Spain Snapshots: the Monastery of Yuste in Extremadura

When I announced that I’d won a writing contest and had a free weekend’s stay in a luxury apartment in Trujillo, the Novio had one condition: that we could also explore the Monasterio de San Jerónimo de Yuste, the place where Holy Roman Emperor Charles V went to die.

Ya sabes,” he said, not looking away from the TV, “that’s my plan, too.” To die in the countryside, that is, away from civilization with nothing more than warm air and mountains in front of him – NOT in Yuste.

Visiting the Monasterio de Yuste

For a history nerd like my boyfriend, the monastery where one of Spain’s most important rulers spent his final years was a must-see on our pilgrimage through the extremeño countryside. We’d been wowed at the Guadalupe Monastery after being lost for several hours, and I was enchanted by Trujillo’s medieval streets (and its stinky torta del casar cheese), but Yuste was not as thrilling as we expected.

I mean, the place has a ton of history: built in the 15th Century by Hieronymite monks and nestled between almond trees and rocky mountain peaks, the monastery has both renaissance and gothic architecture, quiet patios and allegories in classical literature.

inner courtyards of yuste

Yuste Extremadura

In fact, it was here that the Holy Roman Emperor chose to retire after abdicating the throne to Philip II (my favorite royal Spanish personality, thanks mostly to his silly hat and stockings), seeking peace and prayer in his final days. Ceded to the Spanish government after the Civil War, it was restored in the 1950s.

As the monarch that spearheaded Spain’s globalization of language, religion and culture, Yuste would be a must-visit for anyone who loves Spanish history.

Right from the beginning, I felt corralled as guides asked my to move along from the ticket counter (and, ouch, 9€!) through a small gift shop and to the first interior patio, which stood on the northern side of the chapel. As I snapped pictures, a blue-clad security guard cleared his throat behind me and motioned for me to move into the sanctuary.

gardens yuste

monastery at yuste

If Carlos V was looking for peace and quiet, he certainly wouldn’t have found it in the modern day monastery, and I couldn’t help feeling cramped during our brief visit. 

Perhaps the most interesting part were the royal apartments, built just a few years before Carlos V’s death so that the Emperor would have a view to the altar and feel the fresh afternoon breezes blow through. The torture device-looking chair that he was carried in on his final journey was also placed in the corner of the room facing expansive gardens to the south.

It was hard to imagine the tranquility he felt with so many families around chattering, so we beelined out of the bare rooms and into the warm March sunshine.

Carlos V apartments yuste

yuste monastery extremadura

The Novio, even more disappointed that it took us twice as long to get to Cuacos de Yuste and the monastery as it did to tour it, had one suggestion: let’s find the nearest town and the nearest bar, and enjoy the almond blossoms on a terrace.

If you go: The Monasterio de San Jerónimo de Yuste is located in the village of Cuacos de Yuste in northern Extremadura, making it accessible from Cáceres and Madrid. The site is open every day but Mondays from 10am, and tickets cost a whopping 9€. For more information, check the Patrimonio Nacional’s website. Carlos V has been resting besides his son in San Lorenzo de El Escorial for centuries, and that monastery is definitely worth a visit.

Want more Extremadura? Trujillo Villas | Guadalupe | Garganta de la Olla

Prefer to read about places I’m iffy about? Barcelona | Setenil de las Bodegas | Luarca

Have you ever visited a historical site in Spain? Or a place that fell short of expectations?

Autonomous Community Spotlight: Extremadura

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain.  

spain collageOn my first visit to Extremadura in 2009, Tita explained the meaning of the comunidad to me: Extre because it’s extremely far west, cozying up to Portugal, and madura because the hardened plains shaped the conquistadores that grew up there.

Extremadura is one of Spain’s best-kept secrets, and I sincerely hope it stays that way. It’s sandwiched between western Andalucía and Madrid and traversed by the A-5 mega highway, yet most tourists conveniently (and thankfully) leave it off their list. From hidden monasteries to a wine region you’ve likely not tried, these far-flung plains have the potential to attract visitors and their tourist euros.

Name: Extremadura

Population: 1.1 million, a mere 2.36% of Spain’s total population

extremadura collage

Provinces: Two; Badajóz and Cáceres

When: December 2009, 13th of 17

About Extremadura: Despite its reputation as a sleepy, sparsely populated corner of Spain, Extremadura has seen some of the most important developments of Spain, beginning with the Romans. Known back then as Luisitania, the capital of Mérida (then Emerita Augusta) was an important city for trade and culture. Roman ruins, like a beautifully preserved theatre and an aqueduct visible from the highway, rub elbows with the ubiquitous old man bars and banks in the administrative capital.

