Feeling at home in the ‘Cradle of the Conquistadors’
Extremadura lies in Western Spain, 'beyond the (River) Duero', north of Andalusia, south of Castile and east of Portugal. It's half the size of Ireland and overlooked even by most Spaniards.
Take a mix of Arabic, Andalusian and Christian influences, pepper it with pretty towns and villages, three Unesco World Heritage Sites and a national park, and top that off with a creative and inviting gastronomy. That's Extramadura.
Once the poor relation, even Spaniards often succumb to stereotype when talking about Extremadura. Twentieth century Spanish literature and cinema has too often tended to depict the region as a desolate and inhospitable terrain.
Tough, sparse and poor since the Romans, when tales of derring-do came back across the Atlantic, Extremadurans were eager and early to the boats, eventually peopling much of central and south America.
Many are only now starting to shake off this anachronistic image. In fact, the region has benefitted hugely from EU funds in the last few years - motorways have sprung up all over the place, making it so easy to get around, but not blighting the beautiful landscape.
Four days earlier, an almost three-hour drive south-west of Madrid, where we deplaned with Aer Lingus, found us in the village of Guadalupe, home to a mere 2,000 souls and to one of the three Black Madonnas of Spain.
Legend has it that, when Seville was taken by the Moors, a group of priests fled northward and buried the statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the hills near the Guadalupe River. At the beginning of the 14th century, the Virgin appeared one day to a lowly cow-herder named Gil Cordero and ordered him to ask priests to dig at the site of the apparition. Excavating priests rediscovered the hidden statue and built a small shrine around it which evolved into the great Guadalupe monastery which to this day gives regular employment to the locals.
It was at the monastery, now a World Heritage Site, that Isabel and Ferdinand signed documents that gave the green light to the voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Upon his return from America, Columbus went to the monastery to give thanks for a safe voyage.
The Spanish tortilla was allegedly concocted at the Monastery of Guadalupe, along with consommé, known here as consume, which the French took back home with them during the Napoleonic wars.
The second day we decamp at Plasencia, a walled market town by the banks of the Jerte River. Here we found food and shelter overnight at the four-star Hotel Palacio Carajal. Dinner is a wonderful, civilised affair. Some of the very best Spanish ham originates from Extremadura - the black pigs here producing supremely tasty cured ham, chorizo sausages and other pork products. The free ranging pigs, roaming among the cork trees in the 'dehesas' (the land's restored natural eco-system) and swallowing the fallen acorns, must indeed enjoy the perfect diet. Soups of all sorts are a staple and cheeses are also outstanding, especially Torta de la Serena, a soft sheep's cheese.
These days, a new generation of local foodies and wine-makers is emerging, trying to make a name in its own right for the culinary delights of Extremadura.
If you truly wish to experience all that this region has to offer, then a must is a stay in the region's 'parador', hotels that have been built within ancient buildings, castles and monasteries, offering the ultimate in luxury and a feeling of being at home with the timeless heritage.
Day three finds us and our affable guide Marco Mangut in the latter's hometown of Caceres, the centre of which is enclosed completely within magnificent Moorish town walls, with equally magnificent examples of Roman, Arab and Renaissance architecture. A World Heritage City, there are so many impressive plazas, palaces and patios that you will want to just meander around the Ciudad Monumental for hours and soak up the atmosphere.
We manage to get in and out before the world music festival Womad reaches full crescendo and, although at times it seems that Caceres' 100,000 people are being swamped by an equal number of visiting musicians, fun-loving young people and forever-ageless hippies, the annual event, as always, I am told, passes without incident as the eclectic music echoes against the city walls and punches the arid air.
Earlier, we took a drive through Monfrague national park. Located equidistant from both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, this part of Extremadura attracts many migratory and also rare birds of prey including golden eagles, black vultures, Spanish Imperial eagles, great and little bustards, and the unusual black storks. There are 200 species of animal in the park including the extremely rare Spanish lynx.
Extremadura has history. When the Roman Empire was expanding across Europe one of the places they made almost a home from home was the city of Mérida, now the region's capital.
Mérida's impressive sites include the longest bridge, half a mile, built by the Romans in Spain - 64 granite arches, to be precise; a five mile aqueduct, much of which is in imposingly impressive condition; an amphitheatre which could seat 14,000, and a theatre for 6,000 where Roman, Greek and more modern plays are still staged during the summer. The centre of the old town is compact, so walking from site to site is quite straightforward, but try, as my travelling companion and I did, to make it to Plaza De España in order to sit back with the rest of the city's inhabitants and people-watch, or merely marvel at the antics of the storks nesting high up on the ancient rooftops, we actually ate six plates of varying tapas, and three glasses of wine each all for the princely sum of €14.10!
Extremadura was once a conquering region of a conquering nation. Its people now, despite recession, do not allow themselves to be a conquered people. They keep their peace with their God, a religious people in the true sense of that word; they laugh and are laid-back, eat well and plentiful, and place importance on family and friends.
Something, perhaps, we Irish have lost sight of ...
Parador de Guadalupe: www.parador.es
Hotel Palacio Carvajal y Giron: www.vivedespacio.compalaciocarvajalgiron/em
Hotel Palacio de Oquendo: www.nh-hotel-com/nh/en/hotels/spain/caceres/nh-palacio-de-oquendo.html
Mérida Palace Hotel: www.bluebayresorts.com
During the summer, the average temperature for Extremadura in July is greater than 26 °C, at times reaching 40 °C. The winters are mild.
Many of the region’s hotels do not open their swimming pools till July. English is not widely spoken so bring a Spanish phrase book!
www.turismoextremadura.com. Spanish Tourism, Dublin office, 3 Westmoreland St, Dublin 2. Tel (01) 635 0200. www.spain.info
Travel Department is doing a trip to Extremadura departing on October 13. For more information see www.traveldepartment.ie