Into Extremadura: Done Catalonia and Andalusia? Try this Spanish region next
Sorcha O'Connor samples hip hotels, tasty tapas and ancient history on a trip to Spain's Extremadura...
The best way to describe the little-known Spanish region of Extremadura? It offers all the spectacle and fun of Europe's most popular tourist spots, but without the tourist crowds (and circus).
With castles, Roman ruins, modern art and stone walls, you could be forgiven for thinking you've arrived in Rome, Edinburgh, Berlin... at times, even Connemara. I travelled for five days - and ended up wishing I could have stayed even longer.
Extremadura sits southwest of Madrid, bordering Portugal (we flew into Seville, before travelling onwards to Mérida). It's not as well-known as other Spanish regions like Andalusia, Catalonia or the Basque Country, but it has lots to show off... starting with its capital city.
Mérida is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that will quickly take the fancy of history buffs. Simply strolling around this charming city gives you a taste of the Roman Empire's influence, but there are plenty of deep dives too... the brilliantly excavated amphitheatre and public gardens, for instance. Mérida's theatre has a capacity of 3,200 and is still used for outdoor performances, welcoming acts like the popular 2Cellos, who performed there last summer. It's in almost pristine condition and is undeniably the city's piece de resistance. If you fancy a break from the sun, meanwhile, dip into the National Roman Museum. It's hard to believe the city's Roman remains were buried beneath potato fields until excavations began in 1910.
And did you know Mérida is home to the longest surviving Roman bridge in Europe? Stretching over the Guadina River, the Puente Romano measures between 721 and 790 metres, depending where you start the tape.
It's not all historical detail, of course.
After taking in the sights, a highlight of the entire holiday for me was dinner in Espezia (facebook.com/espeziagastro), a local establishment that gave us the chance to get to grips with dishes of the region by making them from scratch ourselves. Gathering in the cookery school, our group tied on the aprons and got to work rustling up some grub. We started with gazpacho - a cold, Spanish soup we made on this occasion from blended tomatoes, strawberries and cucumber. The result reminded me of a smoothie. One of our guides described gazpacho as one of the most refreshing dishes to eat in summer heat. Alas, its appeal was lost on me - you just can't go wrong with a bowl of warm soup and a roll in my eyes!
For our first main course, there was a choice of courgette ravioli stuffed with prawns, or a pork ragu. These were delectable, topped with toasted mayonnaise. Our second main (the Spanish don't do dinner by halves) was risotto. Banish any thoughts of soggy, bland rice... we used black garlic to create a rich brown dish that was then freshened up with a zing of lime and topped off with goat's cheese. We finished off with some cheesecake and stewed berries before rolling all the way home.
The whole experience was really fun, and would be great as part of a family holiday or a night out on a girlie getaway. If you don't feel like cooking yourself, however, check out La Carbonería restaurant (lacarboneriamerida.es) for tapas and be sure to order the deep-fried aubergine. You won't regret it.
Mérida loves to celebrate its Roman roots, no more so than with Emérita Lúdica - a week-long festival held in June, where everybody does as the Romans did, dressing up in togas and tunics. We had a similar experience in Hotel Aqua Libera (aqualibera.com), a short drive from the city. Stopping by for afternoon tea with a difference, we dressed in classical Roman clothes and tucked into a traditional feast before chilling out for a few hours in the baths. It was a thumbs up from me as something a little bit out of the ordinary, and is popular with festival-goers too. Two nights for two people with breakfast, an hour-long massage, private spa in the Roman baths and Roman lunch in traditional costume costs €300 inclusive.
Further north in Extremadura is Caceres - a city that, like Seville and Dubrovnik, has benefited hugely as a shooting location for Game of Thrones. In fact, it's seen a 26pc jump in tourism since filming for Season Seven took place at Los Barruecos Natural Monument. Something of a bandwagoner myself, I binge-watched the fantasy series in time for the final episodes this year. The dramatic finale hadn't been aired when we were in Spain, but we stood at the very spot where you might say Daenerys Targaryen showed alarming signs of the power thirsty tyrant she would become - Los Barruecos was where she burned Randyll and Dickon Tarly to death. The smoke from the shoot could be seen 12km away in the city, we were told - and the work was so dangerous and firey that apparently extras were paid €500 a day! This can all be admired during a guided-tour, so pack your walking shoes.
Nearby is a quirkier attraction - an art gallery set up by the German artist Wolf Vostell (museovostell.org), who married a woman from Extremadura. There's some thought-provoking stuff inside, but the standout piece for me was a simple wooden door in the middle of the museum - open it up and you'll see why. The local scenery took my breath away as I looked out on a glistening lake set against a bright blue sky. It was like a scene from Jurassic Park or Lord of the Rings, a place of other-worldly beauty contrasting with the noisy environment of the museum. This is definitely not just another art gallery, and a guided-tour is highly recommended.
There's also something enchanting about the city of Caceres itself. We stayed in NH Collection Cáceres Palacio de Oquendo (nh-collection.com) - a hotel quite literally fit for a king, being a refurbished 16th century palace... not to mention where some of the Game of Thrones cast stayed during filming. The rooms were huge and it was a dream to stay in - if it was good enough for Daenerys Targaryen and Jaime Lannister, it was good enough for me!
Much like Mérida, it's the history of Caceres that makes it such a brilliant place to visit. With everything from Celtic influences to the Spanish Civil War shaping its architecture, the best way to take it all in is by foot. As you navigate the meandering streets, the place might look a little familiar to fans of Game of Thrones. Scenes from King's Landing were shot here too.
To sample more of Extremadura's vibrant food and drink scene, we also visited Habla winery (bodegashabla.com) as we headed for our final city, Trujillo.
If you don't quite know your Crianzas from your Reservas going into this charming bodega, you certainly will coming out.
Visitors can embrace their inner sommelier with a wine-tasting session, all the while learning about some of the most cutting edge ways in which wine is now being produced - for Habla, that includes being matured under the sea. In fact, the winery claims to be the first place in the world to use undersea fibreglass capsules to age its wine.
Trujillo was the last stop on our trip, a city home to about 10,000 people and famous as the birthplace of Pizarro, who led the conquest of the Inca empire. The first person to sail the Amazon, Francisco de Orellana, also lived here - and you can now rent his house, with its private pool, from roughly €100 a night per person (casadeorellana.com).
Trujillo is yet another city steeped in history. We spent a glorious afternoon walking around learning about its many famous noble residents - and one mischievous stonemason, who carved the crest of football club Athletic Bilbao into the tower of the city's church during restoration.
All too soon though, it was time to head home to Dublin. Boarding the bus to Madrid, we bid adiós to one of Spain's best-kept secrets. It mightn't have a coastline for sun worshippers, but Extremadura proves that holidaying in Spain can be much more than just sun, sea and sand.
Ryanair, Aer Lingus and Iberia fly from Dublin to Seville, while Ryanair flies from Madrid to Dublin. Sorcha was a guest of the Spanish Tourist Office in Dublin (spain.info/en), and stayed at the Mérida Palace Hotel.
Check out turismoextremadura.com. Your pedometer will clock up thousands of steps on your trip, and this site serves up plenty of inspiration, as well as practical tips like train travel and restaurant hours - essential for anyone unused to the Spanish siesta!
What to pack
I clocked up 13,000 steps on the pedometer in one day - so pack a comfy pair of shoes for the walking trail at Los Barruecos Natural Monument, and the quaint, meandering city streets. Outside of summer, a few extra cardigans wouldn't go amiss in the evening, either.
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