One of the most fetching Renaissance cities in Europe, Salamanca is also known as “La Ciudad Dorada” (The Golden City), owing to the luminous glow of its distinctive sandstone buildings. We recently took a languid two-hour train ride west from Madrid’s Chamartin Station to explore this magnificent university city.
Aptly dubbed “the rose of the desert” by the British travel writer Edward Hutton, Salamanca dominates the surrounding toast-colored plains from its perch on the Rio Tormes. Its university was founded in 1218 and is on par with Oxford, Bologna and the Sorbonne; Christopher Columbus delivered lectures here upon his return from the New World. Today, its 36,000 students imbue the city with a vibrant alfresco culture.
If the head of the city is its university, its heart is the Plaza Mayor, one of Europe’s largest and most beautiful squares and a place that remains lively with strolling Salmantinos well into the night. Originally built as a venue for bullfighting, the plaza is lined with colonnaded galleries and handsome baroque buildings. Roving tunas, or minstrels dressed in period garb, entertain the passersby, and impromptu flamenco performances are not uncommon.
Both of the excellent restaurants we tried during our stay were located just off the Plaza Mayor. Chez Victor (Calle Espoz y Mina 26, 34-923-213-123) is run by a Spaniard who lived in France for many years, which explains the Gallic refinement of dishes such as tartare de queso, an intriguing cheese plate, and duck breast with berries. Very popular with the locals, Casa Paca (Plaza del Peso 10, 34-923-218-993) has a busy tapas bar and several quieter dining rooms. Its wine list is famous locally, and it serves delicious local specialties such as farinato, a sausage made with pork, onion and bread, and picadillo, a sauté of meat, onion, tomato and garlic garnished with chopped hard-boiled eggs.
Just on the edge of the old town, the Hotel Rector, a honey-colored 14-room stone townhouse, could teach many grander addresses a lesson or two. The welcome here was so warm it was almost disarming; our suitcases disappeared upstairs in a flash; and the lovely woman at the front desk immediately equipped us with a walking map and a helpful pamphlet on Salamanca’s most important sites.
After enduring so many gild-the-lily excesses over the last decade, it was a delight to be in such an attractive, well-run old-fashioned hotel. We only spent a night at the Rector, but quickly felt at home in our comfortable double room with powder-blue wall-to-wall carpeting and delicate crown moldings. Cozy cotton blankets worked a charm for a siesta, and the ice-colored marble bath, paneled with large sheets of beautifully grained stone, was immaculate and well-lit. The separate tub and shower were stocked with Bulgari toiletries. Rooms facing the street have partial views of the cathedral, which is beautifully illuminated at night.