The Complete Guide To: Extremadura

Roman ruins, dramatic landscapes, amazing wildlife - the fourth largest province of Spain has everything except crowds. Explore the extraordinary region that produced the conquistadors before it's invaded by the tourists, says Marian Amos


GOING TO EXTREMES?

This breathtaking and remote region of south-west Spain offers a rare combination of lush forests, majestic mountains and sweeping plains, peppered with towns and hamlets from another age. Taking its name from the Spanish word extremar - meaning "to go to extremes" - this ancient region has much to attract history buffs, bird-watchers, and those who simply wish to wander, taking in the vast ochre landscape.

Extremadura was also the cradle of Spain's Latin-American empire. Ironically, this landlocked terrain was also home to those trailblazing extremeños, the conquistadors, who built grand and ornate mansions on their return from the Americas.

So far, this stunning part of Spain has barely been discovered by British travellers, let alone second-home buyers.

OFF THE MAP - WHY?

Possibly, because Extremadura has no direct flights from the UK - yet. It is the fourth-largest province of Spain, but the least populated. As a result, Extremadura - which stretches from the Gredos and Gata mountains to the border of Andalucia, and from Castille to the Portuguese frontier - is as close as modern Spain gets to an unspoilt natural heritage. The region is crossed from east to west by two important rivers: the Guadiana and the Tajo (known in English as the Tagus). The former wends across to Merida and Badajoz then southwards, marking the frontier with Portugal; the latter crosses Portugal and meets the Atlantic just beyond Lisbon. The Tagus also feeds the huge Alcantara reservoir - the largest in western Europe - giving Extremadura more "inland" coast than any other region in western Europe.

I WANT A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE

Then aim for the wilderness of Spain's newest national park, Monfragüe, which covers the centre of the region, starting around 40km north-east of the town of Caceres.

The national park expands from the confluence of the Tagus and Tietar rivers. It is home to a wonderful diversity of woods, scrubland, rivers and pasture, with a spectacular range of flora and fauna. More than 17,000 hectares provide a habitat for over 200 species of animal, including deer, wild boar and the rare Iberian lynx. But it's the breadth of birdlife that will amaze you - and to which ornithologists flock. The park is home to the largest colony of black vultures and biggest concentration of imperial eagles in the world, as well as the great bustard and Montague's harrier.

A visitor centre (00 34 927 010 835; www.monfrague.com) is located in the old village of Villarreal de San Carlos, in the middle of the park; it opens 9am-2.30pm and 4.30pm-7.30pm daily in summer, with shorter hours in winter. Collect a map of the park and pick up a brisk pace on one of the three colour-coded walks. You can spend around three hours, for example, from Villarreal de San Carlos to Mirador de la Tajadilla, among the heath, rockrose and tovisco bushes. At the summit, sit on a rocky ridge and gaze down at the shaded mountain side, scattered with holm oaks. Then continue beside the Fuente del Alisar stream, along a trail roaming between river and road, crossing land covered in eucalyptus trees. From the Tajadilla viewpoint, you can observe the nests and flight of pairs of griffon and Egyptian vultures, then head back to the village for a well-deserved café con leche.

WHO HAS BEEN THIS WAY BEFORE?

Culturally, Extremadura is rich with the legacy of the various civilisations that have prevailed in the Iberian peninsula, and its cuisine, festivals and local traditions have survived the centuries and still form part of everyday life.

The Romans were first to leave a permanent mark on the towns of Extremadura, although the Moorish influence is evident in much of the architecture. Founded by the Romans more than 2,000 years ago, Merida was once capital of the province of Lusitania, and it shows. Nowhere in Spain can you see more Roman remains - an amphitheatre, villas, burial grounds, Temple of Diana and theatre. You can buy a combined ticket for €8 from any of the sites and take your time to travel back to Roman times (sites open daily in summer, 9.30am-1.45pm, 5-6.15pm).

In the evening, you can join the locals for the paseo back and forth across the 60-arch Puente Romano - the longest Roman bridge in Spain, crossing the Guadiana.

THE LOVELIEST CITY?

