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?

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!

Tapa Thursdays: The Effervescent Jamón Ibérico

Some thing are just better experienced than written about.

Among my favorite moments of my five years in Spain are the “early nights” that turn into café con leche as the sun rises the following morning, the way my feet magically stop tripping over themselves the minute I don my flamenco dress, and the hours mulling over great food with gorgeous Seville as a backdrop.

Food has given me a greater understanding of Spanish culture and family life, as well as the way people socialize. I’ve come to scrutinize wedding fare, steer clear of certain establishments and get filled to the brim with tó lo bueno.

The common theme throughout virtually any dining experience? El cerdo ibérico, Spain’s prized pig.

I suppose it doesn’t help that Kike’s father owns a farm that raises pigs until they’re nice and fat, ready to be sold to a matadero and served for a Christmas splurge. Pork, a food I once ate reluctantly, is now a staple in my diet.

I dragged the Novio along to the annual Feria Internacional del Cerdo Ibérico, a ham fest in one of Spain’s foremost regions in production. Under the Denominación de Origen de Huelva, 20 million euros are earned yearly from the production and distribution of the hind legs, called a pata. I’ve been waxing poetic for years about the fair, one in which you can eat, drink and practically be Miss Piggy for under 20€, stocking up on artisan products and anise.

It’s one of those things you’ve just got to experience.

What it is: One of Spain’s most expensive pork product, jamón ibérico is thinly sliced ham from the hind leg of an acorn-fed pig. The meat is conserved in salt, then hung to dry for a year or two. The white part, called tocino, is fat and considered to be the tastiest part.

Where it’s from: The mountain range that separates Andalusia from Extremadura is the hotspot for jamón in the south. Here, pigs feast on acorns until the springtime matanza, when they’re slaughtered. The best places to eat ham are in these small villages.

Where to get it in Seville: Many establishments offer tapas and plates of ham, particularly in the center and at smaller bars in outlying neighborhoods. Try it on a mantecaíto sandwich at Bodeguita Antonia Romero, C/ Gamazo, 16.

Goes perfectly with: Good friends and a glass of fino. Ham tends to end up on panes, on montaditos and in tacos, or small bits as a garnish.

Check out my second appearance talking on Spanish TV, around minute 31:30

http://www.canalsuralacarta.es/television/video/viernes-19-de-octubre/31222/13 - Even my neighbor from 2ºIzq. has seen me!!

The Feria del Jamón y de Cerdo Ibérico is held yearly in the village of Aracena, 90 kilometres northwest of Seville. The fair tends to take place the third weekend of October, but the village can be visited year-round and boasts many beautiful sites.

Everybody Was Pueblo-Timing

Everyone in Spain is, sorry to tell you, not fútbol- or flamenco-obsessed. Not everyone in Spain loves jamón. Not everyone in Spain speaks Castillian. But, yes, everyone in Spain has a pueblo (and not-so-secretly loves it).

I learned this during my second year at IES Heliche. While discussing holidays (summer vacation for you gringos), I asked if anyone was going to a second home of theirs. Virtually all Andalusian families spend their summer months away from the sweltering cities at the hundreds of kilometers of coastline down here, so I expected to hear names of beaches within an hour’s drive (for the record, the lack of beaches is one of my extreme dislikes about Sevilla, along with the ever-shrinking airport and lack of live music – the good ones, I mean).

Nearly everyone in Olivares listed their summertime destination as Olivares. Like the ones below:

Ok, I assumed, there’s a financial crisis, and it’s likely that people are sticking around their hometowns, trying to stay in the shade. Qué no, the olivareños were simply moving house across town to their parcela – or little shack houses – with pools. Why leave your pueblo when all of your friends are around?

En fin, the pueblo is to Spaniards as our dogs are to Americans.

For ages, Ismael and I considered Olivares to be our pueblo, but I don’t feel the same way about Olivares as I do Kike’s town, San Nicolás del Puerto. With 700 inhabitants, this town is totally pueblarino and found high in the Sierra Norte de Sevilla.

While nothing can compare to a city as vibrant, folkloric and beautiful as Sevilla, I do love my pueblo time.

Cheers (with cough syrup)

The Sierra is home to several specialties, including the Miura brand anís flavored with guindas - a small, red cherry. I personally think it tastes like cough syrup and haven’t had so much as a sip for years. Still, bottles of the rojo líquido are consumed most often in the Sierra as an after-meal drink.

