Land of the Conquistadors – Extremadura
There is so much to say about this six day trip but it is only possible to do a précis here. So, to those of you who came on the trip, sorry if I miss out any of your highlights.
Extremadura is an autonomous community in west-central Spain. It borders Portugal to the west, Castilla-La Mancha to the east, Castilla y León to the north and Andalucía to the south. It is comprised of two provinces, Cáceraes in the north and the slightly smaller Badajoz in the south. In fact, these are the two biggest provinces in Spain. Mérida, on the border of these provinces and on the river Guadiana, is the administrative capital.
It is packed with World Heritage sites – extraordinary historical monuments, from Roman ruins to medieval towns – and was the home of the Conquistadores who discovered the South Americas.
On the first morning we caught the coach and met our driver, Antonio, and excellent guide and trip organiser, Danny. We had a quick breakfast near Guadix then off again on our journey. As we got closer to our first stop we kept catching glimpses of storks, strutting, flying and nesting and these seemed to reappear everywhere during our holiday.
In the early afternoon we arrived in Carmona, on the Rio Guadalquivir, north east of Seville, to be greeted with a welcome drink of Sangria at the Hotel Alcazar de la Reina. We had time to check in and freshen up then join our local guide for a walk round Carmona. This was a Roman stronghold of Hispania Baetica. It was made even more impregnable during the occupation of the Moors, who erected walls around it, and built fountains and palaces within. In 1247, Ferdinand III of Castile captured the town and bestowed on it the Latin motto Sicut Lucifer lucet in Aurora, sic in Wandalia Carmona (As the Morning-star shines in the Dawn, so shines Carmona in Andalusia). It is full of palaces, hermitages, convents, churches (with storks nesting in the belfries), hospitals, Roman bridges and Roman gates – an archaeologist’s dream. Our guide told us the story of a British archaeologist who loved so much one of the cakes made by the nuns of Santa Clara that they renamed it “Torta Ingles”. A few of our party bought one of these and found it to consist of a sponge base with a layer of chocolate nut spread under a flaky pastry top dusted in icing sugar.
Our mind now buzzing with all we had been told my group collapsed in a pretty plaza and, out of curiosity, ordered a tapa called “Spinach a la Carmona”. This came in huge portions of a delicious mix of spinach and chickpeas in a tasty sauce. Having enjoyed it so much we returned there for dinner for more!
Next morning, after an early breakfast and hotel check out we set out again. Danny told us about the Spanish Civil War and how Franco took power; he even took us up to, and after, World War Two. It was very interesting to hear it from the point of view of a boy who was brought up in Spain with English parents. He told us that when he was at school the history of Spain stopped at this point.
We then boarded some rather less comfortable carriages on the train which was originally introduced to connect Riotinto with Huelva, the capital of the province and the port from where the valuable minerals were taken abroad. On the journey along 12kms of restored track we passed the old smelting and industrial facilities belonging to the mines as well as beautiful scenery. A truly memorable journey.
After alighting from the train we visited the “Barrio Inglés de Bella Vista” where, at the end of the XIX century British engineers and miners lived, after moving into the area bringing along the industrial revolution. It was interesting to see how the British houses differed from the Spanish in design and decoration.
Back onto the coach and heading north, Danny gave us some background to our next stop, Zafra, the first port of call in Extremadura. This is in quite a strategic position on a crossroad between Mérida, Badajoz, Seville, Huelva and Córdoba. The Alcazar, originally built in the 15th century, was refurbished and extended in the 16th and 17th centuries and is now a Parador Nacional with a beautiful marbled patio inside. My group went in there for refreshments, but after waiting in vain for service (I guess we did not look affluent enough) we went into the nearest plaza for cerveza and bocadillos.
Mérida is the capital of Extremadura and is famous for its magnificent Roman past. The next morning we met our local guide for a walk round the city. We started at the magnificent Anfiteatro and saw pictures of different types of Gladiators, Thracians, Mirmillones, Retiarii Secutores and Bestiarii then went into the arena where they would have fought. We went on to the theatre where plays would have been performed and were told how young men and women ‘courted’ there. We then carried on round the city to learn about the many temples, monuments and bridges. We then had time for a quick lunch (torta del casar for me again) before the coach took us to see the aqueduct and more storks then off to the next stop, Cáceres.
On the way, Danny told us the story of Hernan Cortes and how he conquered México. Cortes is a particular anti-hero of mine since I lived in Mexico City many years ago. Although he came from Medellin, his statue is in Cáceres.
In the Plaza San Jorge there is a statue of St George killing the dragon. St George (San Jorge) is the patron saint of Extremadura and Catalonia. We were very lucky to happen to be in Cáceres on the eve of St. George’s Day as they have a procession through the new town to the old town with St. George and the Dragon. At around 10:30 the dragon is set alight and that is followed by an impressive firework display. The atmosphere in the main square is fantastic.
As far as food is concerned, in Cáceres that evening my friends tried the local migas, which I understand, was the best they have had anywhere. I had a wonderful starter of prawns on toast in a hollandaise-like sauce and grilled. Superb.
Next morning, St George’s Day, the ladies were greeted at breakfast with a rose from Danny. This is also the day that Cervantes and Shakespeare died and in Spain it is the day of the book. Men buy their ladies a rose and a book and book stores are set up in the main streets of the towns. We saw this during our walk round town that morning, and also youngsters dressed as cartoon characters and walking around reading aloud phrases from books. We headed back to the old town to have another look at the Jewish Quarter, (accompanied by more storks than ever) and to wait to see the band which the guide had told us began playing at noon and went from the main square into the church in the old town. Another St. George’s Day celebration. And what do we do in England on St. George’s Day for our patron saint?
