With an objective to visit all of the regions of Spain and already travelled to the more obvious places such as Andalusia, Castilla-La Mancha and Castilla y Leon it was time this visit to be more adventurous. On this occasion we choose Extremadura to the south west of Madrid, which the guide books claimed to be the least visited part of Spain. With no convenient international airport in the Province it was a choice between Seville and Madrid and the best available flights were to the capital about three hundred kilometres away from the cities of Cáceres and Mérida.
Extremadura is an unspoilt part of the country made up of lush forests and majestic mountains, far removed from Spain’s crowded Costas both in terms of distance and character. It is one of Spain’s most sparsely populated regions, roughly the size of Belgium, and its distance from the coast has kept mass tourism at bay and relatively few tourists, either from Spain or elsewhere, venture to this western region of the Iberian Peninsula, sandwiched between the mountains of Portugal and the wide central plains of La Mancha.
We drove relentlessly west across vast agricultural plains peppered with towns and hamlets truly presenting us with glimpses of the real Spain, which is what we were keen to see. Beyond the fortified walls of the historic cities there are vast tracts of unspoiled countryside which attract flocks of rare birds from all over Europe and beyond. One of the most extraordinary sights in the whole of Spain is that of the region’s immense population of storks which build their huge nests on top of everything from palaces and telegraph poles to church spires and convent roofs.
The population of storks in Spain is rising, from six thousand seven hundred pairs thirty years ago to an estimated thirty-five thousand pairs today. In fact there are now so many White Storks in Spain that it is now second only to Poland who with fifty thousand birds has traditionally been the country with the most in Europe. This increase in numbers has been so dramatic that the conservation status has been changed from amber to green. Extremadura itself is believed to be home to more than eleven thousand storks along with many other rare and protected bird species which flourish in the nature reserves of the Province.
After a while we crossed the mighty Tagus and the road turned south with the Guadalupe Mountains to the east and the Monfrague National Park to the west. This it turns out is one of the most important raptor reserves in Europe and is the best place in Spain for a glimpse of Black Vultures and the rare Spanish Imperial Eagle. We kept a sharp eye out for a rare sighting but although we saw Buzzards, Hawks and Kites we didn’t see the rarer birds which sensibly keep well away from the road!
Through the east of Extremadura we passed through the oak tree plantations of the dehesa where the land is carefully cultivated and managed. ‘Dehesa’ is the name given to the seemingly endless areas of farmland consisting of groves of low density, mature oak trees because of the poor quality of the soil. Around half of the land of Extremadura is taken up by these dehesas and the spaces between the trees are used to cultivate cereals and as pasture for grazing livestock. The tree species is predominantly evergreen Holm, with Cork Oak grown on richer, more humid soils and at the base of the mountains. Several grades of tree coverage occur with the most open and more easily cultivated holding up to fifteen oaks per hectare, intermediate covering has up to thirty oak trees per hectare and the densest plantings thirty to fifty trees per hectare.
This part of the journey was reminder of just how big Spain is as we motored for mile after mile without meeting any other traffic or without passing through towns or villages. The road just kept grinding endlessly on in an easterly direction in a way that reminded me of the tortuous journey through Andalusia in a clapped out Ford Escort in 1986. The road had no lay-bys, picnic areas or service stations and I was glad that I had topped up the tank earlier in the day as we had left Mérida.
Eventually we passed out of Extremadura and into Castilla-La Mancha and the landscape abruptly changed and what had been a long straight road before now began to twist and turn as we climbed and dropped through undulating hills, river valleys, past huge reservoirs and through vast olive groves. The oak trees had gone now and there were olive trees as far as the eye could see.
E is for Extremadura but it could well have been: