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A Karen Brown Recommended Itinerary

Cradle of the Conquistadors

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Most of this itinerary finds you in Extremadura-an area of Spain less frequented by tourists, which is part of its appeal. The name Extremadura originated during the Reconquest period and translates as "land beyond the River Duero" (which runs across the country from Soria to Valladolid to Zamora). Historically somewhat at the periphery of national life, and less privileged economically, the area was rich in young men eager to seek their fortunes in the New World, as the name of this itinerary suggests. Some famous Extremadurans you may recognize are Hernán Cortés, conqueror of Mexico; Francisco Pizarro, conqueror of Peru; Orellano, explorer of the Amazon; and Balboa, discoverer of the Pacific Ocean. Indeed, since the explorations were sponsored by Queen Isabella of Castile, which included Extremadura, only Castilians were given the opportunity to make the journey to the New World during the 16th century. The area is still resplendent with fine old mansions built with treasures found in Mexico and Peru.

Typical cuisine of Extremadura includes one of our favorite Spanish specialties: raw-cured ham (jamón serrano); as well as lamb stew (caldereta de cordero), fried breadcrumbs with bacon (migas); and numerous game dishes such as pheasant (faisán) and partridge (perdiz). The major local wine is a simple white called Almendralejo.

The last destination brings you into Old Castile and the enchanting medieval university city of Salamanca.

PACING: If you are especially interested in Roman remains, plan on spending the night in Mérida, then choose a hub in the center of the itinerary and spend three nights there to really enjoy this lovely area before heading north to Salamanca.

It is never easy to leave Seville, Spain's most romantic city; but, if you fall under its spell, you will be back. However, Spain offers many additional enchantments and much more of it remains to be seen, so set your sights north. Note: For more in-depth suggestions on sightseeing in Seville, see our itinerary titled Seville Highlights.

Leave Seville heading west across the bridge and turn north toward Mérida on the N630 to Zafra. Zafra preserves one of the most impressive fortified palaces in the region, now the Parador de Zafra, on one of the prettiest little plazas in the area. Actually the former palace of the Duke of Feria, it was the residence of Hernán Cortés just before he embarked for the New World. Its conversion to a parador has not spoiled it in the least, and it's worth a short visit to see the fabulous chapel and the other faithfully restored public rooms. Leave Zafra on N435 and join the N630, which takes you to Mérida, repository of the richest Roman remains in Spain-all in a modern, sprawling city.

Founded in 25 B.C., the Roman town of Emerita Augusta, now Mérida, was so well situated at the junction of major Roman roads that it was soon made the capital of Lusitania. Outstanding Roman remains dot the city: bridges, temples, a racecourse, two aqueducts, an arena, and a theater-all attesting to Mérida's historical importance under Roman occupation. If your time is limited, you must not miss the Roman Arena (built in the 1st century B.C. with a seating capacity of 14,000) and next to it, the Roman Theater (built by Agrippa in the 1st century B.C. with a seating capacity of over 5,000). The astounding theater alone, with its double-columned stage, is worth a detour to Mérida. (If you are here in late June or early July, see if the Classical Theater Festival is offering live performances.) Just across the road from the arena and theater is a stunning modern museum that you must not miss, Museo Nacional de Arte Romano. In this spectacular brick-vaulted, skylit building many Roman artifacts and panels of mosaics are displayed. Be sure to also see the Casa Romana del Anfiteatro (1st century A.D. with mosaics and water pipes) and the Alcazaba at the city end of the Roman bridge (built by the Moors in the 9th century). Near the Alcazaba you find the Plaza de España, Mérida's main center of activity. It is a wonderful place to sit with a drink at one of the outdoor cafés and watch the world go by.

Head north out of Mérida to Caceres, the second-largest city in Extremadura and a national monument. Although surrounded by a congested, modern city, the old city is totally walled-in. Called Barrio Monumental it has abundant medieval atmosphere though it appears more as a museum because few people live there. Cáceres was hotly disputed during civil wars between Castile, León, and Extremadura, which explains its extraordinary fortifications. Incredibly well preserved, the walls are mostly of Moorish construction, although they were built on, and incorporated bits of, previous Roman walls. Tradition has it that the most glorious of the military orders in Spain, the Knights of Saint James (Santiago) was founded here, and for centuries, Cáceres was renowned for the number of knights in residence. Many of the mansions were built in the 16th century with money brought back by the conquistadors from the American colonies.

A few hours of wandering along the winding, stepped streets and visiting a museum or two richly reward the effort. You can park in the Plaza del General Mola (also known as the Plaza Mayor) where the main entrance gate sits. To the right of the largest of the dozen remaining wall towers, Bujaco tower, you enter through the Arco de la Estrella (Star Arch) into the Plaza de Santa María where you find the Iglesia de Santa María with its lovely ornamental wooden screen behind the altar and a 15th century crucifix the Cristo Negro (Black Christ). Nearby the Museo Provincial contains contemporary art and archeology from the region. Behind the museum you find the Barrio de San Antonio, the old Jewish quarter, full of small whitewashed cottages. Throughout the town the many, handsome family mansions testify to the austere mood of the 15th and 16th centuries. None has much decoration, save the family escutcheons that are mounted above the doors-silent testimony to the nobility of the residents. As you walk along the narrow streets do not forget to look up at the church towers, where you often see storks nesting precariously above the rooftops.

