Autonomous Community Spotlight: Extremadura

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit 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 living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain.  

spain collageOn my first visit to Extremadura in 2009, Tita explained the meaning of the comunidad to me: Extre because it’s extremely far west, cozying up to Portugal, and madura because the hardened plains shaped the conquistadores that grew up there.

Extremadura is one of Spain’s best-kept secrets, and I sincerely hope it stays that way. It’s sandwiched between western Andalucía and Madrid and traversed by the A-5 mega highway, yet most tourists conveniently (and thankfully) leave it off their list. From hidden monasteries to a wine region you’ve likely not tried, these far-flung plains have the potential to attract visitors and their tourist euros.

Name: Extremadura

Population: 1.1 million, a mere 2.36% of Spain’s total population

extremadura collage

Provinces: Two; Badajóz and Cáceres

When: December 2009, 13th of 17

About Extremadura: Despite its reputation as a sleepy, sparsely populated corner of Spain, Extremadura has seen some of the most important developments of Spain, beginning with the Romans. Known back then as Luisitania, the capital of Mérida (then Emerita Augusta) was an important city for trade and culture. Roman ruins, like a beautifully preserved theatre and an aqueduct visible from the highway, rub elbows with the ubiquitous old man bars and banks in the administrative capital.

Merida Spain amptheatre

When the Muslims moved in during the first few years of the  eight century, Mérida was one of the Caliphate’s most strategic regions due to its proximity to Portugal. The Córdoba Caliphate fell three centuries later, and power was jockeyed to the Taifa of Badajoz and remained under Muslim rule until 1230.

During Spain’s golden age, Extremadura took its place in the sun: not only did it produce a great number of conquistadores like the Pizarro, Hernán Cortés and Núñez de Balboa, but a great deal of the riches that arrived from the new world never made it to Madrid, finding a permanent home in Extremadura.

Statue of Pizarro in Trujillo

Nowadays, the region is famous for its cork production and acorn-fed ham, as well as outdoor wildlife areas. If you’ve never heard of it, there’s little surprise.

Must-sees: Extremadura boasts dozens of hidden gems. I say hidden because of the province’s network of lonely highways, many of which curve through mountains and around man-made lakes. Given its crop of conquistadores, you’ll likely see places that share a name with South American cities – Valdivia, Medellín, Orellana – and the medieval cities seem to be living back in time.

view of Trujillo, Extremadura

Mérida’s Roman Ruins are recognized by UNESCO, and the city houses an excellent museum with artifacts from Lusitania. At just two hours north of Seville, it’s beyond easy to get to, and castles and monasteries pop out along every curve.

Cáceres’s elegantly preserved walled city is also a UNESCO site whose mix of Roman, Moorish, Gothic and Renaissance architecture is unparalleled and worthwhile, and I swooned over Trujillo‘s stone churches and Renaissance palaces. On  a whim, the Novio and I also went to see the Guadalupe Monastery (surprise! Also a World Heritage Site) and visited the charming little town of Garganta la Olla. I also love the names of towns, which pay homage to famous residents or local lore.

The Patio of Monasterio de Guadalupe

Food is a big deal in Extremadura, particularly big game, cheese and wine. You can expect huge portions of tender meats from pigs, cows and wild boar, as well as pheasant and quail. As a matter of fact, much of the Extremaduran plains are perfect for birdwatching (and protected!), and the national park of Monfragüe is home to several rare breeds.

But, if you’re like me, you’ll choose a robust glass of Ribera de Guadiana to wash down your migas, or fried breadcrumbs, and stinky Torta del Casar cheese. Paprika is also produced in the cherry tree-dotted foothills of La Vera.

The main square of Garganta la Olla

One thing you could skip? The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s last residence, Yuste, was a big (and expensive) letdown. 

My take: Sharing a border with occidental Andalucía, Extremadura is closer than my go-to destinations like Granada or Málaga. Its stark plains, hollow sky and long stretches of highway are similar to my surroundings, with blips of civilization on lone roads. 

