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?

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?

Spotlight on Spanish Autonomous Regions: Aragón

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: travel to 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 spending ample time in Andalucía, Galicia and Castilla y León – vastly different in their own right – plus extensive travel throughout Spain.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say you’ve probably not heard of March’s comunidad, Aragón. But I’m pretty positive you’ve heard of Christopher Columbus and the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabel, whose marriage in the mid 15th Century would ultimately lead to Spain’s Golden Age.

Name: Aragón

Population: 1.35 million

Provinces: Aragón is divided into three provinces – Zaragoza, Huesca and Teruel – and really only has two large cities – Zaragoza and Huesca. The region is comprised of a number of small towns and is best-known for its role in forming modern Spain as the Kingdom of Aragón.

When: 15th of 17 regions, March 2012

About Aragón: The region is rich in the historical, architectural and natural senses. Its mudéjar buildings and plush river valleys take a lot of credit, but given how important it has been historically is worth exploring, too. Aragón became a self-proclaimed kingdom over a millennia ago, eventually claiming parts of Italy and Greece, as well as Corsica and a large part of the eastern coast of Iberia. The kingdom grew when Ferdinand of Aragón married Isabel of Castille, becoming one of the powerhouse couples of Spanish history and reconquering Spain from the Moors.

What remains is a region that seems just as seeped in lore as Andalucia, from the traditional costumes and festivals to the devotion for the local virgin, Nuestra Señora del Pilar, whose feast day coincides with Spain’s national festival.

Must-sees: Zaragoza has a number of sites in its old town, from the Basilicia de Nuestra Señora del Pilar and it’s beautifully tiled roof to the modern Expo site across the Ebro. The region’s capital (and the fifth-largest city in Spain) is also home to the Seo church and the Moorish Palacio de Aljafería, which now houses the provincial court system. It’s a city you can experience in a day, to be honest.

 If you’re into castles, history and architecture, check out the castle of Loarre in the Huesca province, the city of Teruel (sí, existe) and the village that has been ranked as one of Spain’s most beautiful, Albecerrín. Jaca is also full of religious museums and temples.

Outdoor lovers, rejoice! Because of the low population density in the autonomía, there is plenty to explore. Huesca is one of Spain’s snowiest zones, and the Pyrenees are home to a number of ski resorts with outdoor activities of every type. Check out the Ordesa and Parque de la Piedra national parks.

My take: The Novio and I went to visit a friend of his from the Air Force Academy who flies a fighter jet at the nearby base. A ceutí by birth and an andaluz at heart, Gon did his duty to show us around Zaragoza during Holy Week. Unfortunately, crap weather and a flu bug had us all indoors, watching TV and ordering takeout for four straight days.

Gonzalo claims that the draw of the province comes from the Pyrenees mountains, the rich gastronomy and the outdoor activities. We didn’t have a car to use that weekend, meaning we were stuck in the capital (and on the couch, ugh). Thanks to its connection on the AVE, it’s a city I’d be interested in seeing again, and I’m eager to see more of the comunidad.

Each month for the next 15, I’ll take a look at Spain’s 17 comunidades autónomas and my travel through them, from A to, um, Valencia. I’d love your take on the good and the bad in each one, so be sure to sign up for my RSS feed to read about each autonomous region at the end of each month!

In case you missed it, I featured Andalucía, the region I live in, in February.

What do you love (or not) about Aragón?

Photo Post of Carmona: The Perfect Little Day Trip from Seville

Nothing says long weekend like a roadtrip, a quick stop in a village and the mass migration of people during the sacred puente. Not wanting to go too far, I settled on taking a day trip to Carmona, one of the province highlights that is often shadowed by Seville (even though, in my opinion, the province doesn’t offer too much by way of historical sites). 

Rain was on the forecast, but it didn’t matter – Phyllis and I grabbed Pequeño Monty and took the A-4 all the way into town. My first trip to Carmona was five years ago on a similar, drizzly morning – I’ve been aching to return since (particularly because that was one of my poorest points of expat life – we didn’t pay to see anything and split two plates of food between five of us).

Most visitors to the city arrive to the Plaza del Estatuto, known to locals as the Plaza de Abajo. The oblong plaza is lined with old man bars. I swooned immediately.

This small city, perched on a hill above acres of wheat and olives, has seen traces of Bronze Age settlers, Roman emperors, Visigoth Kings and the Moors before its conquest in the 13th Century. In pounding the pavement, I felt like we were on the tails of history.

The old center winds up from the Puerta de Sevilla and its imposing city walls and onto Plaza San Fernando towards Calle Prim, called the Plaza de Abajo by locals. Hidden within the gradually steep walls that stretch to the Iglesia de Santiago and the Puerte de Córdoba are tucked-away plazas, convents, grandiose cathedrals and stately palaces. Many alleyways are so slim, you can touch both sides of the walls.

There was little car traffic (it seemed the whole town was either sleeping off the Carnival celebrations or at a wedding at the Priory of Santa María), and we practically had the whole place to ourselves.

