Deep in the Heart of Castile

It doesn’t take long for a foreigner to realize that there are many Spains. From the outside, we may see a monolith; we refer to its primary language as Spanish, we imagine a dry land of guitar music and olives, and we think of a people attached to the Mediterranean south of Europe. On the contrary, there are deep differences and divisions on daily display; the Castilians and the Catalans, the Basques and the Galicians, the Valencians and the Asturians. They may collectively be more similar than, say, the different peoples that make up the United States, but there are fascinating distinctions that serve as the basis for diversity on the Iberian Peninsula.

To study in Salamanca is to study at the very core of Castile: the dominant historical region that united the Christian kingdoms of the peninsula over the course of several centuries. Castilian, the language of Castile, is that which we call Spanish in the rest of the world; separate and distinct from the other languages, such as Catalan or Galician, it is less purely Romance than most others in the region. Here, in the heartland of the peninsula and halfway between Madrid and the Portuguese border, there lives a culture as intact as possibly imaginable given the history of Iberia; unlike the regions along the Mediterranean coast or the north near the French border, there are few obvious remnants of the Arab-Berber caliphates or the upheavals of the 19th and 20th Centuries. Despite any contemporary political leanings, monarchism and conservatism remain ubiquitous; this is a city that never abandoned its allegiance to the royal houses of each day, from the Burgundian-Trastámaras of the Middle Ages through the Habsburgs and modern Bourbons. During the Civil War, it served as the capital of the fascist government, and the underlying currents of unitarism and cultural monopoly are alive and well; there is a clear hostility towards the ethno-nationalists who would rather break up the Spanish state, so much so that it did not take even a week for my professors to comment, unprompted, disparagingly upon those who may support regionalism and independence. Here, Castile is total, and Spain is Castile.

Although that may sound unfavorable to most Americans, there is a cultural purity here that inspires awe and respect. Long enough liberated from outside influence, this region is beautifully proud of its culture and history, a reality that shines through each day. To start, there is the food and wine; not only is the ham unmatched, but there are many other fruits of the land that comprise a typical stop to a café or bar. There is the hornazo, a sandwich-like pastry of various forms of pork; the many types of stew, which often include a heavy helping of potatoes and white beans, accompanied by ham or pork shoulder; the dry reds of the western and northern halves of the country; and the cheeses, most of them dry and served with olives or nuts. Moreover, fresh seafood comes in each day from both the Cantabrian and Mediterranean coasts; calamari and octopus are most common, but others such as scallops and mussels are also popular. Beyond the food, there is the architecture; Salamanca is known as the “Ciudad de Oro,” or in English, “the City of Gold.” As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, new building is strictly regulated, but the beige stone facades of each building form a beautiful shimmering gold at dawn and dusk. Many buildings were completed in the pre-Habsburg Romanesque, with the Cathedral and others demonstrating the shifts through imperial Gothic, late Renaissance and early Baroque, and late Baroque periods. In the Plaza Mayor, completed by the first Bourbon king in the first half of the 18th Century, the culmination of the Baroque period is grand and pure. A fifteen-minute walk from my residence to my classes features over a millennium of the history of this city.

More deeply, and most importantly, there are the people. Within Spain, many regard those from deep inside Castile as being cold and less welcoming than those from other regions of the country; as a foreigner, I have had no such experience. People are truly interested in the art of conversation, especially over a meal, and expectations of social rigidity are not as they are in most places in America. Although there are thousands of students from dozens of countries studying at the University of Salamanca, this seems to be beside the point; everyone is happy to see and serve you, and they genuinely appreciate your efforts when speaking Spanish. I grew up primarily in New England, and such an image of coldness among the Castilians pales in comparison to the old Puritan skepticism and isolationism that pervades the northeast of the United States. On this, perspective is everything; I am a foreigner in Castile but do not feel foreign, and I am a native in New England but do not feel as if it is home. Perhaps it is the lifestyle that leads to this general disposition: unrushed mornings, thoroughly enjoyable lunches, afternoons devoid of overwhelming stress from work or school, and late dinners with excellent company would make anyone welcoming and agreeable. This is a people that cherishes time, attaching a unique importance to living in the present moment and sharing it with others.

Every place has its charms and pains, and it is much easier for a foreign student to ignore the latter than it is for the natives. Having been here for a month and engrossed in my own experiences, I am not qualified, nor am I interested in, speaking of the latter. Any American student with the privilege and opportunity should come here; I will likely not have this time again. Castile is surely Castilian, and it is precious.

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