What really draws me to Extremadura is that it hasn’t experienced the heavy tourism that the coasts and bigger cities have, meaning it’s Spain Spain. From the warmth of locals in teeny towns to the cheap prices and filling meals, I’m a pretty big proponent for Tita’s Extremadura.

Have you ever been to Extremadura? What do you like (or not) about it?

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias | Cantabria | Castilla y León | Castilla-La Mancha | Cataluña

Huelva: Andalucía’s overlooked province and why I love it

Jessie called me to give me the bad news: “They placed me somewhere called Huelva,” using the hard h sound we’d learned to adopt in Valladolid. Without looking at a map, I assumed Huelva was on the other side of Andalusia and sighed heavily, sad that we couldn’t continue our Vdoid antics with an acento andalú for eight more months.

Jessie (on the far right) and I in San Sebastián. June 2005.

As a matter of fact, Huelva is the little slice of overlooked Andalucía is wedged between Seville, Cádiz, Badajoz and Portugal, a far-flung yet varied region.

Confession: I think Huelva has more to offer by way of destinations and gastronomy than Seville does. Gasp!

Bet you didn’t know that Christopher Columbus prayed at the La Rábida monastery before setting off for the New World (and that you can visit recreations of the Nina, Pinta and Santa María in its port), or that the Recreativo de Huelva is Spain’s oldest football club, as the English settlers to Río Tinto brought the game over when they came to exploit the mines?

I mean, yes, it smells like a swamp and it’s not exactly a beautiful city, but there are some redeeming factors that make the province of Huelva worth a day or two, particularly along its coastline or a trip to Doñana National Park.

THE HAM and other eats

I would clearly start with my taste buds and my beloved jamón ibérico. The black-footed pigs in the northern hills of the province, part of the Cordillería Bética, feast year-round on acorns, giving the cured meats a buttery smooth taste and texture. They’re taken to the slaughterhouse in Aracena in early Autumn to be turned into meats and other products from the Denominación de Origen Huelva (note: this weekend kicks off the Feria de Jamón in Aracena, where free samples abound!). 

Huelva is also famous for fresh seafood and strawberries. The gamba blanca de Huelva is a local favorite that is simply boiled and served with rock salt, and it’s characteristic of the region. The fresas and fresones are cultivated in the greenhouses along the coast from Palos de la Frontera to as far as Lepe, with their growing season lasting just a few months in the springtime. Migas, a bread dish with garlic, is also common in the mountains.

And then there’s wine! The bodegas around Bollullos Par del Condado produce a young white wine similar to mosto that’s a bit sweet, as well as vinegars. You can visit the bodegas and wine museums from Seville, as it’s only a 45-minute drive from the capital.

The beaches and mountains

Huelva shares a coastline with the Atlantic, with the Ríos Tinto and Odiel forming the Sebo peninsula where upon the capital sits, and the Guadiana separates Spain from Portugal. Many sevillanos flock to the coast during the warm summer months because of its proximity to the capital hispalense – less than 100 kilometers. The beaches are of fine sand, moderately windy and relatively clean. Seven of Huelva’s beaches have been bestowed with the Bandera Azul – three in Punta Umbría, two in Isla Cristina and one each in Moguer and Almonte.

In the Northern part of the province, the last little push of the Bética becomes the Sierra Morena. This region is full of great hiking trails, ideas for excursions like mushroom hunting, and gorgeous little villages where you can eat well and on the cheap. Aracena is the ‘capital’ of the region and boasts a series of underground caves and a crumbling castle that crowns the hamlet.

Huelva is also home to Spain’s largest national park, Doñana. These protected wetlands and pine groves cover about 135 square miles and is the breeding ground of the Iberian Lynx. The park boasts quite a few beaches, too, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can visit the park with a guide, though my mom and I snuck in a horseback ride from nearby Mazagón.

The fiestas

For years, I equated Huelva with a hangover due to its enormous Erasmus population and cheap bars (and because I was 22 and 23 when I went every other weekend), but Huelva knows its fiestas poplars.

