Spain – Off the beaten track
Perhaps my Spanish friends would agree that Extremadura is Spain's best kept secret. Extremadura is a treasure trove of historic places and natural environment. Often overlooked and underrated, Extremadura is perfect for those interested in leaving the tourist trail behind. If you want to discover the creativity and curiosity of your own eyes and mind than studiously trying to be one step ahead of the crowd, this route could be just for you!
You can consider a car trip following the order below, giving each town a half day or full.
As I imagine you’ll be departing from Madrid, I start the route with Castilla La Mancha’s Oropesa. You’ll be surprised to see what a good excuse it is to stop by.
Not to be confused with Oropesa del Mar, Oropesa de Toledo is located between the Sierra de Gredos (mountain) and the Tajo River. Surrounded by history as well as nature, you might get immersed in the medieval essence of Oropesa.
Legend has it that Oropesa earned its name from a Christian princess who was worth her weight “pesa” in gold “oro”, hence “Oropesa”. Its streets are paved with civil and religious monuments that force us to look at them and they lead us to the medieval warp.
Castillo de Oropesa was a 14th century castle-palace for the Alvarez de Toledo family. Five centuries later, in 1930, this was the first of many historical buildings to be inaugurated into the Parador Hotels. Currently functioning under the name Parador de Oropesa, it has been endorsed as a museum well. The slight Greek influence in the façade in the form of ionic columns would fit in with the legend that the town of Oropesa is said to have been founded by the Greek hero Hercules. The Parador benefits from stunning panoramic views of the Toledo countryside. Imagine sitting out on the terrace enjoying a drink at the end of the day or tasting exquisite gastronomy in the impressive dining room that has a Gothic-Mudejar coffered ceiling where once Sinatra’s “Pride and Passion” was filmed.
The Chapel of San Bernardo and the Jesuit College belong to the same era and are built in plateresque and Renaissance forms of architecture.
The Church of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (Our Lady of the Assumption) was built in the 17th century and boasts a Baroque altarpiece and the remains of the Romanesque facade.
I guess you could call it a town of convents when there are 4 convents! Convento de la Concepción is converted into the Restaurante los Arcos today. Convento de Nuestra Señora del Recuerdo now functions as a hospital.
Don’ miss to pay a visit to the 15th century Old Town Hall at Navarro Square with the clock tower (built in 1901) forming a pointed arch over.
Oropesa celebrates the festivity of the Medieval Days each April, in which the town fills with people in costumes, medieval decoration, a medieval market, activities like an archery contest and theatre.
Oropesa is perfect for exploring the Extremadura region either for a stopping off point or for an indulgent stay in the medieval era.
Guadalupe is a mountain village built on a legend of a shepherd finding an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe hidden on the mountain. He built a small hut on the spot which later was expanded and built upon to become a chapel, then church and finally the Royal Sanctuary-Monastery of Our Lady of Guadaloupe. As it wasn’t all built at once, but rather added on, there are a number of different architectural styles; from Mudejar to Gothic and Baroque.
The main square, or Plaza de Santa Maria, is where you get the best view of the entrance to the UNESCO world heritage site. The monastery has been a symbol of Spanish culture since the 15th century as an important Christian pilgrimage site. The only way to visit is by taking a guided tour which will take you through several chapels, beautifully preserved book archives, embroidery exhibits, the choir, sacristy, and finally to the Camarín. The Camarín is where visitors will encounter various paintings, murals, sculptures, and the commemorated black statue of the Virgin.
With two medieval quarters containing gothic buildings and traditional homes in cobbled streets, the centre of Guadalupe is a picturesque little place. The most notable pieces of gothic architecture are the town hall and the Plaza Mayor.
Just opposite the monastery, there’s the Parador of Guadalupe. This luxury hotel was originally the palace of the Marquis de la Romana, a splendid 16th-century architectural work. It is connected to the former San Juan Bautista Hospital, a 15th-century structure which today serves as the parador’s courtyards. The entire complex was once an important place of learning for medicine, surgery and grammar.
Located south of the main square is the Jewish quarter with good examples of classic Jewish architecture.
Guadalupe is known as a centre of artisans in the province of Extremadura. Wander the shops for artisan crafts in copper, ceramics, wickerwork, embroidery, lace and wrought iron.
This 13th century town is known as the “conquistador town” because of its famous inhabitants who helped conquer the New World. The proud town was home to several conquerors including Francisco Pizarro (Peru), Diego García de Paredes (Trujillo, Venezuela), Francisco de Orellana (Guayaquil, Ecuador) and many more.
Its astonishing Plaza Mayor is framed by churches, palaces, cafés and dominated by a bronze statue of Francisco Pizarro. Initially sculpted to resemble Hernan Cortes but returned from Mexico, the statue was repurposed to represent Pizarro. Beyond one of Spain’s most spectacular plazas according to Lonely Planet, you can stroll the narrow streets or head up Calle Ballesteros to view some of Trujillo’s other attractions.
Santa María Mayor Church is supposedly a pagan temple at its origin, converted to a mosque during Muslim rule of the area, and later became a Christian church.
