When we awoke on October 11th, after a full ten hours of slumber, we realized how exhausted we had been, not just from the many kilometers of tourism walking we'd done the day before, but from all the stress in our lives that made this two day vacation such a necessity. Having seen and done most of the main things on our todo list the day before, we were free to walk leisurely around the city. We did stop in at the tourism office to see about getting a guided tour, but all the guided tours were booked, except for the ones starting at 5pm, and the weather forecast was for rain at 5pm. We went to the Casa Lis, which looks like a pretty cool building with walls of stained glass, but when I saw that it was really a crowded Art Nouveau museum, with a 4€ entry fee, we decided that we didn't feel up to putting in the effort to enjoy art and read placards about works of art. Next to the museum was Restaurante Lis, which had a pretty delicious sounding tasting menu, so we put it high on our list of possible dinner establishments and continued on our walk.
That was when we accidentally discovered the wonder that is the Convento de las Dueñas, which we enjoyed immensely.
It was approaching lunchtime and we decided to start looking for some good tapas, remembering a few places that we had seen the day before. We were intent on doing a better job of choosing food on Sunday.
More out of curiosity for the interesting design than anything else, I suggested we at least look around inside this French biscuit shop. The shop had its psychological tricks down pat. We didn't stand a chance. As soon as we stepped foot inside, a lady came up to us with an open tin of US-quarter-sized cookies and offered that we should try one. It was delicious, like what I would call a butter cookie, or shortbread. The most interesting aspect of the shop were the tins. In fact, they knew that they were really selling tins, since they had a whole section of the shop that was just empty tins for sale, for almost as much as the ones with cookies in them (again, genius anchoring and up-selling).
We both liked the sample cookie, and my wife was intrigued by the "lemon and cinnamon" flavor, so we put on a plastic glove and chose only one cookie, to share, from the lemon and cinnamon pile. There was no price displayed. We took the cookie over to the cash register and, a little embarrassed at being so stingy, requested to pay for the one cookie. Now, this cookie was not at all big. Its diameter was less than that of a can of soda. The checkout lady put it on the scale and said, "Okay, that'll be 2.40€." Two-forty!!? For a single cookie?? I have bought decent bottles of wine for that much in Spain. Whatever, we're tourists... so we walked out of the shop and broke our cookie in half to eat it. It was disgusting.
So then I was walking around with a bag of two nibbled cookies halves. I felt bad throwing away the remaining 2€ worth of lemony calories, so I thought that maybe I could give it to a beggar or something, which got me noticing how there were almost no beggars at all in the heavy tourist area of Salamanca. When I did finally find one, I had moral qualms about giving partially eaten food, even with the best intentions, so I ended up leaving it on top of a trash can near the beggar.
Out of curiosity, we kept walking down the Rua Mayor, the main pedestrian strip until it passed a road with cars and kept going. We found ourselves in the financial district, where literally the corner of every block was a major bank. The rest of the blocks were high end clothing stores, the same chains you will see in any Spanish or European "high street" (to steal a British term). There were almost no restaurants to speak of, but then we spotted one that was full of people, and most likely locals, not tourists, so we sat down and ordered a half-ration of jamón serrano. We got stingy and ordered the cebo, rather than the bellota, ham, the equivalent of ordering a Reserva instead of a Gran Reserva in winespeak.
Marga's face really lights up with some jamón in front of her. It was delicious!
Afterwards, we walked back towards the tourist district and had two tapas in Restaurante Rua Mayor, a place that had been recommended to us and where we stopped for a total of three rounds over our two-day stay. We ordered a rice dish similar to mine from the day before, and a layered zucchini concoction that was also delicious. Neither got photographed with all the hunger.
Somewhat full, and hoping to save space for a good supper, we decided to only have one more drink, with no tapa. Somewhat randomly, we chose a place called iPan iVino.
Because I'm an Apple nerd, I enjoyed the name, but because I'm a total idiot, I didn't really get the wordplay until the following day, when I said the name aloud to myself. I remember when the iPhone came out, there was some confusion in Spain as to what to call it, specifically, whether to pronounce the i prefix in Spanish (ee-phone) or in English (eye-phone). Eventually, the latter came to dominate. And that sound, like the English word "eye" or "I", has many meanings in Spanish, but the only one that makes sense in this context is the conjugation of the verb haber: hay, meaning "there is". Thus making the name of the bar, when read aloud, "Hay pan, hay vino", or "There is bread, there is wine". Duh! Too clever for me.
While there were both a Burger King and a McDonalds in Salamanca (both patronized solely by local students, thank god), this is what Spanish fast food is. These places were so tempting with their freshly made bocadillos de jamón well lit in the window. We resisted, however.
What you see on the right is a local delicacy called an hornazo, a meat and hardboiled egg pie. I shall share this wonderful paragraph from Wikipedia:
In Salamanca, it is traditionally eaten in the field during the "Monday of the Waters" (Lunes de Aguas) festival. The name of this unique festival supposedly comes from a twisting of the word "enagua," or petticoat, which the prostitutes of the town used to wear under their dresses. During Lent, tradition tells us that the prostitutes of the town were sent to the other side of the Tormes River, so that the men of the town were not distracted during the religious observances. On the Monday of the Waters, the students of the town threw a party on the banks of the river to celebrate the return of the women, and ate hornazo as part of the celebration.
We bought some to take home on Monday morning.
After our last wine, it was starting to rain, so we went back to the hotel with the intention of brushing our teeth, but a nap ensued. Can't do that with kids around! While we had initially been critical of our hotel, Emperatriz I, we came to adore it. The beds were more than comfortable enough, and the location could not be improved upon. It was right next to the Plaza Mayor, but just far enough away that there was no noise. If – no, when! – we return to Salamanca, we will probably try to stay in the same place.
We woke up at dusk, and I called the Restaurante Lis to book a table for that lovely tasting menu that we had seen, but was informed that they were closed every Sunday. What?? Normally in Spain, everything but restaurants are closed on Sunday.
So now we had a mission to choose a restaurant that would not be as disappointing as the night before. We stopped by a place, Cafetería Berysa, where we had had a beer in the Plaza Mayor the day before, and had been impressed by the plates we saw as we walked passed diners on the way to and from the restroom. After looking at the menu, it was deemed "not all that special", so we made a deal. If we could reserve a table at the window looking out onto the Plaza Mayor, then the location and view would make it special enough to eat there. When I went to ask about the table, I was told to come back at 8:15pm, which was when the guy that assigned the tables started his shift. So we shelved the idea and continued to look for alternatives.
One place, the Restaurante Valencia, caught Marga's eye, because it was hidden back away down an alley from the main tourist hubbub, and the menu had some items that were unique and not something that we know how to prepare, like partridge.
We continued to stroll casually along, stopping for a beer at one of our favorite places, Restaurante Rua Mayor. To be honest, I wanted to try every single restaurant that we walked by. They all looked delicious.
In the end, we went back to the Cafeteria Berysa and were told that the window was taken.
Our destiny decided for us, we continued on to the Restaurante Valencia.
The first thing that struck me about the Restaurante Valencia was how awesome the first letter of its name was represented on the menu out on the street. Behold:
That's pretty badass.
We were shown back to the small dining room, which was occupied only a white-haired anglo-saxon gentleman was sitting in the corner by himself, and, at another table, a Spanish woman was sitting with her 11-year-old son, who was playing a game on a smart phone, just finishing up their meal. Before they left, the woman and her son had a conversation with the waitress, which made it clear that they were regular customers, if not good friends. The waitress asked the boy how his classes were going at school, and at one point, the waitress told an anecdote about how she studied when getting her physics degree.
