Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor is deliciously overwhelming. Neon-clad children ride scooters across it at midnight, navigating their way through clusters of tourists. University students, in scarves and sunglasses, sit in groups on the ground, chain-smoking and gossiping. Mustached men sipping coffee or liquor are fixtures at the surrounding cafés.
“The Plaza illuminated at night is the most beautiful place in Spain,” my host told me repeatedly.
But two days post-arrival, I, feverish and jetlagged, still hadn’t seen it.
On Saturday, I decided to conquer my illness and spend the afternoon walking the city’s narrow, cobblestone streets. I dodged the commercial trucks that are inexplicably allowed to drive on them, ducking into cluttered bookstores and small produce markets. Salamantinos are fiercely proud of their Iberian ham, and nearly every block in the city has a cured meat shop, where massive, dusty hams hang from the ceiling and shoppers clamor around the counter for a chance to buy supper. For hours, I wandered in and out of the dry, meaty odor that wafted from the shops.
Saturday is wedding day in Salamanca, and that evening I found myself lingering outside the cathedral, watching newly-weds get pummeled with rice. The ceremonies are elegant affairs where even the youngest attendees wear gowns, and the wedding parties welcome the attention of camera-toting tourists. When one bride began strutting down the street, I decided to follow her.
She wove through the crowds and rounded corners, stopping every so often to pose for pictures. I continued to walk several paces behind her, following the train of her brilliant white dress.
After strolling for several blocks, we walked under a stone archway, and there it was—the legendary Plaza Mayor. I quickly lost sight of the bride, distracted by the kids playing tag, the old friends greeting each other with the Spanish double cheek kiss, and the lovers meeting under the clock tower. I breathed deeply, dizzy but grounded.
I’ve been back to the Plaza many times since, to chat over a coffee, or to beat the September heat with a caramel ice cream cone. But none of these trips has been quite as breathtaking as that first encounter, when the Plaza, in all its sandstone splendor, opened its ancient arms to me.