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  • Writer's pictureLouis Booth

The Spell of Extremadura

Time visited: September 2023

Time spent: Four nights

There is a region of Spain in the south-west and bordering Portugal that few know about. Yet it is rich in history - Prehistoric, Roman and Moorish, in particular, as well as being the home of Spain's cork, olive oil and Jamon Iberica industries.

I had visited here briefly about 15 years previously and had got a taste of the rich historical remains the region has to offer. I returned at the end of September for a week-long stay with three companions, having persuaded them that this unknown and fairly remote region was worth a visit.

We flew into Seville, the largest city in Andalusia, the region immediately to the south of Extremadura and stayed for 2 nights. Seville itself has so much to see and do and deserves a much longer stay. But we were heading for Mérida, the capital of Extremadura and capital of Roman Lusitania, a region that then covered much of Spain and Portugal. The journey by car takes about 2 hours - a relatively easy drive, and it is surprising that few tourists venture that way.

Day 1

Some of the floor mosaics in Itálica

Just 9 kilometers outside of Seville, we made our first stop at Itálica and got our first taste of the enormous amount of Roman ruins that lay further to the north. Despite having visited Seville twice before, I had never heard of this Roman town. It covers a vast area, with one of the largest colosseums in the Roman world still well preserved today, as well as remains of large villas with floor mosaics, baths and drainage systems visible.

It was also the birthplace of two famous emperors - Trajan and Hadrian. Entry to the site is free but guides are available for groups (€10 pp). As our driver with the car was waiting for us to continue the drive to Mérida, we chose not to wait for a guide (who was running late) but to wander around the site by ourselves. The different locations are well-signposted with interpretive notes in Spanish and in English. We spent 40 minutes there but could have spent much longer; however, given the 35-degree heat (at the end of September!!!) and lack of shade around the site, we were happy to zip around as fast as we could.

We arrived in Mérida around lunch time and, as our hotel rooms were not yet ready for check-in, we chose to sit at one of the outdoor bars (in the shade!) in the town's main square, Plaza d'España, to refresh ourselves with a glass of sparkling wine and some tapas. A lovely start to our 4-night stay in town.

It has to be said that the town is not one of the prettiest in Spain. However, what it lacks in looks is more than made up for in the abundance of Roman ruins. The town was founded by the emperor Augustus in 25 BC as a "retreat" for retired Roman soldiers; a true retirement village! It soon became the Roman Empire's capital on the Iberian Peninsula and the Romans didn't hold back from pouring wealth into the place. The magnificent theatre (rebuilt in situ after being excavated in the early 20th Century) is apparently the best-preserved example anywhere in the Roman world. It sits right next to the large and equally impressive amphitheater.

Not far are the remains of the Amphitheatre House, a villa with floor mosaics, and not far from the best-preserved Circus in the Roman world. Together with other important structures such as the Temple of Diana, Trajan's Arch, a bridge and an aqueduct, they form the largest archaeological site in Spain and are a UNESCO World Heritage site.

A combination entry ticket (around €14) gives access to most of the important sites as well as the National Museum of Roman Art and the extensive Moorish Alcazaba and we made use of the ticket over the three days we had in the city. Merida is a fairly small city and some of the central roads are pedestrianised, so walking around is easy.

For dinner on our first night, we took the suggestion of our hotel's receptionist and ate at a nearby restaurant called Sybarit Gastroshop specialising in unusual and very tasty tapas and raciones. We sat outside in the little plaza under the shade of palm trees, where hundreds of swallows perched in the evening twilight. The backdrop to the plaza was the stunning site of Hadrian's Arch. A very friendly waiter served us, although he had no English and the (seemingly only) English version of the menu he managed to find didn't quite follow the order of dishes on the main one. That alone, not to mention the unusual combination of ingredients in the dishes, really tested my Spanish as none of my fellow travellers knew any! The bill, including two bottles of local wine, came to around €25 each! Delicious.

Day 2

One of the steep channels at the Alcazaba used to bring fresh water from the river

We all made our separate ways and decided to meet up again for dinner. I chose to look around the Alcazaba before the heat of the day really took a bite. Even at 10:00 am it was already 30 degrees and again, no shade. There isn't much left of the fortress apart from the enormous perimeter walls and an ingenious system for collecting water from the nearby river, utilising pebbles and gravel on the river's edge to filter the water and two steep ramps, one for going down, the other for returning with the water, apparently by mule. That was definitely worth seeing and you can walk following in the footsteps (hoof-steps!) up and down the ramps as the Moors did between the 8th and 13th Centuries.