The beautiful walled quarter of Caceres, called the Ciudad Monumental and one of six Unesco World Heritage Site designations in Spain. Built on Roman foundations, Caceres was made glorious by the fortunes of returning conquistadors. Impressive escutcheoned mansions and churches are crammed together, with many towers and turrets, often topped with storks' nests.

As the regional capital of Extremadura, Caceres has a significant student population, making it a lively place. There are bars along Calle Pizarro, south of Plaza de San Juan, and further on at Calle Dr Fleming, and for live music, there are many venues around Calle General Ezpondaz. Try La Machano (Calle Andrada 8), tucked in an alley, for Latin sounds.To take your evening to its extreme, head, in the early hours, for one of the discos dotted around the disconcertingly named Plaza de Albatros.

A SPIRITUAL TREAT?

Make a pilgrimage to the small picturesque village of Guadalupe, perched in the Sierra west of Trujillo. Besides admiring the jumble of houses at the centre of the village, and taking in the spectacular scenery, you can pay homage to the Black Madonna, who has made Guadalupe known around the world - and possibly benefit from her miraculous healing powers. Standing just 49cm high, the Black Madonna is one of Spain's most important devotional objects. According to legend, this figure was carved from cedar in the 1st century by St Luke * * himself, and buried with him in Asia Minor. In the fourth century, the Madonna travelled with the saint's relics to Constantinople, where she developed a reputation for performing miracles. This esteem saw her taken first to Rome, then to Seville in the sixth century. The Black Madonna disappeared mysteriously after the Moorish invasions, AD711. Five centuries later, so it is claimed, the Virgin Mary appeared to a peasant on the Extremaduran hills and revealed the lost statue's location - commanding that a church be erected on the very same site. And so it was done.

The sprawling complex was founded in 1340 by King Alphonso XI. It sits on top of a hill in the middle of the village. By the 15th century, the mighty Basilica of Guadalupe was complete as the new home of the Black Madonna (daily 9.30am-1pm and 3.30pm-6.30pm, www.monasterioguadalupe.com, admission €3/£2.20).

WHERE WILL I STAY?

If you're visiting Guadalupe, the location of choice is within the monastery that guards the Black Madonna. The Hospederia del Real Monasterio, on Plaza Juan Carlos (00 34 927 367 000; www.monasterio guadalupe.com), has doubles with bathroom for a good-value €64 (£46), with breakfast an extra €6.70 (£4.80). The Hospederia occupies one of the monastery's 16th-century cloisters and has been splendidly converted into an atmospheric and peaceful place to stay. You cross the ornately tiled courtyard, and follow the red polished-terracotta floors of the cloister, past carved Gothic arches, to reach the large oak door to your room for the night. If you are lucky enough to find room 218 vacant, you can literally sleep like a king under its vast vaulted ceiling, and upon what is said to be the four-poster bed once occupied by King Juan Carlos I.

AND ELSEWHERE?

There are plenty of inexpensive pensions and hostals in Extremadura, as well as four-star establishments, and even a smattering of boutique hotels in the towns and cities. For an authentic Extremaduran experience, book ahead into one of the historic paradors in the region. These state-owned properties aim to promote Spain's artistic heritage, and are often former castles, palaces and monasteries in spectacular locations.

The Parador de Caceres (00 34 927 211 759; www.parador.es) is the only hotel within the Ciudad Monumental. Once the Palace de Torreoraz of Diego Garcia de Ulloa, this Gothic stone building incorporates a tower and has the family coat of arms emblazoned on it walls. The interior has been expensively conserved, with stone and wooden floors and fine antiques, yet still retains original features such as the grand chimneypiece in the Great Hall. A double room costs €140 (£100), with breakfast at €13 (£9.50) per person.

As is the case with all paradors, the restaurant at Parador de Caceres has a menu centred around traditional dishes of the region. A set menu is offered daily, along with à la carte dishes. Local wines from Rio del Guadiana vineyards, as well as from further afield, feature on the wine list.

WHAT ARE THE TRADITIONAL DISHES?

