Antigua de Guatemala – A colonial gem in the heart of Guatemala

There is a bad reputation in Guatemala for bandits and robberies, it is not unfounded and recent attacks have left many travellers in the know quite cautious about how they move around the country. Others, who don’t read the blogs and foreign office advice, just happily get on with it. I try to inhabit the middle ground and be aware but not paranoid in country of wonderful friendly people and a wealth of beauty to be seen.

volcanoes dominate the city

One of the main tourist routes through Guatemala is the road from Flores in Peten to Guatemala City itself, this involves a nine hour ride however you do it and if you do not want to arrive in supposedly the most dangerous city in Central America after dark you have to take a night bus.

I thought I had chosen the most expensive bus to ensure a better chance of sleep while travelling but my good plans nearly came awry when I was told my ticket was for a less prestigious ride. My luck held though and the conductor hustled me onto the bus anyway for a long night of tossing and turning, mysterious stops in the night and a bleary eyed welcome to the worst parts of Guatemala City at six in the morning!
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Suddenly Salamanca

The drive across the northern plains of Spain lulls me into a dull monotony, featureless landscapes containing acres of not very much at all. The main route from Portugal, the A62, is fast and empty; I have to check the speedometer to ensure that I am not clipping the speed limit, in danger of a radar beep from a hidden patrol car and a ticket from its uniformed occupant with nothing else to do in the midday sun.

The “kilometres to go” sign on my GPS drops rapidly as I search the horizon for any sign of my destination. Surely I must be mistaken, perhaps entering a similar name that is just a small hamlet but no, a sign clearly states that Salamanca is close. Appearing rapidly in the distance, shapes form and the unmistakable change in the land around me tells me that civilization is close. A slip road beckons and the car seems to pull itself off the highway with a desire for company and the natural urban environment.

square at night

After driving through such a stark plain it comes as somewhat of a shock to arrive at the fabulous university city of Salamanca, I had heard great things about the place and was determined to explore as much as I could in the short time allotted before carrying on to my ferry back to the UK. I had booked the Salamanca Youth Hostel, conveniently situated close to the centre, however on arrival we found that the hostel had a staff shortage and was closed. They had made alternative arrangements and had booked us into a private room for the night which was more than acceptable.

The city itself is very manageable and for the main interesting parts walking is by far the best means of getting around. Leafy squares lead on to interesting alleyways and all roads, it seems, end up at the Plaza Mayor, the focal point of the city.

With a much embattled history Salamanca has a lot to tell, being fought over and conquered by the Moors and home to a devastating battle in the Napoleonic Peninsular War. It is the other side of the coin that we see today however and the fruits of an academic history started in 1218 with the foundation of the University of Salamanca by Alfonso IX of Leon. With over 33,000 students the vibrancy that these eager beavers bring to the nightlife of Salamanca is telling in the range of good cheap eateries and a stoic nightlife.

romanticaly lit streets of the old town

Of course eating and drinking are second nature to the Spanish and the Salamantinos are no exception, there are some great bars and restaurants dotted around the approaches to the Plaza mayor and it will not take very long until you come across one that suits your taste. I should mention that tapas are free in most of the bars and can vary from a small bowl of peanuts and crisps to some lovely little morsels of fine ham and cheese. For those in search of finger food the best range of tapas bars are in the Calle Van Dyke often called the “zona de tapas”, for very good reason.

If you are after a boogie or nightlife try the Plaza de San Justo for a good selection of bars and rocking tunes and ensure you at least pop into Tio Vivo Bar for a cocktail or two…as they say “La vida es un tio vivo”.

plaza major night

One of the first things you notice about the historical centre is the wonderful glow of the sandstone buildings; an ethereal light seems to bathe the city and as the sun changes its position in the sky so too does the mood of the place as it turns from bustling marketplaces in the morning to languid afternoon lounging in the parks and squares.

A visit to the main tourist office is recommended to get times and prices for the many attractions on show here and hit the bricks. The building is a masterpiece itself, the House of the Shells, one of the most famous buildings in the city.

The top spots for my money include the Plaza Mayor where you can take a stroll in the amazing square and mingle with the crowds, it’s not only tourists here the locals love to take a coffee or dinner in one of the most beautiful squares in Spain. Check out the University facade and play find the frog among the fascinating detail. Mosey on down to the Cathedral and admire the multi era design with Spanish Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque features on show. After palaces and cathedrals have had their way with you take a walk along the river to the Roman Bridge and stretch your legs over the 26 arches.

cathedral

I had far too short a time here and am already looking forward to coming back in the university term time to once again enjoy tapas, music and the great ambience that Salamanca has to offer.
Useful Websites for Salamanca:

www.salamanca.es
www.aboutsalamanca.com
http://www.alberguesalamanca.com the Salamanca Youth Hostel
http://www.tiovivosalamanca.com the Tio Viva bar