Extremadura: Spain’s Best-Kept Secret
Story & photos by Deborah Loeb Bohren
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a best-kept secret is “something very good that not many people know about.” That definition fits Spain’s Extremadura region to a tee. Nestled between Madrid and the Portuguese border, it is the country’s least populated and most often overlooked area in Spain by international visitors. Upon close inspection, however, you will find an area teeming with history perfect for archeology buffs combined with unique gastronomy fit for foodies and all far from the madding tourist crowds. Extremadura boasts medieval cities, charming time-worn villages and fascinating Roman ruins. It is also home to the famed – or maybe I should say infamous – Iberico ham.
Start at the northern edge of the region in Hervás, a charismatic village dating back to the 12th century. The town is built high on a hilltop, with two churches and picturesque streets, the houses adorned with a multitude of decorative flower pots. Notably, Hervás was once home to a vibrant Jewish quarter during the 15th century that today is one of the best-preserved in Spain.
Be transported backward in time as you travel south towards Plascenia. At Granadilla, explore the remains of a fortified town founded by the Moors in the 9th century. Now the focus of a vibrant restoration and preservation effort, its streets are alive with color and glimpses of times gone by. Worth the climb is the town’s castle dating from the late 1400s. Although relatively small in size, it offers incredible views of the surrounding area.
Next, stop at Caparra, an expansive archeological site from the 1st through 9th centuries. Situated on what was the Via de la Plata – one of the most important thoroughfares of the ancient Roman Empire – explore imposing stone arches, remnants of hot and cold Roman baths and the footprints of ancient storefronts along the famous road.
When you arrive in Plasencia, a relative newcomer to the region having only been founded in 1186, find old and new coexisting side-by-side. Spend a leisurely morning at the lovely Plaza Mayor sipping a coffee, indulging in a torta des patatas and people-watching. The city’s unique two-in-one Cathedral of Plasencia is not to be missed. Built in the Romanesque-style in the 13th century, a new Gothic cathedral addition was literally built on to it in roughly 300 years later. The two now stand inexorably linked, creating its singular dual architectural style while its interior boasts exquisitely detailed stonework, intricately carved wood chairs and over-the-top decadent gilded alters interspersed with paintings, cherubs, and statuary.
From Plasencia it’s a short drive to Cáceres, which compresses more than two millennia of history into just over 20 acres. Founded by the Romans, destroyed by the Visigoths, rebuilt by the Arabs, fortified by the Moors and reconquered by the Christians, it’s not surprising that the magical historic city center has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Wander the traffic-free streets or simply enjoy a glass of local wine in one of its several squares while gazing at spectacular Renaissance townhouses adorned with family coats of arms as you try to identify which one of the 30 Moorish towers escaped Queen Isabella’s edict they all be cut to a uniform height. The outstanding Museo de Cáceres offers an excellent collection of art and archeology from the region, including a portrait of Christ by El Greco. It also sits atop a spectacular Arab water cistern, one of the largest and best-preserved on the Iberian Peninsula.
Of course, no visit to Extremadura is complete without visiting Merida, another UNESCO World Heritage site. Originally the capital of the Roman province of Lusitania and the third-largest city of the Roman Empire, it claims to be the best-preserved Roman city in western Europe. It’s easy to imagine the Circus Maximus, chariots racing, in the amphitheater and classic Greek tragedies being performed in the adjacent theater. Constructed between 16 and15 BCE the theater’s stage is framed by opulent blue-veined marble Corinthian columns, detailed friezes and cornices and life-sized sculptures of gods, goddesses, and Roman nobles. There’s also the beautiful Temple of Diana and the 2,000-plus-year-old Puente Romano, the world’s longest surviving bridge at an estimated length of close to ½ mile. Tying everything together is the National Museum of Roman Art, designed by world-renowned architect Rafael Moneo and housing a veritable treasure trove of tombstones, ceramics, glassware, coins, sculptures, paintings, and mosaics.