Each Pentecost Sunday, those faithful to the Virgen del Rocío (known as Our Lady of the Swamps) take a pilgrimage to the Aldea outside of Almonte to witness the festivities to exalt one of Spain’s most popular symbols. It’s like the Feria de Sevilla set in the Wild West – hitching posts, covered wagons that people live and travel in for a few days, the palios that carry the image of the virgen towards the sacred ground where her image was found in a tree trunk or some business like that. And get this  – people flock from as far away as Brussels on foot, and then return the same way they came! If you’re on the way to Doñana, definitely stop in El Rocío and visit the gorgeous whitewashed shrine – it’s lovely.

Huelva also celebrates its connection with Columbus during Spain’s national fiesta, October 12th, has several smaller romerías for various saints in the province and has its own version of Carnival and Holy Week.

Living well and living cheap

For everything that Seville lacks, Huelva makes up for it. Onubenses enjoy a better microclimate than Seville, are closer to the beach and can live comfortably for cheap – Jessie and company lived right in the center of town in a Duplex for 180€ a month! I would grab a bus every other weekend to go see her and the other girls, enjoying a few days near the beach for cheap.

Getting to Huelva capital from Sevilla is easy: Damas runs an hourly bus on weekdays from Plaza de Armas for 16€ roundtrip. Have you ever been to Huelva? Any recommendations on other things to see?

Seville Snapshots: Domingo de Romería

“The hilly encinas are my office,” said Jose, not looking away from his ham leg, from which he took thin cuts and arranged them neatly onto a plate for us. I’d been eating since arriving to the Ermita de San Diego in teeny San Nicolás del Puerto, my favorite village in Spain, and my stomach could only hold so much.

Springtime in Andalucia is all about a healthy mix of hedonism and religion (which surprisingly go hand-in-hand). Holy Week revelers pay a somber penitence to the cruxifiction and resurrection, then sherry is drunk by the bucketfull during ferias all over Andalucía, and concludes with romerías in nearly all of the pueblos from late April until September.

I’ve mentioned San Nicolás del Puerto, a tiny dot of a town on Andalucia’s map. At 700 people and seven bars (seven more than in my hometown of 55,000), the city is the source of the Hueznár River, part of the Vía Verde and the birthplace of San Diego de Alcalá. Nearly all of the town’s festivities revolve around the poor man’s saint, including the Romería de San Diego, held the second Sunday of May each year.

For a small village, San Nicolás throws a big party for the romería, which is like one-part religious procession, one part tailgate. Everyone brings their coolers full of food – chacina, tortilla de papas, filetes empanados, and homemade cakes – and finds a shady spot in the hills near the hemitage for setting up their picnic. They’re often reserved by parking cars, using a fruit crate for a makeshft sign, or by tradition – I always know where Rafalín and the Novio´s father will be with their own portapotty.

At noon, the saint comes dancing in, carried on the shoulders of locals and preceeded by a brass band from the nearby Alanís de la Sierra. It’s kind of like a homecoming, and I can almost imagine my high school’s fight song instead of the paso doble that accompanies the saint before mass. Diego bobs up and down as partygoers watch on horseback, some dressed in flamenco dresses and trajes cortos. The Novio and I watched from afar, busy kicking back a few bottles of beer and helping ourselves to everyone else’s food, lest it go to waste.

Have you ever been to a Romería? Spain’s biggest and most popular, El Rocío of Almonte (Huelva) is this coming Sunday. Read about my experience at last year’s fair here.

Tapas Thursday: Eating Italy

Little known fact about me: Italian food is as much a part of my family’s table fare as meat and potatoes. And I have not one ounce of sangue italiano in me.

There’s two parts to this story: firstly, my mom studied gelato and fashion in Rome in the 70s, developing a love for Ferragamo and fromaggio. And my great-aunt Mary Jane married the boy next store, my beloved Uncle Mario, whose family arrived from Northern Italy when they were in high school. Mario Rubenelli started the Dell’Alpe food import company, whose products can be found around Chicago. Imported olive oil, pepperoncini, balsalmic, and parmesean cheese were always on our table.

