Extremadura, a little known Spanish region homeland of famous Conquistadors! – World Meanderings (n°51)
By Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
Although Extremadura has no seacoasts and obviously no ports, it is the homeland of many 16th century conquerors that didn’t hesitate to defy the Atlantic Ocean and a risky crossing to get fame and fortune. Born in poor minor nobility they had no other choice and many of these conquistadors came back home rich enough to built palaces and castles that we can still see today.
Hernan Cortes who conquered the Aztec Empire in Mexico, Francisco Pizarro who subjugated the Inca Empire in Peru, Nunez de Balboa who was the first European to cross the Isthmus of Panama and reach the Pacific Ocean, Garcia Lopez de Cardenas who explored the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, Francisco de Orellana who mapped the Amazon Basin, they were all born in this harsh land at a time when everything became possible.
Extremadura is one of the vastest Spanish regions, close to the Portuguese border in the centre of the country. Usually people drive through it on their way South or North without stopping in its beautiful cities and missing many interesting places and tastes. Conquistadors were not the only ones to leave a trace in its history. Romans, Visigoths, Arabians, Jews or Christians built villages and cities, redesigned landscapes shaping Extremadura the way we can see it today.
Merida was founded by Emperor Augustus in the 1st century BC and now is the capital city of the region. You will find there the largest ancient Roman site of whole Spain including the longest bridge ever built by the Romans in their huge empire, a magnificent amphitheatre where a classical music festival takes place every year, the Diana temple, the Trajan Arch, the Miracles Bridge… There is also an impressive fortress surrounded by high ramparts that have been built and rebuilt by Roman, Visigoth or Arabic invaders, creating an interesting architectural patchwork. The new archaeological museum presents an impressive collection of antic Roman artefacts that would justified a visit for itself. Don’t miss it.
If you have enough time, try to spend a few days in Merida to enjoy its lively atmosphere and cultural heritage. “Ilunion Merida Palace” is a superb 5-star hotel in the heart of the historic city of Merida set in a stylish 16th century palace with inner gardens, chanting fountains and colourful mosaic walls. https://en.ilunionmeridapalace.com/m/
Caceres might look stern from the outside with his stone ramparts, but once inside you will discover a beautifully preserved town with many mansions and palaces once again of different styles and times. City centre is entirely pedestrian and walking through the narrow and shaded streets is a “cooling” walk. Every year in May, music bands from the whole world invade Caceres’ streets. This music festival called Womad, was created in 1992 by Peter Gabriel to promote world music. It’s a free intercultural event getting more and more popular each year. In Caceres you can stay at Palacio de Oquendo, a 4-star NH hotel, a modern style hotel set in a Renaissance Palace at a few steps from Caceres’ main square and fortified city centre.
The Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Guadalupe is not to be missed. This fine monastic complex combines Christian and Moorish architectures known as Mujedar style in Spain. Unfortunately guided tours, which are the only way to visit the monastery, are only in Spanish, but it still is worth the visit. Christopher Columbus came here after discovering Las Americas to give thanks to Virgin Mary and we can still see her statue where he came to pray.
Trujillo is the fourth place not to be missed in Extremadura. This medieval town surrounded by ramparts was built on a hill and its elegant silhouette overlooks the River Tagus valley. Two famous conquistadors were born here: Francesco de Pizarro and Francisco de Orellana. Next to the medieval Moorish town noble families and conquistadors built luxurious mansions and castles during the 16th and 17th centuries. You will see many of them on Plazza Mayor and in adjacent streets. They have ornamented balconies and relaxing indoor gardens. The most remarkable one probably is the Marquis de la Conquista Palace built by Hernando Pizarro family.
Close by in a narrow street that climbs the hill you will find the palace built by Orenalla. It has been turned into a wonderful boutique hotel, “Casa de Orellana”, ideal for a comfortable stay enjoying its outdoor swimming pool and lovely gardens in a beautiful historic set. A unique opportunity to sleep in the bed of a conquistador! www.casadeorellana.com/en/ – Mobile N°: (+34) 696 70 02 25.
Extremadura has a very rich and tasty gastronomy. There are many oak forests where the famous Iberico pigs go to eat the acorns. Acorns give a unique taste to Iberico Jamon the famous Spanish cured ham that is made in the area. In bodegas and restaurants you will be able to enjoy tasty tapas made with this nut-flavoured ham and with local vegetables, olive oil and cheeses. There are also locally produced rice, cherries, honey, wild mushrooms, game…
Extremadura’s cheeses are really good and you should have some Los Ibores made with goat’s milk and marinated in olive oil or some La Serena an ancient cheese made with sheep’s milk that is used to make the wonderful “tortas del la Serena”.
Christopher Columbus brought back from America the very first pepper plants in Europe. People in Extremadura turned it into a unique paprika called Pimenton de la Vera by smoking it with oak wood and crushing it into a dark red powder. It gives a unique smoky flavour and a rich red colour to any simple dish.
To quench your thirst have one of the local beers called Cerex. They are made with acorns that give them a unique nutty flavour. Extremadura definitely is the right place for a simple meal made with authentic produce tasting like nowhere else.
all info about Estremadura at: http://turismoextremadura.com/viajar/turismo/en/index.html
Text © Frederic de Poligny & Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny