Explore Extremadura: Spain's monument-filled and tourist-empty secret gem

2018-07-11 22:00
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Travel Spain Extremadura monuments

Explore Spain's hidden monument dense and tourist slim gem of Extremadura. (Photo: iStock)

The flamenco strains were so haunting I asked the quintet of 20-somethings playing guitars on the doorstep of a massive, whitewashed centuries-old church if I could listen for a spell.

"Sure. Want a sip?" one replied, offering the litrona — a quarter-gallon bottle of beer — they were sharing. Then they went back to jamming, their notes echoing up the steep, narrow lane in one of the most monument-filled, tourist-empty cities in the Iberian peninsula.

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Caceres is a highlight of Extremadura, a Spanish region of vast sun-parched landscapes and untouched historical jewels exactly halfway between the ever-more-crowded capitals of Madrid and Lisbon, Portugal.

I spent a weekend there last October exploring Roman ruins, climbing up medieval towers and scarfing down plates of the famed local ham without seeing one tour group.

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I travelled mostly on comfortable public buses that rolled through olive and oak tree-studded hills, past fortified towns and palm-fringed farms, stopping to pick up schoolchildren returning home and elderly couples going to market.

Every stop appealed — especially Trujillo with its castle — but I focused on three must-sees: Merida, Caceres and Guadalupe.

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IMPERIAL POWER

This small city played a role in two of the world's great empires, Rome's and Spain's.

As their provincial capital, Romans filled Merida with public and private showpieces. Centuries later, many of the conquistadores that led Spain's dominion in the Americas came from this region (and returned to fill it with palaces).

Just across the two-millennia-old, half-mile river bridge, stand a couple of monuments dedicated to Merida by Rome and by its namesake city in Yucatan, Mexico.

Next to the monuments, in a fortress built by a ninth-century emir, I descended the steps of a water cistern decorated with Roman and Visigoth marble panels and carvings of leaves and grapes.

Travel Spain Extremadura monuments

The two-millennia-old, half-mile Roman river bridge and, to its right, the Alcazaba (Arab Citadel) in Merida. (Photo: Giovanna Dell'Orto / AP)

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Just past the bright-red bullfighting arena, in the Roman Casa del Mitreo, I marvelled at the bright turquoise sea depicted in a 2 000-year-old floor mosaic representing the cosmos, including a sun figure with a crown of rays exactly like the Statue of Liberty.

There is a Circus Maximus so gigantic you can imagine thousands of spectators roaring as chariots sped down the straight. But what took my breath away was the Roman Theater, its stage wall decorated with exquisitely detailed floral elements and veined marble columns that glowed blue in the afternoon sun.

In the pedestrianised streets of the workaday downtown, I found the Augustus-era Temple of Diana, its huge colonnade framing a porticoed Renaissance palace — two empires literally fused.

Travel Spain Extremadura monuments

The two-thousand-year-old Temple of Diana, one of the best preserved of the Roman monuments that fill Merida, Spain. (Photo: Giovanna Dell'Orto / AP)

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GOLD TREASURE

Caceres' strawberry-gold walled monumental core hugs a hilltop, with hardly a single modern element among slender medieval towers and Renaissance palaces covered in coats of arms.

It looks perfect enough for a movie set, but still feels real — I watched a nun in a white habit and a briefcase hurry under a stone arch, not a selfie stick in sight.

Travel Spain Extremadura monuments

A nun walking into the walled monumental center of Caceres, one of the most monument-filled, tourist-empty cities in Spain. (Photo: Giovanna Dell'Orto / AP)

In Plaza de San Mateo, where a crested tower and a bell tower jostle for height, I chatted about US presidential politics through a convent turnstile with the Kenyan sister selling me almond cookies.

Travel Spain Extremadura monuments

The view from Plaza de San Mateo, one of the highest tiny squares in Caceres, a hilltop town full of slender medieval towers, convents and Renaissance places. (Photo: Giovanna Dell'Orto / AP)

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Places to visit include the Santa Maria cathedral, full of conquistador tombs, around the corner from the Toledo-Moctezuma palace built by a mixed local-Aztec family, and the Casa de las Veletas museum, with an arch-lined Arabic aljibe (cistern).

But I found it hard to stop making laps up and down the entire town, following the sun as it marched across stern yet sumptuous facades, revealing sculpted stone details like grimacing gargoyles, lions holding an escutcheon, and a puffy-cheeked sun itself.

Travel Spain Extremadura monuments

The escutcheon on the Casa del Sol, a 16th-century palace in Caceres, a monument-filled hilltop town in Spain's Extremadura region. (Photo: Giovanna Dell'Orto / AP)

Fortified by wild boar tapas and shots of local bellota liquor — made from the same acorns eaten by pigs that end up as Iberia's best hams — I kept wandering into the night. My steps and those flamenco melodies were the only sounds in floodlit cobblestone alleys.

Travel Spain Extremadura monuments

Palacio de la Generala, one of the Renaissance palaces in the walled monumental center of Caceres, a perfectly preserved hilltop town in Spain's Extremadura. (Photo: Giovanna Dell'Orto / AP)

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SPIRITUAL ESCAPE

The enormous swirling rose window of the Royal Monastery of Guadalupe towers over this tiny, remote mountain village where pilgrims have come for seven centuries to honour the Virgin Mary.

Travel Spain Extremadura monuments

Royal Monastery of Guadalupe towering over the tiny mountain hamlet of Guadalupe in Spain's remote Extremadura region. (Photo: Giovanna Dell'Orto / AP)

Columbus was among them and the conquistadores brought the devotion to Latin America, where the Virgen de Guadalupe remains widely revered.

Travel Spain Extremadura monuments

The cloister, the shrine and part of the main church in the monastery of Guadalupe in Spain's Extramadura region. (Photo: Giovanna Dell'Orto / AP)

The fortress-like complex is filled with whimsical decorations, such as the cloister shrine and turrets covered in green and white tiles, and treasures, including jewel-encrusted reliquaries and paintings by Zurbaran.

I had my last dinner in Extremadura — wild mushrooms, venison stew and homemade custard — in the little square facing the main monastery entrance, where a few locals chatted and water trickled from a medieval fountain.

Travel Spain Extremadura monuments

The main square in the tiny mountain hamlet of Guadalupe, in Spain's Extremadura region. (Photo: Giovanna Dell'Orto / AP)

The bells tolled. Then, unbroken silence.

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If you visit, check out these tips and links for more information:

MERIDA 

Don't worry Petes, I didn't see anything???? #romanruins

A post shared by Sandra Villwock (@sandra_villwock) on

CACERES 

GUADALUPE 

GETTING THERE: Fly to Madrid or Lisbon; buses connect them, stopping at Merida. Trains / buses link Merida with Caceres; from Caceres, bus to Guadalupe.

TIPS: Summers are Arizona-hot; the best time to visit is in spring / fall (autumn).

Plan Your Trip to Extremadura, Spain: 

  • Do SA residents need a visa: Yes a tourist visa is required - Read more about that here. It costs around R964 and takes about 15 - 30 days to process.
  • Currency & exchange rate: Euro - €1 = R15.82
  • Main Airport: Badajoz Airport
  • Airlines that travel there: Qatar Airways and Iberia. Search for flights here.