We arrived in Salamanca several weeks ago and were greeted there by our host families. I saw immediately where the nickname “La Ciudad Dorada” comes from – when we arrived, the sun was sinking behind the hills in the distance, illuminating the city with brilliant golden light. In the old city, the buildings are made of once-white sandstone, weathered over time to the rich golden color they have today. Another student and I are living with a family near the heart of the old city, about a ten-minute walk from La Plaza Mayor.
Salamanca has the feel of a college town, with a history that rivals some of the oldest medieval cities in Europe – kind of a weird combination, but it works. The University of Salamanca is the oldest university in Spain (almost 800 years!), and the second-oldest in Europe, behind Oxford. Today, you can get an advanced degree in biotechnology – things are as modern as they can get – but hints of the university’s history are evident throughout, as well. In the walls of the main courtyard, for instance, you can see handwriting – names and messages of victory written by students with bulls’ blood after successfully passing final exams. (They don’t do that anymore.)
In the early days of the University, students, all male, came from noble families to study theology or philosophy. Many students (including Christopher Columbus) came to learn Latin before moving on to other courses of study, as everything was taught in Latin. Now, many foreign students come here to learn Spanish. Summer courses aren’t offered for regular students, so that part of the population decreases this time of year, although the swell of tourists and international students likely compensates.
The “Puerta de Salamanca” facade, pictured above, is about a five-minute walk from our house, and across the courtyard from our classes. The courtyard is often full of visitors searching for the famous frog carving, perched on the top of a skull. They say that in the early days of the university, the frog was a symbol of lust, the skull, of death – a warning to students that womanizing would lead to failure and downfall. A lighter, more recent version of the story goes that the frog brings good luck, and students who find it will be successful in their studies. We’ll find out soon enough.
In our first week here, we had orientation classes, which helped us navigate the cultural whitewaters we found ourselves in at first. They also served as a refresher on Spanish grammar to prepare us for the placement exam the following week. After receiving our class schedules, we dug in: Spanish language, culture, history, and conversation fill our mornings. My professors are excellent. So is the Chocolatería down the street. My classmates hail from other parts of the world – the U.S., Japan, China, Korea, Saudi Arabia. Most interesting, perhaps, is that between many of us, Spanish is our common language.