A couple hour’s drive north west of Madrid lies one of my favourite cities ever, Salamanca. With two cathedrals over 500 years old, the House of Shells and beautiful, intricately carved sandstone buildings, it’s a beautiful place steeped in history. I first visited with my A Level Spanish class in February 2018, when we stayed with host families and attended classes at ISLA, the language school just a ten minute walk from the Plaza Mayor. As well as hosting students from around the world, they also do online classes and seminars. My friend and I loved it so much that we returned the following August to stay with the same host!
With our school group we did planned activities such as a salsa class, a guided tour of the city and a visit to the bullfighting museum (all in Spanish). They were an incredible insight into Spanish culture and great fun. It meant that when my friend and I returned in August we didn’t feel like we had to cram our days. You can read my 3-day Salamanca itinerary here.
Booking with ISLA
My friend is no stranger to solo travel. With friends in various spots in France and Spain, she’s perfectly comfortable hopping on a plane, knowing her knowledge of the language will stand her in good stead. At the time, however, this was my first time travelling abroad without school or my family, so it was kind of a big deal.
Luckily, booking on the ISLA website was easy peasy and my friend found flights for us. ISLA sorted our transfers too, which really made things easy. With about four hours of teaching per day, accommodation with full board, return transfers and flights, I paid somewhere in the region of £500 for the week. We both booked separately at the same time, specifying that we were travelling together and that if it was possible we wanted to stay with out original host.
The beauty of visiting with only the two of us was that we were in a group of international students of a similar Spanish ability, not just our school class split in thirds through the register. There were some German students, a young man from Morroco who loved to show us how Spanish compared with his native Arabic, a lovely lady from Italy, and a French guy…studying for a masters…in quantum computing…at Oxford.
So. Not intimidating at all.
There was also a boy our age who, it turned out, lives super close to us in England! Small world? (As a late edit, I met a girl in the Galapagos islands nearly two years later who studied at ISLA just a few weeks before I was there and actually stayed with the very same host!)
In reality it genuinely wasn’t intimidating; the class had a friendly atmosphere and our teachers were amazing. We did grammar work for a few hours every morning with Rosa, then after a short break we did an hour of general conversation with Vicky. The classes were based on discussion rather than written work, although we did get given workbooks and short assignments to complete as homework. It occurred to me that this was a great taster of what a year studying abroad at university might be like!
Outside the classroom
ISLA were very good at organising social activities for all the students to get to know each other and the city of Salamanca. On our first night we all met in a bar to get to know each other in a hilarious mix of languages! For the rest of the week, there was a list of activities in the main office and we could sign up to as many or as few as we wanted, most for free, some for 10-15€.
We listened to a talk on the Spanish Civil War, and it was great to learn from a local, and not feel removed, in a classroom hundreds of miles away. I realised how conflicted the city is in terms of political ideology, which I didn’t see the first time I visited. During the war it was a nationalist stronghold and many residents still hold these views, but the passage of time as well as the influx of students bring contrasting opinions.
Later in the week we all went on a tapas tour, which was great fun because we got to chat more with people from the other classes and try some dishes I hadn’t tried before! They do run several day trips on weekends, but unfortunately we weren’t there for long enough to go.
Obviously we couldn’t visit without checking out the carvings on the cathedrals and university. Salamanca is home to the famous lucky frog, said to have brought hundreds of students luck in their exams, and some other notable details on the grand buildings, including what seems to be an astronaut. Because our week wasn’t as full the second time round, we had plenty of time to shop, eat tons of churros even fit in a bit of exercise! We spent one evening at the local swimming pool and another at the community athletics track. This is where I had my first conversation with someone who wasn’t a tutor, a shopkeeper or my host. It was a seriously cool moment and a testament to the improvement I had made – even if I was haunted for the next few days by all the errors I made.
As for our host, Angela, what a gem she was. She was so hospitable, and genuinely as interested in our hometowns as she was happy to share details of her own city. And her cooking – I don’t have words in either language to do justice to her cooking! Safe to say, we ate VERY well! I spotted a Harrogate fridge magnet in her kitchen, so she’s hosted students from our neck of the woods before.
In our February trip we walked to the newer side of the city to a big cinema to see Coco, which is just the cutest film ever. It’s an animated one based on the Day of the Dead in Mexico. We all cried! The second time, my friend and I didn’t trek quite so far, and instead visited a smaller cinema, recommended by Angela, to watch El Mejor Verano de mi Vida. It was harder to follow than Coco but a really cute family comedy.
The best thing about the city is that it’s so gorgeous and small that you don’t mind walking anywhere! (This is why I got caught out by the much bigger scale of Barcelona). I often call it the York of Spain. One of my favourite things to do is sit outside in the Plaza Mayor to watch night fall and all the streetlights came on. I love the way the Spanish start and end their days later, so at night, when British streets are cold, dark and filled with stumbling people leaving bars, Spanish ones are full of families treating their children to ice cream and the delighted shouts of friends catching up. Sitting outside the cathedral listening to buskers and finishing our homework was amazing too. I’m getting nostalgic just thinking about it…
I know Salamanca will always hold a special place in my heart and I have lots of cherished memories from that place. One day I want to take my family there so they can understand why I love it so much! It’s also the first place I visited in Spain, so it’s responsible for a lot of my Spanish knowledge and also my interest in the culture. My teachers noted after both trips how much my fluency spiked, which just goes to show how vital it is to practice speaking and listening to your target language.
Thank you for reading. If you have any special memories of Salamanca or any other Spanish cities, please do share!