The Sierra’s crowning gem is Cazalla de la Sierra, a breathtaking pueblo blanco full of old men and wine cellars. Monica and I ended up here after hiking the Vía Verde last Spring, and this is where the famous anís is produced, bottled and packaged.  I tend to refer to anís as a grandpa drink (see here and see also: Monica’s love for old men and their attraction for her), but the serranos guzzle it down, served in a stout, bell-shapped glass with just one ice cube. Ask for un miura con un hielito and you’re set.

Sierra-Style Soirees

One of my favorite times to visit the pueblo is during their ferias, fiestas and romerías, all in the name of tourism, saints and, well, fun. San Nicolás is the birthplace of San Diego, and just about every male in the town is named after him (and the Novio wants his third child to be a flesh and bone sacrifice to him, too. Honest.) My pueblo is famous for its Halloween in July, Carnaval celebrations, Romería - a kind of pilgrimage to a hermitage -  and the same día de San Diego.

Here’s an excerpt from a blog I wrote after my first San Diego:

 After my usual siesta in Kike’s childhood bed, I took the main road in to its intersection with the main road out. There, sandwiched between the houses on Calle Diego, next to my favorite bar, was a charranga in full-swing and scores of small Diegos running around. The nearby owner of the camping, Diego (duh), welcomed me with a beer and I sang him the customary saint day song (Many children in Spain also receive gifts on the day the feast of the saint which bears their name is celebrated. San Enrique, for example, is July 13th. To my knowledge, there is no Saint Cat!), taught to me recently by my babies at school. The town was fuller than ever – Inma came from Córdoba to see her mother and ask that her son be baptised in the same church as she and other generations in her family had, and an old friend of Kike’s, María José, brought her small children and husband for the first time. The bailes, typically held on Saturday, were cut short due to the early morning parade to follow the next day.

 Small town festivals are often more raucous, more inviting and even more fun than the Fallas, San Isidro and Feria that Spain has become famous for.

Jamón, Jamón

Ask anyone what’s to be found in the Sierra, and the answer is undoubtedly JAMON. Spain’s great meat reigns king, and the famous Iberian ham is raised right in the mountains that run along the border of Andalucía and Extremadura. Kike’s father makes a living off of raising and selling pigs to the local matadero, so we have a leg of ham – hoof and all – in our house nearly every day of the year. While I can’t say I loved jamón when I came to Spain, the taste has certainly grown on me.

There are two types of pigs raised in the Peninsula – serrano and ibérico. The difference lies in both the color and the feed, which give the paletillas and patas their distinctive taste. Regardless, both varieties are trimmed, dipped in salt and hung to dry for up to two years before being sliced in thin rations for consumption. Ibérico’s pata negra is considered a delicacy for many palates, and its taste comes from – lo juro - the acrons the pigs munch on. Exportation has increased with relaxed laws in the US for serrano hams, but the minute I can have a real slice of guarrito in Chicago, I’ll feel like my parents can finally taste a part of the pueblo closest to my corazón.

Gastronomic Gems

Speaking of jamón, the food in the Sierra couldn’t be better: from guisos made by grandma to fresh chorizo and goat cheese, I always eat well in the pueblos. In San Nicolás, where tourism is slow – save the bikers and horseback riders among the Vía Verde – there’s no plethora of restaurants to choose from. In a normal weekend visit, we can hit all of them, and often venture into neighboring villages Alanís de la Sierra and Constantina for a meal, too.

By far the best eatery in the vicinity is Batán de las Monjas, a rustic-style restaurant owned by Diego. Part homestyle restaurant, part new-age dining (Diego’s son studied at a culinary school in NYC and now is one of the lead chefs at Seville’s famous La Bulla), the place oozes pueblo charm is the resting place for the livery that feasts off of bellota in hills surrounding the village. Typical prices for entrées are will run about 7€, so it’s easy to fill up for cheap. The migas in winter and creamy gazpacho in summer have won my heart, and Diego and his family always make me feel at home – even when not with the Novio!

A Cambio de Aires

San Nicolás has a truly privileged location, not only for its livestock, but also for its outdoor offerings. A Via Verde trail slices around the southern end of the village, making it accessible for bikers, hikers and riders. It’s normal to see bikes leaned up against Enrique’s bar on a sunny Sunday morning, giving the town an added tourism boost for the smattering of bars and eateries. There’s hills to climb, waterfalls to admire, a Roman bridge to jump from, wildlife galore and some of the warmest and down-home people you’ll ever meet. I’ve always felt like one more Marucha when I’m in San Nicolás, and for good reason – I’m accepted as one.

Have you got your own pueblo? What’s your favorite, FAVORITE thing about it? Been to the Sierra Norte de Sevilla? Tell me what to do next time!

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