Extremadura is an autonomous region of Spain in the west of the country. It is home to the provinces of Cáceres and Badajoz and has a long western border with Portugal. The region is one of Spain’s best-kept travel secrets with unspoilt historical cities and areas of outstanding natural beauty. It’s an ideal destination for travellers who like to get off the beaten track. Most of the region is quite flat, with the rivers Tajo and Guadiana crossing into Portugal. In the north, Spain’s central plateau provides some picturesque, and often quite deserted, wooded sierras and isolated villages and in the south the Sierra Morena provides a natural border with Andalucía.
There is only one airport of a significant size in Extremadura, at Badajoz, although this presently has only internal flights. Although Seville, Valladolid and Madrid are only between three and four hours’ drive away, by far the nearest international airport is that at Lisbon, which can be reached in just over two hours. However, with the major road route from Madrid to Lisbon crossing the region and the N630 going from north to south, the whole area is far more accessible than it used to be. With a rail and bus network now extending to all the towns in the region, it is possible to make connections to here from all major Spanish cities.
History of Extremadura
Despite being a relatively little-known region outside Spain itself, Extremadura has more than its fair share of history. When the Roman Empire was expanding across Europe one of the places they made almost a home from home was the city of Merida. Such was the importance of this city in Roman plans that they built a complete amphitheatre, as well as a traditional Roman temple, with an aqueduct to use for supplies and trade. These buildings can still be found in Merida today along with the archway that was erected and the villas for the travelling armies.
Another part of world history that originated from this region are the ‘Conquistadors’ such as Pizarro and Balboa who left Spain in order to make their fortune in the Americas. Probably the most famous of these men was Pizarro who came from the Extremaduran town of Trujillo. Travel there today and you’ll see the riches he made for himself with its breathtaking medieval castle and mansion. Extremadura’s influence can be illustrated by the number of towns in Latin America who take their names directly from places in the region such as Mérida in Mexico and Venezuela, Medellín in Columbia and Albuquerque in New Mexico. Even Santiago, the capital of Chile, was originally called Santiago of New Extremadura.
When to Visit Extremadura
Extremadura tends to have very hot and dry summers – the average temperature in July is above 26° and it can be as high as 40°. Drought is quite common during the summers. I recall only too well 7th July 2005 as I sat in my car in Trujillo listening to events unfold in London after the terrorist attack on the city. The air conditioning was working overtime as the car’s thermostat registered 44ºC. Winters are generally mild though significantly colder in mountain areas. Rainfall is also more pronounced here with occasional snow at high altitudes. In the remainder of the region rainfall is quite low with most falling in the autumn or spring.
Where to Visit in Extremadura
Mérida’s impressive Roman sites include the longest bridge built by the Romans in Spain – 64 granite arches, to be precise; a five mile aqueduct, much of which is in imposingly impressive condition; an amphitheatre which could seat 14,000, and a theatre for 6,000 where Roman, Greek and more modern plays are still staged during the summer. The centre of the old town is very compact, so walking from site to site is quite straightforward, but try to make it to Plaza De España in order to take a few minutes to sit in the square and watch the storks nesting on the roofs around you.
The centre of Cáceres, enclosed completely within Moorish town walls with some inspiring watch-towers, is a totally magical place to visit. Almost the same as it has been for several hundred years, Cáceres has magnificent examples of Roman, Arab and Renaissance architecture. There are so many impressive, plazas, palaces and patios that you will want to just meander the Ciudad Monumental for hours. There are few more atmospheric places in Spain – and Cáceres is far less likely to be crowded than most of its counterparts.
Much smaller than either Mérida or Cáceres, Trujillo, perfectly situated on a hill to dominate its surrounding plain, has often, with good reason, been referred to as one of Spain’s most beautiful small towns. The expansive, grand Plaza Mayor, with its classically elegant palaces and mansions, is dominated by the statue of the Conquistador Pizarro, whose wealth helped the town to rise to such prominence. Trujillo’s upper town is enclosed within a kilometre of Moorish walls and, as you enter this enchanting place – however much you might disapprove of some of the ways its wealth was acquired – it will be like entering a time machine.
Guadalupe is a town which was closely tied with Spanish colonialism and the discovery of the New World. It was here that Columbus returned after his voyage in 1492 to honour ‘la Virgen de Guadalupe’. It attracts many visitors who come to see one of Spain’s most iconic statues known simply as ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe’. The monastery was the burial place of King Henry IV and his mother.
