Dry as dust, with buildings as ageless and golden as the plains that surround it, Salamanca, Spain, feels like a place where Don Quixote might unpack his rucksack.
Salamanca is one of Europe’s original college towns — the University of Salamanca, founded in the 12th century, is the oldest institution of higher learning in Spain — and despite the foreign students and myriad tourists, the city’s medieval lanes and ancient porticoes retain a feel of hushed antiquity. Scrupulously restored, not a speck of grime in sight, the sand-colored buildings look today as they must have in the time of Cervantes and Cortés, both of whom studied here.
I was also a Salmantina, as residents are called, for a summer once, and it was with some curiosity that I revisited the city of about 175,000 as winter closed in. High on the central Spanish plateau, Salamanca has a harsh desert climate, with a sharp chill at dusk and frigid, starry nights. From the edge of town, you can see across the Tormes River to the countryside beyond, a sandy expanse punctuated by dark-green trees.
Before the Inquisition and subsequent Jewish expulsion, Salamanca was also a seat of Jewish learning. Fray Luís de León, the poet-priest whose iconic statue greets visitors at the University gate, was a noted Hebrew scholar and the descendant of Jewish conversos (forcibly converted Spanish Jews). The gentle, mystical translator of the first Spanish version of the “Song of Songs” was at one point dragged off by the Inquisition for heresy; he spent several years imprisoned before returning to his beloved classroom.
For nearly a millennium, the university itself has been Salamanca’s raison d’être and its grandest single sight. Students and tour groups swarm under the gaze of Fray Luís, past which you enter a hushed palace of Old World academia: tranquil courtyards and colonnaded patios, wrought-iron gates and domed chapels. Across the centuries, the lofty edifices speak to the intellectual ambition of this place, which aspired to be a temple for higher thought as Europe struggled out of its Dark Ages.
Much of the Old Town is a visual tribute to Spain’s so-called Golden Age, which extended from the 15th to the 17th centuries, when the country was at the zenith of its power and achievement. In the pleasant pedestrian streets between the university and the Plaza Mayor, ornate baroque façades beckon at every turn, many of them churches and convents of note.
Everyone winds up on the Plaza Mayor, without a doubt one of Spain’s grandest public spaces. Sprinkled with cafés, tourists and pigeons, the square is rivaled in grandeur only by its Madrid counterpart; it remains the quintessential Salamanca meeting spot, as it was in the time of Fray Luís and, later, Miguel de Unamuno.
By day, the sun blazes against one imperial façade, while another lies in shadow across a vast horizontal plane; it’s like something out of De Chirico. By night, the stately porticoes and columns are bathed in a golden glow, their shadowy walkways all the more romantic.
Salamanca is typically a day trip from Madrid, but two nearby towns, Hervás and Béjar, are another worthwhile detour, offering glimpses into the lost world of Spanish Jewry. With a car, you can explore both in a single day: the towns are only a few miles apart on the same road, about an hour south of Salamanca.
Otherwise-nondescript Béjar (pronounced BAY-har) is home to the David Melul Jewish Museum, a fascinating place named for its founding benefactor and housed in a 15th-century casita. Open only Thursdays through Saturdays and by appointment, the museum is dedicated to the region’s particular Jewish heritage.
Exhibits on three floors spotlight the heyday of medieval Spanish-Jewish culture, with its traditions, social life and rituals, and the persistence across centuries and geographical borders of Ladino, a Spanish-Jewish dialect still heard in places.
A large section is dedicated to the lives of Castilian conversos and expulsados after 1492, including bejaranos in the diaspora. A few years ago, the town hosted an international meeting of Jews with last names of Behar, Bejar, Bejarano, and the like.
Just across the border in Extremadura is Hervás. Listed on Spain’s Sephardic Jewish Heritage route, Hervás is a sleepy, whitewashed village with more than a little flavor left over from its Moorish days.
Adobe buildings with tile roofs crowd along steep cobblestoned alleys in the Alijama, the well-preserved medieval Jewish quarter that is the town’s main attraction. Nobody can say which buildings on Calle de Sinagoga may have been used for worship and which were the homes of Jewish doctors, merchants and winemakers. But with its mossy stone archways over the burbling Ambroz River, mountains looming in the background, Hervás is wonderfully picturesque.