Freeway-Free in Spain: Around and About in Extremadura
As an American, I thought the whole North/South thing was a side – effect of our 150-year-old civil war, but it seems to be a global prejudice. Whether it’s a Tuscan speaking of Sicily, or a Parisian of Provence, or a New Yorker speaking of anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line, the general thread is “Oh, those southerners! They live at such a slow pace! They are lazy! And their accents – you can barely understand them!” This also is what the Spaniards of Castile y Leon or Catalonia say about Extremadura, maybe one of the most fascinating places you have never heard of.
“Extremadura” simply means “beyond the Madura River”. It takes in the broad plains and mountain ridges between Madrid and the Portuguese border. The province is ringed by mountains, so during the Peninsular Wars Wellington’s troops swung north, leaving the medieval fortress walls of Caceras and Trujillo and the Roman ruins of Merida unscathed. If you dream of going back in time, in Extremadura you can almost pick your century.
The bus ride from Madrid to Caceras, the center of Extremadura, takes a little over four hours with one half-hour and one five-minute stop. After an unusually wet spring it was a lovely ride, with the snowcapped peaks of the Sierra de Gredos rising above the rolling green plains of La Mancha, – only missing some windmills to tilt at. As we moved into Extremadura the landscape looked more and more like spring in California’s Sierra foothills – pools of blue flowers that weren’t lupine, shrubs covered with big white flowers that weren’t matilja poppies, recognizable Scotch broom and mustard and unrecognizable pink and lavender flowers, all painting the slopes beautiful.
Our home base for the week is the Hotel Don Carlos, just off the Plaza Mayor (Main Square) and steps from the medieval Old City which earned Caceras its World Heritage Site designation. Our first two nights were spent in a spacious room with a luxurious bath, facing the narrow cobbled pedestrians-only street, with a cute balcony and view down the twisting lane to the restaurant on the corner. The first night we slept as befits travelers who have been on the road for twenty hours. The second night we slept as befits those whose open window is just down the street from a bar patronized by soccer fans who are cheering, drinking, and arguing raucously until at least 4AM. We asked for a change, which happened seamlessly while we were out sight-seeing. The following nights were spent in a smaller room facing the inside courtyard, with no balcony or bidet but lots of blessed quiet.
Note to travelers in Spain: The American work schedule has not penetrated past the Pyrenees. Spaniards snack at 8 AM, take a two hour lunch break 12-2PM, work til 7PM, hang out on the Plaza until at least 9PM, maybe think about dinner after 9PM, and after dinner hang out some more. Don’t even think about looking for dinner before 9PM.
On our first evening we walked through the neighboring church plaza spotting storks nesting on the church steeple, swallow chicks chirping in the nests built in cracks in the church facade, swallows swooping and dodging after gnats to feed to the chirping chicks, and lots of folks of various sizes, shapes, and colors strolling, sipping, socializing in the empty open walking and sitting spaces.
The helpful desk clerk had recommended a tapas bar just beyond the church plaza. Not being accustomed to Spanish hours, we were the first customers. We asked for three of the four featured tapas and got enough food to feed four people comfortably, including the best anchovies either of us had ever eaten or imagined, assorted wonderful local cured pork, and a local soft cheese whose deliciousness defies description. A walk around the Plaza Major shook down enough space within to make room for a tiny cup of exotically flavored gelato after the post-tapas stroll.
It was 10PM and the Plaza was just getting going, but the lure of a warm shower and a soft bed has us postponing our adjustment to Spanish time for one more day.
Next: Medieval Meandering in Caceras