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Spain Extremadura: Land of the Conquistadors

Dennis

100+ Posts
By Dennis Switzer from Canada, Spring 2006
In March, 2006 Margaret and Dennis visited Extremadura. With the city of Caceres as their base they explored many of the popular sights in the region. Please join them on their travels.

This trip report was originally posted on SlowTrav.

Preamble: A Caution and an Explanation

If your travels are exclusively four or five star, read no further. We are travelers of modest means and therefore modest expectations regarding food and accommodation. We enjoy hearty well-prepared local dishes. A dinner for two with local wine and coffee that exceeds E25 is a rarity for us. If we pay more than E50 a night for accommodation, we figure we are splurging! However, we insist on clean, quiet rooms with bath. Apartments must be inclusive of cleaning and linens.

Why Extremadura? Friends had never heard of it. Had they heard of Pizarro, of other conquistadors and of the explorers of the New World? Why yes. It was the lure of history that brought us to this remote area. That and Extremadura’s tourist slogan: “Spain, as it once was” drew us.
 

Dennis

100+ Posts
Day 1: Cordoba to Caceres

One last view of the Mezquita from across the river at dawn and then we were on our way, out of the Quadalquivir valley, on the N432. The drive to Zafra took us past small mining operations and farm land. There was nothing that caught our interest or made us want to stop.

By mid-morning we were ready for a break in Zafra. Its white walls and Parador (formerly the Alcazar) reflect its Arab past.

Rather than rush a visit to Merida with its Roman ruins we took the town bypass and continued north. At Aldea del Cano we stopped at the large truck stop at the junction of the N630 and CC191 just south of town. As is our fate, we were again the first guests in the large dining room. In contrast to the truckers’ bar the room was light and airy with linen table cloths. Soon the room began to fill and by coffee, it was full. It appeared most regulars opted for the paella on the el menu. From the E9 menu, I chose a first course of beef and potato stew followed by grilled trout with vegetables. The flan casera was acceptable. Margaret chose lightly battered merzula as a main course.

Fortified, we made our run into the City of Caceres. The modern city itself is easy to get around. However, on this occasion, our trusted Michelin driving directions let us down. After two runs at what turned out to be a blocked-off street to our accommodation we set down in a commercial parking spot to collect our wits. A friendly parking officer provided us with alternatives to receiving a parking citation! We parked at the large parking garage near the old city, called our rental place and set out on foot to find it.

Our home for the week was a 10 minute walk across the Plaza Mayor and very near the Plaza de San Juan. We found it easier to take a quick reconnoitre around our place for parking and if none was readily available, head directly to the Obispo parking garage. For E7.80 for 24 hours it saved a lot of headaches!

Antonio greeted us and showed us our flat. (See accommodation review of Fincas and Houses, Caceres.) A quick walk about the neighborhood showed it to be safe and in close proximity to the walled old city and shopping. Groceries, clothes washing and a bottle of wine rounded out our first day in Caceres.
 

Dennis

100+ Posts
Day 2: A Chance Meeting

We rose early to explore Caceres. St Clara’s Gate was just down the street from our place and provided quick entry to the old walled town. In this quadrant of the town are located the Parador, Plaza and Church of San Mateo and the Casa de las Veletas, which houses the provincial museum. The museum provides an overview of the history of the region and of its people and customs. The architectural highlight of the building is its twelfth century Moorish cistern. Watch your head on entering!

While waiting in the sun for Margaret as she hunted for presents in the souvenir shop in the Plaza de San Mateo, I spotted two hikers with the familiar scallop shell on their packs. A wish for a “Buen Camino” led us into a conversation. The two peregrinos, one from Norway and one from the U.S.A. were walking the Via de la Plata from Seville to Santiago and had stopped to visit the sights of Caceres for the day. Our offer to have them stow their packs at our place was accepted. After a bit of conversation, the Norwegian pilgrim asked, “Were you in Toulouse two years ago?”

“Why yes, we were.” It turns out that I gave the same greeting to him in Saint Serin’s Basilica!

That evening we strolled the Avenida d’Espagne under a clear sky. It was the Day of the Working Woman and a concert was held in the grandstand in the park. As with all get-togethers children were very much in evidence and danced and sang with their parents.

In what was to become a nightly ritual we walked the quiet (except for the occasional tour) dark streets and plazas of the old city. We sat and watched as small flickers of light from candles found their way through the masonry and roof tiles of San Mateo church and saw the moon rise over Golfines Palace.
 

Dennis

100+ Posts
Day 3: A Roman Holiday

Vamos! Time to travel south for an hour and back two millennia to Roman Spain. Retracing out route from the first day we returned to Merida to visit the ruins and museum there. Because of its location, Merida became the capital of the Roman province of Lusitania. All the trappings of a capital city followed: baths, a theatre, temples, patrician villas and an amphitheatre. A combined ticket provides entry to the major sights in the city.

On the day we visited we found parking near the theatre. I suspect in high season parking may be at a premium. Of all the remarkable sights, we found the theatre to be the most captivating. In summer, plays and concerts are a standard feature. For us, the stones sang their own song.

