Salamanca, a destination in the spotlight for screen tourists

When a city is able to host filming as different as “In the Spotlight” and “While the War Lasts”, it means two things: that the city itself is chameleon-like and full of spectacular corners, and that its Film Commission is doing a great job. 

That is the case of one of Spain’s monumental and university cities par excellence: Salamanca. Here everything is hyperbole: two cathedrals, two universities, dozens of historic buildings, a Roman bridge, a modernist palace, and one of the best main squares in the world. That’s nothing. 

With these possibilities, it is not surprising that the city of Tormes can host productions set in almost any historical period. We review some of the best known ones with Enrique Cantabrana, head of the Salamanca Film Commission.

Period films

One of the first international filmmakers to discover its possibilities was Ridley Scott, a great lover of our country, who understood that there was no better setting for filming “1492: The Conquest of Paradise” (1992). With a cast headed by Gérard Depardieu, Sigourney Weaver, Armand Assante, Fernando Rey and Ángela Molina, the cathedrals, the convent of San Esteban, the Clerecía, the church of San Benito, Calle Compañía, Plaza Concilio de Trento and the Patios de Escuelas are used by Scott to recreate the city in the 15th century. 

It is not difficult to visit all these places, since most of their architectural and cultural heritage is concentrated in the same area. If there is a city for strolling around, that is Salamanca and, as a good Castilian capital, everything begins and ends in its Plaza Mayor. Apart from knowing that it was built during the 18th century, that it has a three-storey porticoed structure and that it is in the historic centre, anyone who has spent time there will tell you that the most important thing about this square is its atmosphere. No matter the time of year or the day of the week, there are always people here. Tourists and university students mingle here, some having a drink on their terraces and others sitting on the ground, sunbathing and watching life go by. 

One of the city’s most famous cafés, the Novelty, is under the arcades of the square. This is where Amenábar shot several sequences of “While at War”, recreating the atmosphere of social gatherings that has characterised this place since the beginning of the 20th century. As a curiosity, and for technical reasons, the production team located the Novelty in another part of the square, so that, for a few days, the real café and its recreation on the screen coexisted. Film stuff.

The Plaza Mayor is the crossroads where you should start your visit to the city / Salamanca Film Commission

Starting from the Plaza Mayor, you’ll reach everything you need to see. If you walk along the Rúa (just called Rúa) you will come to Calle Compañía, where two of the best buildings on this route are located: the famous Casa de las Conchas and the headquarters of the Pontifical University: the Clerecía. Both appear in all period productions, since one was the seat of the Jesuits and the other was built by the Catholic Monarchs. In the Clerecía, the university church, be sure to climb the Scala Coelli, its 50-metre-high tower, which offers one of those views of the city from above that every screen traveller needs to get an overview of its scenery. The technical team of Ridley Scott and John Glen, director of “Christopher Columbus: The Discovery”, passed through here. 

Curiously, both directors coincided in the year of filming in this spectacular city. The fact is that 1992 was an important year for Spain. The V Centenary of the discovery of America was being celebrated, so Scott’s was not the only film on the subject to be released that year. “Christopher Columbus: The Discovery” (John Glen, 1992) also used numerous locations in Salamanca to illustrate the same story. Marlon Brando, Tom Selleck, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Benicio del Toro were among its stars. 

If you continue along the Rúa for a few metres, you’ll come to the well-known Plaza de Anaya, where you’ll find the entrance to the New Cathedral (at the entrance of which is the astronaut that everyone is looking for for luck). Just behind it is the Old Cathedral, and it’s impossible to tell you which one to choose. You simply have to see them both. And if you’ve enjoyed climbing the Scala Coelli, you can’t miss the other emblematic tower of the city: Ieronimus. There are more than 100 metres of tower, but as it is done in several sections, you won’t even notice it.

