Salamanca Spanish Course

Life in a campervan is a pretty close quarters experience.  It is a small space.  If there are two of you sharing it you come to know where to put yourself, when to sit, when to go out of the van, how to move around so that you don't spend your time falling over each other.  After three weeks travelling in the van in Northern Spain Ian and I had got very good at it.  We had also spent most of our waking and sleeping moments together so it was strange to hoist my rucksack onto my shoulder and turn my back on him to find the apartment which would be my home in Salamanca for a week while I did my Spanish course.   Ian was going to drive home to Wales through Spain and France.  I didn't watch him go.  I was too busy wrangling my bags into the tiny lift.

I had decided to do another intensive week in the hopes of boosting my Spanish.  I seemed to have stalled frustratingly at a level where I could read quite well but struggled with speaking and listening.  Hoping to get every possible advantage from the week I had also booked to stay with a host family.  Gulp.  The last time I stayed with a host family it was after my French A levels when I was eighteen.  As the lift whirred, I wondered how they would cope with a sixty four year old.  Clang went the doors.  Here we go.  Too late to back out now.

My hostess Lola was waiting for me on the fourth floor with her teenage son behind her.  A flood of warm, welcoming and incomprehensible Spanish poured from her as she flung her arms around me and kissed me on both cheeks.  Their dog barked noisily from the flat behind her.  I summoned all my carefully memorised phrases about just learning, not speaking spanish very well, could she say it again a little more slowly.  I smiled a lot.  My room was small but clean and comfortable with its own toilet, which was a luxury I hadn't been expecting, and I escaped with relief into it while I did my unpacking. Then, clothes neatly hung in the wardrobe and books set out on the bedside table,  I consulted my Spanish dictionary, slipped my phone into my  pocket and launched myself back out into the flat on my Spanish adventure.

Salamanca is amazingly beautiful.  It is a perfect small city, home to the oldest university in Europe, where every building glows in a golden stone.  When you aren't wandering through tiny squares or gazing at cloisters and towers you will be sitting at one of the thousands of bars which are around every street corner.  A friend who is a Spanish teacher had suggested it as an ideal place to do a course and I could see why.  Just stunning.  Ian and I had chosen to have a couple of days camping together just outside Salamanca over the weekend before the course started and had taken a walking tour with a local guide so I had a rough idea of how the city fitted together.  We had found the language school on one of our own walks and I could see that it must be about fifteen minutes walk from Lola's apartment.  On the first morning we were meant to be at the school for eight o' clock to have a test to establish our level.  It seemed very early when I got up at seven, head still reeling from the previous evening and my attempts to make conversation.  Incredibly I could apparently make myself understood but I couldn't easily understand the response!

The plaza mayor was quiet with a cold wind blowing as I crossed it.  My first exchange with Lola that morning had not been entirely successful as I had totally failed to understand that she was offering to heat my coffee in the microwave.  She looked rather mystified as she handed a cup over in response to my cheery assurances that this was fine.  It was only when I sipped the totally cold coffee that I twigged what she had been saying.  Yes indeed, I did want it caliente, if only I had realised!

At the school other students were milling about looking lost.  I was relieved to see that there seemed to be a complete age range from early twenties to my age and older.  Looking around I was pretty sure that I was not going to be the oldest, although if I had been it wouldn't have been a problem.  We were herded into a classroom and the head of the school talked to us in Spanish for a few minutes about what to expect.  This was very well done.  There were all levels of student there and his Spanish was slow and clear with slides in Spanish with some English translation for those who were absolute beginners.  After my confusion with Lola it was a big relief to find that I understood it all.  We had about an hour to do a test to establish which class we should join and again I was pleased to find that I was officially at the beginning of the intermediate course.  Since I have been trying to learn for about two years I would have been disappointed if I were still a total beginner!

We spilled out into the little school courtyard after the test and went for coffee in the cafe attached to the school.  There were all nationalities, shaking hands and introducing themselves, some speaking Spanish and some English as their common language.  I was quickly swept up by two women of about my own age who were sharing accommodation at another host family.  One was a New Zealander spending a month learning Spanish before spending two months walking one of the many caminos in Spain which finish in Santiago.  She had done several of these pilgrimage walks already and I was in awe of her fitness.  The other had just taken voluntary redundancy from her job in London and was spending three months in Spain.  She had done French and Spanish as a degree many years ago and was hoping the course would revive her Spanish before she started on her travels.  Her Spanish was way better than mine.  They were sparky and interesting and in no time we were agreeing to meet up in the evening and do some exploring together.

And then into the class itself.  There were only four of us which was great: a Japanese guy of about thirty, two Germans, one in his early twenties and one of around fifty, and me.  Our teacher was Isobel, small, dark, warm and lively and beautifully, magically comprehensible.

So the days settled into a pattern: class from nine to one with a fifteen minute break and a change of teacher; one conversation class from one to two with five of us in it and then immediately another with just two students.  By the time I came out I was reeling and starving.  When Ian and I did another course last year in Seville we took the class without the conversation options.  I think the best idea is probably the class plus one conversation hour.  Two was maybe overdoing it!  Lunch was back at Lola's.  When she had told me that she worked in the morning and "la tarde" I had assumed that she would want to give me an evening meal.  In fact she was home for a period in the early afternoon before returning to work and what suited her was to give me a meal at about three.  Once I had accustomed myself to the very different routine this actually worked very well as we did not generally eat in the evening until after ten.

So the days were intense with the course and a meal and then a blessed period of a couple of hours when I didn't need to talk to anyone in any language.  I generally met up with Jenny and Helen at around 7.30 and we wandered and had a glass of wine and tapas.  On two evenings we discovered free concerts being performed by music students graduating from the conservatorio.  It was a magical experience to listen to classical Spanish guitar in a converted church in an audience where we seemed to be the only English visitors.