Merida Spain amptheatre

When the Muslims moved in during the first few years of the  eight century, Mérida was one of the Caliphate’s most strategic regions due to its proximity to Portugal. The Córdoba Caliphate fell three centuries later, and power was jockeyed to the Taifa of Badajoz and remained under Muslim rule until 1230.

During Spain’s golden age, Extremadura took its place in the sun: not only did it produce a great number of conquistadores like the Pizarro, Hernán Cortés and Núñez de Balboa, but a great deal of the riches that arrived from the new world never made it to Madrid, finding a permanent home in Extremadura.

Statue of Pizarro in Trujillo

Nowadays, the region is famous for its cork production and acorn-fed ham, as well as outdoor wildlife areas. If you’ve never heard of it, there’s little surprise.

Must-sees: Extremadura boasts dozens of hidden gems. I say hidden because of the province’s network of lonely highways, many of which curve through mountains and around man-made lakes. Given its crop of conquistadores, you’ll likely see places that share a name with South American cities – Valdivia, Medellín, Orellana – and the medieval cities seem to be living back in time.

view of Trujillo, Extremadura

Mérida’s Roman Ruins are recognized by UNESCO, and the city houses an excellent museum with artifacts from Lusitania. At just two hours north of Seville, it’s beyond easy to get to, and castles and monasteries pop out along every curve.

Cáceres’s elegantly preserved walled city is also a UNESCO site whose mix of Roman, Moorish, Gothic and Renaissance architecture is unparalleled and worthwhile, and I swooned over Trujillo‘s stone churches and Renaissance palaces. On  a whim, the Novio and I also went to see the Guadalupe Monastery (surprise! Also a World Heritage Site) and visited the charming little town of Garganta la Olla. I also love the names of towns, which pay homage to famous residents or local lore.

The Patio of Monasterio de Guadalupe

Food is a big deal in Extremadura, particularly big game, cheese and wine. You can expect huge portions of tender meats from pigs, cows and wild boar, as well as pheasant and quail. As a matter of fact, much of the Extremaduran plains are perfect for birdwatching (and protected!), and the national park of Monfragüe is home to several rare breeds.

But, if you’re like me, you’ll choose a robust glass of Ribera de Guadiana to wash down your migas, or fried breadcrumbs, and stinky Torta del Casar cheese. Paprika is also produced in the cherry tree-dotted foothills of La Vera.

The main square of Garganta la Olla

One thing you could skip? The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s last residence, Yuste, was a big (and expensive) letdown. 

My take: Sharing a border with occidental Andalucía, Extremadura is closer than my go-to destinations like Granada or Málaga. Its stark plains, hollow sky and long stretches of highway are similar to my surroundings, with blips of civilization on lone roads. 

What really draws me to Extremadura is that it hasn’t experienced the heavy tourism that the coasts and bigger cities have, meaning it’s Spain Spain. From the warmth of locals in teeny towns to the cheap prices and filling meals, I’m a pretty big proponent for Tita’s Extremadura.

Have you ever been to Extremadura? What do you like (or not) about it?

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias | Cantabria | Castilla y León | Castilla-La Mancha | Cataluña

Spain Snapshots: The Guadalupe Monastery of Cáceres

Many great places in Spain are seeped in legends, mentioned in texts or venerated by the insane queues at its ticket offices (I’m looking at you, Alhambra). 

For me, the Real Monasterio de Guadalupe was an obscure monastery and the name of many females, little more than a blip on a map in the wild back country of Extremadura. I figured it was worth a detour on our way to Trujillo.

Then came this:

According to legend, the veneration may have been carved in the 1st Century by Saint Luke himself, who then carted her around the world  before presenting the Archbishop of Seville, San Leandro, with it. During the Moorish invasion that commenced in 711, the Archdiocese of Seville looked for a place to hide her as invaders ransacked cities and palaces.

Turns out, I have something in common with this particular image of the Virgin Mary (besides my birthday being on the day of her ascension into heaven): we both made a pilgrimage to Guadalupe from Seville of 320 kilometers. When she arrived, though, she was buried next to the Guadalupe River and not discovered until the late 12th Century.

On that very spot, a humble chapel was erected and eventually converted into one of Spain’s most important (and arguably most stunning) monasteries.

