Next morning we said goodbye to Madrid and headed off to the train station with our heavy gear.
As we entered one particular Metro station, two cops stopped me and gesticulated wildly at my backpack. Not comprehending, I thought they wanted to search the bag as an anti-terrorism measure, but apparently they were warning against wearing rucksacks as intended due to a spate of highly skilled tea leaves who could razor such bags and remove the contents without the wearer realising it. Thanks, transport police!
The two and a half hour journey was spectacular and extremely comfortable in our brand new high-tech carriage, and this just a humble local train. Are you taking note, Japan, with your crusty ancient austere rolling stock?
Not only did we get a grand view of the arid but compelling landscapes of Castille, but we were also provided with glimpses of the things we had been forced to omit from our itinerary, namely the enormous royal palace at El Escorial and the medieval turreted walls of Avila. Further on, as we ascended into a region which actually had a few trees, we noticed long lines of modern windmills lining distant ridges.
At Salamanca station I opted for a taxi rather than trust my dodgy sense of direction, and soon we were gliding into the heart of this most Spanish of Spanish towns, its fine sandstone architecture glowing in the late afternoon sun.
The hotel proved to be superb – luxuriously appointed bedroom with separate marble-encrusted bathroom that was in itself was bigger than many Japanese business hotel rooms. In fact, so splendid was our habitation that I began to doubt the veracity of the ludicrously cheap price I had got the room for.
In the mean time, the safe didn’t seem to work, which necessitated some fine Spanish ‘mañana‘ attitude from the reception, who eventually sent someone up to check. It was then decided that a technician needed to be called, who was, of course, much later in arriving than had been promised, meaning that I had to hold off on the big poo that I so desperately needed. When the diminutive fellow finally appeared, the problem was merely a dead battery. I don’t know if Pedro the Engineer Most Tiny was expecting a tip for his troubles, but he didn’t get one.
Late evening, and we headed out to Salamanca‘s Plaza Mayor, the most beautiful main square in all Spain, and pretty nice it was too, all golden sandstone backed by deep blue sky, and with an enormous stage in the centre since it was festival time in Salamanca and the streets were awash with young revellers and all manner of free entertainment.
Getting the zoom lens out again as a figure appeared in one of the balcony windows on one side of the square, I was hoping for some opulent lingerie-clad bit of crumpet, but it turned out to be just a bloke in a string vest. Nice!
At this juncture the roadies began to soundcheck for the night’s gig, and like an old man I had to beat a hasty retreat as my damaged eardrums couldn’t take the volume of the constant stream of amplified ‘uno, dos, tres.’
Next stop, a well-stocked supermarket, there to purchase all manner of fine produce for that finest of holiday meals, te hotel room picnic. Plums, cheese, smoked salmon, fresh bread, olives and a bottle or two of beer – marvellous, the food of kings!
All day to explore Salamanca‘s delights, a town encrusted with architectural gems from a rich past, but at the same time alive with the vibrancy of thirty thousand students attending the Castillian equivalent of Cambridge. Noisy sponging bastards!
First stop, the San Esteban monastery, an oasis of tranquility with only a handful of tourists. No rules and prohibitions here, just a beautiful church with a famously intricate plateresque facade a contemplative cloister, and an exhibition highlighting the iniquities of the Conquistadors in South America – enlightened indeed!
Following this, we crossed the river, gaped at at a road sign which clearly indicated just how near we were to Portugal, then recrossed into town by way of an original Roman bridge, the huge cathedral majestically forming a backdrop.
This gargantuan structure proved to be another great attraction, allowing us as it did to climb up onto the roof for panoramic views of the town and a chance to startle huge flocks of pigeons and perve down upon unsuspecting denizens with the zoom lens.
Equally unusual about the cathedral was the access to the upper galleries inside, from where we were able to gaze down upon a wedding in progress. Outside, the groom’s mates were engaged in coating the bridal car in all manner of objects, not to mention stuffing the interior with balloons. What japes!
Next, the vexing question of where to eat lunch once more. Here we dither spectacularly between street restaurants both devoid of custom, and witness a strange kind of critical mass phenomena.
See, nobody wants to eat in an empty restaurant, since this unpopularity might indicate the quality of the food, but then again, if nobody takes a chance all establishments will remain empty and they’ll be a lot of starving tourists wandering around.
Suddenly a group of locals chose one of the restaurants, which gave us the confidence to try it too, and shortly afterwards, as we sat so close to the passing tourists you could smell ‘em, faces full of gazpacho, the clientele swelled to saturation point while the other restaurant remained relatively empty. I suppose on other days it was the reverse. Now why don’t these places employ folk as fake dinners to ensure that the process kicks off?
After taking a siesta back at our hotel we headed out once more for the sights of Salamanca, but unfortunately the university and its ornately carved cloisters were already shut and we had to make do with the House of Shells and the House of Death.
Later in the evening, after the customary hotel room picnic, I came back into town for a last peek at the city, this time its splendours outlined against the night sky by floodlights, the streets full with drunken festival goers.
Next morning we trained it back to Madrid and thence to the airport for our flight back to the ugly sterile straight-jacket of Japan, a milieu so unpalatable after a superb week of Castillian splendour.