In the Plaza de Anaya is the entrance to the Catedral Nueva / Castilla y León Film Commission

On leaving the Old Cathedral you can’t miss another of those corners that make Salamanca a unique city. The Huerto de Calixto y Melibea (where legend has it that the protagonists of “La Celestina” met) offers the best views of the Roman bridge, the Tormes River and the domes of the cathedral. The director Miloš Forman used the streets of Salamanca to recreate the Spain of the late 17th and early 18th centuries in “Goya’s Ghosts” (2006). This story, half fiction, half reality, made Javier Bardem and Natalie Portman stroll through the corners of Salamanca. 

Right next to the Orchard is another of the city’s jewels. The Casa Lis is a unique space, the likes of which are rare in Spain. In what used to be the house of a wealthy industrialist in the early 20th century, the best collection of Art Nouveau and Art Deco in the country has been brought together. Don’t miss its terrace, cafeteria and collections. A treasure trove.

University city

In addition to its historical past as a source of political and religious power, if there is one thing that defines Salamanca, it is its character as a university city. In 2018 it celebrated the 800th anniversary of the founding of the University of Salamanca, considered the oldest in Spain and one of the oldest in Europe. 

A must to complete your route through the city is a visit to the Patio de Escuelas, from where you can see what is probably the best-known façade of a university in Spain (because it was on all the History of Art syllabuses). This is where Amenábar filmed some scenes from “While at War”, in which Karra Elejalde plays Miguel de Unamuno, who was rector of this institution at the time.  Be sure to follow tradition and look for the frog on the façade.

Filming in the Patio de Escuelas, with the University in the background  / Salamanca Film Commission

Chases and non-stop action

The highlight of this historical filmography and pure enjoyment of the city was “In the Crosshairs” (Pete Travis, 2008). This blockbuster of political intrigue and action, starring Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox, William Hurt, Forest Whitaker, Sigourney Weaver and Eduardo Noriega, made the Plaza Mayor in Salamanca known halfway around the world. There, a notorious attack was committed, with the usual chases and scenes of maximum risk. 

For your peace of mind, the real Plaza Mayor only appears in the scenes where there are no explosions. Of course, it was not possible to shoot any scene in a World Heritage Site that would endanger the artistic integrity of the city. In order to be able to blow up everything required by the script, an exact replica of the centre of Salamanca was built in Mexico. But its beauty and dynamism appeared in the film and impressed the world. In gratitude to the producers for choosing Salamanca for the filming, its protagonists were named “distinguished guests” of the city. A distinction they received at the premiere of the film in Salamanca.

View of the city from the Roman bridge / Castilla y León Film Commission

“Terminator” and “Doctor Zhivago”

One of the most curious cases of multi-purpose filming locations in Salamanca can be found some 100 kilometres from the capital, at the Aldeadávila dam, an impressive engineering work built in the 1950s, which has served as a backdrop for two super-productions of totally different genres and periods. 

The first was “Doctor Zhivago” (David Lean, 1964), in which the dam appears at the beginning and end of the film. As the film was being shot in Spain (mainly in Soria and Madrid), the production team did not have to go far to find the prey they needed. The anecdotes of the filming were numerous, as hundreds of extras from the area were involved. Apparently the locals/extras, excited about the camera, waved every time they were in the spotlight. Legend has it that certain scenes had to be repeated nearly a hundred times, until not a single one of the “spontaneous” people waved any more. And the film was finished and went down in film history. 

It was probably the inhospitable beauty of its surroundings or the fact that James Cameron had seen “Doctor Zhivago” that led the team of “Terminator: Dark Destiny” (Tim Miller 2018) to use the dam again as a filming location. This film, the last in the Terminator saga, brought Arnold Schwarzenegger to Spain as the mythical “Cyborg” and Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor. I’m sure they both enjoyed the environment and the gastronomy of these lands. 

So much for this brief review of the most famous productions that have passed through Salamanca. If you have liked what you have seen, don’t forget to experience it. Salamanca and its surroundings are waiting to offer you its charming corners, its atmosphere of a city that never rests and its film locations. What more could a screen tourist ask for?

By María Parcero

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