When I surprised the Novio with a weekend trip to Bologna, we had little else on our itinerary but gain a few kilos and wash it all down with Chianti. Add an overnight trip to Florence, and our food hangover was coupled with an art and architecture one.

Upon arrival to Marconi Airport, we steered our car south towards Firenze. Eager to eat, we arrived frantic and without a place to park. Our hotel recommended a small trattoria, and we snuck in just before they closed. The place, Trattoria da Guido, was cozy and lit with candles with a plain view of the kitchen. We communicated with our waitress in Spanish with a sprinkling of Italian – vino, prosciutto, acqua, grazie.

My eyes immediately went to the gorgonzola ravioli with walnut sauce, and Kike’s choice of tagliatelle with wild boar meat – a symbol of Florence, anyway – was clear. My chianti arrived with our salad topped with mozzarella and Parma ham, and our fresh pasta a few minutes later. Manggia, we did – I didn’t even take any pictures! My dish was heaven – creamy with nutty undertones and just the right amount (Via Faenza, 34. Open daily for lunch and dinner).

The following morning, a breakfast with a view of the Medici Chapel and the Saturday market met us early. After an espresso, hot panini and even some nutella for my banana, we stopped by the nearby San Lorenzo food market. On a sleepy Saturday morning, many of the stalls hadn’t even opened, meaning the Novio and I had nearly the entire maze of fish and vegetable shops to ourselves. But I was on a mission: to bring back a hunk of parmesean, even if it mean donning more clothes on board our return flight if my suitcase was overweight. Tempting were the rolls of salami, mortadella and tiny flasks of limoncello.

The morning was punctuated by stops in sunny piazzas for another caffeine jolt or Moretti beer. I was aching to get the sightseeing done and get onto having another meal, this time in a student pizzeria where I’d eaten years ago. The wood-backed chairs and exposed brick walls of Osteria del Gatto e la Volpe lent a comfortable atmosphere for our crostini appetizer as we poured over a six-pages of pasta, pizza and calzones. On my first solo trip, spent in Florence, I’d had a simple pizza and a small jar of wine, and the waiters seranaded me from a small corner table on a busy Saturday night – I needed that pizza again.

In the end, we split a hearty potato gnocchi with pesto and a margherita pizza with parmesean and ruccula (Via Ghibellina, 151, near Santa Croce). The meal was a perfect balance and a great value, and it filled us up during a day of driving back to Bologna and a long winter’s nap once there.

Emiglia Romano is the unsung food hero of Italy, home to Parma (of ham fame), Modesto (of basalmic vinegar fame) and tasty regional capital, Bologna (of the meat sauce fame). The gritty capital is not only known for its food, but for its modern university, which meant cheap and plentiful food options abound.

After a long sonnichiarre, the Novio and I bundled up and got a glimpse of the Due Torres, San Petronino church and Piazza Neptuno. Our hotel was right next to a highly-recommended osterria, but the early dinne crowd had us huddled in a bar, drinking beer. Upon changing locations – an aptly named bar called Siesta – the bartender asked the Novio what kind of beer he wanted via the young Italian sitting next to us.

Peppino – with two Ps, not to be confused with the vegetable – had studied in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and spoke pretty good Spanish. Adopting the When in Rome Bologna, do as the Bolognians do frame of mind, we followed Peppino and his friend Eliza to a swanky, low-lit supper club called Bravo Caffe, where we ordered a bottle of suave red from his hometown of Lecce and a platter of cured meats – mortadella, prosciutto, parma ham and pancetta. (Via Mascarella, 1. Bologna).

