Tag Archives: Extremadura

Favourite Places in Spain, Santillana del Mar in Cantabria

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“Le plus joli village d’Espagne”  –  Jean Paul Sartre

In my last post as I left Trujillo in Extremadura I made reference to my favourite places in Spain so I thought I might take some time to share these with you.  I begin with Santillana del Mar in Cantabria, almost four hundred miles north of Trujillo and in a very different part of Spain.

Santillana del Mar is a most picturesque town and often appears in any top ten of best villages in Spain. This may of course have something to do with the fact that the French writer, philosopher and all-round clever dick, Jean Paul Sartre declared it to be the prettiest village in Spain, although I am not absolutely sure just how much of Spain he visited and just what he was comparing it with or how he came to this rather sweeping judgment.  Perhaps it was just a lucky guess!

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There is apparently an old saying that Santillana del Mar is The Town of Three Lies, since it is neither a Saint (Santo), nor flat (llana) and has no sea (Mar) as implied by the town’s name. However, the name actually derives from Santa Juliana (or Santa Illana) whose remains are in the kept in the Colegiata, a Romanesque church and former Benedictine monastery.

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Travels in Spain, Trujillo in Extremadura

As we began the long journey to Castilla-La Mancha I looked in the rear view mirror and decided that I needed to find a spot for Trujillo in my list of favourite places in Spain.

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Travels in Spain, Trujillo and The Spanish Conquistadors

Francesco Pizzaro Trujillo Extremadura Spain

“…the breed of men who conquered a continent with a handful of adventurers, wore hair shirts day and night until they stuck to their flesh, and braved the mosquitoes of the Pilcomayo and the Amazon”  Gerald Brenan

Our plan now was to visit the town of Trujillo that we had missed two days ago because of changes to our itinerary on our way to Cáceres.  After we had stopped for fuel we drove north skirting the Parque Naturel de Cornarvo but to be honest there was little to get excited about across the flat dusty plains of Extremadura and nothing to divert us as we drove the thirty miles or so towards our destination.

Trujillo, on the Tozo River, a tributary of the Tagus, is sited on the only hill for miles around and about forty kilometres east of Cáceres.  Although the Autovia passes close by it is not an especially busy tourist city so when we drove in and followed signs to the Plaza Mayor we found parking surprisingly easy just a few yards away from the main square.

Extremadura Trujillo Alcazar

The pace of life in the plaza was delightfully soporific with a just a few visitors wandering around and others sitting with local people in the bars and cafés around the perimeter. It was pleasantly warm but I would suspect that in high summer this large exposed granite space can become an anvil for the blistering sun and, unless you have the heat tolerance of a lizard,  it would be important to find a spot in the shade.  This was genuine Spain, this was Spain in the raw, stripped down to the bones.  I liked Trujillo almost immediately and without any hesitation.

All around the square there are grand palaces and mansions and outside the sixteenth century red brick, blood stained Iglesia de San Martín in the north-east corner is the reason why, a great equestrian statue of the Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizzaro.  Everything about the statue is fierce and warlike, a giant muscular warhorse, a mighty warrior with aggressive jutting beard and elbows, wicked long spurs, visor raised with flowing plumes, his sword drawn and ready for action.

It is an interesting coincidence that many of the sixteenth century explorers and adventurers who carved out the Spanish Empire in South America came from Extremadura and as well as Pizzaro, Hérnan Cortés, who defeated the Aztecs and founded Mexico, Hernando De Soto, who explored Florida, and Pedro de Almagro, who accompanied Pizzaro, all came from this south-west corner of Spain.

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Because of these adventurers Trujillo flourished in the sixteenth century but it declined again just as quickly and has been largely forgotten since and the palaces, the castle, the stone mansions, the columned arcades and the baking plazas are sitting there almost exactly as the conquistadors and soldiers of fortune left them.

It is a magnificent statue, matched only by that of El Cid in Burgos, and I challenge anyone not to admire it.  I think I could have stayed and admired that statue all day long, it epitomises the spirit of the Spanish Seaborne Empire of the Sixteenth Century.

