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Why I fell in love with Salamanca

Erasmus student John Clarke recounts how the city and its 800-year-old university captured his heart

University of Salamanca.
University of Salamanca.

The University of Salamanca has an international reputation. But the city itself is not widely known. I had never heard of it before I began looking into Erasmus, a study abroad program between European universities, and learned that it was one of my options for my home university in Dublin. At first, it seemed parochial. But this rich and vibrant small city is anything but.

Surrounded for miles by parched fields and scrubland, the city seems to rise up against the barrenness of inland Spain, conjured from the waters of the Tormes. It is crowned by the cathedral’s two towers. And between the striking perfection of the Plaza Mayor square and the imposing buttresses of Plaza de Anayas square, you can get a sense of its grandeur.

I never felt the same levels of stress I had experienced at home

Salamanca is important to Spanish literature as the birthplace of the literary character of Lazarillo de Tormes. A 16th-century anonymous writer details an episode, by the Roman bridge, where his employer slams his head against the rear of a bull to toughen him up for their journey ahead. Salamanca still pays homage to this scene with a statue of a bull to mark the spot. The place also houses the Spanish Civil war archives for the whole of Spain and boasts the second oldest university in Europe. Founded in 1218, the college became renowned for founding the code of international rights, when Emperor Carlos V sought advice from Professor Francisco de Vitoria on how the natives of the New World should be treated.

However, Salamanca is more than just steeped in history. It is the student city of dreams. While Castilla y León is the region with the highest population of retirees in Europe, a stream of students descends on the town every September. Finding accommodation is no issue though. There’s a surplus of rooms to rent, so plenty of people manage the task by rocking up in the city and spending a day apartment hunting. Nothing is far away, and everyone conducts their life within the small eclectic bubble that is Salamanca.

Garden of Calixto and Melibea, one of the literary references of the city.
Garden of Calixto and Melibea, one of the literary references of the city.

We were told before going over that there were no university societies in Spain, and to a certain extent that’s true. You won’t find the Salamanca prospectus boasting of the hundred extra-curricular organizations it has to offer as American, UK and Irish colleges often do. But there is stuff to get involved in: choirs, sports teams and charities are always looking for fresh recruits. I settled on a theater group. The experience here was very different from my experience in the drama group in Dublin, which despite the enthusiastic call to “come and play,” is guarded by a troop of hostile actors. If you aren’t alternative enough to meet the requirements, you don’t make the cut – an attitude I only ever imagined would exist in American high schools. Salamanca couldn’t be more different. Joining the theater group there, I felt totally included both inside and outside the rehearsal room. They took me out after rehearsals to get tapas at their local cabaret bar. And the director modified the script of a show we performed to make it easier for me.

You can’t talk about the student life without mentioning the nightlife. And, to me at least, Salamanca had it all. There were certain students from London who mourned the lack of music variety.

Salamanca is the student city of dreams

But if, like me, you want to let loose on a night out, and can dance to Despacito five times and not get tired of it, then you will appreciate a clubbing scene aggressively dominated by reggaetón. But it’s not just the music that makes this experience. It’s the freedom. The bouncer will never refuse you at the door because he doesn’t like the look of you. To top that, there’s no such thing as paying a door fee. You don’t spend your night finding you’re not enjoying yourself, but still trying to make the most of the tenner you’ve already forked out to get in. Unfettered to any one location, you are free to swan in and out as you like.

And where better to swan to than Paniagua, the student bar of the city. If you went to Paniagua from a Thursday to a Saturday night, you were guaranteed to know someone inside. Graffitied with the names of the people who love it and lined with the photos of its most frequent customers, Paniagua is the club that plays the crowd-pleasers. We’re talking Toto, Bon Jovi, and ABBA.

Salamanca facilitates a lifestyle where enjoying yourself and cultivating memories with family and friends is what’s important. Moreover, any fears that we had during the year were smoothed over by a care-free and laid-back outlook that infused even the worry of taking exams in another language. I never felt the same levels of stress I had experienced at home, sometimes to a worrying degree. There is a danger that this vibe can lead to idleness. My roommate, for example, would still be asleep when I came back from my morning classes. But it does teach you something. The relaxed Salamanca mindset helps you when the trivial and ultimately unimportant things are weighing you down. It lets you focus on the bigger picture and making the most of life.

Plaza Mayor, Salamanca.
Plaza Mayor, Salamanca.

Admittedly, it is hard to make friends through a language barrier. It is difficult to get your true personality across. Your jokes fail you and you resort to throwing in the odd colloquial swear word to try to get a reaction. In short, you become a dead-weight. And no matter how many reassuring smiles you get, you know full well how burdensome you are to the poor souls who have to endure you. But if you make the effort, you could surprise yourself. For every negative experience, there is a positive encounter. Generally, I was impressed by the friendliness of the Salmantinos, and this friendliness extends to the international students as well.

The European Council in Dublin has just released a photo exhibition featuring couples who met on Erasmus. But it may be that the friendships you develop on this experience are just as long-lasting. For the most part, I found that the Erasmus students were interesting and colorful. I am still not in a position to say whether these friendships last for life. But I certainly hope that the shared experience of living in Salamanca will be binding for a little bit longer.

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