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!

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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