Castilla Y Leon is pure Spain.
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In the mid section of the Iberian Peninsula, the region is the home to most of Spain’s impressive historic and artistic legacy – and the birthplace of Castillan: the Spanish language.
It’s also a path less traveled by.
In addition to it’s dramatic art, the province boasts quintessential Spanish towns and villages, especially the historic, medieval university city of
Salamanca and its smaller sister-city, Segovia: Castilla y Leon’s crown jewels.
Salamanca is a two and a half hour train ride from the clean (and efficient) Charmartin station, Madrid’s main terminal. The rails pass through Spain’s plains of silver-green olive trees and rugged, rock-strewn hills, beyond which are glimpses of distant towns flickering past in the slanting light of the late Autumn sun.
The occasional cell tower and power lines never break the spell of the rolling countryside, dotted with roaming horses and random houses. The sky is El Greco’s – brooding with light and shadow playing on passing facades and ancient boulders.
Salamanca sits at the edge of a greening plane, an impressive sight dominated by a skyline of domed cathedrals and dun-colored walls that embrace the town in a lingering if crumbling medieval clinch. The Spaniards call Salamanca “the soul of the Spanish nation,” and UNESCO dubbed it the “European city of 2002.”
Walk her streets. It’s the only way to get to know her, to experience the layers of Roman, Visigothic, Islamic history, each deepening Salamanca’s culture; each leaving a mark visible to the discerning eye.
But the overwhelming impression of this city on the River Tomes is “Catholicism and Learning.”
The sprawling University of Salamanca dates back to the 13th century and is the oldest in Spain. Its ubiquitous, very venerable buildings give off a powerful sense of history and learning.
The Patio de Escuelas (Courtyard of the Schools) is the portal for the university. Its monumental façade of pure plateresque design ( stonework iridescent with the intricate carvings characteristic of silversmiths) is a favorite gathering place for visitors who come to admire the façade and crane their necks looking for a glimpse of the frog and skull somewhere in the complex motif. For some reason the elusive amphibian has become the symbol of the university.
The halls retain a palpable sense of the lessons and learnings of the centuries. Look into the perfectly preserved classroom of Friar Luis de Leon, a teacher here. He angered the Spanish Inquisition by translating a forbidden book, was arrested in his classroom, tortured and imprisoned for five years by the Inquisition. When he was released, he walked back into to his classroom and resumed teaching with the words all of Salamanca recalls: “Como decimos ayer.” As we were saying yesterday.
On the walls signatures of students who graduated have faded with time’s passing. But once they were written with the bright red blood of bulls.
Most Spanish cities have a religious overlay, but in Salamanca, the patina of the faith is especially intense, with numerous aging convents, domineering churches, the overwhelming cathedral and religious statuary. But these are the repositories of Spain’s vital collection of religious art; they give the walled city its character and identity.
Yet in the very secular tempo of daily life, what seems to matter is not the arts and architecture of religious devotion. Rather the numerous, lovely plazas dedicated to human happiness and activity.
Throughout the meandering, narrow, twisting streets of this walled city, plazas and parks peek out from towering church buttresses, or are magically tucked away in the shadow of a cathedral or defunct convent. These are the centers of conversation and laughter, accompanied by Salamanca’s salty, tangy cheese, exceptional local sausages and smoked meats. Or likely an excellent espresso or a glass of the wonderful, local, inexpensive red wine from Rioja. Now and again the strains of a solitary violin from a musician playing somewhere in the maze echoes off the cloistered homes and curving walls.
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The Plaza Mayor, the “mother of all plazas,” is the nerve center of the city.
This huge, trapezoid, cobbled plaza is enclosed on all sides by lofty, ornate Baroque facades, of which the most intricate is the balconied front wall of the City Hall. Once a bull fighting arena, today the Plaza Mayor is crowded with colored tables and chairs, jammed with Salamancans thoroughly enjoying themselves. They gather here in throngs, the hub of the city, then spill out from the plaza into the spokes of complex, surrounding streets until very early hours of the morning talking and drinking; seeing and being seen.
Americans have a lot to learn from the Spaniards who show a respect and thoughtfulness to the different generations. Grandparents chatter with their grandchildren. Parents walk arm and arm with their kids; Elderly couples embrace easily and are listened to attentively by sexy looking teens. Where did we go wrong?
But it would be a mistake to see the impressive art and architecture in one day. They’ll blur into an ochre-colored, gargoyled, undifferentiated headache.