The statue captures the flare and the audacity of the conquistadores and in his hand he carries a menacing sword but there is a message that here was a man who lived and died by violence the statue has no scabbard which seems to suggest that he rarely ever put the blade away!

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Francisco Pizzaro was born in Trujillo and became a conquistador who travelled along much of the Pacific coast of South America. With an army of only one hundred and eighty men and less than thirty horses he encountered the ancient Incan empire and brutally and quickly conquered it, killing thousands of natives, including the Inca King Atahualpa and stealing immense hoards of gold, silver, and other treasures for the King of Spain and for himself including the Inca King’s wife who he took for a mistress.

As a consequence of Pizzaro’s adventures, Spain became the greatest, richest and most powerful country in the world at the time and as well as conquering Peru and founding the city of Lima, he also added Ecuador and Colombia to the Spanish Empire thus providing immense new territories and influence and spreading Roman Catholicism to the New World.

We walked out the Plaza Mayor and followed the steep cobbled lanes as they twisted their sinuous way up past buildings constructed of attractive mellow stone, past the inevitable Parador and more churches and mansions until finally we were at the top at the Alcázar of the Moors who controlled this city for five hundred years before the Reconquista.

Inside the castle we walked around the high stone walls and stopped frequently to admire the uninterrupted views over the dehesa of Extremadura spreading endlessly in every direction in a ragged patchwork of agricultural green, gold and brown where distant villages floated on the vastness all the way to Portugal.

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Walking back down to the plaza was a great deal easier than the energy sapping climb but we got lost in the web of tiny streets and surprised ourselves by emerging at an unexpected entrance to the square which was jam-packed with cars on account of it being the end of school for the day and parents were collecting their children to take them home.  It was a little past lunch time and we were overdue something to eat so we examined the menus at the pavement restaurants and when Kim was satisfied with our choice we found a seat in the sun and ordered some local dishes.

As the Plaza slowly emptied and peace and quiet was restored it was nice sitting in the sunshine enjoying the sights of the square in a city blessed with great architecture and a theatrical history but mercifully not overrun with tourists. It was lovely and if I was planning the trip again I am certain that I would squeeze at least an overnight stop in Trujillo into the itinerary and we would have stayed longer this afternoon but we had a long drive ahead of about one hundred and fifty miles because now it was time to start to drive back east towards Castilla-La Mancha which was going to be about a three hour drive.

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Travels in Spain, the Roman City of Mérida

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After lunch the antiquities were all closed for the siesta and wouldn’t open again for a couple of hours so we went back to the Mérida Palace.  It was hot and the sun was shining so it our intention to sit on the sun terrace on the roof, read a book, have a glass of wine and do a bit of lazy sitting about.

For no good reason (as far as I could make out) the sun terrace was closed and when I enquired at reception the receptionist said that they were unable to open it because it was too early in the year and it wasn’t warm enough!  I was perplexed by that, in England we will sit on beaches in May even though the temperature is just a fraction above zero!

Kim rested in the room and in search of sun I sat on the patio at the front of the hotel and sneaked a can of Mahou beer down from the room so that I didn’t have to pay the inflated hotel prices.  It was nice just sitting and enjoying the vibrant atmosphere of the square but with the sun moving behind the hotel and throwing us quickly into shadow it was time to resume our sightseeing and to use the rest of our entrance tickets.

We walked towards the River Guadiana because our first destination was the original Roman Bridge built over two thousand years ago.

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At five hundred miles long, the River Guadiana is the fourth longest in the Iberian Peninsula and for part of its course marks the boundary between Spain and Portugal.  At this point the river is about five hundred yards wide and spanning it is the sixty arch Roman Bridge that remained the principal road for traffic entering the city until as recently as 1993.

Mérida was proving to be a really fascinating place with the oldest this, the biggest that, the best preserved, the most unique and now was added the longest remaining Roman bridge.  It is pedestrianised now and we walked away across towards the centre and looked over the sides into the muddy brown water of the river below.