On the way Danny told us how and when the Guardia Civil was formed and why it is viewed with some suspicion by the elderly Spanish to this day. He also told us about Pizarro, a distant cousin of Hernan Cortes, and his adventures in Peru.
Then we arrived in Trujillo and met our local guide for a walk round the town. The old quarter rises steep, stony and sinuous, the paved streets barely two donkeys wide, but open to two-way traffic. We found ourselves having to disperse as traffic tried to pass. We saw the family homes and crests of the local heroes and families then down to the Plaza Mayor, which is full of steps, arcades, stately trimmings and storks wheeling over the statue of Pizzaro. We romped around Moorish castles and ramparts up to the gate through which the Reconquista Christians poured in 1232. The gate was sufficiently preserved to serve in scenes in Ridley Scott’s movie 1492.
After refreshments in Trujillo we drove off through the dehesa lands of holm oaks whose acorns feed the pigs from which the famous Iberico hams, sausages and black pudding are made. Gradually the countryside grew loftier and greener and we were curving up to Guadalupe, a fine monastery trimmed with a hillside village. And it was in the monastery that we stayed the night – the Hospedería Monasterio de Guadalupe.
The Virgen de Guadalupe is the Patron Mother of Extremadura and, since 1928, of the whole Spanish speaking world.
That evening some of us wandered round the small village and had tapas and others stayed for dinner in the hotel. The next morning Danny had arranged for those who were interested to have a guided tour of the monastery. I joined this group and was absolutely fascinated by the contents. Magnificent mudéjar cloisters give way to chambers boasting illuminated chant books, exquisitely embroidered cloaks and chasubles, then works by Goya, El Greco and his local rival, Zurbarán. The sacristy was so fabulously frescoed that I was awed. Finally, the climax of the visit, we were ushered into the presence of the Virgin. Most of the time she oversees the church from 80ft high in the altarpiece but we had climbed up behind and were now on her level. A monk swiveled her round to face us. She is about 20 inches tall and, because she is made of cedar, almost black. The queen of all Spanish-speaking peoples peers out from rich robes of red and gold.
The origin of the statue is not certain, but the generally held view is that towards 714 A.D. some clergymen, who were fleeing from the Moors in Seville, brought with them this image of the Virgin Mary and some other ancient relics which they hid in the banks of the River Guadalupe. At the end of the 13th century or the beginning of the 14th century a simple herdsman, native of Cáceres, found it when the Virgin Mary appeared to him and told him where it was (under his dead cow) and told him that a church should be built there. The full story is in the visitor’s guide at the monastery.
After our visit to the monastery, we went up to the mirador for a fantastic view of the countryside then we explored the little town. We saw the stone font that tops the village fountain where you can see Cristóbal and Pedro, a pair of Indians that Columbus brought back for Ferdinand and Isabella. After a tubo and tapas we bought our souvenir torta del casar cheese as well as chorizo and morcilla from the local Iberico pigs.
Then back on the coach, leaving Extremadura and into Castilla-La Mancha, land of Don Quixote.
We expected to arrive at the hotel in Almagro late afternoon so that we would have time to get ourselves glammed up to go out on the town for our last dinner. The best laid schemes . . . .
We arrived in Almagro in plenty of time, but we encountered the first hiccup in the whole of the trip. The hotel where we were supposed to be staying had closed down !! Danny kept remarkably cool. He just went to the nearest hotel, made some phone calls and re-located us all in different places. A few of us stayed at that first hotel, the Hospedería de Almagro (which was very basic and full of students but served its purpose), others were across the square with another group of students, and the final group opted to pay extra to stay in luxury at the Posada. So well all went our separate ways for dinner.
We saw the statue of Diego de Almagro, who went with Pizarro to Peru then on to discover Chile, then various churches and other Renaissance mansions. One of them was painted in a shade of blue called añil which is used to keep the flies away. I am definitely going to use that on my house when I can find it !
We were told that Almagro was once quite a metropolis in southern Castile, thanks to the influence of the Fuggers, bankers to the Hapsburg king and the Holy Roman Emperor Carlos I (Charles V).
We then saw the street featured in the film “Volver”, directed by Pedro Almodovar, who also directed “The Flower of My Secret” and “Paper Birds”. I have bought DVDs of these films to put in the library.
Back to the Plaza Mayor, this is more of a wide street than a square. It is arcaded along its length and lined with rows of green-framed windows – an influence of the Fuggers. These terraces are deceiving. They contain courtyards around which houses are built. We were shown an example of one of these complexes which is now offices. Fascinating.
Then we went to visit the Corral de las Comedias, a perfectly preserved 16th century open air theatre, where plays are still performed regularly. It is one of 19 theatres that this town is famous for. In July they have a theatre festival to which people come from all over the world – the International Festival of Classic Theatre.
Finally, we sampled their local Manchego cheese and were told about their version of berejenas (aubergines). Unlike normal purple ones, these are small green and picked.
After time for a quick browse around the shops we piled onto the coach to wend our way home – thoroughly worn out but happy.
Thanks go to Ken for planning the route, based on his own knowledge of the area, and to Danny for making it work.