Departing Barca D’alva at 8:30 am, a drive of about 1-3/4 hours, through sunflower fields, olive and almond groves and of course some vineyards, brings you to one of the most beautiful cities in Spain, Salamanca. With the exception of Porto, it will be the largest city we visit on our Douro River cruise. It is known as the Golden City due to the multiple sandstone buildings that seem to shimmer golden in the sunlight. The center of the city is yet another Unesco World Heritage site. Primarily known as a University town, Salamanca has a population of 160,000. The University of Salamanca was founded in 1218. It, along with Oxford, and the Universities of Bologna and Paris were considered the four great centers of learning in Europe.
Salamanca is a city that deserves a bit of time to explore. Taking into consideration the Spanish tradition of siesta is practiced here and most museums and attractions are closed between 2:00 and 4:00 pm a 6 hour visit can just hit the highlights (exteriors) as well as an interior visit to the famous Cathedral.
|Plaza Mayor at Siesta
Salamanaca is a very walkable city. The main streets, del Toro and Rua Mayor, leading to the famous Plaza Mayor, are pedestrian streets, lined by shops with local specialties as well as traditional Spanish brands. Plaza Mayor is described by locals as their “living room”. Its arcaded walkways provide protection from the noon day sun. The very large plaza area is a gathering place for students, families and couples out for a stroll. I was told it is very active until as late as 3:00 am. On the other hand, during siesta, it’s quite deserted.
The tour from the AmaVida included free time before lunch which can be used to explore on your own. Lunch is at the very deluxe Hotel Alameda Palace. It is a traditional lunch of paella and there is a flamenco performance as part of the program. Personally I am more of an explorer and would rather seek out a local cafe for a bite with the locals. After asking the guide what time to meet up with bus at the hotel, I set off on my own.
I exited the Plaza Mayor with no particular destination and I meandered in and out of shops and in and out of alley ways. I was treated to a collection of bakeries, meat markets, local handicraft stores and cafes. Chorizo is a local specialty as well as other sausages and hams. The bread in Portugal is delicious so what better way to mix all of the above then a sandwich at a local cafe.
Yes, this is not for everybody and many travelers feel a comfort factor in staying with a group but for me personally I enjoy a more local flavor. I chose a cafe along Rua Mayor and enjoyed it as a local would do.
Rejoining the group after lunch I took part in the walking tour provided by AmaWaterways. It included stops at Plaza Mayor as well as the University district. While I enjoyed exploring on my own there was so much information provided by our local guides that I am glad I also participated in the walking tour. The highlight of any visit to Salamanca is The Old Cathedral and The New Cathedral.
Our tour included interior visits to both of these, though technically one would have to sneak away from the group to pop in to the Old Cathedral. It is quite easy to do as they are attached to each other. The Old Cathedral dates from the 12th century. The New Cathedral began construction 400 years ago. It is magnificent blend of Gothic and Baroque. The interiors are classic but it’s the carvings on the exterior that deserve a look.
Many have seen the incredible Gothic gargoyles and statues of saints and biblical scenes that grace the exteriors of many of Europe’s cathedrals. These are seen in Salamanca as well. The real surprise is what else one can see. I can say with 100% certainty there is no other Cathedral in the world that has the following carved into it: an astronaut and a lion eating an ice cream cone! When some of the exteriors were redone in the 1980’s the artist in charge had a mischievousness about him. The spires of a cathedral are supposed to soar into the heavens to reach up to God. Well, thought the artist, who is closer to the heavens than an astronaut? So, the image of an astronaut was carved into the wall.
The ice cream cone eating lion? A little simpler. It was hot, the artist had an ice cream cone (two scoops, of course) and wanted to commemorate it!
None too happy, the administrators of the church demanded he remove them. He said no and handed them a chisel so, they could remove them. They did not and he did not, so they are there today to be seen by all, if you know where to look.
A cruise is a great way to get a taste of a destination and know if you want to return. I did not have time to visit the Art Nouveau/Art Deco Museum nor the Museum of Salamanca both of which are supposed to be must sees. So Salamanca is another city, I have found on a cruise, that I will return to.
We returned to the AmaVida at 6:30 to see the staff setting up for our dinner, a traditional Portuguese Barbeque. More on that to come!