We didn’t all the way across to the other side but stopped and returned to the east bank because next we were visiting the Alcazaba, a ninth century Muslim fortification  located near the bridge that was built in 835 to command the city. It was the first (here we go again) Muslim Alcazaba, and includes a big squared line of walls, every side measuring one hundred yards in length, twenty foot high, nearly two feet thick and incorporating twenty-five towers all built re-using Roman walls and Roman-Visigothic edifices in granite.

The Plaza Mayor was busy but quieter tonight mostly because there weren’t any football matches taking place but the fountain which had been dry the previous evening was now erupting with water and sending magnificent plumes high into the blue sky.  We sat at the same table and had San Miguel and wine and olives and we reflected on a busy day of rewarding sightseeing and some amazing places.

The meal the previous evening had been satisfactory but we had no plans to return there because we had seen a little place around the corner from the hotel where there were some pavement tables where it was warm and sheltered enough to dine out in the street and we had a pleasant, simple and unhurried meal before returning to the Plaza Mayor for a final drink.  As the light began to fade we made a summary of what had been an excellent day in a Spanish city, which only a few years ago I would never have remotely thought of visiting.

The next day we had a final few hours in Mérida.

The reason that the modern city has so many Roman antiquities is that it was a very important place in the Empire. The Roman conquest started as early as year 19 B.C. with the invasion of the Carthaginian region and ended with the last resistance being overcome in the north-west in the same year. The south soon came under the Roman Empire’s growing domination with a framework of roads connecting towns and strategic bridges and Iberian cities including Mérida, Cordoba, Seville and Cartagena passed into the hands of the Romans.

The economy flourished under Roman rule and, along with North Africa, served as a bread basket for the Roman market and as well as grain it provided gold, wool, olive oil, and wine.  Agricultural production increased with the introduction of irrigation projects, some of which remain in use even today and much of daily life consisted of agricultural work under which the region flourished, especially the cultivation of grapes and olives.

Silver mining within the Guadalquivir River valley became an integral part of the Iberian economy and some of the Empire’s most important metal resources were in Hispania where gold, iron, tin, copper and lead were also all mined in abundance and shipped back to Rome.

Spain also has historical and political significance for the Roman Empire because it was the birthplace of the Emperors Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Trajan, Theodosius I and the philosopher Seneca.  Luckily, when the Roman Empire fell, it didn’t create such a major crisis or havoc in Spain as it did in other western countries like Gaul, Germany and Britain and thus much of its essential infrastructure remained intact.

Next to the river there were some excavations but to be honest we found these rather disappointing so we hurried through them and walked to the water and walked along a pedestrian walkway to the stout, reliable and weather-beaten Roman bridge and then back towards the main square.

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We were looking now for the Temple of Diana and we found it tucked away behind the main shopping street and next to a small museum.  The Temple was a sacred site constructed by the Romans in the first century A.D. and remains well preserved mostly because in the sixteenth century some local big-wig built a palace inside the rectangular ring of Corinthian columns. There has been some recent debate about removing the palace structure but as this is over five-hundred years old as well the archaeologists and the authorities have agreed that it should stay.

We were over an hour ahead of schedule so we had a last drink in the main square while we waited for the car to be returned from the out of town car park and when it was there we went back to the hotel and checked out.

We drove out of the city through fields of golden corn and verges decorated with scarlet poppies.  We were heading for Trujillo.

Poppies in Extremadura

Travels In Spain, The Romans in Merida

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Extremadura is often considered to be the traditional boundary between Moorish and Christian Spain and Mérida itself has previously passed between Christian, Moorish, and even Portuguese control.  Because of its rich and busy history it was declared a UNESCO World heritage site in 1993.

To begin with we walked along a busy main road towards the crimson and saffron Plaza de Torres and near here was our first excavation to visit.  We bought an all sites pass for €12 each which seemed like a good deal and went inside to see the remains of a house that had been the home and office of an important Roman citizen in the first century A.D. and after that we visited an adjacent ancient Roman burial site and cemetery.

