Salamanca: Uniworld's Sneak Peek at Spain

Eric and Nancy Anderson continue their Iberian journey, traveling from Portugal to the northern Spanish city of Salamanca.

Our cruise manager responded to our questions about Spain before our next shore excursion would take us into that country. Some passengers on Uniworld’s Queen Isabel had prior experiences of both Portugal and Spain and asked Luis Lopes, our cruise manager, a Portuguese, to compare the two national groups. “We find Portuguese gentler and friendlier,” we tell him.

“Well, yes.” Luis says, “For example in Spain bulls are killed in the arena but not in Portugal; in fact their horns are filed down to reduce the potential harm to matadors. But you need to know this about Spain’s history: It took only 8 years for the Moors to conquer Spain but the Christian re-conquest took 800 years! We can’t imagine such a long time because we are biased by today’s faster pace of life but imagine this. In Spain 24 generations of males lived in a state of permanent war. It created warrior behavior. And when the Moors were expelled in 1492, curiously the same year the New World was discovered, the warriors all went to America.”

The Portuguese at the time of the Discoveries had a population of only 1.5 million. They did not have big enough numbers to dominate any country in the Americas but not so the Spanish. This partly explains the warriors’ unconscionable exploitation and savage eradication of native peoples especially as those Spanish military units felt their behavior was endorsed by the church.

So next day we explore this country. We disembark at Vega de Terron, the most northern point on the Douro River that is navigable. We’d heard it was a one-dock town with only a bar and two inhabitants — the bartender and his wife. It lived up to its reputation. Our big comfortable luxury coach is waiting. We welcome the luxury: we are going to be spending 4 hours total in a bus for 6 hours in Salamanca.

Storks’ nests can weigh up to 650 pounds and if they get damaged, the storks, partners for life, just patiently re-build. They are brave birds and will kill small snakes. We see them strutting in the fields like Spanish soldiers.

We pass through a pastoral landscape although its local history does not recall a peaceful time. Here in the village of La Fregeneda, the Duke of Wellington with the help of Portuguese troops held back the power of Napoleon. Now the village has two cheese factories. Sic transit gloria! Then up comes the village of Vitigudino where one of the most famous matadors of all time, Santiago Martin Sanchez was born in 1938. He took the name of his birthplace and the captivated public called him El Viti. Our guide points out storks nesting in telephone poles and fields of confused sheep and contented cattle — and black pigs which apparently can eat 26 pounds of acorns in a single day. We fly past fields of sunflowers and engineer-precise haystacks and past the village of Ceralbo whose medieval fortress has been cannibalized for the granite blocks farmers could use for the dry walls that marked their fields. We pass the towers of a 15th-Century four-story church that now favor TV antennae. We are only 50 miles from Salamanca, our destination and, of course, it has its past, too.

Northern European history often asks the question “Were the Vikings here?” In the South around the Mediterranean, the enquiries tends to be earlier, namely, “When did the Romans come?” Thus it’s fascinating to look at Salamanca, this famous university town, and discover that — more than a century before the Romans -- Hannibal with 40 elephants from Carthage was here first and even laying siege to the city’s gate!

Salamanca’s university history firmly put this place in northwestern Spain on the map and on the list of any shore excursions of Uniworld Boutique Boat Collection. Its population today is 150,000 but when it began as a village controlling the ford over the river Tormes 2,700 years ago during the First Iron Age only about 100 persons lived here, essentially farmers. The Romans came the middle of the 1st century BC. The solid bridge they built still stands and is in daily use.

The famous university still stands, too, with all its legends. When created in 1218 it was one of the oldest in Europe. In 1254 King Alphonso IX, king of Leon, established a law school. He was sometimes called Alfonso the Wise (it was a time when such names were accurate -- bestowed on European royalty before they’d all that in-breeding). The following year 1219 the pope ranked it equal to the universities of Bologna, Oxford and Paris. During the Napoleonic Peninsular War, French troops destroyed most of the colleges as they were driven out of the city by the advancing Duke of Wellington’s army.

We are curious about the famous market so head there first. When we see our presence is not pleasing a local merchant who wields a substantial chopper we move on.

Next to the market is the Plaza Mayor, almost as impressive of the one in Madrid, and outside it stands a memorial to the architect who designed the square.

