The Spanish Outback

Tita said, “We call it Extremadura for a reason, hija: extre because we’re so far west, and madura because everything here is just more harsh.”

There could not be a better name for this Spanish outback, which seems to encapsulate all things salvaje, or wild: the sky is equally cloudy and empty, stretching out for miles towards, well, nothing. The towns here, with names like Saint Anthony’s houses (pop. 700) and James’s Sword, are few and far between. And the harsh wind that blows across the plains hardened conquistadores like Pizarro and Cortes.
Despite being one of the poorest regions in all of Spain, Extremadura has a rich past. Rich, literally, because all of the gold brought from the New World was unloaded in Sevilla and sent up towards the capitals of Toledo and Valladolid via Ruta de la Plata (Silver Route), which recently christened the national highway that begins in Sevilla and ends in Madrid. Because of this, lavish palaces grace the countryside, many in ruins, and ornate monasteries huddle in the stark countryside.
In these lands, Franco was proclaimed head of the Spanish state following the civil war, the first Native American was baptized and Luisitania reached prosperity. Thanks to the holiday celebrating the Spanish National Constitution, adopted a mere 30 years ago, I have five days in which to see some of Extremadura, which until now was only seen through the passenger window of Kike’s Mercedes. A land of harshness, yes, but with treasures touting its former glory days.
Christene, Alfonso’s girlfriend, and I headed up the Via de la Plata early Sunday morning towards Merida, where her boyfriend is from. After a filling extremeño lunch full of fat and meat (bones still intact, claro), Christene took me around the city. We seemed to be in accordance that NO ONE was on the street, being a Sunday and a national holiday, counting a mere 13 people between Alfonso’s residential barrio and the main shopping streets. Boarded up bars and boutiques abounded. There were few buildings taller than three or four stories, making the city seem both stunted and devoid of any beauty, power, wealth, etc. Hard to believe this was once the center of the Iberian Roman world.
Then, out of nowhere, pops the Temple of Diana, wedged between a beauty salon and a restaurant. Further down the hill, passing by meat shops and tourist stands hacking authentic Roman busts of Trajan and Augustus, stands the only thing that has made Mérida famous: The amphitheatre and coliseum, which now form part of the UNESCO World Heritage sites. After a quick jaunt through the beautifully constructed Museum of Roman Art (free entrance, thanks to the Spanish Constitution!), we traversed the crowds.

The theatre, made up of two stories of marble columns, stands in near perfection, commanding an orchestra and crumbling stands. During the summer, it creates a backdrop for the national theatre festival. It´s astounding, really, much more than its neighbor, the coliseum that just looks like a heap of rocks. No doubt the climate, with its blustery winds and scorching sun, had contributed over centuries to its demise
Said wind continued to blow through the hilly town, so Cris and I loaded up on some chucherías and wandered towards the Guadiana river. The Alcazaba, a fortress built at the end of the longest Roman bridge in existence, was a Moorish structure built to protect Luisitania from invaders. It´s just off John Lennon street, full of bars and bocadillo joints, which seems a strange contrast to the high stone walls and grandeur of the Alcazaba.
Fed up with the cold, piercing wind and our tired bodies, Christene and I trekked home to the brasero to warm up and enjoy some of Petri´s cooking.
The following day, rain ruined our plans to be up early to explore Cáceres. I was determined to not let the day go to waste, so I convinced Alfonso to take us in his powder blue car to the UNESCO World Heritage city, which sits about one hour north of Mérida. The fog had engulfed all of Mérida, as well as the whole Guadiana valley, making the drive slow. But the cows were out, grazing amongst old stone walls and ruined estates, so we, too, could brave the rain.
The medieval part of Cáceres, known as the ciudad monumental, is chock-full of Aztec, Arabic and múdejar styles, all enclosed within a stone wall. The whole place is adorned with Renaissance flags, and the business located within it take you back to the day. The rain made the stone streets slick, and the tourists packed into such a small place was a little overwhelming, but it was easy to see what made the city amongst the richest in Spain – since all the riches from the New World passed through this town, it swelled in size and became a jewel. We traversed city walls, arches, staircases, towers and had a filling lunch of calamari and chicken. Later, as we watched an unfunny version of Supertroopers in Spanish, it was clear that either Alfonso’s sick family or the abundance of olive oil had made us both a little sick. I slept like a rock on the rock that is the guest bed.
The following day, after seeing the surviving parts of the Aqueduct and the remains of a weird devil worshipping clan, and after Petri’s special of meatballs, Pepe took us to the bus station. In Extremeño style, he stuck around until we shooed him away. Christene’s seat was in the last row (you know, the one where she’s stuck in the middle of five seats and can’t put her seat back), so the driver let us take the two front seats, so long as we didn’t bother him. We grooved to 90s music as the sun set over the empty extremeño sky.
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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living amongst pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she works in higher education at an American university in Madrid and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.

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