Continuing uphill will bring you to Pizarro House Museum and the Trujillo Castle. The former is a preserved and converted 15th century home believed to have belonged to the Pizarro family. Trujillo Castle is a 13th century castle built on top of an Arab fortress that dated back to the 800s. The fortress appeared as Casterly Rock, the ancestral home of Lannisters in 7th season of Game of Thrones.
For those seeking festivals, Trujillo hosts the National Cheese Fair every May. This important Spanish competition is a great opportunity for tourists to sample and buy delicious, award-winning cheeses.
This world heritage site dates all the way back to 25BC. You literally feel like you’ve been transported back in time to the Medieval Ages. I would recommend losing yourself in the labyrinth of small streets and enjoying a travel to the past. Tell me, wouldn’t you impressed by the preservation of 30 towers that survived from the Moorish period!
The medieval architecture has been maintained so well in fact, that the city of Cáceres has been used as a backdrop in the filming of many period dramas. The spacious old quarter is a rich blend of Roman and Moorish architecture that features churches, museums and ancient houses.
Bujaco Tower was built in the 12th century after Ferdinand II of León conquered the city. Next to Bujaco Tower, Ermita de la Paz is the hermitage built on top of the ruins of the San Benito chapel during the Renaissance period. Just north of the Plaza de Santa María lies the domed 16th-century Toledo-Moctezuma Palace, once home to Isabel Moctezuma, daughter of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II, who was brought to Cáceres as a conquistador’s bride. The palace now contains the municipal archives.
An interesting fact about the city of Cáceres is that it is known for is its numerous stork nests, which can be found in trees and on rooftops.
Church de San Mateo, demonstrating Baroque, Gothic, and Renaissance styles, has been reconstructed various times since it was originally built. Church of Santa María, built atop of the ruins of a mosque in the 13th century, offers an amazing view from the top.
With fine tapas and cutting-edge restaurants, Cáceres has earned itself the title of gastronomy capital of Spain in 2015. It is a place of genuine flavours and simple preparation, reflecting the city’s proximity to rural Spain. If you wanna try something local, remember that the most popular and authentic pincho is a juicy slice of Cáceres’ signature sausage, patatera (made with pork meat, potato, and pimentón), on a piece of hot toast.
The Womad world-music festival, held every May, could be another attraction for music lovers.
Get ready to be overwhelmed with a town bursting with history. The hidden gem of Spain dates back to 25 BC, when it was known as Augusta Emerita, which means the Army of Augustus. Mérida eventually evolved into the capital of the Roman province Lusitania in 23 BC. Over time, the Extremadura region was held under Christian, Moorish and Portuguese control. These different societies not only influenced the culture, but also the various types of architecture found throughout Mérida.
Merida has one of Europe’s best-preserved set of Roman ruins and more Roman monuments than any other city in Spain. Just as in Rome, it’s fascinating to see how some of Merida’s ancient treasures have been left squeezed in between its modern buildings.
The Roman Amphitheatre dates back to 8 BC. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993, the amphitheatre once hosted gladiatorial combats. The Roman Theatre, a huge open-air theater, is located right next to the amphitheater. It's even older than the amphitheater, dating back to 15 BC. Don’t worry, the theater’s acoustics still echo with a show or concert during Theater Festival in summer.
The Temple of Diana is the only religious building from Emerita Augusta still standing in its original location. The temple, which was built sometime during the 1st century A.D., was most likely used to worship Emperor Augustus and not Diana like the name suggests. Apart from the sculptures of the divine emperor’s family, you also see an odd architecture inside the temple, don’t you? That’s because in 16th century, Count Corbes decided to build his palace in the center of the temple by re-purposing most of the original stones.
Circus Maximus is an ancient Roman hippodrome used once for horse and chariot races.
There are three aqueducts that run into the city. Only a small portion of the most significant, Acueducto de los Milagros (Miraculous Aqueduct) still remains intact today, but it is certainly enough to impress. The 10 km structure was built to supply Emerita Augusta with water collected from the Proserpina cistern. San Lázaro Aqueduct is a better preserved one. Located next to the Roman Circus, it was named after the Christian Saint Lazarus who rose from the dead at the command of Jesus Christ.
Spanning across the Guadiana River, Puente Romano (Roman Bridge) is a 2-minute walk from Plaza de España. It is a 2,000 year old Roman bridge that is the longest (790 meters) in length and longest surviving Roman bridge in the world.
The Alcazaba is an Arab castle was constructed as a fortification over the Guadiana River and can be accessed through a small opening in the Roman Bridge. The castle was originally purposed to regulate traffic and goods brought in and out.
The present Basilica of Santa Eulalia was built on the remains of a former Paleo-Christian basilica after the town was reconquered in 1230. One of the most outstanding elements of this Romanesque-style church is the splayed doorway with horseshoe arch to which archivolts and small columns with capitals decorated with plant motifs and birds were adjoined.
You can find a replica of the symbol of Rome; shewolf suckling the twins Romulus and Remus, near the Roman Bridge. The image was favoured by Benito Mussolini, who cast himself as the founder of the "New Rome" and donated copies of the statue to various places around the world. The original scuplture is housed at Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome.
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