Geoff Power reports on his journey through the lesser travelled region of Extremadura in western Spain.
IT IS mid-summer in Extremadura, and the intense heat tightens like a head clamp. My partner and I walk along a narrow, cobblestoned street in the beautiful small town of Trujillo.
The street is so narrow we hug the walls to allow an occasional car sidle past. It is a shared space: no footpaths mean pedestrians and cars enjoy equal status.
We pass burly medieval homes and amble uphill towards the 16th century castle that dominates the town.
Ahead is an archway, the Puerta Santiago.
We walk underneath and admire the unadorned ochre walls of the church alongside.
Standing in the middle of a small intersection, I take out a map to check our bearings, secure in the knowledge that Trujillo is a safe tourist site, a medieval gem that attracts mostly Spanish travellers.
We have seen no pickpocketry or delinquent behaviour.
Suddenly I am shunted from behind.
My legs and back crumple. My head thumps against a flat surface.
I realise it isn’t a person, that I’m not being accosted. Instead, I turn to see a white van reversing into me, although a little more gently now.
The impact was enough to make the driver stop. He steps down and nods warily, but that is as contrite as he gets.
I mutter a Spanish expletive and move on. It’s hard to feel angry in a town like Trujillo.
Extremadura is one of the least visited, most remote, and least populated areas of Spain. Situated to the north of Andalusia — south-west of Madrid — it was a region I had always wanted to visit.
Daytime temperatures in August hover between 35 and 40 degrees.
The earth is scorched and, everywhere we look, the meadows are blasted a parched, sandy colour.
Anything green turns out to be an olive, orange, or fig tree.
We spent our first week in the north of Extremadura, in a small, perfectly kitted out cottage in La Vera. Sitting on the terrace, with wondrous views of the Sierra de Gredos, we sipped iced vermouth and observed the changing colours of the nearby mountain belt.
We swam in lofty rock pools, visited the monastery where Charlemagne retired shortly before his death, in 1558, and lounged in medieval mountain villages.
At 2,000m, near the spectacular summit of La Mira, outside a popular refuge with rock climbers, we sat on a ledge eating packed lunches.
Two mountain goats with spiral horns capped the idyllic scene, we thought. They were friendly, or hungry, and approached to within five metres.
“Careful,” said a dreadlocked woman. “They can charge.”
Raptors are less prone to displays of anger; they attack in order to eat.
Driving south towards Trujillo we stopped off at Monfragüe National Park, an area of oak woodland criss-crossed by the Tagus and Tietar rivers.
A short, steep walk to an old Moorish castle offers a wonderful platform from which to view dozens of black vultures, griffon vultures and imperial eagles soaring across a chasm, the Salto del Gitano (literally ‘Gypsy Jump’).
When we reached Trujillo, we arrived at a beautiful Spanish plaza.
Tucked into a corner of the main square is a fine statue of its most famous son, Fernando Pizarro. Born here circa 1476, it was Pizarro who defeated the Incas and claimed the lands for Spain. Trujillo would benefit greatly from the riches its conquistadors sent back from the New World.
Mérida is an hour’s drive south of Trujillo and is decidedly different.
It is a large town that lacks any immediate charm. But what entices people to visit is its remarkable Roman legacy.
Once known as Emérita Augusta, it was here, in 25BC, that the Emperor Augustus established the capital of Lusitania, a Roman province.
Two thousand years ago Mérida was an important economic and cultural nucleus; what remains from that period substantiates that.
Some of the more remarkable sites are the Temple to Diana, the wonderfully preserved Roman bridge over the Guadiana River (spanning nearly 800 metres), the theatre and amphitheatre. And, perhaps most impressive of all, the stunning aqueduct, Los Milagros (‘The Miracles’), which was built between the 1st Century BC and 3rd Century AD.
Another hour’s drive north of Mérida is Cáceres. The historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site and there are majestic palaces, towers and churches to marvel at in this large town, as well as one of the finest dining experiences you’ll encounter anywhere in southern Spain.
The food in general is of a higher standard here than in other parts of Extremadura.
There are several excellent taperías, but its culinary landmark is Atrio, a two-star Michelin restaurant run by the couple Juan Antonio Pérez and José Polo.
To eat here is an unforgettable experience.
After a guided tour of the wine cellar, recognised as one of the best in the world by Wine Spectator magazine, you are greeted by Chef ‘Tonio’ and introduced to the kitchen staff.
Tonio had prepared a special vegetarian menu for my partner and a pescatarian one for me (after only a day’s notice!).
During our three-day stay in Cáceres, we were fortunate enough to see an exhibition of Goya’s etchings, The Disasters of War, at the Palacio de los Becerra.
Another must is the archaeological museum at ‘Las Veletas’, which also houses a gallery of contemporary art.
Extremadura is a region that doesn’t feature on many tourist maps. It is a place people simply drive through en route to the south coast.
But make it a destination and you will appreciate its remoteness, its beauty, its mystique, and you will do so without throngs of tourists at your back… just the occasional van.
We flew Ryanair to Madrid. There is no international airport in Extremadura, so you may need to hire a car. La Vera is about two and a half hours’ drive from Madrid. Trujillo is about the same journey time, but add another hour to reach Mérida or Cáceres.
La Vera: DeLaCava Cottage, Villeneuva de la Vera.
For self-catering and booking information, see: www.homeaway.com/vacation-rental/p8025991.
Trujillo: Hotel NH Trujillo Palacio de Santa Marta,
E: firstname.lastname@example.org, ph: +3491-3984661.
Merida: Hostal La Flor de Al-andalus,
Avda Extremadura, 6; e: email@example.com.
Cáceres: Hotel La Boheme (if possible, stay in the terrace room).
Contact Santiago on, e: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.hotellaboheme.com.
Trujillo: Restaurante Alberca, Calle Victoria 8, ph: +0034927-322209.
Merida: (for breakfast) La Panadería Pastelería, Calle Marquesa de Pinares, 20, ph: +34924-303508.
Cáceres: For good tapas go to La Tapería Yusté (Plaza de San Juan, 13), or La Cacharrería (Calle Orellana, 1). Also, on Plaza Morrón, try ‘Perhaps’, a modern take on the tapa experience. But for something really special, go to Atrio! Plaza de San Mateo 1, Ph: +34927-242928; E: email@example.com; www.restauranteatrio.com.
La Vera: Hike the Sierra de Gredos, visit Monasterio Yuste, or spend time in medieval villages where stilted houses stand in stumble block form around central squares.
Trujillo: A perfect small town not yet overrun by tourists. You’ll find many references to Fernando Pizarro — visit the house reputed to be his family home (on Plaza de Santa María).
Merida: See the amphitheatre and theatre (in August, the Roman theatre is the venue for the Classical Theatre Festival).
Cáceres: Visit El Palacio de Gulfones, the archaeological museum at the Albergue Las Veletas and, for the thrill of good modern art in medieval surroundings, try Centro de Artes Visuales Fundación Helga de Alvear (Pizarro, 8; www.fundacionhelgadealvear.es).
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