The most graceful city in Spain, SALAMANCA was for four centuries the seat of one of the world's most prestigious universities, at the intellectual heart of the burgeoning Spanish crown's enterprise. Cortes and St Ignatius of Loyola were students, while Columbus came here in 1486 in an initially unsuccessful attempt to persuade a commission of inquiry to back his exploration plans.
City and university declined in later centuries, and much damage was done during the Napoleonic Wars, but the Salamanca of today presents a uniformly gorgeous ensemble from Spain's Golden Age, given a perfect harmony by the warm golden sandstone, known as Villamayor, with which its finest buildings were constructed. It's still a relatively small place, with a population of 160,000, but an awful lot of those are students, both Spanish and foreign, which adds to the general level of gaiety.
The compact Casco Histórico, with the Plaza Mayor at its heart, spreads back from the Río Tormes, bounded by a loop of avenues and paseos. You'll need to set aside the best part of two full days to see everything, and even then you might struggle – time flashes by in a city so easy on the eye that simply strolling around often seems like the best thing to do. Highlights are many, starting with Spain's most elegant Plaza Mayor before moving on to the two cathedrals, one Gothic and the other Romanesque, and the beautiful surviving university buildings. After this, it's down to individual taste when it comes to deciding exactly how many stately Renaissance palaces, churches, sculpted cloisters, curio-filled museums and religious art galleries you'd like to see.
Two great architectural styles were developed, and see their finest expression, in Salamanca. Plateresque is a decorative technique of shallow relief and intricate detail, named for its resemblance to the art of the silversmith (platero); Salamanca's native sandstone, soft and easy to carve, played a significant role in its development. The later Churrigueresque style, an especially ornate form of Baroque, takes its name from José Churriguera (1665–1725), the dominant member of a prodigiously creative family, best known for their huge, flamboyant altarpieces.