To sustain you as you explore Extremadura and reason enough to visit the region is Jamón 100% Ibérico de Bellota. The ultimate cured ham, it comes from a millennium-old breed of black Iberian pig, the Pata Negra, named after their trademark black hooves. Allowed to freely roam the dehesas — a unique ecosystem of cork and holm oak forests along the border between Spain and Portugal — these pigs eat between 13 and 15 pounds of acorns daily towards the end of their lives. The result is a deliciously fatty, marbled meat that is unusually high in antioxidants. When combined with the region’s specialized dry-curing process, the saturated fats are transformed into healthy mono-unsaturated fats high in oleic acid, and second only to the amount found in olive oil. The end result is a melt-in-your-mouth jamón with an unparalleled, complex, intense and decadently rich nutty flavor.
You will find Jamón 100% Ibérico de Bellota on the table for breakfast, lunch, and dinner throughout the region, but to truly appreciate this decadent jamón join Pepe Alba, a master Iberico jamón carver (a skill unto itself and an official designation), for an outing from dehesas to processing plant and from carving to feasting. And remember: you can’t bring this amazing jamón back to the US (not even if you buy it at the airport) so indulge while you can!
For cuisine as old as the ruins, try Aqua Libera for a Roman feast in an outdoor dining room in a custom-built Roman house. Meals here are for the adventurous eater, the dishes created from recipes culled from Cæsar’s “Imperial Cuisine” cookbook. Our lunch reflected a diversity of ancient foods and flavors, including cheese mashed with fresh herbs and honey, squid and seafood cooked in garum on wheat grain with nuts, and pork cheek cooked in bay leaf and fig sauce, all served in floating “boats” while we reclined Roman-style around a small pool. If you forgot to pack your toga, not to worry, there is a supply at the ready to get you in the mood.
Prefer a more hands-on and contemporary take on local gastronomy? Then put a class at Espezia on the menu. Chefs Cristina and Josefina led us in the creation of a three-course meal using amazing local ingredients — thyme soup with eggs cooked at low temperature; Iberian tenderloin tartar; and amazingly sweet and tender figs from Almoharin topped with chocolate foam. And of course, our meal was paired with standout local Spanish wines. Ideal for two to 16 people, you can choose from a variety of cooking experiences for adults, children or families.
When it’s time to rest your head check in to any of the region’s unique hospiderias or one of the six state-owned Paradores in Extremadura. Eight 4-star hotels comprise the Hospederias de Extremadura, meticulously restored historical buildings. In Hervés, the Hospedería Valle del Ambroz is a former 17th-century Trinitarian convent, while the nearby Hospedería Hurdes Reales is the 100-year old former Alfonso XIII Factory.
The Paradores of Spain are part of a larger network of 90 hotels created by the Spanish government in 1910 to rescue and restore castles, palaces, and convents. In Plasencia, Parador de Plasencia, is a 15th-century Dominican monastery in the late gothic style. Situated in the old quarter on the banks of the Jerte River, its thick stone walls, vaulted ceilings, and intricate decorative tiles provide an ideal base from which to explore the city. Meanwhile, the Parador de Mérida is a former 18th-century convent that had previous lives as a hospital, insane asylum and jail, and also contains historical remains dating back 2,000 years.
Extremadura is easily navigated on your own, but to enhance your journey consider hiring a local guide for some or part of your visit. Our guide Marco Mangut added another dimension to our experience with his deep insider’s knowledge of – and love for – the region.
Ultimately, whether you make Extremadura your sole destination or discover its charms as part of a bigger trip, you are guaranteed some of the best history, culture, and food that Spain has to offer.
Deborah Loeb Bohren is a fine art and travel photographer. Photography has been Deb’s passion since her father put a camera in her hand when she was only five years old. Today she combines that passion with her love of travel, using her camera to capture the intersection and interplay of light, line and color to create visual stories from the flea markets of Paris to the dunes of Morocco and from Machu Picchu to Havana and beyond. She lives in New York.