Roads of Extremadura

If you've seen Spain's cities and basked on its beaches, drive with Chris Moss through the home province of the most famous conquistadores

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 December, 2012, 2:09pm


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I like Madrid a lot, but I love leaving it. There's something about the regions just beyond the city limits that fills me with a sense of freedom, especially when I'm driving. They're sun-baked and spacious; they feel rural but are tied to the capital; their cathedrals and ancient city walls point to wars and power struggles, but orchards and vineyards, dairies and farms remind you that life is still rooted in the land.

While researching a book on Spain's back roads, I discover one of the very best drives, west into Extremadura. When I pass Talavera de la Reina, I begin to feel I am in the hinterland. The traffic eases off, and once I get off the A-5 highway after Oropesa, I slow down, too.

My first stop is Guadalupe. I know the name from Mexico, where the virgin of that name is venerated above all other saints. After my own ritual - a quick cafe solo in one of the small bars in the plaza - I go inside the church to see her. She's black - one of only three black Madonnas in Spain - and her tiny face, on top of her vast triangular cape, is almost buried by a huge gold crown.

It was from this town that the cult travelled to Mexico. The infamous conquistador, Hernan Cortes, was born in Medellin, in Extremadura, and the religious passions of his province travelled with him. In the 16th century the region was poor, and while first sons might inherit land or a cushy clerical office, other males in the family were often compelled to seek their fortunes in the newly discovered Americas.

I hit my first back road heading west, on the EX102, which threads through Canamero and Logrosan and takes me into a more rugged landscape. Las Extremaduras derives from the Latin for "beyond the Duero River", and has a reputation in Spain for being primitive and wild. The land here is cultivated and, even after a hot summer, splashed with green. Along the roadside, trees throw shadows over sleepy bars in the towns, and flowers spill from balconies.

Trujillo is the birthplace of Francisco Pizarro, the conquistador and, as the equestrian statue in the plaza tells you, "liberator of Peru". His half-brother, Hernando, was another powerful figure in Peru, controlling Cuzco for a spell and negotiating with the Spanish court during the troubled early stages of the invasion. The two men grew up here, and from a viewpoint near their house - now a museum - you can look out on a vast, desert-like landscape. It's easy to imagine the appeal of a New World adventure.

Yet Trujillo today is grand, because the Pizarros and other conquistadores were nothing if not flashy, and some returned to build palaces and mansions to advertise their new stations in life. In the plaza are handsome buildings, several with proud heraldic escutcheons and one notable corner with an allegorical relief celebrating the Spanish conquest of Peru's indigenous peoples.

I spend the night in Trujillo walking around the lanes as dusk falls. In the plaza, they serve a wonderful oxtail, and there are lots of local wines to try. The Ribera del Guadiana region has been an official wine region since 1999, when it shifted from producing table wines to compete with Rioja and Ribera del Duero fine wines. The grenache-based red I have is robust and rich, perfect for red meat. The waiter suggests I try an extremeño dish made from stale bread and traditionally eaten by poor shepherds. But the side dish of migas (crumbs) comes with alfalfa, a splash of olive oil and pork ribs.

It's a long and winding road out of Trujillo to see the north of Extremadura, but the all-day drive takes me through the Parque Nacional Monfrague. This Unesco-listed Biosphere reserve is located where the Tietar and tributaries of the Tagus River have carved deep valleys, exposing rock faces and towering cliffs that are the refuge of many raptors, including the world's largest breeding group of Eurasian black vultures, a few pairs of the threatened Spanish imperial eagle, golden eagles and Bonelli's eagles.

As I drive on towards Plasencia, I pass dehesas - classic Iberian pastures of cork trees, oak trees, rockrose and broom bush - where black foot pigs feed on acorns to produce the famous jamon iberico de bellota. Extremadura takes its ham seriously. The very best sell for about HK$37,200 for a single ham. Between the dehesas are olive and almond groves, fields of beef cattle and vineyards. It's a fecund, tidy-looking and gently rolling landscape.

But at Las Hurdes, I see a different world, a dry and dusty Extremadura that seems to chime with my preconceptions. Luis Bunuel's 1933 film Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (Land Without Bread) portrays the locals, the Hurdanos, as inbred morons who live in squalor and eat nothing but the meat of diseased swine. Exaggerated and grotesque, it's the work of a surrealist maverick, but it shows up the poverty and hardship of the region.

After Las Hurdes, I follow a quiet road to climb a hillock for a vast view to the north and west. Below me is the great sweep of Castile and Leon.

I drive south to medieval Caceres and, after a night's rest, take a walk around the city. The Gothic cathedral, museum, plaza, Moorish walls, arches and the Palacio de Toledo-Moctezuma are wonderful. It was to the latter that an associate of Cortes brought back a daughter of the Aztec emperor as his bride. But more startling than the buildings are the storks, which build huge nests on top of just about every cupola, rooftop, tower and parapet. They sit, occasionally chattering, often motionless, as if the sun makes them lethargic. Caceres is bigger than Trujillo. It has a university and so is a lot livelier in the evening. I stay a second night, and, after a quick sherry crawl through the bars, feast on suckling pig at a 60-year-old restaurant called El Figon de Eustaquio.

A main road takes me to Merida, where I uncover Extremadura's Roman heritage. There are ruins all over town, including a theatre (still used for an annual classical theatre festival) and amphitheatre, a bridge, a temple of Diana and an impressively intact Roman circus. The National Museum of Roman Art, housed in a modern building, houses a well-curated display of statuary and antiquities.

Extremadura is a multifaceted province (one of 17 "autonomous communities"), its borders touching many regions of Spain. In Zafra, you begin to feel the Andalucian influence. A local guide, Ana, shows me round the patios and wells, the checked-floors of porches and the wrought-iron gates and window bars, which remind me of the older houses of Buenos Aires. America comes into view wherever you wander in western Spain.

I stay the night in a parador, one of those converted palaces the state runs as a grand hotel. Zafra's was once home to the powerful dukes of Feria and was suitably grandiose. Cortes rested in Zafra while travelling south to the departure point for his voyage to Mexico and is said to have stayed at a parador. I'm in no such hurry. At Barbacana, I lunch on Iberian ham and solomillo (sirloin) drenched in sweet Pedro de Ximenez wine. I don't think I could have been a conquistador. This rich food is making me too rotund to wear armour, I don't like the sight of blood, and I like it too much here.