And everywhere we went there were beautiful things to see.  This is the Casa de Lis, now a gallery, shop and cafe, with the most astonishing stained glass.

Wednesday was a public holiday which was probably a life saver as it gave us a day to wander and spend time out, a buffer in a week of high octane Spanish learning.  I felt I learnt an enormous amount and by the time I left I was quite confident to speak Spanish in restaurants and shops and at the railway station and was finding that people were no longer responding to me in English!  I was understanding my hostess about seventy per cent of the time which was a big improvement but I still felt that I needed to practise more listening.  My spoken Spanish improved in leaps and bounds.  After that it was sad to discover that, having been home a fortnight, in the first conversation session I had with my language exchange friend who lives in Valencia, my Spanish was dreadful.  I put that down to a nine hour drive from Scotland the day before which meant that my brain was not in gear!

My flight home was on Sunday and I had a night in Madrid, having taken the train from Salamanca on Saturday afternoon.  This is the only bit of the experience that I would try to do differently as I was very ready to come home and would have liked to fly out on the Saturday.  But the whole week was a very special experience and I would love to go again.  I am really glad I did it but there is still a long way to go!


  1. What a wonderful adventure that must have been. I hope you can keep up the ‘conversation’ now that you are home.

    1. Thank you. I'm trying hard. I have a friend I made from my language exchange who I talk to every week in a mixture of Spanish for me and English for her. I'm just about to start a Spanish conversation class too as well as various things I do online. Hope to keep it going!

  2. What an adventure y estupendo. I love that stained glass. How about looking for some podcasts in Spanish to help with the listening skills. I used to listen to Spanish radio before I did my GCSE and I subscribed to Puerta del sol which used to have a listening tape as part of the package - it was thinking about that which made me think about podcasts. I also used to take the Sunday edition of El Pais which had a good magazine as well as the usual newspaper and I read all the Harry Potter books in Spanish for fun!

    1. Yes podcasts are a really good idea! I'll have to spend a bit of time seeing what there is. It's quite funny to be at a stage where I can speak better than I can listen! Don't think that has ever happened to me before!

  3. The listening is maybe about regional accents? I can read German, and speak German. But yesterday listening to an actual German ( not a Swiss) I had to ... concentrate ... on each word, each phrase.
    Even bloggers who put up video clips - we are all using English, but, how different it sounds!

    1. I can certainly be completely floored by an accent I haven't heard before! I'm sure that doesn't help. It's also speed I think and his clearly words are enunciated. I just need to listen to lots more Spanish!

  4. Netflix has lots of Spanish programmes… cooking or sewing ones are useful, though I'd avoid the Argentinian version of Sewing Bee! The Mexican Nailed It might be better.

    A film or series will be useful just to 'keep your ear in'

    1. That's a really good idea. Cooking and sewing programmes will probably be quite predictable in what they talk about which should help a lot!

  5. Sounds a lovely experience on so many levels. I can confirm that listening is the key to speaking. My children learned violin and viola by the Suzuki method, which is based on how we all learn our mother tongue. Babies spend all their time listening before they begin to speak - we don't give them a book to read and order them to speak! So having the radio on in the background while you do something else, as well as consciously listening to podcasts and TV (don't know if you can get Spanish TV on the internet here?), all will help to attune your ear. It's what I do to try to maintain my French. I loved my 2 weeks at language schools in Bordeaux, staying with host families. Tested out 2 schools and plan to go back this winter to the one I really liked. Even as a French graduate twice over I need to work at my French to maintain it.

    1. I think that is the thing: working at it to maintain it. I put in so much work before I went to Spain at the end of May and now, although I am doing my weekly skype chat which is brilliant, I am no longer doing the listening and speaking practice. I must get back to it!

  6. It all sounds wonderful! Salamanca is such a nice place to visit, on of my favourites in Spain. If you are fond of practicing spanish in Spain, have you think about doing a course in Barcelona? If you are interested, here are some articles with useful info :)

    Also, learning spanish in Buenos Aires sounds really interesting. I know it may be such a different culture and it's far away, but most people say the adventure is worth it. You can find more info here

  7. Hello Elizabeth! Once again our lives take on some sort of strange parallel...I loved reading this as I spent a month in Salamanca after my A levels to get my Spanish up to a better standard ahead of my Modern Languages university course. It was one of the best months of my life! What an amazing city it is, isn't it? So has probably changed since I was there - you used to be able to stand at the city walls and look out over the river and countryside. I think that has changed now as the city has surely sprawled...
    I met every nationality going and I remember some of them to this day. The whole experience is indelibly stamped in my psyche, including playing frisbee in the Plaza Major at 5 o'clock in the morning, eating churros and hot chocolate after the nightclub and then going to the river to strum guitars and watch the sunrise. Like your return journey, I flew to Madrid and had to find my way to the train to Salamanca with a HUGE case which I could barely lift (no wheels in those days!). I arrived late at night in Madrid and was terrified getting a taxi and praying he'd drop me off at the right hotel and I wouldn't be abducted!! And if it wasn't for a friendly soldier who spoke English on my carriage on the train then I doubt I would ever even have found my host family's apartment! The Gods were with me that day...
    Your description of arriving at yours was just like mine - Dona Luisa Barba and her doctor daughter, Marisa. My tiny room - my sanctuary! Supper at 10pm (she was not a great cook!) while watching Dallas in Spanish! Bed for a couple of hours before setting an alarm for 1am, getting up and dressed to party and wandering through the nighttime streets to the nightclub. Intensive lessons. I will never forget that wall and door you have pictured above or the beauty of the cathedral. Thank you for sparking a flood of happy memories this very, very wet Tuesday morning.

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