Many places in Spain attract the sobriquet wilderness, but few, if any, of those places deserve that title as richly as Extremadura. Spain’s fifth biggest autonomous region is still something of an unknown quantity; even to the Spanish themselves who associate it with poverty, scarcity and drought. The truth is that whilst not enjoying a high per-capita income, the lifestyle achieved by many of the region’s citizens would constitute an impossible dream elsewhere. As for the scarcity, nothing could be further from the truth: the wide open spaces supply the region with food of an incredible quality. As for the drought, tell that to the sailors on the manmade lakes in Extremadura’s Far East.
At just over 42,000 square kilometres Extremadura has plenty of wilderness to explore; being bigger than either Belgium or Switzerland. It is divided into just two provinces: Badajoz in the south is the bigger of the two (and is Spain’s largest province) and Cáceres in the north, which is the second largest province in Spain. The city of Badajoz is the largest in Extremadura with a population around the 150,000 mark, but it is not the region’s capital: this honour falls to the smaller city of Mérida some 60 kilometres away.
Badajoz is steeped in culture. It was the scene of a terrible siege during the Napoleonic wars. Eventually when a combined Portuguese and British force broke the siege the brutality of the victorious British soldiers was as bad as that meted out by Napoleon’s troops. Some of the Brits must have stayed on: Reynolds is one of the city’s renowned surnames. You can still walk round the fortified walls of the Alcázar and wonder what it must have been like to try and scale them with dead and dying colleagues at your feet and a rain of bullets and burning pitch above. The casco histórico is small enough to walk around and friendly enough to make it worth your while.
The city of Cáceres tends to attract more visitors than Badajoz, as it is closer to Madrid. The tourist invasion is not on the same scale as that experienced in places like Segovia and Seville, but Cáceres is building up a solid reputation as a must-see destination. Its old quarter is chock full of the houses and palaces of the city’s aristocracy; many of whom returned to the city of their birth after having made their fortunes and names in the conquest of Latin America. One of the locals even married a daughter of the Mexican Emperor Moctezuma and their castle in Cáceres still bears the imperial coat of arms to this day.
Mérida is the smallest of the three main cities of the region, despite the fact that it is the administrative capital. However if Mérida can be seen as a microcosm of Extremadura, then a visit to the city can tell you much about the region as a whole. Mérida was founded by the Romans over 2,000 years ago and the powers that be have realised that few things bring the tourists running like a bit of Roman history. However things have been handled sensitively and certain artefacts are in the same place that the Romans put them, and still serve the same function without any regard for the tourist industry. The Roman Bridge that links the new city to the old is a prime example of this type of practical relic. The nationally important museum of Roman Art is another intelligent blend of the ancient and the modern. However, if you like your archaeology pretty much untouched, there are plenty of sights to see that have stood the test of more than two thousand years of footfall: the theatre, amphitheatre, hippodrome, the foundations of the Alcázar and various villas and noble houses; all of them Roman.
If you want a well developed ex-pat community, you will have to look outside Extremadura. The region appeals to those who have, to a certain extent at least, rejected the version of Spain that offers HP sauce, marmite and the latest premiership football matches. Most of the outsiders drawn to the region have more than a passing interest in wildlife and, in particular, the region’s avifauna. I lived in Extremadura from 1993 to 1994 and again from 2004 to 2007 and I never met a non-Spanish incomer whose life would not have made an interesting documentary. Mavericks, rebels, hippies and those whose life marches to the beat of a different drum; these are the ones who have felt the lure of the land I used to call “The Big Ex.”
Even those who profess no interest in wildlife find that once they are established in the region, they have no option but to develop an enthusiasm for the wild world. It is difficult to ignore a fig tree full of golden orioles, or flocks of vultures riding the thermals above a modern city, or geckoes that entertain diners with lightning strikes on moths and mosquitoes, or flocks of cranes that bring droves of Scandinavian birders in their wake, or rivers full of turtles and ponds full of snakes and the general feeling that, just maybe, not all the wildlife of Extremadura has been fully documented.
And if your binoculars don’t provide you with a reason to visit, then perhaps your appetite will. If you know where to go, the food is out of this world. You don’t see terms like organic on menus, because to many extremeños, that is just the way food is. People still keep pigs and feed them on scraps and then butcher them when the nights are starting to draw in, and a supply of chorizo and morcilla is needed to get a hard pressed family through the winter months. If you think you have had good pork or ham, trust me, what you have had until now is but a pale imitation of what you can eat in most bars and restaurants all over Extremadura. The black Iberian pigs love to eat acorns and the holm oaks that cover much of Extremadura in loosely packed groves known as dehesas, can supply enough acorns to keep the pigs happy until the time comes for them to keep their appointment with the slaughterman. In Mérida, try Los Duendes a pair of restaurants (part of a small chain) that specialise in all things porcine. Until you have had their churrasco de solomillo, you haven’t lived. Other cuts include the secreto – traditionally a secret treat for the butcher and his family, and the pluma. These are not cuts that feature too often on restaurants in other places.
And in Extremadura many bars still cling to the old custom of giving away their tapas for free: you have to buy a drink, of course. This beneficence is symptomatic of the fact that far from being an arid desert, Extremadura is actually a larder full of delicacies that could feed the whole of Spain. (Badajoz is the second most important rice growing province of Spain.) Tomatoes too, are an important crop.
With regard to wine, in terms of its sheer quantity, Extremadura’s output dwarfs that of La Rioja. Unfortunately, in times gone by, the focus was on the amount of wine produced: legend has it that much of it was sent north to more prestigious regions on mysterious midnight trains. When it arrived at its destination it had, miraculously, morphed into gran reserva. These days the local wine industry has changed its priorities and red wines from the region – especially from the high end Vinexsa company – regularly win gold medals in wine competitions all around the world. There are still those who cling on to the old ways and make wine in stone troughs for home consumption. In Extremadura this home-made wine is called pitarra. Most of it is perfectly drinkable stuff, but just occasionally you can find one – usually a rosé – that is quite exceptional: the perfect accompaniment to a plate of local charcuterie.