Food in Extremadura is simple but good: whatever is currently available locally is likely to appear on the menu. You might try a bowl of sopa de obispo ("bishop's soup"), a chicken broth, or chilled gazpacho, mopped up with freshly baked bread. Iberian pigs feature prominently, in particular, the sublime Serrano ham. Lamb and kid meat is also prominent in the cuisine, in dishes such as frite (lamb fried with garlic, onion, lemon and paprika). Another regional speciality is migas ("crumbs"), which is a mixture of either egg or chorizo topped with breadcrumbs. Though this was traditionally a shepherd's breakfast, it has become a dinner-time favourite on many menus.

YOU MENTIONED CONQUISTADORS?

As you stand exposed to the elements, gazing towards the harsh mountains and out across the sweeping dehesa (wild pastures), the penny drops. Only from such challenging lands could men, driven by hardship and ambition, have led the exploration to the New World, with its strangely similar terrain.

The prime location is the beautiful town of Trujillo, draped on a hillside between Guadalupe and Caceres. This was home to Francisco Pizarro, born here in 1476, and a large bronze statue of him on horseback dominates the Plaza Mayor. He oversaw the capture and execution of the Inca emperor Atahualpa, supervised the annihilation of the ruling class, and founded the city of Lima - where he died in 1541. His second cousin, Hernan Cortes, is known as the womanising conquistador who bagged Mexico for the Spanish crown. His Extremaduran birthplace was Medellin, which today is a sleepy village dominated by a crumbling castle. Aged 20, Cortes set sail in 1504 to seek his fortune; he succeeded, and secured one for the Spanish crown as well.

Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, born in Jerez de los Cabelleros in 1475, hacked his way through the jungles of Panama and was the first European to see the Pacific Ocean.

Francisco de Orellana was also born in Trujillo - a generation after Pizarro, in 1500. He was the conquistador who encountered Amazonian warriors while sailing the length of the Amazon in search of El Dorado.

HOW DO I GET THERE - AND AROUND?

The optimum approach for travellers with cars is the voyage from Plymouth to Santander (Brittany Ferries: 0870 907 6103; www.brittanyferries.co.uk) or Portsmouth to Bilbao on P&O Ferries (08706 009 009; www.poferries.com). From the north coast, spectacular and mostly excellent roads will take you to the northern frontier of Extremadura in as little as eight hours.

To get there as quickly and cheaply as possible, fly Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) from Stansted to Salamanca. At Salamanca, you can pick up a rental car and reach the frontier of Extremadura within an hour or so. The best approach for those using public transport to reach the province is to take the train or fly to Madrid. Buses to Extremaduran towns and cities leave from Madrid's southern bus station at Mendes Alvaro (accessible by Metro from the city centre and the airport).

Within Extremadura, the main public transport is buses, though the Madrid-Badajoz railway line cuts through the province. Links between main towns are good and cheap, but a car is recommended for accessing anywhere off the beaten track (which covers most of Extremadura. Avis (0844 581 0147; www.avis.co.uk) has a good car-rental network in the province. A small car, booked in advance, costs around £40 per day, including unlimited mileage.

WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

No specialist guidebooks to Extremadura are published in English, and the chapters devoted to the region in general books on Spain tend to be scanty. The best sources of information are local tourist offices, augmented by the province-wide website, www.turismoextremadura.com.

IT'S FIESTA TIME

Extremadura is well worth visiting in the first few months of the year, when the temperatures are low but human energy is high. These are some of the more intriguing rituals between January and Easter:

Encamisa (16 Jan): Navalvillar de Pela

Riders on horseback parade around town, and bonfires are set alight for the occasion.

Carantoñas (20 Jan): Acehuche

During the fiesta of San Sebastian, the Carantoñas take to the streets dressed in animal skins and grotesque masks, designed to make them look terrifying. They represent the wild beasts which are said to have left the saint unharmed.

Pero Palo (Carnival, Feb/March): Villanueva de la Vera

In this ancient ritual a wooden figure dressed in a suit and representing the devil is paraded around the streets and then destroyed - except for the head, which is reused the following year.

Los Empalaos (Maundy Thursday - this year, April 5): Valverde de la Vera Men do penance by walking in procession through the town with their arms outstretched and bound to small tree trunks.

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