The Yuste Monastery near Caceres dates back to the 15th century and is famous for being the place where the reigning Emperor, Carlos V, came to die. Nearby is Jarandilla de la Vera which dates from the same period as the monastery and was actually used by King Charles I while the monastery was being completed. This is a great base for a number of interesting walks – amongst the tobacco, paprika and raspberry plants.
Because the region is located so close to both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic and with its two large river systems, Extremadura attracts many migratory species of birds. Many bird lovers ‘flock’ to the Monfrague Natural Park to see many rare species of birds of prey including golden eagles, black vultures, Spanish Imperial eagles, great and little bustards, the unusual black storks, and many more. As well as the birds there are over 200 species of animal in the Park including the extremely rare Spanish lynx.
Valle de Jerte
If you happen to be in Extremadura in the spring, then try to find time for a drive through the Valle de Jerte, in the north east of the region. In excess of 50% of Spanish cherries are cultivated here and during April the blossom appears to fill the entire valley.
And More …
Other Extremadura towns worth more than a passing visit are Badajoz – by far the region’s biggest and most industrialised town; Plasencia – another full of fine medieval buildings; and Zafra, with its elegant parador in what was once the castle. Indeed, a tour of Extremadura paradors would provide a fascinating insight into this historical land.
Where to Stay in Extremadura
If you truly wish to experience all that this region has to offer then you need to stay in the region’s paradors. These are hotels that have been built in conjunction with the ancient buildings themselves, such as castles and monasteries and offer the ultimate in luxury and a feeling of being part of the heritage of this region.
An ideal way of discovering this fascinating land is to take a self-drive tour of the region whilst staying in some of Extremadura’s historic paradors. The 4-star Parador de Caceres is one of the best around whilst there are other beautiful options in Zafra, Trujillo, Merida, Guadalupe and Jarandilla de la Vera. Below is a list of the building type in each destination.
Caceres – 4* – 14th century palace
Zafra – 4* – 15th century castle
Guadalupe – 4* – 15th century Hospital of St. John the Baptist
Plasencia – 4* – 15th century convent
Jarandilla de la Vera – 4* 15th century castle-palace
Merida – 4* – 18th century convent
Trujillo – 4* – 18th century convent
Festivals of Extremadura
Cáceres is the venue for its own WOMAD Festival each May, with a line-up of mainly international artists, many workshop activities and, of course, an eclectic host of stalls offering just about everything! The festival takes place mainly around the Plaza Mayor, the Plaza San Jorge and the Gran Teatro.
Very different, is the ritualised Pero Palo carnival in Villanueva de la Vera at the end of February or beginning of March. A weird wooden figure, dressed in a smart black suit but meant to be the devil, is paraded around the streets being taunted and thrashed by the residents. Needless to say, fireworks and festivities follow in abundance.
Each August, there is a festival dedicated to both cayenne pepper and tobacco in Jaraíz de La Vera. Every summer, Mérida’s Festival brings top quality ballet, opera, concerts and plays – taking place in bars and restaurants as well as in the Roman theatre itself. Much more bizarre is the Festival of Carantonas at Achehuche where the locals dress in animal skins and horribly grotesque masks to commemorate their patron saint, Sebastian.
Food and Drink of Extremadura
Some of the very best Spanish ham originates from Extremadura – the black pigs here producing supremely tasty cured ham, chorizo sausages and other pork products. The free ranging pigs, roaming amongst the cork trees in the dehesas and swallowing the fallen acorns, enjoy the perfect diet!
Other local favourites include lamb cooked in paprika and Cachuela Extremeña, a coarse and spicy pate. The Spanish tortilla was allegedly invented at the Monastery of Guadalupe, along with consommé, known here as consume, which the French took back home with them during the Napoleonic Wars. Strangely enough, a similar legend exists with regard to the convent of San Benito de Alcántara, which Napoleon’s troops put under siege. The nuns were forced to use their recipe manuscripts to make rifle cartridges and, when these were discovered, the French general sent them home to France, to develop into game recipes served ‘a la Alcántara’. The renowned Escoffier was later to claim that these recipes were the ‘only profitable thing France took from the war.’
You will find some delicious cherry cakes as well as the almond-based furrinillas. Also, these form the basis of some local liquors. There is only one wine given a Denomination of Origin, the Ribera del Guadiana, which produces some good dry white wines but, more especially, some robust and earthy reds, mainly from the tempranillo grape.