Take visits to the buildings and museum slowly. Intersperse them with a café solo (espresso) or glass of wine and a plate of cured cheese or chorizo for very little money. Strolling down an obscure alley way or back street is safe and the best way to discover a small shop with hand-made goods, a courtyard with birds singing their hearts out or a perfectly framed stained glass window in a forgotten church.
By night, Salamanca is a different place.
The city is bathed in a soft light. The vaulted arches and multi-leveled, intricately carved spires are tinted with a soft, pink glow from artfully arranged lights which highlight the compelling features of the architectural treasures and their ornate designs.
Small clusters of costumed dancers (or devilish clowns), castanets snapping, may emerge from one of the restaurants performing a dance of the region to the delight of passersby.
There are restaurants and cafes everywhere, all sizes and types, and they’re open until very late. Dinner doesn’t start until 10:30 or 11.
Mercifully there are no anonymous, characterless chain hotels, so stay at any of the boutique accommodations on almost any side street or plaza. Learn a little Spanish too, since not a lot of English is spoken. But in this walled, very old and proud city, the people more than make up in kindness what words of English they may lack.
The road to Segovia, a 3 hour ride by efficient autobus, passes through small towns and occasional castles standing guard over very little except maybe a flock of sheep or grove of trees.
Once though the land trembled with the footsteps of mighty Roman legions. In fact, the entrance to Segovia, and its most famous landmark, is a first century, 98 foot high Aqueduct. This slender architectural marvel curves with a grace and elegance that belies its age and length – more than 2000 feet. Built of stone, and embracing 163 arches, not a drop of mortar was used in the construction. It stood the test of time through a complex arrangement of pressure points, a function of placing the granite stones at critical angles. It’s the best preserved monument of Imperial Rome, outside of Rome
Wisely, the government eventually banned cars from passing under its arches and reinforced the structure so today the plaza beneath the Aqueduct is a pedestrian-only, gathering spot for Segovians intent on another day in the life of this very unpretentious city.
With 54,000 inhabitants, Segovia is smaller than Salamanca, but its proximity to Madrid (an hour by bus), makes it a bit more sophisticated.
The Moors, who left an indelible mark on the language and arts of Spain’s south (Andalusia), managed also to leave a significant impression here, so much further north.
The buildings of Segovia, for example have a texture and color in part because of the patterns of non-figurative Islamic art practiced by the Moors from North Africa. This unique mix of Spanish and Islamic elements (Mozarabic) is at its best in the Alcazar, a fortress towering above the plains of Segovia and guarding its western flank for centuries. The Alcazar is a heavy combination of Romanesque and Baroque stonework. But the Spanish, after the reconquest, were wise enough to know they needed the design skills and deft touches of the Moors to turn blocky stone into lace pillows, and create the color and verve necessary to save the Alcazar from itself. The ceilings are richly decorated in deep greens and vibrant golds offset by handsome tile work, all created by the Mudejar artists, Moors retained by the Spanish nobility to save their works from monochromatic excess.
The Alcazar may be the most popular attraction in Segovia but as in Salamanca, it’s the plazas and winding streets that give it its human dimension and meaning. There’s a saying in Segovia that if you kick a stone over, you’ll find a cafe or restaurant.
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They are everywhere, and everywhere unique from stand up cafes to Tapas bars to plush eateries. But they are authentic. The cuisine, while not varied, is excellent. The favorite is a crisp, whole suckling pig. Lamb is a specialty as are Granja, white, broad beans that make an exceptionally rich and hearty soup.
My favorite meals were simple one: a plate of tangy, sharp cheese, a bowl of rich fish soup (sopa de pescado) a huge salata mixta (mixed salad), hunks of local bread and a bottle of local wine…all of which set me back $10.00.
As they say about Castilla y Leon, it’s a different kind of tourism.
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• The University.
• Casa de las Conchas (House of Shells) with its Gothic design and elegant courtyard. The juxtaposition with the cathedrals is a photographer’s delight
• The two Cathedrals ( old and “new”) united by Gothic and Renaissance elements, the town’s predominant feature.
• For contrast, the whimsical, Modernist Museum of Art Nouveau and Art Deco
• The Alcazar
• Plaza Mayor and Cathedral
• The Jewish Quarter (La Juderia)
• San Miguel, where young Isabella was crowned queen. The rest, as they say, is history.
In Salamanca, it’s the small, intimate, classy Hotel Plaza de Angel. Email: email@example.com)
In Segovia, a real find is the Hosteria Ayala Berganza, a small 15th century Castillan palace with 17 perfect rooms and elegant courtyard. www.partner-hotels.com
Full, local breakfasts both places
Spanish Tourism Office New York 212 –265-8822 E:mail: firstname.lastname@example.org