Ending the day at the Necrópolis de Carmona (which is free, so you have no excuse to not go), we had gone from lavish renaissance palaces to the ruins of an ancient burial ground by just driving to the other part of town. Laying along the Via Augusta, Carmona has been attracting tourists for millennia.  We were just two unassuming guiris still amazed that such old stuff exists.

Have you been to Carmona? What are you favorite villages in the Sevilla province? I’d recommend the following:

Estepa, Ciudad del Mantecado

Itálica and its Roman Ruins

San Nicolás del Puerto

Visiting Spain’s Archaeological Sites

Spain has an ancient landscape where you can explore ancient human sites that date back to prehistory. The earliest sites, the caves and rock shelters, date back to the Paleolithic (Stone Age). Spain’s oldest archaeology actually pre-date humans; the Orce Basin in the Andalucía of Spain has evidence of the earliest known Homo erectus in Europe, from around 1.6 million years ago.

yes, that’s me in 2009. memories.

Cave of Altamira

The Cave of Altamira is famous for its Upper Paleolithic cave paintings, which date from between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago. This was the first cave in which prehistoric paintings were discovered and helped to change the way we think about prehistoric human beings today. The cave was discovered in 1880 and it is close to Santillana del Mar in Cantabria, which is 30 km to the west of Santander.

Atapuerca

Atapuerca is the site of a series of limestone caves near Burgos in northern Spain. The main site is called Sima del Elefante (“Pit of the Elephant”) and contains fragments of human jawbones and teeth dating back 1.1 to 1.2 million years ago. Nearby is Gran Dolina, which also contains human remains and some early tools from around 800,000 years ago.

Baelo Claudia

Baelo Claudia was a Roman town in Andalusia, close to Tarifa. It is one of the finest ruined Roman towns in Spain. The town developed as an important trading post during the first century BC under the Roman Emperor Claudius. It had a forum, market and theatre. Many of the ruins have been restored and preserved.

Lugo Roman Walls

The Lugo Roman Walls date to between 200AD and 299AD and are one of the finest examples of a late Roman military fortification. They were built to protect the Roman city of Lucus Augusti, now called Lugo, in the north-west of Spain. Lugo is the only city in the world surrounded by a Roman wall (the Ronda da Muralla). The wall has ten gates. The city dates back to the Celtic period and is named after Lugus, a deity of the Celtic pantheon. In 13 BC it was conquered by Paulus Fabius Maximus and renamed Lucus Augusti.

Belchite

Belchite, in Zaragoza, is a relatively modern ruined town. It was destroyed during the Spanish Civil war in 1937 and has been left untouched since. The town was founded in 1122.

Mérida Roman Theatre

The Mérida Roman Theatre was built around 15BC and is the one of most impressive Roman ruins in Spain. When in use it could hold an audience of around 6000 people.

Mérida was known as Emerita Augusta and was the capital of Lusitania. Today you can also find the ruins of the Roman circus, amphitheater and the impressive Temple of Diana and the Alcazaba Fortress.

Castillo del Nicio

Castillo del Nicio sits upon a hilltop called Cerro del Castor in the province of Málaga. It has extensive ruins dating from the late Moorish period. Roman and Bronze Age items have also been discovered at the site.

Ruinas del Castillo de San Luis

Ruinas del Castillo de San Luis is a ruined castle dating back to 1646 on the island of Tierrabomba. It once controlled the entrance to Bocachica, an important trade route during the colonial period.

While most of the Roman and Medieval sites are within towns and cities and can be visited on public transport, it is best to rent private transport to visit the ancient archaeological sites, as rental cars are far more convenient in some areas.

What are your favorite arhcaelogical sites in Spain? Don’t miss Carmona, the dolmens in Valencina or Roman gem Itálica while you’re in Seville!

Seville Snapshots: The Pabellón de Navigación

Seville’s history is intertwined with the sea, despite being inland. It was here that The Catholic Kings gave Christopher Columbus permission and a couple of big boats to go find the East, and subsequently, all of the riches from the New World came through Seville on the Guadalquivir River.

During the Ibero-American Festival of 1992, the land around the Cartuja monastery was transformed into a futuristic city, where technology merged with tradition. Sadly, the city left this corner of Seville untouched for a few decades, and is now beginning to sell buildings to be recycled and re-used – and hopefully revitalize La Cartuja.

Perched on the banks of the Guadalquivir on the southern end of the complex (just opposite the Schindler elevator erected for the Expo’92), the building resembles a capsized boat, whose hull soars over you. The space hosts rotating exhibitions, as well as a permanent exhibit about Seville’s place in maritime history and what it was like to sail the seven seas. Opened in 2011, it’s a beautiful, open space, and worth a quick visit if you’re in Seville. There are plans in motion to open a small bar and offer boat rides on the river, too.

If you go: the Pabellón de la Navegación can be reached by city buses C1 or C2, or the 6, and is a 15 minute walk from Plaza de Armas. Visiting hours are, Tuesday-Saturday from 10am – 17:30 and Sundays and holidays from 10am – 15:00.

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