It was getting hot as we made our way to one of the main attractions, the amphitheatre and theatre and as we walked we were aware of hundreds of school children arriving in buses, far too many for this to be a normal school trip occasion and we wondered what they were all doing here.  We found the entrance to the site and all was revealed because today, and all week, there was a production of the Greco-Latin Youth Festival Theatre which meant that the theatre was in use and access was restricted.  I was annoyed about that and wondered just how restricted?

First we went to the amphitheatre which was completed in 8 B.C. and was able to seat up to fifteen thousand spectators within the elliptical stadium.  The previous month we had visited the amphitheatre at Pula in Croatia which accommodated twenty-thousand spectators but this seemed just as huge.  It wasn’t in such good shape however because a lot of it has been subsequently dismantled for alternative building projects.  If UNESCO had been around two thousand years ago then it would still be there.

Mérida was the capital city of the most westerly Roman Province of Lusitania so this was a very important place and the amphitheatre here would have been on the main gladiatorial and events circuit of the Empire and it continued to be used for this purpose until the fourth century.  Today, on account of its past Mérida is a sister city of Rome.

The site was beginning to fill up now with the school children and the volume levels inside the Roman Theatre were beginning to build so we left the amphitheatre and walked the short distance to the theatre next door.

Two thousand years ago this would have been a massive entertainment centre for the city and I suppose that we were lucky because today we were going to see it being used for its original purpose.  Although we couldn’t get down close to the stage area and the columns and the statues and the central seating area was full of chattering and excitable school children we could make our way around the upper circle and visitors were invited to stay awhile and watch the production.  We sat and watched for about half an hour but it was a three hour show and struggling with interpretation we finally gave up, left and moved on.

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After a drink and the inevitable dish of olives we made our way to the Roman Circus which would have been quite a way outside the walls of the Roman city.

Although we have now visited a number of Roman amphitheatres we had never been to a racetrack before and this place was stunning in its layout and sheer size.  There is nothing left of the grandstands now because these have all been dismantled and the stone used elsewhere but it was easy to imagine what it might have looked like simply by thinking about the Charlton Heston film ‘Ben Hur’ because it was in such a place as this that the Roman chariot races took place.

Inside what was the arena it was peaceful and quiet with a carpet of rough grass and wild meadow flowers but with a little imagination it was possible to imagine what a place like this would have been like on race days when there was capacity for thirty-thousand boozed-up rowdy spectators!

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Leaving the circus we walked along another busy road looking for the site of the aqueducts because although they are not as spectacular or as complete as that of Segovia there are approximately five miles of aqueduct running into and through the city.  We found the largest and most complete, the Aqueducto los Milagros in a green park on the edge of the town with each towering arch topped with an untidy nest of twigs and a family of Storks.

We had been walking for four hours now so this was a good time to find somewhere for lunch.  It proved surprisingly difficult to find something suitable and one thing that Mérida did seem to lack was a good selection of street cafés and bars.  The ones we liked were full and those that weren’t didn’t tempt us.

Eventually, after we had passed underneath Trajan’s Arch on the way back to the centre we came across a place in a side alley off the main shopping street where, partly our own fault it has to be said, although we had a nice salad, we paid a hefty price for it and then sulked for half an hour or so afterwards.  It seemed that we had paid the full price for a menu of the day even though we hadn’t chosen or eaten all of the courses. Another language and interpretation issue and a lesson learned!

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Travels in Spain, Mérida in Extremadura

Extremadura

“Sometimes the Spaniard will resent your attempts to use it (Spanish).  Sometimes he believes it to physically impossible for an alien to understand it.  Sometimes he cannot actually convince himself that you are speaking it…”   Jan Morris – ‘Spain’

Mérida is the capital city of the Autonomous region of Extremadura and is set in the heart of the Province of Badajoz. One of the most important Roman capital cities at the height of Roman occupation of Spain, the city today has one of the best preserved collections of Roman monuments anywhere in Europe and UNESCO World Heritage status.