The new National Museum of Roman Art is a worthwhile visit. It is not included in the combined ticket.

The Church of Saint Elalia is interesting in that excavations in its basement have brought to light a succession of Roman houses, an early Christian burial ground and a very early Christian basilica.

A long day under a clear sky had us tucked away early, early for Spain anyways!
 

Dennis

100+ Posts
Day 4: West to Alcantara and Area

Before we started out, we had a small quest to undertake. Stops at the tourist shop and discussions with Antonio only gave us vague directions to possible Internet locations. However, the beneficent Spanish Library system did not let us down. Helpful staff assisted us with signing up for free access to the web and email. The library is housed in a manorial house on Calle Santo Domingo with computers on the top floor. The library also houses a modest art gallery.

Our way west took us past Malpartida de Caceres. We found the grounds and building housing the Vostell Museum more interesting than the exhibits. Chacun a son gout! Storks inhabit the landscape that is littered with huge strangely-shaped rocks. A walk around the reservoir is a peaceful diversion.

The tourism official in Alcantara was very helpful and delighted to show off her region. She suggested some nice walking tours and was adamant that we not miss the Roman bridge over the Tagus.

The bridge itself was only of moderate interest. It has been repaired many times. One can appreciate the monumental effort taken long ago to complete it. The spring flowers were out along a small trail along the Tagus. That and a quirky set of folk art totems just off the road were the highlights of the area for us.

Next on our agenda was a hunt for dolmens in the area around Valencia de Alcantara. The map the turismo provided seemed straight forward enough. There were even signs marking the way. About 100 metres up the lane we recognized this was not a job for our little Renault Clio and had to carefully back down the lane which was strewn with boulders. Half an hour later, we were at the entrance to the lane and our search for dolmens soured.

As homage to one of our favourite American cities, Albuquerque, New Mexico, we visited the town of nearly the same name (spelled Alburquerque). The fourteenth century castle of Alvaro de Luna surmounts the hill over the town. A pleasant stroll on the nearly deserted streets led us to a bar for a beer and tinto de verano.

Our trip back to Caceres took us through cork forests for which the area is renowned. Small cork operations are in every village along the way. The landscape with its weird rock formations provided a scenic backdrop to the trees and wild flowers.

Back in Caceres, we were ready for something other than prepared by our own hands. Other slow travelers had recommended El Figon in the Plaza de San Juan near us. Slow Travelers had always done right by us and we took the plunge. The restaurant was pleasantly fitted out in a rustic style. Although there was smoking it seemed to us that there was less of it than on previous visits to Spain. Perhaps a consequence of the new smoking prohibitions? Service was average but both the roast pork and lamb stew were top notch. The house wine was from the area and drinkable. On a second visit, we will choose a bottle from the wine list. With wine and a coffee and ordering a la carte expect a E40 to 50 evening.
 

Dennis

100+ Posts
Day 5: Pizarro’s Skull

Directly east on the N521 is Trujillo. In under an hour we were in the town that conquest built. Although there is a modern parking structure near the main square (follow the signs from the highway), we found there was plenty of free parking in the newer area near the bus depot. Across the street from the depot is a local churreria. Freshly made to order and dusted with sugar, they were of the larger variety. No effete chocolate served here; it was solely churros and coffee and pleasant conversation with the owner. It is only a short walk to the Plaza.

The Plaza Mayor is dominated by a statue of Pizarro. He is in the company of his compatriots. Here other conquistadors built their palaces and flaunted the wealth they gained from their New World adventures. We wandered past the square up into the old town. The views from the tenth century Moorish castle are not to be missed.

So often on our trips, serendipity finds us out. On the day of our visit, youth from all the parishes in Caceres province gathered at the castle to show as a prominent poster put it “ninos solidarios”, “children united”. Their enthusiasm was infectious and soon we were singing along with them.

Now to Pizarro’s skull. It is located in the Coria Museum as part of the exhibition on the history of Spain’s involvement in the Americas during the Age of Discovery. Over all the museum was disappointing. There were very few exhibits. Most of the learning was via written commentary, all in Spanish and maps and some pictures.

After a leisurely drink back at the Plaza Mayor where the free tapas of the day was tripe we cut across to Montachez, a hill-top village that is Antonio’s home town. Here we encountered our second preserved oddity of the day, massive store houses for Serrano ham. The meat processors are open to the public and the hanging hams are a much more palatable sight than Senor Pizarro! Be warned the town is a warren and difficult to negotiate.
 

Dennis

100+ Posts
Day 6 and 7: ...

The day was made for sunning on the patio and that was what we did.

I did make a short walk to the Church of Santiago just north of the old city walls. The Romanesque era church was remodeled in the 1500s. The Order of the Knights of Caceres had their origin here. It is said that this Order in turn founded the Knights of St. James. The retablo centerpiece is a representation of Santiago, Matamoros, St. James, the Moor slayer. Katty corner to the church is Goday’s Palace with a fine coat of arms and decorated corner balcony.