When you are ready to move on, head east on N521 to the most famous cradle of conquistadors, Trujillo, a charming city, still pure in its medieval atmosphere, which is uncontaminated by modern construction. Its most famous sons were the Pizarro brothers, ingenious and tumultuous conquerors of the Inca Empire in Peru in the middle of the 16th century. The quantities of gold and silver mined there and shipped home in just 50 years created chaos in the economy of all of Europe.

Trujillo boasts a number of splendid mansions constructed with the booty of the travelers to the Americas. Most of the old quarter centers around the spectacularly beautiful Plaza Mayor, where there is a large statue of Francisco Pizarro who conquered Peru. The irregular shape and different levels of the plaza make it one of the most charming and appealing in the country. On the plaza, among the many monumental buildings, is the grand home built by his brother, Hernando Pizarro, the Palacio del Marqués de la Conquista. Nearby is another example of a grand home built with New World wealth the Palacio de Ornella-Pizarro built by Francisco de Orellana who explored the Amazon and Equador. The mansions here were built a bit later than those of Cáceres, and thus, are not quite so austere. The Iglesia de Santa María la Mayor, a block off the plaza, contains a pantheon of several of Trujillo's illustrious sons. The winding, stone streets around the plaza impart an unusual degree of charm and tranquility, inviting you to linger and wander around town.

Before leaving Trujillo, stroll up the hill to see the partially ruined castle, which towers over the town. There is a pretty little chapel, lovely views, and always a refreshing breeze.

From Trujillo, take EX208 south through beautiful countryside, which in spring displays a carpet of green laced with flowers and dotted with cork trees. Turn in left at the tidy little town of Zorita toward Logrosán, and soon begin to climb into the gray ridges of the Guadalupe mountains. A drive of 20 kilometers, through mountainous landscape changing from gray to green, takes you over Puerto Llano pass (unmarked) and exposes some fabulous panoramas of the fertile valleys below. Be on the lookout for the town of Guadalupe, because your first glimpse of the tiny white village will take your breath away. Crowned by a golden fortified monastery it nestles in the shadow of its ancient ramparts.

The Virgin Mary is supposed to have appeared to a humble herder in this vicinity in 1300 and to have indicated where he should dig to unearth her image. When the pastor arrived home, he discovered his son had died, so he immediately invoked the aid of the Virgin and the boy revived. He and his friends dug where she had indicated and discovered the famous black image in a cave. They then built a small sanctuary for her on the spot. In the 14th century, Alfonso XI had a Hieronymite monastery built there after his victory over the Moors at the Battle of Salado, which he attributed to the Virgin of Guadalupe. The monastery has been a popular pilgrimage destination ever since, and the Virgin of Guadalupe has come to be one of the most important religious figures in Spain and Spanish America. Columbus named one of the islands in the Caribbean (now French) after her because he had signed the agreement authorizing his expedition in Guadalupe. When he returned from his voyage with six American Indians, they were baptized here. A short time later, the Virgin appeared again, in Mexico, to a peasant and she became the patron saint of Mexico.

When you tour the monastery, be sure to see the Camarín with the image of the Virgin and her 30,000-jewel headdress, the Moorish Cloister with its two stories of graceful arches, and the church with its Zurbarán paintings and many other art objects. The positively charming main plaza in Guadalupe has an ancient stone fountain at its center and old mansions huddled around it. Take time to just sit and watch the world go by from this vantage point. As for shopping, this is an area known for ceramics, and Guadalupe is no exception. Worked copper and brass are also local specialties.

If you enjoy ceramics and embroidery, note that this region is the national font for their manufacture (it used to be that you knew where tiles had been made by the colors used), so you might want to do a little shopping along your route today. Return to EX102 and turn left toward Puerto de San Vicente pass (follow the signs to Talavera de La Reina). The rocky crests of the Sierra de Guadalupe become sharply pronounced on the approach to the pass. Bear left (CM4100) to La Estrella and El Puente Del Arzobispo, a traditional ceramics center with many shops. The graceful, old humpback bridge that takes you across the River Tagus (Tajo) dates from the 14th century. You see a beautiful hermitage on your right as you leave town. From here it is a quick hop to Oropesa a quiet town spilling down the hillside below the castle. It is noted for its embroidery, and has retained a captivating, medieval flavor and numbers of handsome noble homes. You find many opportunities to buy local products both here and in nearby Lagartera. You are treated to some panoramic views of the valley of the Tagus and the Gredos mountain range.

