“If you want to go traveling in Spain,” an old timer might say, “well, wander through the stone cities of Castilla. Explore the greens hills of Andalucia. Bury your feet in the sands of Catalonia, but don’t go beyond the Douro. Out there, there be dragons.”
OK, maybe I’ve watched Pirates of the Caribbean one too many times, but there’s no doubt that for much of it’s history Extremadura was a wild and woolly place. The very word, meaning beyond the Douro River, implies an unknown, mysterious land.
At the far western edge of Spain and bordering Portugal, Extremadura is historically the poorest region in Spain, and remained so right up into modern times. Rolling green hills hide deceptively thin soil. The main products seems to be acorns and rocks.
It was from this region that many of the conquistadors sailed off to conquer the new world. Well, first they had to ride or walk to reach the sea, but think about what the recruitment posters for this little venture must have been like.
Meet new people! See new lands!
Fabulous riches await!*
*If you survive. Chances of surviving the sea voyage: less than 30%; odds of being killed by a native after you arrive, greater than 50%; death or permanent disfigurement by unknown disease: 20%; likelihood of ever returning home, well, let’s not go into that.
Those who signed on were either incredibly bored or had absolutely nothing to loose.
Today Extremadura is on the map as one of the best producers of jamón ibérico, sort of the Spanish version of prosciutto (remember all those acorns; pigs love them). The region is also home to some beautiful, authentically old world villages and some of the best Roman ruins anywhere in Europe.
The Roman city of Augusta Emerita was established by the Romans in 25 bc as a major stop on the Via della Plata (Silver Road). Along this route, silver mined in Northern Spain was hauled down to Sevilla, where it was loaded onto boats and sent back to enrich the coffers of the Roman State (and quite a few Roman governors, including Julius Caesar).
At its peak Mérida was one of the biggest and most important Roman cities in Spain. Because of the growing silver trade, and the town’s strategic position on the cross roads of two major trade routes (the other running from Toledo to Lisbon), it soon became the capital of the Roman province of Lusitania.
The city today is a modern, dumpy mess and would be worth detouring to avoid if it weren’t for the most fabulous collection of Roman ruins anywhere in Iberia.
A lively university town and the main commercial and transportation hub for the Extremadura region, Cáceres never the less manages to maintain a small town appeal. This is in part due to its compact, well-preserved old town, a very nice example of Spanish Renaissance architecture. Ignore the expanding modern city and limit yourself to the Ciudad Monumental within the town walls.
One of the most attractive towns in the Extremadura region, Trujillo is a perfectly preserved Renaissance city. The town was birthplace of many of the conquistadors, including Francisco Pizarro, who defeated the Incas. Monumental but stern mansions and public buildings make up the center of the town, built on the wealth plundered from the Americas.
It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful setting for a monastery, isolated from the outside world and surrounded by rugged mountains. The monastery was built on the sight where a shepherd found a carving of the Virgin Mary, rumored to have been carved by St. Luke. From the 14th century on it became one of the most important pilgrimage sights in Spain. It’s location in Extremadura ensured that it received a steady stream of offerings from conquistadors returning from their adventures, all loaded down with New World wealth. Sacked by Napoleon in 1808, the monastery was abandoned for over 100 years, but has been cared for by a group of Franciscan monks since the 1930s.
Hotel Infanta Isabel
Plaza Mayor 12, 40001 Segovia
tel. 921-461-300 fax: 921-462-217
29 rooms. Singles: €77 Doubles: €105 All major credit cards accepted.
My favorite choice for Segovia, the Infanta Isabel is brimming with 19th century glamor and class. The rates shown above are for busy times, especially weekends and holidays. Weekday rates can be as much as a third lower, making this hotel a real bargain. Located directly on the Plaza Mayor, many of the rooms have small balconies overlooking the cathedral and the square.
I started my first trip of the year with three nights in Segovia, Spain. Segovia is a small provincial town, located about an hour's drive northwest of Madrid. Not only is it within easy reach of Madrid's Barajas International Airport, there are at least five reasons why it's one of my favorite towns in Spain:
Any one of these could be reason enough to begin or end your trip to Spain in Segovia.
The advantages of the town's location -- on a steep, rocky ridge high above the confluence of two rivers -- was already recognized in pre-historic times, but its recorded history starts with the Romans around the 3rd century BC. They built a military fortress on the tip of the ridge. Sometime in the first century AD, with Spain firmly in the grip of the Roman Empire, a town grew. Towns need a steady, secure source of water, and for the Romans that meant building a reservoir in the mountains and then channeling that water to the city through an aqueduct.
The total length of the aqueduct was over ten miles. Right at the edge of town it has to bridge a small valley. This section, easily the most stunning sight in town, is over 2000 feet long, and more than 100 feet high. The stones, perfectly cut and fitted, do not have mortar, pins or anything else holding them together. Gravity has been doing the job nicely for almost 2000 years. The soaring arches and impossibly slender line make it one of the most graceful structures in Europe. The aqueduct continued to flow water at a rate of 8 gallons per second for most of its history, and actually functioned as the town's back-up water supply until the 1980's.
Sitting in the shadow of the aqueduct is Meson Candido, probably the most famous restaurant in Spain. They have been serving Segovia's signature dish, roast suckling pig, since the 15th century. Three weeks of mothers milk, and into the oven. It's a must-stop location for every dignitary who visits Spain, and you'll see their pictures lining the walls inside.
One of the people who may have eaten at Meson Candido when it first opened is Queen Isabel (the one who sent Christopher Columbus on his little adventure). Segovia was the main seat of the kings and queens of Castilla y Leon, and Isabel in particular loved the city. Just off the main square is the church where she was crowned. Her marriage to Ferdinand of Aragon joined together the two most powerful kingdoms on the Iberian peninsula and paved the way for a united Spain.
Segovia has many other churches, including the the cathedral. Located just off the main square and dominating Segovia's sky line, it was the last Gothic-style church built in Europe.
I don't want to imply that Segovia is unknown, or that you won't see any tourists. It's just that the masses of tourists that swarm almost any worthwhile city all come as day-trippers from Madrid. The bus loads start arriving around 10:00 am, but by 4:00 pm they're all on their way back to Madrid, and peace reigns once again in Segovia.
Most of the old town center is a pedestrian zone. Locals come out and stroll the main street, kids kick a soccer ball around on the Plaza Mayor, while parents watch from a nearby cafe, sipping wine and munching tapas. Segovia appreciates the good life.
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