The stories of a couchsurfer

Salamanca: A frustrating beauty

Catedral Nueva de la Asunción de la Virgen

It’s interesting to observe how the architecture changes not just from one country to another, but from within the country itself. The arrival in Spain came with an expectation to witness a different kind of architecture to that which I had seen in France before. In Madrid, the architecture could be said to be different, but mainly because the majority of the buildings were simply too modern. Besides a few flashes here and there, Madrid ultimately failed to produce any sort of representation of Spain architecturally. There was still a desire to see the Spanish architecture.

The town of Salamanca proved the perfect place to satisfy this. Situated roughly 150 kilometers north west of Madrid, Salamanca is a historical city that has been well preserved throughout the years. It’s well noted for hosting the oldest university in Spain, founded in 1218 and, as a result of it’s impressive architecture, it’s old town became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988.

It’s here in the old town that the highlights exist. Much like in Montpellier, the perimeter of the old town and where the “new town” expansion has occurred is fairly evident. The change in architecture is rapid enough. The old town consists of rocky streets carving their way through a series of ancient, orange stoned buildings. The majority of these buildings impress only for their obvious age and, given the era of construction, are quite large and spacious. They join onto the other which displays a similar appearance.

But on almost every intersection there is a building of some significance. Some are more important and awe inspiring than others. The principal of these is the Cathedral. Without looking at photographs previously, while walking through the town for the first time it’s easy to pass three or four buildings that could pass off as this famous cathedral. Ultimately they turn out to be smaller churches or buildings of other designation, but it just demonstrates how impressive the “less impressive” buildings remain to be.

When the Cathedral is arrived upon, there is no doubt that this is it however. It’s simply massive in size. Data will probably tell you a height that is less than impressive, but upon observation it gives the appearance of being much larger. The width and depth extents are a similar story. The orange stone material almost glows at dusk when the sun is setting, and you can feel the history when standing within it’s vicinity.

It’s really the detail that makes the cathedral as impressive as it is, however. The patterns carved out that line the rooftops are evidence of what must have been an eternity to create. Large carvings above each entrance compliment this with further intricacies. This was a level of detail that was superior perhaps to anything that had currently been seen in France even.

Inside, the colours are less appealing but the enormity of it still impresses. The intricate details continue to the decorations and monuments scattered throughout. It simply stuns.

Salamanca, as in Madrid, has a Plaza Mayor, a series of buildings constructed so as to surround an open square. It felt slightly smaller than the one in Madrid, and with much less people overcrowding it.

This is a highlight of Salamanca. Tourists exists here, most certainly. But not on a large scale. Today, Salamanca continues to run off of it’s historic university and remains a student city. It’s one that attracts a large number of international students, so it’s not uncommon to hear different languages spoken around town. But they’re not tourists in the true sense of the word. They don’t create congestion in the Plaza Mayor for example. They don’t request that you take a photograph for them. They go about their daily lives just as the locals do.

Because of it’s status as a student city, Salamanca contains many bars and cafés. These can be found in almost any spot in the old city due to it’s proximity to the university buildings and the colleges that house the students.

As mentioned, Salamanca attracts many foreigners that wish to come to it’s university. Yet there still exists a serious lack of English, similar to that displayed in Madrid. In flashy, touristic restaurants the menus can be obtained in a broken English and the waiter struggles to communicate with you. In the bus station it’s a battle to communicate where and when you want to go. In some cases the people seem to outright ignore the fact that you don’t speak Spanish and attempt to communicate in Spanish with you in any case. They don’t even bother to slow down or speak with more clarity. It’s as if there’s an expectations that the listener will magically be able to understand fluent Spanish for the period that they’re talking to them.

It’s gathered that the majority of these people haven’t traveled themselves, because they seem unable to empathise with you. Unable to put themselves in your shoes and think “how can I make this situation easiest for the other person”. It can be at times a very frustrating experience.

Another frustration is that locals here just don’t seem to know anything, or at least don’t let on that they know anything. Ask the woman at the information center desk at the bus stop for a map of the city and you’ll receive a prompt reply to go into the city to get one. Ask the receptionist at a hotel when the bus nearby comes next and she’ll have no clue. This is at a hotel slightly out of town. That only has one possible bus that services it. Surely, just surely this question must have come up many times before. Again, it just seems to display a series of people that seem to display any lack of passion for their job, despite being one of the lucky few here in Spain to actually possess employment.

The facilities here aren’t particularly well maintained either. An attempt to use a payphone resulted in the phone swallowing three of my euros for no call actually being able to be made because the button for the number 3 didn’t work and the request for refund neither.

But the most frustrating of them all is the lack of signage and directions. This is something had happened to a limited extent in Madrid, but it was felt that they made a slightly greater attempt to accommodate tourists there. Here in Salamanca, it’s really poor and it was an extremely frustrating endeavour to find the bus station again, for example. I’m not sure why, because it sounds like a minor thing, but this simple lack of detail enraged me so greatly.

In Australia, the signage is perhaps overdone a bit. On every turn of a particular route to a place, there will be a sign to point you in the right direction. You can rely on following these signs to arrive at a place. Here, not so. If you are lucky you will get one sign miles away that points you in the right hemisphere. From there it’s up to you to track down the place you want to go.

The worst is the toilets in train or bus stations. This was first noticed in France, so it’s not just a Spanish thing. The signs for the toilets point in a particular direction only to mysteriously disappear twenty metres later. Turn around, and another sign will point in the opposite direction. With practice, you learn that the toilets are most likely to be in the vicinity of this mysterious point in the ether, concealed away privately in a tiny corner somewhere.

The transport options from Salamanca are limited. For an unknown reason, there is a tendency here to have buses and trains leave late at night and arrive extremely early in the morning. And there aren’t many other options than that. Due to this I was actually “trapped” (by my own choice) in the city for a few more days than I would have liked.

In all honesty, Salamanca frustrated like no other city in Europe had to this point. It had the potential to be so much more than it was and, with just the slightest of effort and organisation from it’s council, could fulfil it.

But, for the purpose of experiencing a true piece of Spanish architectural history, Salamanca satisfies, and the moments spent in and around the cathedral there will never be forgotten.

3 Responses to “Salamanca: A frustrating beauty”

  1. JF

    yep it’s me. enjoyed your first non-glowing report 🙂 cheers.


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