This is why we were here of course but right now all we wanted was a table in the early evening sunshine, a drink and a plate of olives so after we had approved the room we left immediately to the Plaza Mayor right outside the front door.

The Plaza was vibrant and busy with families enjoying the weather (it had rained the day before, the receptionist told us), young boys playing football and girls running and skipping.  In the centre was an extravagant fountain and it was surrounded by arcades, shopping streets leaking away into shadows and tall colourful buildings decorated with palms and exotic plants.  At each corner was a covered café so we choose one in the sun, next to some boys playing football who were using palm trees for goalposts and sat and simply enjoyed the atmosphere.

What was noticeable was how well behaved the children were, how well dressed everyone was and how this seemed like one giant drawing room where an extended family was meeting up at the end of the day and having a sociable hour or two together before dinner.

As the afternoon slipped effortlessly into early evening we remembered that we needed some supplies for the room because being a five star hotel there was no way we were going anywhere near the mini-bar and its inflated prices.  There were no shops around the square so we finished our drinks and joined the crowds of people walking through the main shopping street of the city.  There were all kinds of shops but no mini-markets and we walked until we came to a busy main road where we were certain there would be a shop because we had seen people with carrier bags, but being unsure which we to turn, left or right, it was time to ask directions.

There was a man on the pavement just watching the world go by and minding his own business so I asked him a straightforward one word question, “¿Supermercardo?”  He took a step backwards as though he thought I might have an infectious disease and his face went curiously blank.  He looked around for help but there was none so he shrugged his shoulders and rattled off some words in Spanish at machine gun speed which I took to mean that he wasn’t sure, he was uncomfortable being accosted by foreigners and that we should leave him alone.

We decided to walk on and within twenty metres we were outside a huge ‘Discount Supermercardo’ and I don’t think I could have been so unintelligible that he couldn’t have understood that this was exactly what we were looking for.

It was getting late by the time we had finished off a bottle of Rioja and were ready to go out so being unfamiliar with the city we didn’t walk too far and found a restaurant close by that seemed just about right.  Actually it turned out not to be very thrilling and there was an elderly English couple in there complaining about the food and the service and although I wouldn’t have gone back it really wasn’t that bad and I enjoyed a Extremadura lamb stew and Kim a beef steak.  We declared it delicious, there were no complaints from us!

One of the reasons that I like Spain so much is its diversity, no region, city or town is much like another, each has a special unique quality and Extremadura and Mérida was proving to be no exception.

Extremadura Map

Even in Spain Extremadura has a very distinct character, in the summer it is sun-baked and unforgiving, in the winter it is cold and unrelenting.  Much of the land has no agricultural value, there are no industrial centres.  Bordering to its west is Portugal and it is and has long been the poorest region in Spain, in the past, its poverty led to many of its population fleeing elsewhere in search of better fortune.

Geographically it is the fifth largest of the Autonomous Communities of Spain but it has the lowest population density of all.  There is no international airport and no AVE high speed train link, it is the least visited region in Spain by tourists.  Mérida is the smallest of all seventeen capitals of the Autonomous Communities.

As we left the restaurant we strolled through the Plaza Mayor which was still vibrant and busy. As so often in Spain, there was a sense simultaneously of gravitas, fragile grandeur and impending festivity. Spanish people really know how to colonise urban space, and at all hours. We liked Mérida.

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Travels in Spain, Cáceres in Extremadura

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“Extremadura was pre-eminently the country of the adventurers for many of them went to the New World… and often returned rich and the region is full of their memorials…. The old part of Cáceres is embellished everywhere with the heraldry of imperial nouveaux-riches”, Jan Morris – ‘Spain’

As we walked into the city we passed into the old town through one of the eight-hundred year old Moorish gates.

The city has an eclectic blend of Roman, Islamic, Northern Gothic and Italian Renaissance styles, the result of many tug-of-war battles fought here throughout history.  Precisely because of this Cáceres was declared a World Heritage City by UNESCO in 1986.