The evening was clear and warm so we did a paseo on the Avenida and took in a free gospel concert at Santa Maria’s Church. The ensemble was from Texas. A walk through the old city brought us home once again.

The next day was more of the same but with a pleasant lunch in the Plaza Mayor at the Cafeteria El Patio. The platos combinados were ample and tasty. For E6.50 I had roasted peppers stuffed with shrimp, a pork schnitzel stuffed with cheese and ham and a salad. Margaret’s plate was similar but with chicken breasts instead of pork. With a bottle of wine, coffee and rice pudding the bill came to E21.

However, the highlight of the week was a telephone call from our daughter. We got to talk to our grandson.
 

Dennis

100+ Posts
Day 8: On to See the Virgin

After a leisurely ride through the countryside, we arrived in the town of Guadalupe. It is much smaller than we imagined and life centers on the small square in front of the monastery.

We are a couple who travel conservatively. Any accommodation over E50 a night gives us pause. But based on recommendations, and a Golden Age (over 60) discount we booked a night at the Parador. We were not disappointed. From the moment the porter escorted us through the courtyard, along a peaceful, lattice-filtered sunlit corridor to our room, we knew we had made a good decision on our place to stay. Our room looked out on the garden and we had a large balcony from which we could watch the birds fly to and fro. The downside is, I fear it has spoiled Margaret for other accommodation. Truth is told, me too!

While waiting for the Monastery to open for tours we visited many of the shops around the square. Tin and copperware were the crafts most in evidence. The tour of the Monastery’s treasures and a viewing of the virgin of Guadalupe costs E3. The holdings are extensive in that many of the kings and queens of Iberia and explorers and conquistadors left gifts to the Virgin. The guide led us through rooms filled with illuminated medieval manuscripts, art and sculpture by notables such as El Greco, Zubaran and Michelangelo, and embroidery with gold and silver thread done by monks over the centuries. The garments and tiaras in the reliquary room are inlaid with jewels and precious metals. These are worn by the statue on special occasions. We could have stayed for hours in any of the rooms examining the art and craft held there. However, we sensed that the other people in our group saw this as a necessary evil to be endured prior to viewing the Virgin. The guide hustled us along.

The room fell silent as a priest opened the Camarin, a small room that held the statue of the Virgin. Faithful were allowed to come forward and offer their prayers as they passed. The statue is very small with the Virgin’s head about the size of a navel orange and the Infant Jesus is nearly lost in the raiment. The statue is on a revolving platform that permits it to be shown in the Camarin and in the church proper.

How did this small statue come to be the subject of such veneration? Legend has it that the statue was carved by St. Luke from a life sitting of Mary. Lost for centuries it was found by a cowherd around 1300. King Alfonso IX asked for her help in waging war against the Moors. After a victory, he had the Monastery built. It became a site of pilgrimage and gifts were bestowed on it. By the 1600s this small statue came to be the patron of all Spanish culture in both the Old and New Worlds. It was in Guadalupe that Columbus brought the first two Christianized First Nations people to be baptized. The fountain remains in the town square and a painting in the church commemorates the event. The Virgin of Guadalupe is known as the Patron of Todas las Espanas.

It was luxurious to stretch out that night in heavy pressed cotton sheets and have the balcony doors open.

Our peregrino friends advised us that if one is considering a trip to Guadalupe from Caseres on the bus, the schedules are such that one is required to stay overnight in Guadalupe. They recommended the Monastery's Hospederia highly for an evening's accommodation.
 

Dennis

100+ Posts
Day 9: Cherry Blossoms and Snow-capped Peaks

Our room price included a large buffet breakfast. Eggs were made to order and the coffee was served in large cups, a concession to North American caffeine addiction!

For the best views of the Monastery, we recommend taking the road north (EX 118) out of Guadalupe. Viewpoints also provide panoramas of neatly arranged olive groves, dusty green against the rust red soil.

Even though we had heard the cherry blossoms were “late” this year we headed towards the Vera valley to catch some early arrivals. Along the way we stopped at the large reservoir near Navalmoral de la Mata. Ruins of a Roman temple were rescued from rising waters and placed scenically against the distant Sierra de Gredos Mountains. Wild flowers rioted along the water’s edge.

We arrived in Caucos de Yuste for lunch. A light meal in the arcaded square preceded a minor shopping expedition for the famous Vera Valley paprika. We bought all three varieties: sweet, sweet-spicy, and spicy. Charles V’s retirement place, the Monastery of Yuste was closed at the time of our visit. A peek over the walls revealed its famous gardens were in need of a severe grooming.

All along the valley, cherry blossom branches framed the snow-capped Gredos range under dazzling blue skies.

As it was late afternoon and we wanted to be in Alba de Tomes by the evening we only had an opportunity to witness the extensive road construction and building boom around Plasencia.

The road from Plasencia to Alba was clear of traffic and we made good time. Avila may have Saint Teresa’s toe but the town of Alba has her heart – and the rest of her too at the convent where she died.

That is, however, a story for another day.

Resources

Caceres accommodation
Caceres City site
Paradors website
Wikipedia list of conquistadors
 

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