During my university study abroad experience, I spent three months getting know the city of Salamanca, Spain. I was taking humanities classes at the university there with other students from my American university. I arrived with a barely adequate map of the city; my host mother was scandalized and took me straight away to the tourism office to get a better one.
The first place in Salamanca everyone gets to know is the Plaza Mayor, the heart of the city. We spent many hours here studying in cafes over chocolate and churros or drinking “una caña” (a beer) in the plaza. It’s also a common meeting place; groups will arrange to meet “bajo el reloj” or under the clock to go out for the evening. The Plaza Mayor was featured in the movie Vantage Point (though the rest of the movie was shot in Mexico).
Living in the city for several months gave us a slightly deeper perspective than the average tourist. Of course, we visited the famous double cathedral, but I also had a chance to attend Mass there. My friends and I showed up one Sunday to find service being held in the old section…and it was definitely not in Spanish. I still don’t know whether it was simply in Latin, or perhaps the Mozarabic rite.
For university students, a visit to the famous university facade is imperative. Built in the 16th century, the ornate facade contains a small image of a frog somewhere in all that Plateresque detail. Students that find it are said to have success passing their exams.
By the time we left, we knew the city much more intimately, not just the standard tourist sites, but things like where to find things like cheap Internet, cute shoes, and the best clubs for dancing. Such is the life of a university student. But in the decade since I’ve seen Salamanca, I continue to learn new things about my former adopted hometown through my reading, such as its history in the Peninsular War in the early 1800s and more recently in the Spanish Civil War (which, frankly, seems to be rarely discussed despite, or perhaps because of, the Archive there). I look forward to traveling there again someday and getting to know Salamanca all over again!
One of my favorite professors in college was an ornithologist, and one of the few reasons I would willingly get up early on the weekend was to go birding with him. He led our class on a trip to Ecuador and the Galápagos islands, where we saw pelicans, oystercatchers, herons, frigatebirds, and three different kinds of boobies, as well as Darwin’s famous finches. Here’s one of my favorite shots of a male great frigatebird in flight.
We use the mnemonic “green is great” to distinguish the great frigatebird, which has greenish feathers, from the magnificent frigatebird, which is more purple-ish. Females have white patches at their throat instead of the males’ red throat pouch.