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Spanish Study in the North of Spain

Choose Salamanca for History, Santander for Geography

Because of the purity of its language, north-central Spain remains one of the top choices for Spanish language studies. Salamanca stands out for its history, Santander for its geography.

The Towns

There's no denying that the north is different from the rest of Spain. The mountains are more rugged, the weather colder, the architecture more influenced by Rome than by Islam. But, like everywhere in Spain, the pace of life is relaxed and the emphasis is on spending time with friends and family. People get up late, take a long break in the middle of the day, and on weekend nights stay out until dawn.

This partying spirit is especially strong in the student-rich city of Salamanca, the location of the medieval Universidad de Salamanca as well as a large private university and over a dozen private language schools. It is said that there are more bars per capita in Salamanca than anywhere else in the country.

With its ancient city center, narrow passageways, and the nearly-perfect Plaza Mayor—a paradise for people watchers—Salamanca is also a beautiful city. Narrow, pedestrian-only streets wind through the old town past stores and plazas and old architectural gems built of a beautiful rosy sandstone.

The university itself, a 13th-century building tucked away behind the Pontificia, is a good example of how well the Spanish have managed to modernize the interior of their old buildings while leaving the exterior untouched. Light and airy inside, the exterior maintains the dignity and strength befitting a building 700 years old. Around the corner, the city's old cathedral, built in 1160, is a wonderful example of Romanesque architecture with high arched ceilings and a fine quiet feel inside.

A few hours to the north is the more active town of Santander, a modern, planned city on the coast of Cantabria, mostly known as a summer resort for Madrilenos. While it may lack the structural charm of Salamanca. Santander is a great place for language students who like to surf, hike, ski, or sail.

Like San Francisco, Santander is situated on a hilly peninsula overlooking a protected bay. Across the bay is a long beach at the holiday village of Somo, rarely crowded and easily reached by boat every half hour. On weekends the bay fills with sailboats, and it's possible to join them by signing up at the sailing school located on an island just off Bikini Beach.

Beyond beach life, Santander is well-placed for trips to the Picos de Europa, among the most rugged mountains in Europe. Most of the small villages in the Picos have an aubergue or a fonda, basic hostels that allow you to hike all day and not have to lug around camping gear. Many of the schools organize weekend trips to the mountains, but if you stay long enough a Spanish friend is sure to take you there.

The Schools

Most of the schools in these towns are professionally-run, taught by qualified teachers, and offer excellent value for the money. Prices average $400-$500 a month for intensive classes of 20 to 25 hours a week.

In Salamanca in particular the competition among schools is strong, and many try to offer small extras in order to lure students in their direction.

While some of the large private schools have their own student residences, the most common options will be a room with a family or in a shared apartment. To live with a family, including three meals a day, you can expect to pay around $500 a month. For about $200 a month you can rent a room in an apartment shared with other students and do your own cooking. If you prefer eating out, Spain is still a European bargain. A typical menu of the day, featuring two entrees, bread, glass of wine, salad and dessert costs about $7.50; a glass of the house wine less than $1.

To really get to know the area, the food, and the culture, the best thing one can do is find an intercambio—a Spanish conversation exchange partner. Most schools will help you arrange this; if not, put up a sign at an English language school. Meeting and befriending a local Spaniard will not only give you a chance to put what you've learned into practice, it is a sure way to get beyond the surface of the country and into its soul.

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