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Travelling to Salamanca – The Intellectual Heart of Spain

posted on: May 26, 2021

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

Leaving Tordesillas, famous for the ‘Treaty of Tordesillas’ which divided the world between Spain and Portugal and where Spain’s Charles V, kept his mother in a convent-fortress for 46 years, we drove southward through the plains of Castile.  Our goal this day was to visit Salamanca, the first city in Christian Spain which boasted a university.

Around us, the almost treeless landscape is said to have been once covered with forests.  According to a roman writer, when the roman armies first landed in the Iberian Peninsula, a squirrel could travel the whole of this Peninsula without touching the ground.  Today the countryside, resembling somewhat the prairies of North America, is filled with herds of sheep; and fields of beans, chickpeas, wheat; and vineyards, brimming with grapes which Castilian farmers, in their own cellars, turn into fine wines.

In about half an hour we were exploring Medina del Camp, important in the Spanish medieval world as a frontier city and market town.  During the Comuneros Rebellion in the early 16th century, Charles V troops burned the town, but it was later rebuilt and expanded.  Queen Isabella the Catholic, of Reconquista fame, died here and Charles V often visited the city.  Today, this town of some 20,000 is a furniture manufacturing centre and the only city in Spain where the shops open on Sunday – a legacy from its medieval days.

After touring Medina’s impressive huge Moorish castle, overshadowing the town, we drove in a southwesterly direction towards Salamanca.  From every village, we could see the church tower of the next town.  It is said that the roads in this part of Spain were laid directly from steeple to steeple.  We drove through a countryside which once featured countless eye-catching pigeon houses – now there are only a few.  In the past, each area in the country had its own type and one could tell the province by the style of their pigeon houses.

In less than an hour we were walking up through a gateway to Plaza Mayor, the heart of Salamanca.  At first sight, I blinked my eyes, amazed.  Before me was a large 18th century square, described by travellers as the finest and most beautiful in the whole of Spain.  The social and geographical centre of the city, it is within a short walking distance from the town’s most important monuments.  For visitors, it is a breathtaking introduction to Salamanca, called: ‘The City of Art and Knowledge’.  One of Spain’s great national monuments, the square is a drawing card for the thousands of tourists who annually flood into which was once one of the great Spanish medieval cities.

Situated on the banks on the wide and murky Tormes River, on an almost treeless plateau, Salamanca, the former Roman Salmántica, 200 km (124 mi) northwest of Madrid, was an important town in Roman times.  It was captured by Hannibal in 217 B.C., then by the Visigoths, followed by the Arabs in the early 8th century A.D.  In the subsequent centuries, during the long Christian-Muslim wars, the city was almost destroyed.  Around 1100 A.D. after being captured by Alfonso VI of Castile, it regained a measure of its former importance.

However, it became world-renowned when Alfonso XI in 1218 established a university which, in its era, vied with the Universities of Bologna, Oxford and Paris.  Its 10,000 student population, one of the largest in any university in the Middle Ages, passed on much of the Arabic learning to Christian Europe.  Pope Alexander IV called Salamanca’s university, “One of the four leading lights in the world.”  However, civil wars and the expulsion of the Moriscos (converted Muslims) in the 17th century led to the decline of the city which has only recovered in this century.

The whole of the monumental old town has been declared a national monument and a ‘City of Mankind’s Heritage’ by UNESCO.  An open-air museum, it is noted for its narrow streets and its filigree – the finest Plateresque architecture in Spain.  The city’s innumerable monuments, whose domes and spires tower above a town built of rose-yellow stone, contain a high concentration of iron and, hence, making possible the very fine filigree work.  Gleaming like gold in the sun, the stones form a golden landscape and give the town a unique personality.

By far, Salamanca’s most important historic site is its 13th century established university – one of the best representatives of Spanish Plateresque art.  The façade ornamented with numerous figures – the most famous being a frog on a skull is a masterwork and the most attractive expression of this style of architecture.

Today, the university has some 16,000 students – not much more than in the Middle Ages.  Unlike our times, during the medieval period in order to be admitted, the student had to pass a difficult set of exams and how proof of ‘pure blood’.  No trace of Moorish or Jewish ancestry was permitted and the students studied under strict ecclesiastical authority.

Of interest to visitors are the university’s large library of some 160,000 volumes, reliefs depicting bullfighting and the statue of Fray Luis de Léon, a famous poet and professor who was persecuted by the Inquisition.  When after years in prison he returned to give lessons, his famous first words were: “As we mentioned yesterday…”

From among the many spectacular monuments the city has to offer are the Old and New Cathedrals.  The Old Cathedral dates back to the 12th century and is one of the eminent monuments to Romanesque art.  The adjoining New Cathedral built from the 16th to the 18th centuries is one of the last manifestations of the Gothic style.  The great height and luxuriant ornamentation of this cathedral gives it an aura of aw-inspiring grandeur.  

Besides the cathedrals, there are dozens of other historic structures to explore.  However, when one tires of medieval structures, this city of about 145,000 offers Spanish language courses for foreigners, and, for visitors, a whole series of restaurants, pubs, cafes and attractively decorated bars.  As fitting a student/intellectual town, one can find quite nightlife or discos and parties.  Still people travel to Salamanca, in the main, to explore its medieval monuments, especially its university – for many centuries, the intellectual heart of Spain.