Autonomous Community Spotlight: Madrid

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.

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Admittedly, Madrid and I did not get off to a very good start. I’d already been in Valladolid on a study abroad program for a month, and we were rushed around the capital for ten hours – we visited Plaza de España, Plaza de la Villa, Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol and the Prado Museum, and then were given a mere free hour to see something else. I found the capital uninviting, lifeless and a bit dull (Tens-Years-Later Me is kind of mad that I could have cared less about seeing the Prado because I just wanted an ice cream cone).

Over time, Madrid became more than just a stopover between flights for me – I spend more time in La Capital than elsewhere in Spain, have friends and family there and find the city to be the injection of urban life that I need every so often. 

Name: La Comunidad de Madrid

Population: The urban area of Madrid itself is the third largest urban area in Europe, with over 6.3 million inhabitants. 

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2000px-Madrid_in_Spain.svg

Provinces: Just one, with the administrative capital located in the Spanish capital.

When: 3rd of 17, June 2005

About La Comunidad de Madrid: Located smack dab in the middle of the country, the autonomous community named for its capital city is one of Spain’s most illustrious, and usually a place where visitors hit.

Before the mid 16th Century, the city of Madrid was little more than a speck on the map and a town principally known in the farming trade. Felipe II (Spain’s greatest monarch because of his choice of haberdashery) moved the capital from Valladolid and made Madrid the center of his extensive empire, as the area had long been a favorite for nobles and was geographically sound.

Long before becoming Spain’s most important city, Madrid had inhabitants dating from Lower Paleolithic and saw a surge in population during the Roman Empire when it formed part of Lusitania. Populaton and importance fell once the Visigoths moved in.

El Oso y el Madroño

Because of its location, sandwiched between the Castilles and Al-Andalus, the region saw power change hands between Christians and Moors – in fact, the name comes from Arabic Mayrit and originated around the 9th Century, forming part of Al-Andalus until the 1083 reconquest allocated it to the Castillian kingdom, where it had territorial independence.

Madrid began to grow after its appointment as the seat of the Kingdom of Spain, and in the 1830s, a province of the same name was founded, shifting the political strong arm from Toledo. This act eventually led to a dispute between the pre-establish autonomous community of Castilla-La Mancha and its northern neighbor, and the Comunidad de Madrid was, in fact, the last of 17 to be created.

Must-sees: Dios, what shouldn’t you see in Madrid? It seriously has something for everyone and is Spain’s pulsing, passionate heart.

Within the capital, there are an abundance of world-class museums – the Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen make up the so-called ‘Art Circle’ – as well as historical sites like the Royal Palace and adjacent Almudena cathedral. Spain’s version of Broadway is here. The government sets up shop in Moncloa. Every national highway passes through the Puerta del Sol. The Buen Retiro park is captivating at any change of the season.

mercado de san miguel pintxos madrid

Dining in Madrid is an absolute treat as well, from its typical taverns serving up fried calamari and grilled pig’s ear to swanky gastrobars and fusion restaurants. In Madrid, I get all of my favorite international cuisines, like Thai and Korean, and it’s a place where Old Man bars are the real deal – and vivan las tapas gratis (I don’t care if they’re day-old microwaved bravas – free is free!) If you’re new to Spanish gastronomy, consider a tapas tour or sip a vermouth while feasting your eyes and tummy on a food market.

Toledo Spain

If you’re able, consider a day trip out of the capital. Segovia and Toledo, two medieval cities, are on the cercanías commuter line, as is Alcalá de Henares, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and birthplace of Spain’s own Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes. You can also check out delightfully charming towns like Chinchón or Buitrago, contemplate Spain’s Golden age at El Escorial or reflect on its darkest days at Valle de Los Caídos. If sport is more your thing, the comunidad has loads of hiking trails and a ski resort.

My take:  While most who have made Spain their home claim that there’s far more to Iberia than its capital (I myself am of this camp), there’s no sense in skipping it. Madrid has everything – culture, art, gastronomy, nightlife and a handful of day trips. If Puerta del Sol is Kilometer 0, the rest of Spain seems to spiral around it.

metro of Madrid

I’ve probably spent more than two months in Madrid collectively and in every season. After exhausting all of the touristic options, one of my favorite things to do is pick a neighborhood and spend time popping in and out of shops, sampling treats at bakeries and sitting in sun-filled cafés.

Madrid always seems to embrace me when I’m there, even if it’s just a quick trip to El Diamante for a bocadillo de calamares before hopping a plane back home. I know Malasaña and La Latina as well as I know Barrio Santa Cruz, can name Metro stops and their corresponding colored lines and beeline right to my favorite international food joints. Madrid is an old, familiar pair of blue jeans for me. But the trendy kind.