Like all great pilgrimage sites, like the ending points of the Camino de Santiago or El Rocío, Guadalupe has attracted illustrious names in Spanish history – Columbus prayed here after returning from the New World (and the Madonna is now revered in Central and South America), King Alfonso XI invoked Guadalupe’s spirit during the Battle of Salado, and many modern-day popes have stopped to pray.

While we weren’t on a religious pilgrimage, really, I’m slowly ticking UNESCO World Heritage Sites off of my Spain list, and Guadalupe is listed as such. We joined the last tour of the day after getting lost in teeny towns on nearly abandoned highways, many of which bear names that were later given to cities in the New World, like Valdivia, where we devoured fried calamari sandwiches.

Tours to Guadalupe’s cloisters, treasury, church, religious art museum and sacristy can only be done on a guide tour in Spanish, which leave on the hour. As the monk droned on about artistic heritage, I stole into the Gothic cloistered courtyard.

As we had joined the last tour of the day, an elderly monk showed us through the sacristy, painted in its entirety by Zurburán, and invited us to the room that held one of three black Madonnas. The soaring chamber had frescoes of Catholicism’s most famous female saints, relics in every wall and a small turnstile that allowed the three women on my tour named Guadalupe to kiss the hands of the veneration.

They, like Columbus and Cervantes before them, had come to pray in front of the woman who gave them their name and ask for her eternal protection.

As it turns out, the 60 minutes we’d budgeted for the monastery stretched to nearly two hours, meaning we were late to meet Angela from Trujillo Villas, but a night in a cozy palace-turned-vacation-home has us back on the right track the following morning before visiting Yuste and the gorgeous hamlet of Garganta la Olla.

Have you ever been to Extremadura?

A Weekend at Trujillo Villas

I spent two nights sleeping next to Francisco Pizarro. Well, next to the house where the Conqueror of Peru grew up on the hardened plains of Extremadura in a small town called Trujillo, not actually with him (he died almost 500 years ago in Lima).

Trujillo has always loomed from the A-5 highway towards Madrid, castle and ramparts rising from an empty extremeño plain. Noted for its medieval stone village, impressive Plaza Mayor and cheese smelly enough to make you think you’re eating feet, it was one of the places on my 2014 Spain wish list. Spending a weekend at Trujillo Villas, a series of luxury rental villas in the heart of Trujillo’s old town, was the perfect invitation to return to one of Spain’s most up-and-coming areas after four years.

Angela greeted us at the parador after we’d spent the afternoon in nearby Guadalupe; we showed up nearly an hour late. She was chipper as she showed us through the village, navigating ancient streets while pointing out places to eat. Yeah, we’d get along alright. The Novio was pleased to learn that our digs for the night, the Artists Studio, was two doors down from the childhood home of Pizarro.

For European travelers who forget that there’s a Spain away from the coasts, Trujillo Villas offers vacation homes and luxury, self-catered holiday properties in one of Spain’s undiscovered regions.

The building

Right off of Plaza los Moritos, the family built an open, contemporary space well-suited for a couple. The next door neighbor came to greet us each time we passed, his gaping smile (and the lamb his wife seemed to always have in her arms) just as warm as the car and service we received the whole weekend. 

The villa is just a few minutes’ walk from the Plaza Mayor, the castle and other major sites around town. Rectified from a pile of rubble, the Artist’s Studio can comfortably sleep up to four people, thanks to its sofa bed, and it’s suited for a quick city break or a longer stay in Trujillo. It’s modern, yet romantic.

The open concept main floor

Modern, airy and decorated with artists in mind, the Artist’s Studio’s mezzanine level is open from the front door all the way to the back door, which opens to a private terrace.

A small desk was a perfect spot to set up my laptop during siesta hours while the Novio camped out on the couch with the TV on. The unit is air-conditioned, but also has a pellet-burning eco fireplace, which was perfect for the chilly March nights where the wind seemed to whip right past the house.

I loved the detailing that alluded to the region in which Trujillo lies – the water fowl, the local products – as well as the blank canvases and easels, begging to be used. Angela and her family run self-catered trips that focus on cooking, painting and walking holidays, evident from even the paintbrushes that hung from beneath the mantle.

The bedroom and bathrooms

I hadn’t even taken my coat off when I climbed the metallic and glass stairs to the bedroom and bathroom on the second floor. We’d been up all afternoon driving and touring, so I needed to test out the comfort factor of the bed:

Yep, I could sleep here easily.

What blended well within the Artists Studio was its Old English Manor House comfort meets modern, open apartment.  The only doors in the place led to the outside or to a bathroom, so the whole place felt communicated and airy.

