Spain's secret heart

For a different Spanish Holiday, away from the crowded beaches, Jane Last headed inland to visit the historic heartland

Jane Last

ARABIAN baths with a cup of Moroccan tea, a city combining Roman, Islamic, Northern Gothic and Italian Renaissance styles, and all only hours away from Dublin.

Welcome to the Spanish region of Extremadura, located just three hours' drive from Madrid Airport, and a short distance away from the Portuguese border. Although in the same country, it might as well be a million miles away from the Spanish resorts beloved by Irish tourists -- especially teens looking for their first wild trip away from the parents. But for lovers of history and architecture as well as for fans of great food and wine, it's a treat.

Our first stop in the region of Extremadura was the beautiful city of Caceres. In terms of sight-seeing, you can divide the city into two. Beyond the city walls lies a bustling, lively community with shops, cafes and taverns galore. Inside the walls, where just 500 inhabitants are thought to live, lies the story of Caceres and the battles fought between Romans, Moors and Christians in conquering and reconquering the town. Nowhere is this more evident than in the structures of the old city. An astonishing 30 towers from the Muslim period remain in Caceres -- not surprisingly, Caceres was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1986 because of its blend of architectural styles.

Towers -- noticeably shorter than what we are accustomed to, and ordered that height by the Spanish Queen Isabella as punishment for lack of support among the nobles there -- dominate the city's landscape. Nobles' homes -- hundreds of years old and testament to the power these families once held -- remain but many have been converted into restaurants and lodgings, without taking away from the beauty of the structures.

Caceres is a city that is still revealing secrets. One of its many museums, which was once home to a prominent family, divulged such a secret only six months ago.

Water levels fell in the cistern in the building used by the inhabitants over hundreds of years for their water supply. Once the water levels fell, a series of arches were revealed. Experts now believe that this cistern was originally a mosque -- built over by Christians once they had conquered the Moors in the area. Hidden for centuries, the secret mosque emerged and the history of Caceres has been strengthened.

A walk through the old city at night is highly recommended. Interestingly, for those trad lovers out there, Caceres also hosts an annual Fleadh Cheoil.

In the modern part of the city, a trip to the Arabian-style baths coupled with a massage and a cup of Moorish tea should be high on the agenda for anybody looking for some relaxation.

The nightlife is bustling with scores of restaurants to choose from, and many taverns in which you could have a sangria or two while enjoying some music and having the craic with the (very friendly) locals.

For those of us who once harboured dreams of becoming an archaeologist, a trip to Merida is a must. Just an hour away from Caceres, Merida was the largest Roman city in the Iberian Peninsula. It is home to an extensive collection of Roman ruins -- along with a wonderfully informative museum that explains its past.

Along with Caceres, it has also been declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO. The coliseum and theatre are treats for the eye. Incidentally, the Roman theatre is still used by the inhabitants of Merida proving that Roman design still works hundreds of years later. If you like birdwatching (seriously, don't knock it unless you try it), a trip to Monfrague National Park should be on the agenda.

We went there in the morning and were treated to the wonderful sight of hawks and eagles circling the many peaks of the park, which boasts an area of 17,852 hectares. Trekkers can check in at the information office regarding the many hiking trails in the park. The birthplace of Francisco Pizzarro, famous explorer and conqueror of Peru in South America, is proudly demonstrated by a statue of him in the Plaza Mayor (main square) of Trujillo. Like many cities in the region of Extremedura, Trujillo is proud of its history with the influence of the wealthy Pizzarro family evident in many parts of the town.

The most important monuments here are: the castle, which is an old Arab fortress, the church of Santa Maria, which dates back to the 13th century, and the church of San Francisco. We were able to go to the top of Santa Maria, which provides an enchanting view of Trujillo at sundown.

For many Irish, the region of Extremadura remains a secret, but it has much to offer and is a world away from what we would imagine.