Leaving Portugal we headed off to Spain via the modern freeway system. Breezing by at the side of the motorway were the oak forest grazing grounds for free-range black-footed pigs that yield the exquisite jamón ibérico de bellota. In the back seat our dog Gigi paid no attention to the chubby four-legged critters scavenging acorns outside the window. In the passenger seat Becky started to drool. Undoubtedly she was fantasizing about the taste of the jamón ibérico de bellota we’d find at next destination, Salamanca Spain.
Salamanca is in the northwestern quadrant of Spain roughly 200 kilometers northwest of Madrid. Historically and today it is an important university city; the University of Salamanca is the oldest founded university in Spain. It is the third oldest European university in continuous operations. Salamanca’s University is one of the many points of interest in the UNESCO-listed Old City.
Our explorations of the Old City began at night soon after we arrived. We quickly learned that the pedestrianized old quarter, particularly on its southern extreme, is dense with grand historic buildings. Well illuminated at night, it is awe-inspiring.
Beyond the University quarter there are plenty of things to see in Salamanca. Many visitors migrate to Plaza Mayor, a large central square surrounded by four story baroque-style buildings. Once the plaza was the scene of bullfights. Today locals and visitors alike crowd the cafes that extend from the courtyard level arcades. Unfortunately, during our visit, a book show filled the center of the plaza. The modern bookstalls confused my mental imaginings of Plaza Mayor in the midst of a bullfight. How would it have looked? I could only visualize bulls rampaging amongst flying books and fleeing vendors.
One building, the old and new cathedrals, stands out amongst Salamanca’s many majestic religious buildings and palatial houses. That’s not a mistake. One building is actually two. Salamanca’s old cathedral, built in the 12th Century, is fused to the “new” cathedral whose construction began in 1513. Townhouse-style, one wall of the new cathedral joins to the old cathedral effectively making one building; visitors pass directly from the nave of the new cathedral into the old cathedral. A ticket to tour the churches’ tower is a pass to see the upper reaches of both churches. It is a very unusual arrangement.
The conjoined cathedral contrasts architectural styles. Typical of the 12th Century, the old cathedral is Romanesque/Gothic. The builders of the new cathedral sought to maintain the Gothic theme but elements of the Renaissance style blended in trending the building towards the particularly Spanish Plateresco style.
Tourists pay close attention to the richly carved façades on the main entrance arches of Salamanca’s new cathedral. They are not studying the subtleties of the Plateresco style. Instead most of the crowd is trying to spot a mythical creature eating an ice cream cone and an astronaut. How, you may ask, could there be an ice cream cone and an astronaut on a portion of a cathedral built around or before the 17th Century? Is this a miracle worthy of the Book of Revelation? Nope. The astronaut and the ice cream cone clutching mythical creature date from a 20th Century restoration.
And then there is the jamon. Like many places in Spain, Salamanca has numerous shops that display haunches of salt cured pork suspended from the ceiling. Each ham has a conical cup attached to the bottom to collect any wayward drips of the low melting fat. The shop’s ceiling is the final resting place for the happy Iberian pigs we passed on the way to town.
Any curiosity about the taste of jamón ibérico de bellota can be resolved by ordering a plate at a restaurant in Plaza Mayor. It’s expensive; $20 to $30 US gets about 100 g of thinly sliced, hand-shaved meat. Indeed, some of the whole hams hanging in the shops cost between $500 to $700 U.S. With some shops displaying 50 or 100 haunches, jamón burglary is a concern, at least when we are in town. Judging from the longing looks as we passed by the storefronts, I suspect that Becky was fantasizing about a late night smash and jamón grab before we headed off to our next destination. It was best that we left Salamanca soon so temptation did not fester.
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