The plaza is a gift to historians because all round us on its walls are medallions to great figures in Spanish history all identified from monarchs to explorers and politicians. There is, oddly enough, a medallion to Franco, the dictator, who almost destroyed the country in his Civil War.

Two kings (Top); Franco (Middle); visitors to the university (bottom image)

The entrance to the university is beautifully constructed and the details fascinating. None more than the carving of the frog on the skull. It’s high up and not easy to find. Today the superstition is that if students can discover the frog in the carved facade they will be successful in their exams. Supposedly in 1497 a Dr. Parra attended the 19 year-old Prince Juan, the son of the Catholic Majesties, Ferdinand II and his Queen Isabella I of Castile. In the carving, the prince is represented by the skull and the frog is the physician. The doctor was unsuccessful. The prince died. An alternative belief is that the frog (or toad) is a symbol for sexual temptation or venereal disease and the skull indicates death, a possible reason to fail exams and worse.

Facades of Plaza (top) and the University (middle) and Frog on Skull (bottom and insert).

The lateral entrance to the New Cathedral (new in the sense the Old Cathedral was built in the 12th century but the New in the 16th to the 18th centuries) has carved anomalies: an astronaut and a gargoyle eating an ice cream, both tongue-in-cheek efforts by Chief Restorer Jeronimo Garcia in 1992. The astronaut shows the 20th century and the gargoyle represents the students. In our image we have added red dots to show you where those idiosyncrasies are seen.

Further drama appears as we walk the corridors of what is said to be the third-oldest university in the world. The 1767 chapel dedicated to St. Jerome lies at the center of the southern corridor. And around the corner is The Fray Luis de Leon Lecture Theatre, the lecture hall of the university’s most famous professor. The room was restored in the 16th Century to its former appearance and is unchanged since then.

The beloved professor Fray Luis de Leon had entered the university in 1546 at the age of 14 to study Canon Law and theology. In 1565 he became professor of theology and in 1567 vice rector of the university. He wrote widely on religious themes. He was criticized by Dominican professors and, shamefully, arrested by the Spanish Inquisition in the middle of a lecture in this room and imprisoned in solitary confinement and in deteriorating health for almost five years. He was released by the Inquisition with a warning in December 1576. He resumed teaching in January 1577 in the same lecture hall with the opening remarks “As we were saying yesterday…”

He was elected in 1779 to the most significant chair in the university that of the Bible Chair (Biblical studies) but arrested again in 1582 although not imprisoned. He died at the age of 64 in 1591.

(Top) The Chapel. In the St. Jerome chapel the altarpiece is embellished with pink and white marble inlaid with bronze. The organ dates from 1709. The red velvet came from Granada. On the right lies the tomb of Fray Luis de Leon. (And bottom) At the back wall is the original pew and balustrade reserved for “guests and doctors who came to observe the academic activities. The student desks and benches still bear the marks left by their former occupants.”

Next door we were thwarted by a sign on the door showing that the Francisco de Vitoria Lecture Theatre dedicated to the teaching of Medicine was in use and entry prohibited. Medicine was taught based on Galen’s beliefs but fortunately filtered through Arab knowledge “and focused through the study of Hippocrates, Avicenna and Averroes” so the students might have been lucky enough to have had some human rather than ape studies taught them.

(Top) The Francisco de Vitoria Lecture Theatre was used also for international law in the 16th century and for astronomy. Columbus came here for information prior to setting off for the New World. (Bottom) The Column Room had a central beam that supports a wooden ceiling dating back to the 16th Century. The room was dedicated to the teaching of Civil Law.

(Top and middle) The Column Room is now used to contain some of the more important of the university’s memorabilia. (Bottom Outside, grandstanding perhaps for the tourists, a student dressed in the medieval style of an earlier time, and grinning at our camera through his dense false beard, puts on a show for visitors.

(Top) The power of the Church is found in most medieval churches especially here in Spain. (Middle and bottom) statue of Fray Luis de Leon.

(Top) A faded tapestry showing supplicants before Spanish Royalty reminds us how old this university is. (Bottom)A last look at the more or less 2000 year-old Roman Bridge suggests it will easily last another 2000 years.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.