice stop-over for one who wishes to go to Portugal.

Tess, Ria and I took the super-fast Renfe from Madrid to Salamanca


Arriving at the Salamanca Renfe Station

We were billeted at a medium-priced hotel in the middle of the city where most  of the major sites  are accessible to foot traffic.


Ria and Tess in front of our hotel

The Plaza Mayor

The Salamanca Square is said to have the biggest in the country

The Plaza Mayor is located at the center of Salamanca. It is the favorite of many tourists after having seen a ‘plaza mayor’ in most Spanish cities, even if compared that one at the capital city of Madrid. This square is lined with restaurants, ice-cream parlors, artists displaying their works, jewelry stores, souvenir shops, and a lot of other things that would normally attract visitors. It is also used for social gatherings and has carnival atmosphere all year round.

My daughter Ria at the square


Salamanca souvenir items


Universidad de Salamanca

Just like University of California-Davis in the USA or Oxford University of England, the present day City of Salamanca that we see today was built around Spain’s oldest university and is very well-known for its instruction in the Spanish language and its diverse, multi-cultural environment.

 In front of the Universidad de Salamanca

University of Salamanca is a must-see site for every tourist. Founded in 1218, it is reputedly the oldest university in Europe. The façade is probably the most photographed structure of Salamanca. The portal and façade are known for the “plateresque style”, meaning, “in the manner of a silversmith.” This style was unique to Spain between the late Gothic and early Renaissance in the late 15th century.

The University of Salamanca, founded in 1218, reputedly the oldest university in Europe.

 The facade, a fine example of Spanish Plateresque style.

A historical turning point was in the 12th century, when Alfonso IX of León granted a royal charter to the University of Salamanca and would soon acquire the reputation of prestige and academic excellence. In the 16th century, there were a total of 6,500 students, a large population for universities during those times. Consequently, the city’s population also grew to 24,000.


Ria and Tess at the university entrance


An interior patio at the university. The general style of the arches is similar to that

of the cloisters of the Convento de las Duenas (see photos below).


Detail of the facade. Medallion of Los Reyes Catolicos --- Fernando and Isabela

Because it is known for its beautiful buildings and urban environment, the Old City was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988.


        Tourists also came for the spectacle of the Holy Week                    Local student tourists also come and visit the university



                        It is safe to walk at late night                                                        Salamanca attracts many tourists

Just like many parts of Spain, Salamanca’s history began before the conquests by the Roman Empire. Rome took the city from the Carthaginians in the 3rd century BC and used it as a commercial hub, and later was overrun by the Visigoths with the fall of the Romans.

The Puente Romano

The Puente Romano, the city’s largest Roman artifact, spans the river Tormes and is closed to traffic. It is located at the south of the city. The Bull on the pedestal used to be on the bridge itself at one of its bays. The statue gained fame in the 16th century in the novel Lazarillo de Tormes --- on which the hunger-stricken young guide gets his head bashed by his miserly blind master. The bridge is 2000 years old, testimony to the durability of Roman construction.


In the 7th century AD, the Moors took over the city that resulted in constant fighting in the vicinity for almost 300 years, thus depopulating the area and vicinity settlements.

The bridge and the bull

Catedral de Salamanca

The Cathedral seen from the edge of the city close to Puente Romano (Roman bridge).


 New and old towers of the Cathedral

Actually there are two cathedrals connected to each other. The old structure (Romanesque) is 12th century, and the new structure (Gothic and Baroque) is 16th-18th century. It was declared a national monument by royal decree in 1887. It is one of the ultimate manifestations of Gothic architecture in Spain. Above show the two towers with different architectural styles.



The new Cathedral


At the medieval facade of the Cathedral, the masons sculpted an astronaut during a recent renovation.



Detail at the Old Cathedral facade



                                     The Old Tower                                                  Altar being prepared for the Holy Week procession


Casa de las Conchas

Translated, this 15th century structure means House of Shells. The shells are said to be a symbol of love or just a decorative addition. Others say these 400 shells are in honor of pilgrims who wore scallop shells, and still others say this is the symbol of the Order of Saint James.

Convento de las Duenas

Convento de las Duenas means monastery of the Mistresses, and is a nickname intended as a religious retreat house for aristocrats. It now belongs to the Dominican nuns. The cloister in one of the most charming seen in Spanish cities. Inside is a very attractive courtyard with a pentagonal shape. In the Renaissance cloister there are some very beautiful Moorish doors.


                                   Convento de las Duenas                                         Gargoyles at the Convento de las Duenas  



Convento de las Duenas. Cloister is one of the most charming I have seen in my visits to Spain.


Moslem Arch, reminiscent of the 700-year Arab occupation of Spain.

The most extensive Arab influence is in Toledo, the old capital of Spain (before Madrid)

A PLEASANT SURPRISE. Serendipity, as others would say. Little did we know that the best time to go to Spain is during the Semana Santa, or the Holy Week. Having been in four different cities at this time of the year, we had a treat of the spectacle that accompany this special time in Spain. And Rick Steves, our foremost guide and ultimate expert on Europe, hasn't highlighted these in his writings or TV appearances.

During the whole Semana Santa, street processions are organized each evening, from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. We were at Salamanca for two days.


Awaiting the traditional Holy Week procession


Here come the hooded men


 Initiation into the tradition begin at a very young age

A common feature during the processions is the use of the Nazareno (depicting people from Nazareth) or penitential robe for some of the participants in the processions reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan. This garment include a hood with conical tip (capirote) used to conceal the face of the wearer. The robes were widely used in the medieval period for penitents who could demonstrate their penance with still masking their identity. Some of them walk barefoot and carry wooden crosses, and in some places, carry shackles and chains on their feet as penance. This tradition was carried on since the Catholic Revival (or Anti-Reformation Period) in the late 1500s.


Men in red pointed hoods


New group of hooded men and women


The band came in at the end of the long procession


To date, the religious fraternities and brotherhoods called Hermandades or Cofradias are responsible for carrying out this deep-seated Spanish tradition. The event include musicians and floats bearing sculptures and models of biblical scenes, much alike the processions we see in the Philippines during the Holy Week. One easily notices the participation of children, indicating that this tradition will last for many, many years more.

The people who carry the weight of the floats are called “costaleros” and are expected to carry the statues with solemnity and grace. This very long procession ended at Plaza Mayor.

The procession was long and spectacular


This tradition is handed down to the small children


What do all the hoods mean


Women do not have pointed headgears


We left Salamanca with long lasting memories of a city so rich with history, culture, exquisite architecture, and traditions that made us understand our Philippine roots more. I was also delighted to know that the country that left a legacy of Catholicism in the Philippines still devoutly practices the religion the Spaniards used to teach six centuries ago.




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