A woman took the stage as the lights dimmed, meaning we’d be eating with very little light. Our appetizer of squid with caramelized mushrooms arrived, opening the floodgates of my hunger. I had ordered potato gnocchi with pecorino cheese, smothered in parmesan, olive oil and fresh parsley, a staple on my Italian side of the family. Ignoring the music, the company and everything else that wasn’t on my plate, I popped potato ball after potato ball in my mouth. If there’s one thing that makes me a horrible guest, it’s the presence of good food in front of me – I don’t even remember what Kike ate!

After such a hearty meal, a grappa seemed to be in order, followed by a cocktail. The next morning’s alarm went off and I had to roll off the bed, thanks to a still-full stomach and a slight tequila hangover. We wouldn’t consume much more that day, sharing sandwiches on the plane ride and even skipping dinner.

Back at home, I purveyed my pantry: a new hunk of parmesan, marked with PARM REGG, three types of pasta, and all of the Dell’Alpe spices I’d hoarded from my family’s company. Not bad for a non-Mediterrean.

Like food posts? I also told you everything I ate while in La Rioja, Spain’s de-facto wine capital. Do you like Italian food (or food gluttony)?

Tapa Thursdays: The Mercado de San Miguel, Madrid

When I came to Spain to study, my first meal was far from memorable – a slop of mayonnaise, potatoes and nothing else discernable. I was convinced that I didn’t like Spanish food, nervous to move back and not whiddle away to nada.

Turns out, I like Spanish food, and a little too much.

I was invited on the Signature Tour of Madrid Food Tours, a relatively young business venture designed to showcase the Spanish capital’s culinary treats. Mercado de San Miguel was one of our locations along a route that included several stops and twice as many tapas.

The market was bustling, even at 11:30 in the morning. Stands ring the outside of the glass-plated hall, with high tables in the middle, making the market an idea place to mingle. Vendors sold everything from vermouth and Spanish wines, to pintxos and paellas that were ready to eat, to dried legumes and fresh seafood. A treat for both my eyes and my stomach, as we stopped to sample several foods along the way.

The market has a long history – from the times of Napoleon when it was an open-air market! The market then moved indoors, as an iron and glass structure was made to house it. In 2009, it reopened as a gastronomic capital, becoming popular with tourists who visit Madrid for its proximity to the historic center.

If you go: the Mercado de San Miguel is mere steps away from the Plaza Mayor and Calle Mayor in a square of the same name. From Sunday – Wednesday, vendors are open from 10am until midnight, with hours extended until 2am on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Go with an empty stomach for nibbling!

I was invited as the gracious guest of Madrid Food Tour, but all opinions expressed are my own.

Travel Highlights from the Last Six Months of 2012

When I reflected on just how much travelling I’d done during the first half of 2012 – from two new autonomous regions of Spain to fulfilling a nagging want to see Istanbul, I vowed to slow down a bit during the second half. Not because I don’t love the butterflies of savoring a new place, but because I wanted to use this year to focus on a bit more than moving – slowing down to complete a master’s, to work on this blog, and stop to enjoy actually living in Seville.

My roommate, Melissa, used to call me Macaco after his hit, Moving. All the people moving, she said, was me; indeed, my parents claim that I never walked, but went right to running.

Go, Cat, Go!


After leaving my job and watching my friends Lindsay and David give one another the “si quiero” in the other’s language, I cheered Spain onto victory in the Euro Cup finals, had to say goodbye to Kike, and then set up camp on my own in La Coruña.

My fourth summer in this little rinconcito of Spain was just as magical as always, full of sweeping views of the peninsula, afternoons spent snuggling in bed with my computer in front of me catching up on some work, and plenty of fresh seafood. Our plans to see Fisterrea were foiled by the rain, per usual, but I left camp feeling ok about it.


My birth month found me back in Chicago, which truly is the ciudad de mi corazón. My friend Phil was back from a 2-year sojourn in San Francisco, so we spent time catching up and playing tourist in a city we’d both known for decades. Sweet home, indeed.