Next was a visit to Diana's Temple. I decided not to go inside but to admire the structure from the outside. Truth be known, I was getting hungry by that time and spotted a small restaurant not far away that looked very inviting, seemingly a family-run place, with a courtyard towards the rear. I had the Menu del Dia, something available all over Spain - a daily menu with a fixed price, usually with 2, sometimes 3 choices each of starter, main course and dessert. I had a Gazpacho (a must anywhere in Spain on a hot day), followed by pan-fried swordfish and vegetables and then flan (Spanish version of a creme caramel), all for the vast price of €13. The food took a long time to come, even though there were only 6 other customers there. I soon realised that it was all a one-man show. Cook and waiter combined. But worth the wait.

I left the National Museum of Roman Art for the afternoon; at least I'd be out of the blaring sun there. I had hesitated visiting the Museum as I particularly disliked the building. Built in the early 1980s, it is a mammoth structure with its long side positioned on the main pedestrian road leading to the theatre/amphitheatre complex. The facade is built entirely of brick with no windows and completely dwarfs the older row of commercial buildings on the opposite side. My companions assured me it was worth a visit for the collection of ceramics, sculptures, glassware, coins, and mosaics. Once inside, I could appreciate the reason for the building's monumental scale. Its cathedral-like interior pays homage to the arches leading into the amphitheatre as well as providing enough space to house the enormous floor mosaics. These are hung on the high walls and with the upper 2 floors cut away, the visitor can appreciate them from any of the floors.

For dinner that night, we returned to the tapas restaurant of the previous night! This time, our waiter - a different one from the previous night, had some English, but the written menus were once again a challenge as what were recognisable ingredients in Spanish, were mostly left to the imagination to understand from the English translations!

Day 3

We had arranged a full-day tour with a driver to the towns of Caceres and Trujillo.

The old town of Caceres, about an hour's drive from Mérida, is an open-air museum with its blend of Roman, Moorish, Gothic and Italian Renaissance architecture. It is quite simply stunning and unsurprisingly, another UNESCO World Heritage site. It supposedly has several stork nests perched on top of the old city walls and the numerous Moorish towers, but we failed to see any. The main plaza, located down the hill from and on the edge of the old town, is particularly beautiful and we spent well over an hour at one of the several cafes taking in the views and the atmosphere. We were a bit disappointed to find out that the cave paintings, just outside the city, are not open to visitors as they are too delicate. There is an interpretation centre near the entrance that has "reproductions", but we decided that the bit of information and images given in the town museum were enough to get an appreciation of this incredible prehistoric art, apparently dating from 64,000 years ago; that predates the earliest modern human settlements in Europe, so therefore must have been done by Neanderthals!

Our driver drove us on to Trujillo, roughly 50 minutes on from Caceres. It is much smaller but equally as enchanting and beautiful. Like the other towns in Extremadura, there's a mix of Roman, Moorish and medieval architecture. It gained fame as the birthplace of Pizaro, the supposed "discoverer" of Peru and conqueror of the Incas. It was lunchtime when we arrived, so we began our visit with a meal at an outdoor restaurant overlooking the main square. Here I had the chance to try one of the region's famous dishes - Torta del Casar, a deep round of creamy cheese, served slightly warmed and you eat it by scooping out mouthfuls with bread or biscuits. Be warned; it is very, very rich, but very delicious.

Be warned too, that a couple of glasses of a full-bodied red, a wine that complements that dish sublimely, isn't particularly advisable before wandering around in the blazing afternoon sun. The temperature that day reached 36 degrees. But I do remember what I saw of the town!

For GoT afficionados (that's Game of Thrones for the uninitiated), both Caceres and Trujillo feature in Season 7! Now if that's not stamp of approval enough, I don't know what is.

Trajan's Arch. Note the restaurant built inside and adjacent to the arch

We returned to Mérida. Dinner that night - as much as we looked at other options around town, our tapas restaurant of the previous nights got the vote. A surprising (for this time of year and for this region) deluge, meant we couldn't sit outside that evening. We tried to book a table inside but they were all fully booked. Another restaurant in the same plaza, one we had dismissed previously as it had a Michelin sign out front (doesn't that automatically mean exceeding your credit card limit?), was one where you had to take a chance and turn up at opening time (8:00 pm) to get a table. We returned just before 8 and luckily secured one. We found ourselves sitting inside the Arch of Trajan! To boot, the tapas on offer, although not quite as extensive as our "regular", were even tastier and not that much more expensive!

Day 4

We spent our final day in Mérida "filling in the gaps" on the list of places to visit and even then did not get to see everything.

We left Mérida (and Spain) the following day but not before we had an overnight stop in another little gem of a town in Extremadura called Zafra. But that's another story for another time.

Suffice it to say, this region of Spain will not remain so little known for too long as every day, more and more history is unearthed and the message is spreading. Do go before it spreads too widely and before you have to book ahead just to scoop a taste of a Torta del Casar!

About the Author

Louis enjoys nothing more than meeting and interacting with people from different cultures. At the last count, he has lived in six different countries. He currently splits his time living roughly half the year in Italy and the other half in Australia, chasing the sun! Oh, and he’s a good cook (or so he says).


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