UNSPOILT EXTREMADURA AND THE SPECIAL SIERRA DE MONTANCHEZ
The Extremadura region of Spain has had a long hard history. It was difficult to extract a living out of this mountainous and remote area in past ages. Thankfully the very reason for the Extremadura's difficulties in the past is a great advantage now. Some parts of Spain have been negatively affected by the industrial and tourist ages, beautiful areas decimated by unplanned development, this did not happen in the Extremadura. Here the people have clung on to their traditions and most of all the great love and natural respect for nature.
Most of the mountain pastures, arable land, olive and fig groves are connected by a labyrinth of ancient paths, originally laid down by the Moors or even the Romans, these paths are a delightful means of exploring the sierra. Donkeys still wind their way up and down the callejas - paths- with loaded packs of tools for tending the land, seed, manure, and the tired farmer on the way home.
SIERRA DE MONTANCHEZ
Our rural retreats are situated in the Sierra de Montanchez which is famous for jamon. The black iberic pigs graze contentedly in the surrounding oak forests gorging on the abundant acorns, an essential part of the process for producing the delicious Montanchez jamon and chorizo.
Cows, sheep and goats graze on the mountain pastures, the cheese products are delicious.
The wine produced in Montanchez is very characteristic, usually quite strong and full bodied , can be up to 16% . In many villages of the sierra the local wine , Pitarra, is still made from the grapes which grow in the mountain vineyards, transported to cellars that still exist in most of the old houses and fermented in huge ali baba clay pots called tinajas.
EXTREMADURA IN TIME AND PLACE
Extremadura has two mighty rivers flowing through it, the Tajo and the Guadiana, they have been utilized to make many extensive and beautiful lakes so although far from the sea there are plenty of watersport and fishing possibilities. The wild sierras, rolling plains and wonderfully atmospheric villages and towns all make for an interesting and restful holiday. Communication is improving to bordering regions with excellent roads to Castille in the north, Portugal to the west, Andalucia to the south. Lisbon and Madrid are both a 3 hours journey, Sevilla 2 ½ hours.
The Romans left traces of their passage through this region, building majestic bridges, such as the ones at Mérida and Alcántara, and the spectacular Roman remains of Mérida are world renowned. Caesar's legions were here to mine silver from the ravines of the Sierra de Gata in the north. The so-called Roman Ruta de la Plata, "Silver Route," with its fine roads, bridges, aqueducts, temples and cities was the result of the Romans' quest for this precious metal.
The largest village in the Sierra de Montanchez. Dominated by its Moorish castle it is know as the Balcony of the Extremadura because of the splendid, vast views down into the valleys and
plains towards Trujillo , the Gredos mountains and Cornalvo natural park. The oldest part of the town is typical of its Moorish heritage, small, narrow streets leading to secluded little courtyards. The life of the village centres around the thriving jamon production. Indeed the local jamon is one of only three recognized in the whole of Spain for its outstanding quality. Life is still slow here, the older generation still use their donkeys as the main means of transport to their outlying fincas. The walking, riding and birdwatching (see separate entry) are wonderful experiences due to the lack of urban development in the sierra. The whole sierra is criss-crossed by Moorish trading paths which give access to outstanding areas of unspoilt, natural beauty. At our rural retreats one can appreciate the quiet and peace of the sierra whilst enjoying walking or riding out directly into the sierra. Nearest village is Arroyomolinos, 2kms walk or 5 mins . drive where the unique ruta de molinos climbs up through a stunning gorge passing numerous ancient watermills.
The capital of Extremadura, was one of the most famous Roman capitals of the Iberian Peninsula, – Augusta Emerita, it features some of the best preserved Roman ruins in Europe. Merida was passed between Roman, Moorish, Visigoth and Christian control. It is a fabulous place to walk. Archaeology pops up in the strangest corners, and the Moorish influence adds a grace of its own to the town. Merida preserves some of the most outstanding Roman monuments, including a colossal theatre, an amphitheatre, two aqueducts, and a bridge. A must is the Museum of Roman Art with its invaluable collection representing Roman civilization through amazing mosaic floors, statues, household artefacts and jewellery. Summer visitors can enjoy magical evenings in the Roman theatre under the stars watching top performances of drama, dance and music.
