Before I visited Spain in 2010, I knew little about the country. In fact, it wasn’t even on my list of countries I had a strong desire to visit.
That all changed just before my trip, when I was told about a volunteer opportunity teaching English that covered lodging and food for nearly a week in Spain. Being a budget backpacker, I naturally jumped at the opportunity.
To say I fell in love with Spain is an understatement. The country took my breath away more and more each day.
I visited a good deal of the must-see cities – Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Sevilla, Granada – and then some which aren’t on most visitors radar. It wasn’t in my plans to hit the region I did, but fortunately, fate played a hand in my Spanish adventures.
During my second volunteer stint with the same program, I met an amazing group of locals from Extremadura, a province of Spain snuggled next to Portugal (under four hours by bus to Lisbon). Their warm and welcoming nature led me to their villages, and together, we explored the nature, history, and gastronomy of this area.
Extremadura, spanning more than 16,000 square-miles, is one of the least populated provinces in the country. Its remarkable unspoiled landscapes speckled with olive and cork trees atop rolling fields of green, coupled with the lack of tourists and friendly residents, make it well worth at visit. It’s easy to spend a week or more simply exploring the many cities that compromise this area. If you’re pressed for time, be sure to stop at these locations to get a feel for what the area has to offer. And, don’t forget to eat. Extremadura is known for some of the delicacies it serves.
So are you ready to start planning a trip? It all starts with finding cheap flights to Spain.
Art and history
The history of Extremadura is rich and well-preserved through its many museums and ruins. It is where Muslim and Christian worlds collide, evidenced by visiting the Moorish Cisterns in Cáceres and the National Museum of Roman Art in Mérida, along with a large number of cathedrals, citadels and more. Mérida has a great deal of Roman ruins and is a great place to visit for history buffs. While in the capital of Extremadura, be sure to visit the Roman Theater and Amphitheatre, and walk across the 1km Roman Bride, one of the longest bridges ever built by Romans and extremely well-preserved. There is also the Templo de Diana, the remains of a Roman aqueduct, and carefully guarded archeological areas where visitors can look from afar at the history being uncovered in the city center. Other historical sites to check out include: Plaza de San Jorge in Cáceres; and the royal Monastery of Guadalupe in La Puebla de Guadalupe, a highlight of the Muedjar Gothic architecture in the land.
Extremadura is a hot spot for nature lovers, with more than 30 percent of it being environmentally protected. It is also one of the best places in Spain for bird watching. When visiting, be sure to take time in Monfragüe National Park. Designated as a Biosphere Reserve in 2003 by UNSECO, the park houses ruins of a castle (hike up at sunset for a spectacular view of the rolling hills and water below). It is also the perfect place for bird watchers to set up shop. The park is home to the largest colony of Black Vultures in the world and has the highest concentration of the Spanish Imperial Eagles. With numerous hikes, gorgeous scenery and opportunities to glimpse Iberian Lynx and other native animals, the park is one of the highlights of Extremadura. If you have a few days, other parks with visiting are: the Special Protection Area of Cedillo-Tajo Internacional, which crosses into Portugal, and offers sailing on the River Tajo, as well as hikes that allow visitors to walk across the river via the ancient Roman bridge of Alcántara; the spectacular outcropping of granite blocks in Los Barruecos and the nesting storks; Mine La Jayona and the guided tours through the mines; and the caves in Castañar de Ibor.
Other than the large population of birds, expansive parks and the deep history running through Extremadura, food and drink play a large part in what makes the region special. The Iberian Peninsula, particularly in Extremadura, is home to Iberian Pork, considered one of the best pork products in the world. A personal favorite of mine, it is buttery and delicious when sliced thin and put atop bread drizzled in Extremadura olive oil and tomato spread. Here, the legs of ham hang proudly in bars, cafes, restaurants and butcher shops, and are fresh and ready to be consumed for breakfast, on bread as tapas and sliced thin to snack on with wine. Must-eats also include Torta Del Casar, the soft sheep’s cheese from Serena and Casar; Migas, a stew loaded with bread crumbs; fresh fish from the many rivers. Extremadura has one Designation of Origin for wine, the DO Ribera del Guadiana and produces wine worthy of enjoying in Spain, and shipping home.
There are plenty of lodging options in Extremadura. However, it is worth noting the region has two lines of luxury and unique places to stay – the Paradores hotels set in historical outlets such as castles, palaces and monasteries, and the government created Hospederías, similar to Paradores, but located in smaller towns and villages and designed to help increase tourism to these places.