They brought us the menus and wine list, which I perused while Marga went to the restroom. She came out saying how nice to soap smelled. From there, things only got better.
While we chose our dinner from the menu, they brought us these ginormous super olives, which I felt compelled to photograph with a coin for scale.
I chose a Gran Colegiata crianza, from the Toro wine producing region. I was amused that the cork got its own little plate upon which to sit so as not to stain the white table cloth.
I ordered the Rabo de Toro Estofado Castellano, or Castilian Stewed Bull Tail, a fairly common dish in Spain, but not something that I ever prepare at home, and this one was really good. The stewed beef falls right off the vertebrae. The sauce was amazing.
My date ordered the Perdiz Estofada a la Antigua, or Old-style Stewed Partridge. Hers was also very, very good.
The dining room was very cosy, with old bullfighting posters adorning the walls.
As we were beginning our meal, an old man came in with a nice camera, and started taking photos of the decorated walls. But he was looking for and executing interesting angles of the walls and dining room like a photographer that knew what he was doing. By this time, the other diners had finished and left, so we were the only ones there. He then sat down at the table behind me and began ordering off the menu in heavily accented Spanish. As we observed him out of the corner of our eyes and ears, both seeing our own grandfathers in him, his lovely, intellectual, sense of humor came out. It became clear that he had been there dining the night before as well.
When his wine came, he told the young waiter to slow down, and pour more slowly, but in a kind gentle grandfatherly way that the young waiter reacted well to. He then asked the waiter his name. When the waiter said his name was David, the old man said, "Nice to meet you David. My name is Goliath." He joked around with the waitstaff like this for his entire meal. Once, he pointed to a detail on the label of his bottle of wine and asked David if he knew that it was referencing the estranged mother of the goddess of wine, or some such thing. He then asked for a plastic bag, so that he could take the empty bottle of wine home with him. What an eccentric man!
As we were having our post-dessert coffees, we couldn't stand it any longer, and we turned to him to ask him where he was from. He said that he was 81 years old, and then immediately corrected himself, saying that that day was actually his 82nd birthday, and that he had spent midnight the night before there at the restaurant, when it had become his birthday. He is a retired Architecture professor from the University of Milan, and was traveling around Spain on his own. When I mentioned that I was American, he told me, in slightly better English than his Spanish, that he had many colleagues and friends at UC Berkeley. I told him that the following day would be my birthday, and then the waiter, David, spoke up to say that the previous day, the tenth, had been his birthday. I asked the professor what he thought of the architecture of Salamanca, and he was not very positive about it, calling much of it derivative. He even got in a jab about how, actually, the University of Bologna predates the University of Salamanca.
What a lovely gentleman. Can you imagine traveling around Europe on your own at age 82?
The other interesting conversation we had was with the waitress. The earlier overheard comment about her physics degree had been puzzling us for the entirety of the meal. She was maybe a little older than us, with some streaks of gray in her hair. I love it when women own their gray hair, and wear it confidently.
Pre-apologizing, we timidly asked the obvious, possibly impertinent, question: "If you have a degree in physics, what are you doing waiting tables?" She smiled and agreed that that was a good question. She explained that the restaurant had been in her husband's family for three generations, and that, when it had come time for him to inherit the restaurant, he promised her that she could make more money helping out with the restaurant than in academia, and he had been correct. She's now only working part time, on busy days, because she's got two seven month old fraternal twins that take up most of her energy.
Aside from the great food, great wine, and interesting local and foreign characters in a quiet, cozy setting, my wife and I had a great time getting to spend quality together talking as a couple of adults without having to shout at a child to eat properly or not throw that fork. It was a wonderful, relaxing meal on so many dimensions.
We took the long way back to the hotel, to appreciate how gorgeous all the buildings were, lit up in all their grandeur at night.
Even the Plaza Mayor was lit especially for my birthday, the Día de la Hispanidad.
We love you, Salamanca! We hope to see you again very soon!