The city is very ancient. It was founded by a Celtic tribe in pre-Roman times. When the Romans took over Spain, Salamanca became a fairly important commercial center located along the "Vía de la Plata", the Roman road which connected the northern and southern parts of the province. The Roman bridge, which crosses the Tormes River, dates back to the 1st century B.C. It was a part of the "Vía de la Plata", and is the principal remaining Roman monument in the city from that era.
On the bridge is a crude stone carving of an animal, perhaps a bull, which predates the Romans. (It is now elevated on a pedestal, but it used to stand on the span of the bridge.)
This ancient sculpture figures prominently in a famous work of Spanish literature "Lazarillo de Tormes". "Lazarillo de Tormes" was written in 1584, and is one of the first and the best known works of a literary genre known as the "picaresque novel". The protagonist of these novels is a "pícaro", a rogue of low social class who lives by his wits in a corrupt society. To this day the authorship of "Lazarillo" is unknown. Because of the novel's criticism of the Church, the writer remained anonymous to avoid persecution by the Spanish Inquisition. The hero is a young lad from Salamanca named Lazarillo. His mother, unable to support her family, finds employment for Lazarillo as a guide and servant for a blind beggar. The blind man mistreats his servant terribly. In one incident, they are on the Roman bridge. The blind man tells Lazarillo that if he puts his ear against the statue of the bull he will hear sounds from within stone. While naïve Lazarillo has his ear against the sculpture, the blind man gives him a blow across the head. Eventually, Lazarillo gives the beggar his comeuppance, flees his master, and goes on to have more misadventures.
At the end of the bridge is a modern statue depicting Lazarillo and the blind man.
From the bridge, there is a fine view of Salamanca's "Old Town", dominated by the tower of the Cathedral.
Salamanca actually has two cathedrals. The old cathedral was built in the 12th century, and adjoining it is the "new" cathedral, built between the 16th and 17th centuries.
The New Cathedral displays a number of architectural styles, ranging from Late Gothic to Baroque. The facades at the entrances are excellent examples of the "plateresque" style. "Plateresque" (which means "in the manner of a silversmith") was a style popular in Renaissance Spain, and is characterized by its ornate decoration. Salamanca contains some of the finest examples of "plateresque" architecture anywhere.
The interior of the Cathedral
Not far from the Cathedral is the 15th century "House of Shells". The walls of this mansion are decorated with 350 carvings of shells. (The scallop shell is the symbol of Santiago... St. James... the patron saint of Spain.)
The "Plaza Mayor" (Main Plaza) is one of the most beautiful town squares in Spain. It was built in the 18th century, and is surrounded on all four sides with baroque buildings.
The plaza is filled with sidewalk cafés.
All the way around the plaza, between the arches, are round, carved medallions which commemorate people famous in Spanish history.
The church and convent of San Esteban is another outstanding work of architecture. Although this Dominican monastery was founded in the 13th century, the present structure was built between 1524 and 1610. Its façade is another outstanding example of "plateresque" architecture.
The interior of the church
The cloister of the monastery
It is said that Christopher Columbus took lodging in the monastery when he came to defend his proposed voyage before the professors of geography at the University of Salamanca.
The University of Salamanca is the city's greatest gem. Founded in 1130, it is one of the oldest centers of higher learning in Spain. It reached its height in the 16th century when it was considered one of the greatest universities in all of Europe.
The main classroom building is perhaps the greatest work of "plateresque" architecture.
As the political and economic fortunes of Spain declined, and as the Inquisition stifled intellectual freedom, the university's academic reputation declined. However, today the University of Salamanca is once again considered one of the country's leading centers of learning. It has an enrollment of more than 36,000 students, including more than 3000 foreign students who come here to study Spanish.
The list of people who studied or taught at Salamanca is a "who's who" of Spanish history and literature. Among those who attended the university were the great writer Miguel de Cervantes and Hernán Cortés, the "conquistador" of Mexico.
One of the professors at the university was the scholar and writer Fray Luis de Leon.
In 1571 he was arrested by the Inquisition for heretical opinions. He was imprisoned until 1576 when he was cleared of all charges. He returned to the university, and legend has it that he began his first lecture, "As we were saying yesterday..."