The air was brutally hot yesterday when we left the Helgrim, left the Douro River, left Portugal, and slipped into Spain.
In the course of a two-hour bus ride, we changed landscapes, changed customs, changed cuisines and changed languages. Example: For the ritual “Good morning,” we reversed the Portuguese emphasis on the first syllable “(O. .. la) to the Spanish emphasis on the last syllable of the same word, as in “o.. . .LA.”
Hello Salamanca! Spain’s oldest college town (Salamanca University opened its doors in 1134), was founded before the rise of the Roman Empire. It’s a beautifully preserved town, every building of which is roughly the same delicate sandstone color, legally decreed by the city government. It is such an exquisitely protected Middle Age town that in 1988 UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site.
We started our Salamanca tour at the gigantic food market, a kaleidoscopic display of colorful foodstuffs of all kinds — fresh fruit, fish brought from the sea that morning, multiple types of chorizo sausage, and the rare, pricey saffron spice. We enjoyed a tasting of typical tapas — small dishes of the sausages, cheeses, bread and wine, together with enormous sweet cherries. The Spanish love their ham, and we learned some particulars about it: ham, a staple here, comes from both pink pigs and black pigs, but the black pig, which dines exclusively on acorns, is especially adored — and especially expensive. One of these ham shanks can cost (get ready for this) as much as $1500! Cortadors (specialists in carving this precious meat) often ask up to $5000 for their services at weddings.
After the tapas-tasting, our group fanned out to visit sites of our choosing: the two historic cathedrals, one of which, the “New Cathedral,” is a Gothic-Baroque masterpiece built from 1513 through 1733. After the stone carvings near the doorway of this cathedral were destroyed by an earthquake, artists re-created the façade and included, among other surprising details, a depiction of an astronaut, honoring the 1968 moon landing (!). The “Old Cathedral” is a Romanesque-Gothic beauty and just as impressive.
Our favorite stop was the spectacular Museum of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, which was once the small palace of a Salamanca merchant who loved Art Nouveau. It is filled with some of the most beautiful and well-known art pieces of the period between 1890 and the late 1930’s, including furniture, paintings, decorative fans, jewelry, statuary, French dolls, and the most important representative of Art Deco glass, Lalique. The dragonfly glass lamp by Emile Galle and the Lalique “Radha” by Paul Phillippe are some of the reasons this museum is considered the best in Europe. The bisque-headed dolls from France, the German dolls that morphed into beloved Kewpie dolls, and the collection of felt and suede toys (think teddy bear inventor Margarete Steiff), also add to the museum’s prestige.
The temperature in Salamanca yesterday reached almost 100 degrees, and we heard that this mimicked the temperatures back home in our American summer heat wave. While we felt sorry for our friends and family at home, we stripped down to what was still decent, and traipsed slowly through this medieval cultural center on the shady sides of its streets, dipping in and out of the cathedrals that – thanks to their thick stone walls — always manage to keep their cool.
Story courtesy of Julie Hatfield. Photos courtesy of Timothy Leland.