ONLY WHEN THE LAST lays of afternoon sunshine clear the sandstone facade of Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor does the most magnificent town square in Spain begin to come to life. Old couples shuffle along colonnaded walkways; children play tag and dribble melting ice cream over the paving slabs; students clatter away on their laptops in the cafes. Gazing sternly over the whole scene are the greatest minds and bravest souls in all of Spanish history: explorer Columbus, conquistador Cortes, writer Cervantes -their profiles etched into the stone arches. Inches above their heads, local residents lean on cast-iron balconies and study the square in expectation.
Home to Spain’s oldest and most prestigious university, Salamanca has the double fortune of being quite possibly the nation’s brainiest and most beautiful city. Biscuity-ochre towers rise over the city, sending long shadows creeping down alleyways along which students pedal to their lectures. Ancient faculties line cypress-shaded squares – their stones bearing Latin inscriptions from alumni who graduated centuries ago, some painted in bull’s blood.
Hogging the skyline are twin cathedrals that survived the 1755 earthquake which destroyed Lisbon, and still sport broken windows and cracked walls from the tremors, while south of the city is the wide, sluggish expanse of the Rio Tormes slip ping beneath a Roman bridge on its way to the Portuguese Atlantic. Gaining admission to Salamanca has never been easy, nor has paying the tuition fees. Fortunately some especially bright students hit on a novel solution to this latter problem.
On the stroke of nine, two groups wearing shiny shoes, tight trousers and colourful sashes shuffle into the square, armed with an assortment of accordions, double basses, mandolins, guitars and tankards of beer. Soon the far comers of Plaza Mayor are noisy with the twangs, claps, shouts and whoops of the ‘tunas’, groups of troubadours who have busked to pay their study fees since the 13th century, with each band linked to a particular university faculty. ‘Doctors have always made the best tuna bands’ says Fernando Yunta, an architectural student who nonetheless plays guitar in the company of surgeons and psychologists. ‘Some of the songs we sing are about love or bullfighting. Some of them are about the university. We play for the music, for the fun. And also because it is a good way of getting girls.’
Salamanca’s traditions have endured through the many turbulent chapters of Spanish history. The university’s most famous story concerns the poet Luis de Leon, snatched from a lecture for heresy during the 16th-century Spanish Inquisition, locked away in solitary confinement for four years before returning to the same lecture theatre on his release with the words ‘… as I was saying yesterday’. Another professor exiled from Spain for six years during the political unrest of the 1930s returned to the lecture theatre and made exactly the same joke. ‘You feel history in the atmosphere when you study in Salamanca,’ says Maria Jose Gonzales, a student currently taking a master’s degree in psychology, swinging on a cafe chair as the tuna bands retune their instruments. ‘You feel you’re studying where generations studied before you. And, of course, it helps that the whole town looks a bit like something from Harry Potter.’