Saint George is the patron saint of the city and the story goes that he knew that there was a dragon terrorising the population of Cáceres, so he captured it and brought it to the city; he told the citizens that if they all converted from Islam to Christianity then he would kill the dragon. Fifteen thousand men converted on the spot (the women weren’t so important it seems) so he slayed the dragon and Cáceres lived in peace.

St George

The route from the splendid gate took us to the immaculate Plaza Mayor which had recently been resurfaced and tidied up in preparation for a submission to be considered as Spain’s representative as the European capital of Culture. (Ultimately not successful as it happens – pipped at the post by San Sebastián in the Basque Region).

It was hot now under a clear blue sky so after we had walked the circumference of the square we took a table at the Meson ‘Los Portales’ and ordered drinks and tapas.  Because of a communication problem (We can’t speak Spanish, the waiter couldn’t understand English) we didn’t get the one that we ordered but it was nice enough and we enjoyed it anyway.

After Alfonso IX of Leon conquered Cáceres in 1227 it flourished during the Reconquest and the Discovery of America as influential Spanish families and nobles built homes and small palaces here, and many members of families from Extremadura participated in voyages to America where they made their fortune and then returned home to enjoy it.

The colour of the walls was of the richest golden brown to be found anywhere in Spain, as though drenched, steeped, saturated with all the sunlight of centuries of summers.”  –  Ted Walker – ‘In Spain’

The old quarter, with its numerous palaces, churches and convents is enclosed by the city wall, most of it Moorish in construction, many of the defence towers are still standing and there are even a few Roman stone blocks visible.  From the Plaza Mayor we walked up the steps and through the Estrella de Churriguer archway.

From there to the Plaza de Santa Maria where close by is the Palacio De Los Toledo-Moctezuma, which is a vivid reminder of the importance of Cáceres in the conquest of the Americas because it was built for Techichpotzin  by one of her three Spanish husbands.  Who was  Techichpotzin? I hear you ask, well, let me tell you, she was no less than the daughter of the Aztec ruler Montezuma.

Dominating the square is the Iglesia de Santa Maria so we slipped inside and took a look around carefully remembering to avoid the image of the Cristo de los Blázquez, also known as the Cristo Negro or Black Christ which, tradition has it, brought death to all those who looked at, or touched it.

It cost just €1 to climb to the top of the bell tower so we paid and took the stone spiral staircase to the top where there were good views of the old town and beyond which we shared with all of the Storks that had built their untidy nests at the highest possible points.

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From here we walked the old narrow streets. Past the Palacio De Los Golfines De Abajo, with its spectacular and architecturally important façade in a style that was widely used in Spain and in South America throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This Palacio was where the house the Catholics Kings stayed when they visited Caceres as guests of the Golfin family, the most important people in town, and the royal crest is carved above the doorway to prove it.

From the old town we came back to the square and walked into the shopping streets and around the old town walls from the outside and then with the afternoon slipping quickly away we returned to the Plaza Mayor and to the car.  If I was planning this trip again I would have stayed for a night in Cáceres but it was too late now and our accommodation was booked in Mérida about thirty miles to the south.

We estimated that we would be there in a little under an hour and at first all went according to plan until suddenly the motorway was closed and there was a diversion.   I took a decision to take the Badajoz road because although it wasn’t on the route to Mérida it was at least going south and I was confident that there would somewhere be a minor road to make the necessary correction.

We started to travel south-west and because this is such a sparsely populated region of Spain it turns out that there are not a lot of roads at all so we just kept going relentlessly towards Badajoz and further and further away from our intended destination. Eventually after quite a lengthy detour we came across a road that was so new that it wasn’t even on the map but it said Mérida so we trusted to luck and took it and started to drive in roughly the right direction

The journey that should have taken under an hour took nearly two and it was very late afternoon/early evening when we arrived at the Hotel Mérida Palace, parked the car and presented ourselves at reception for check in.

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