After 27 years and 28 countries, I finally made it to New York City. Cue Alicia Keys song, and you’ll understand my fascination. Sadly, all of my pictures not on social media were lost, but we hit all of the big places on our girls’ trip – the Rock, Central Park, Fifth Ave, Magnolia Bakery, Le Tren Bleu, The Financial District, Ellis Island. My friends Kim, Pedro, Monica and Cait all came in from Long Island and Jersey to help me celebrate my 27th birthday doing the things I love most – drinking beer, laughing like a crazed person, boating and eating well.

On the actual day of my birthday, Margaret, Nancy and I took the Bolt Bus to Boston for a family wedding. My birthday cake was made of cannolis and toasted with Blue Moons, courtesy of my father, and I ate an enormous lobster. Boston was a gorgeous city and just the right size, and I had the added bonus of celebrating my second consecutive birthday with my friend Bri and attending my cousin Thomas’s beautiful wedding on the Boston College Campus.

From there, I caught up on reading on the Amtak to Stamford, Connecticut, where my friend Christine lives. There were barbecues and flippy cup tournaments, boat rides and water skiing, and lots of laughs as we caught up in Spanglish.


Coming back to Spain after Labor Day was tougher than it has been, as I feel a bit in limbo over my future in Spain. As I got off the airplane and into a cab to get to Lauren’s house, I left my laptop in the backseat, never to see it again. There went my pictures, some semi-important documents…but I found that parting with it wasn’t the end of the world (and the excuse I needed to upgrade to a Mac). Baby steps, people.

Lauren, Liz and I attended Travel Bloggers Unite in Porto Portugal, a wonderful and oft-overlooked city with a thriving art scene. I was jet lagged, bummed about the computer and not looking forward to networking or selling myself or anything more than a glass of port and a stroll around the city’s old quarter. I was pleased to find other, well-established bloggers willing to help out and informative talks that inspired me to keep pushing on this project, making me feel less like a clueless newbie.

Kike took me to Cádiz the weekend afterwards as a late birthday getaway for us both. We explored the beaches in Tarifa (pictured above), Zahara de los Atunes, Bolonia and Zahora before the summer slipped away.


The ruins of Aracena castle

I started working with my students and a master’s all at once while adjusting to a totally new lifestyle by working in the evenings. Even with Fridays off, I opted to save a little money so I could buy a new Mac and pay the second half of my program in Public Relations. Kike and I did get to Aracena, a gorgeous white village in the mountains, for their annual ham fair. I was even interviewed while stuffing my face full of pig products by Canal Sur!


November blustered in with cooler temps, and I began to buckle down on blogging, teaching and masters-ing, taking the time to take care of my friendships and enjoy the lovely destinations in the province. We ventured north to San Nicolás del Puerto, the village where Kike’s family has property, to celebrate their patron saint’s feast day. Unfortunately, Camarón’s auto focus broke, leaving me with little else that weekend but instagram (follow me @sunshinesiestas).

A few weekends later, I was a guest in Estepa with Heart of Andalusia. This pueblo blanco in the eastern reaches of the province is famous for its mantecados and other Christmas treats, and we were treated to a lovely day out in a place I’d always wanted to visit.


Spain’s commemoration of their Constitution and the Immaculate Conception means back-to-back days off, so my friends and I rented a car, got pulled over by the cops, and barely made it to one piece to La Rioja, Spain’s Wine Country. While there, we feasted like kings on the famous Calle Laurel and took a trip to Marques de Riscal’s gorgeous bodega in nearby Eltziego.

I also made it to Madrid for my cuñado (brother-in-law)’s wedding, a food tour with Lauren of Madrid Food Tour and a quick trip to visit my host family in Valladolid. The following day, my family descended upon Madrizzz and we spent six days exploring Catalonia and Andorra (country 29 and already with Christmas sales!).


2013’s travel plans haven’t been fully set yet, but my family and I are celebrating New Year’s Eve in the Plaza del Sol. In the works are an anniversary trip to Bologna, heading to Toulouse to visit friends and attending TBU wherever it may be this time around! And, without a doubt, walking the Camino de Santiago this summer!

Where are you heading or hope to visit in 2013?

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