The capital of Upper Extremadura has a beautiful old quarter, enclosed by Moorish town walls with great watch-towers. Additional attractions include some exceptional Renaissance palaces. Founded by Romans in 34 BC, this thriving provincial capital is the closest Extremadura comes to a big city. Named a World Heritage City in 1986, the barrio antiguo offers plenty of architectural wonder. Between the 14th and 16th centuries, rival noble families vied for social and political control, each building a miniature palace to demonstrate their power and wealth. As a result, the old city is a wonderful maze of palaces, museums, and churches. Although the more modern areas are less interesting, there are plenty of shops, nightlife and cultural events to be enjoyed. From Cáceres it is possible to enter Portugal by bus or by train via Badajoz or Valencia de Alcántara.
The birthplace of famous conqueror Pizarro is well known for its beautiful main square. There is also a great Moorish castle and the well-preserved town-walls with seven doors. The gem of Extremadura, hill-top Trujillo is an enchanting old-world town unspoiled by modern influences. Over 600 conquistadors came from Extremadura, many of them from Trujillo including Peru's conqueror Francisco Pizarro and the Amazon's first European explorer, Francisco de Orellana. Scattered with medieval palaces, Roman ruins, Arabic fortresses, and churches of every era,
beautiful walled gardens Trujillo is a facinating mix of histories and cultures. Its most impressive monument is the 10th-century Moorish castle commanding a stunning panoramic view of the surrounding plains.
This beautiful town is dominated by a colossal Mudejar style monastery which preserves valuable works of art. It witnessed the documents certifying the departure on the American adventure. And there the first captive Aztecs were baptized. The most famous Marian Sanctuary for all of the Spanish speaking world dates from the miraculous discovery of the image of the Virgin de Guadalupe, the black Madonna, its Patron Saint, around the year 1300. The huge Monastery combines Gothic, Mudejar and Plateresque in unusual grandeur. There are admirable paintings by Juan de Flandes, Zurbarán and Lucas Jordan, apart from the miniatures of its choir books, the rich collection of ornaments and the buildings which used to be a hostelry, hospital and royal fortress.
The capital of Lower Extremadura. The town lies on a hillside near where the rivers Rivillas and Guadiana meet. The Portuguese border is only 6kms from this castle dominated town. There are well preserved Moorish wals and Alcazar.
FOOD AND WINE OF EXTREMADURA
According to Dionisio Pérez, when the convent of San Benito de Alcántara was sieged by the troops of Napoleon, the nuns used the parchment paper of books to make rifle cartridges. Somebody found out that on one of these manuscripts was written the recipes of the convent and sent it to General Junot, who later incorporated the recipes into the French cuisine. In this way, pheasant, woodcock and partridge were served "a la Alcántara" in Parisian palaces. The expert Escoffier, a staunch Gaul, said that this manuscript was "the best trophy, the only profitable thing that France got out of that war"
Jamon - Iberian cured ham - Famous throughout Extremadura but particularly in Montanchez where the Iberian black pigs gorge on the acorns of the forest to make the jamon one of the most delicious in Spain.
River and lake fish - The tench, tenca and trout, trucha abound in the lakes and rivers of Extremadura.
Cheese -Torta del Casar is surely the most sought-after cheese in Spain, which together with the other cheeses found in the region - La Serena, Ibores, Gata and Cabra del Tietar, can form part of a cheese board which is difficult to beat.
Puddings and sweets - Honey is varied due to the diversity of the flora, thyme, heather, rosemary, lavender, lime and eucalyptus. It is used used to prepare a great variety of desserts with almonds, walnuts, pine nuts and lots of eggs. These sweets and puddings are known as conventual as they were orginally made by nuns using yolks of eggs, the whites having been used to make the hosts for communion. The fruit is extremely good, some such as the Jerte
cherry truly delectable. Figs are grown everywhere and a particular small sweet variety made into bonbons de higo, chocolate coated figs with a liquor centre.
Wine - Ribera del Guadiana is Extremadura's Denomination of Origin for wine south of Merida grown in the rich red clay of the land near the Guardiana river. Also a new bodega near Trujillo, Habla, has a very superior collection of great red wines