When you are ready to depart from Oropesa, go west on NV E90 to Navalmoral de la Mata where you turn north on EX119 for a pretty drive through rich, green tobacco fields dotted with drying sheds to Jarandilla De La Vera, overlooking the Vera plain, whose castle (now a parador) was once owned by the Count of Oropesa, and is also where Emperor Charles V resided in 1556 while waiting for his apartments to be completed at the monastery of Yuste, just west of town on EX203. Yuste is famous as the last retreat of Charles V. Mentally and physically burned out after more than three decades at the head of the world's greatest empire, this is where he died in 1558. You can visit his small palace and share the view he loved of the surrounding countryside. It is easy to imagine the serenity he must have found in this solitude near the end of his otherwise stormy life.

Go on to Plasencia from Yuste, turning north on N630. If you have time, we heartily recommend a detour (you need to have a detailed map and be prepared to drive winding roads) to La Alberca, northwest on SA515 beyond Bejar. This tiny, isolated town has preserved its historic charm to an unusual degree, and the sight of its picturesque, stone houses overhung with timbered balconies richly rewards the effort.

Back on N630, bear right at Fresno Alhandiga onto SA120 to Alba De Tormes, dominated by the 16th-century Torre de la Armería, the only remnant of a former castle of the Dukes of Alba-among the greatest land barons of their time. This small town is one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in Spain because Santa Teresa of Ávila, important church reformist and mystic, founded a convent and died here over 400 years ago. In the Carmelite Convent, you can visit the cell where she died and view her relics in a coffer beneath the altar. Her small, ornate coffin is in a place of honor above the high altar. And before leaving town, you should peek into the beautiful Mudéjar-Romanesque Church of Saint John on the central plaza.

Cross the River Tormes and head northwest to Salamanca, a Castilian town so rich in history that it is now a national monument. The Plaza Mayor, is exquisite largely because it was built as a whole in the 18th century and is, thus, highly integrated in design.

Next pay a visit to the 12th-century Saint Martin’s Church. Not far from here, down the Rua Mayor, you find the Casa de las Conchas (conch shells), a 15th-century mansion whose entire façade is covered with carved stone shells, with the motif repeated in the grillwork and elsewhere. At the next corner is the Plaza de Anaya, and beyond on the left are the New Cathedral (16th century) and the Old Cathedral (12th century). The former is Gothic, the latter Romanesque with an apparently Byzantine dome-quite unusual in Western Europe. Both are good examples of their periods and contain many worthy treasures.

Across from the Plaza de Anaya and the cathedrals is the back of the university. Go around to the opposite side to discover the Patio de las Escuelas (Patio of the Schools). Salamanca's major claim to fame is its University, the first in Spain, founded in 1218 by Alfonso IX de León. By 1254, when Alfonso X "the Wise" established the law school, Salamanca was declared one of the world's four great universities (along with Paris, Bologna, and Oxford). Columbus lectured here, as did San Juan de la Cruz and Antonio de Nebrija. Fray Luis de León, one of Spain's greatest lyric poets, was a faculty member here when he was imprisoned for heresy by the Spanish Inquisition. After five years in prison, he was released and returned to his classroom (which you can still visit). His first words when he was back were, "Dicebamus hesterna dia . . ." ("As we were saying yesterday . . ."). In the 20th century, Miguel de Unamuno taught here and served as rector. Not to be missed is the patio itself with the statue of Fray Luis, and the entrance to the university, perhaps the premier example of Plateresque art in Spain. Finished in 1529, it serves as an elaborate façade for the basic Gothic edifice. If you look carefully, you can find a small frog carved into the doorway. A student pointed it out to us on our last visit, and neither she nor we have the slightest idea why it is there, nor what the artist must have had in mind when he included this incongruous item.

As you continue back down to the river, you see the Puente Romano with its 26 arches: the nearest half are actually from the 1st century, the others are later constructions. On the bridge, you discover the stone bull that played a devilish part in the original picaresque novel, Lazarillo de Tormes


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A Few Nearby Hotels and Bed & Breakfasts:   List Them All

A Karen Brown Recommended Hotel / Inn Finca Santa Marta
Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain
€ 60-85
A Karen Brown Reader Discovery La Casa Noble
Aracena, Andalucia, Spain
A Karen Brown Reader Discovery Los Pozos de la Nieve
Constantina, Andalucia, Spain
€ 70-80
A Karen Brown Reader Discovery Molino Rio Alajar
Alajar, Andalucia, Spain
A Karen Brown Reader Discovery El Churrasco
Cordoba, Andalucia, Spain

A Few Nearby Attractions:   List Them All

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[ icon ] Cordoba
Andalucia, Spain
[ icon ] Mérida
Extremadura, Spain
[ icon ] Caceres
Extremadura, Spain
[ icon ] Jarandilla De La Vera
Extremadura, Spain
[ icon ] El Puente Del Arzobispo
Andalucia, Spain

A Few Nearby Restaurants:   List Them All

[ icon ] Restaurante Maricastana
Castano del Robledo, Andalucia, Spain
Spanish Cuisine
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