Established in 1213 and granted its full charter in 1254, Salamanca was organized on the model of the University of Bologna—that is, it gave precedence to humanistic scholarship over the study of theology favored by the University of Paris. Its intellectual heyday was in the 15th and 16th centuries, but it remains a major force in Spanish intellectual life and the most popular place in the country for foreigners to study the Spanish language. The original college, the Escuelas Mayores, boasts one of the best carved portals in a city of pretty impressive doorways. Carved in 1534, this “doorway to heaven” was intended to emulate the goldsmith’s art. The main medallion in the first register depicts the Catholic monarchs Isabel and Fernando. Crowds gather to scrutinize the fine details, but they are not looking for the Catholic monarchs; they are looking for the carved frog perched on a human skull on the right-hand side of the door. Legend holds that students who can spot it will do well on their exams. Although Salamanca is not known for its business school, Salamantino entrepreneurs have capitalized on the legend by making the rana (frog) a whimsical if unofficial symbol of Salamanca. Every imaginable trinket can be purchased emblazoned with its likeness.

Given such a great entrance, it’s a little disappointing that the only tour inside the university is restricted to a self-guided walk around the Renaissance arcades of the Escuelas Mayores, the original college of the university. Let your nose lead the way. The chapel has the lingering odor of sanctity (actually, frankincense), while the wonderful old library on the upper level smells of paper and old leather, even through the closed glass doors. You can also visit the lecture hall of Fray Luis de León, fitted with crude wooden benches.