I could read while in bed, draw the curtains and listen to the Novio watching an old episode of Aída while I drifted off after a day or exploring Yuste and Garganta la Olla. 

The terrace

At the rear of the house, there’s a refurbished stone terrace with patio chairs, loungers and even a rainforest shower (lack of room for a pool, says Angela) with uninterrupted views of the northern extremeño countryside.

Late March was still cool and breezy, so we didn’t get to make any use of the inviting terrace. Some sort of party was raging all day Saturday, so I took a glass of wine out to watch the sun turn the nearby castle ruins light up golden and listen to Gangnam Style.

The specifics

Apart from the care Angela took in making sure we were looked after, the Novio and I were delighted to find a welcome pack the included a few bottles of local wine, fixings for breakfast and fresh lilies on the kitchen table.

Every appliance in the house was explained thoroughly, and Angela left maps of Trujillo and the region, information for day trips and things to do around town. There was plenty of logistical information for long-term stays, like where to get groceries or even play a round of golf – it’s evident that the Gartons love Trujillo and the weathered plains that surround it.

Our first question? Where to eat. Angela dutifully pointed out her favorite eateries around the city, clustered around Plaza Mayor and its labyrinth streets in the old city and even joined us for breakfast before check-out.

What I loved about our stay with Trujillo Villas – not counting the top-notch service and beautiful lodgings – was that we could explore the city leisurely and were staying in a rental villa with character in a town that had no lack of it. We spent more time than normal just relaxing in the Artists Studio and taking advantage of the space.

While we didn’t make it to the small museum around the corner, we did see the great city that Pizarro and Orellana built with the riches from the New World. I felt more local by forgoing the hotel option, and don’t think Trujillo would have felt so cercano and accessible if we’d stayed in one of the motels off the A-5 highway. 

My stay was graciously provided by Trujillo Villas for winning their Food Blogging contest with a post about my most memorable Spanish meal. All opinions are my own. Bookings at the Artists Studio start at £110 per night, and a minimum of three nights must be booked. If you’re interested in staying with them or in finding out about their package holidays, point your browser to their homepage

Have you been to Trujillo?

Spain Snapshots: Garganta la Olla, the gorgeous extremeño pueblo you’ve never, ever heard of

There was only one real reason why we stopped: it was sunny and just about 1pm, which meant it was beer hour. Snaking down the one-lane highway that led from the Monastery of Yuste, where Holy Roman Emperor Charles V retired to die, we decided to stop in the next town for a while.

That town was Garganta la Olla, a blip of a pueblo that has a larger-than-life legend. The woman behind the bar graciously served us a heaping plate of cured meats and cheeses with our beer as she hummed and wiped a few glasses clean. Garganta la Olla is home to just over 1000 inhabitants, making it yet another sleepy hamlet in the Cáceres region of Extremadura.

I tugged the Novio’s hand as I led him down the main road towards town hall. The wood and stone thatched houses looked like they’d been haphazardly constructed – kind of like the way the sticks fall in a game of Pick Up Sticks. Carvings in the doors mark just how old the village is – some of the constructions date back to the 17th and 18th centuries, when Garganta la Olla was in its heyday, although it’s believed to have been inhabitant for nearly 2000 years. 

The houses reminded me of the sort I might have seen in Haro, La Rioja or even outside of Spain. We walked beneath balconies supported by wooden pillars that housed humble homes. Within 30 minutes, we’d seen the whole of the center leisurely, including the artificial beach of Garganta Mayor, a nice sojourn after Yuste disappointed us (both in price and museum – not worth it!).

As for the legend of La Serrana de la Vera, it’s said that a scorned woman took up residence in the nearby Garganta, or mountain crevice, from which she seduced men and then killed them exacting her revenge against the Archbishop of Plasencia, who broke up their engagement and sentenced her family to a lifetime of dishonor. Miguel de Unamuno, a celebrated Spanish author, penned her legend, which is also accompanied by demon and serpentine figures that make up local lore. Día de la Serrana de la Vera is celebrated each August, and the city retains its medieval feel.

And if you’re into it, there’s also an Inquisición Museum that shows medieval torture tools and a former brothel that now houses a shop with products from the area – cured meats, sweet paprika and sweet breads.

Garganta la Olla is located in the La Vera region of Cáceres, at the foothills of the Sierra de Gredos. It’s about 45 minutes east of Plasencia and two hours north of Badajóz. 

Have you ever spent time in Extremadura? What are your favorite small towns in Spain?

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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