Outside of Seville, it’s probably the only place I’d willingly move to in a heartbeat.

Have you ever traveled around the Madrid province? 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 | Extremadura | Galicia | La Rioja

Seville Snapshots: Palm Sunday Processions

I packed my bag hurriedly but with purpose: I’d need sunscreen, lipstick, a street map and my camera with long-distance lens. Nothing more, nothing less. I locked the door and walked hurriedly to the bar.

After more than seven years in Seville, I was finally staying to see Holy Week, the somber processions that punctuate the spring rains and precursor to the raucous fair. My ten-day break from school usually means a trip to somewhere far away from pointy hats and heavy floats – I’ve used Semana Santa to see the Taj Mahal, sip Turkish coffee in Istanbul, to road trip through Europe’s youngest country.

But this year, I made torrijas, a typical sweet eaten during Lent, and buckled down to see the pasos. After lunch in Triana, Kelly and I took the long way to see La Estrella – one of the neighborhood brotherhoods, called hermandades. This takes planning, sturdy shoes and a lot of patience.

Carrera Oficial Semana Santa Sevilla

Friends in Spain

As a Semana Santa Virgin – bad pun, I admit it – I was intrigued and had an open mind. And after weeks without even taking Camarón with me, he was long overdue for a day out. Over 400 photos later, I’ve been convinced that Holy Week is aesthetically pleasing, albeit a logistical headache, even in the back-end of Triana! Here are some of my (untouched!) favorites:

La Estrella – from the Seville side of the Puente de Triana

Rather than crossing over the Puente de Triana, we took El Cachorro. The city’s most iconic bridge sees five brotherhoods pass over on its way to the Carrera Oficial between la Campana and the Cathedral and back home.

La Estrella is Triana’s first and one of its most beloved. The purple and blue antifaces seemed less jarring in a bright afternoon light. Seeing my first paso had all of the hallmarks – nazarenos handing out candy to kids, barefoot brothers seeking penitence while clutching rosaries, two floats and brass bands.

We watched the Cristo de las Penas pass by, the air tinged with incense and azahar mixing with doughy fried churro steam. And, in true Semana Santa, we then went to a bar, had a drink, and emerged an hour later to wait for the Virgen de la Estrella.

I’d come to discover that this is Semana Santa – waiting, pushing, waiting, drinking a beer, walking, waiting.

Penitent of La Estrella Brotherhood Sevilla

Photographing Semana Santa

Incense Holy Week

El Cristo de la Penas en su Procesion

Barefoot penitents

Kid Nazarenos

Virgen de la Estrella

El Jesús Despojado – from Antonia Día/Adriano

As soon as the band immediately behind the Virgen de las Estrella passed by, the throngs of people immediately disseminated. Like a couple of cabritas, we followed them, hatching out a semi-plan with the use of the Llamador guide and a vague idea of where some streets were.

We found a spot on the curb just past the bull ring to watch Jesús Depojado – an image of Christ being disrobed – just before the Cruz de Guía emerged from an alleyway. Brothers handed us small pictures of the images, called estampitas, as they passed by, lighting the candles they held in their hands as dusk fell.

This particular procession captivated me, from the way children dipped their white gloves into the pools of hot wax as the cirios burned down to the way the costaleros turned the float around a tight corner to cheers and clapping. 

Cruz de Guia Jesús Despojado

Wax balls Holy Week

Holy Week Processions in Sevilla

Penitence Cross Holy Week Seville

Virgin Mary Procession

Virgen of the Jesus Despojada

Cirios in Holy Week Seville

La Amargura from Placentines/Alemanes

Kelly and I found Ximena and Helen after taking the long way around Barrio Santa Cruz. Helen had found a pocket of space in the shadow of the Giralda to watch her boyfriend’s procession, La Amargura. It was past 10pm, and the lights of the buildings had been switched off.

La Amargura is a serious brotherhood whose nazarenos cannot break rank. Even with their faces covered and hands grasping their antifaces, the solemnity was evident. When the white-clad nazarenos begin filing by with their cirios lit, I gasped. It was eery, haunting.

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La Amargura near the Cathedral

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Just as I was crossing over the Carrera Oficial with the help of some local police and a hold up with El Amor’s procession, my mom called. I stumbled back to Triana via side streets just in time to watch El Cristo de las Penas enter into its temple.

Like a car backing up into a garage, the float was maneuvered halfway in before lurching out three times, finally entering on the shoulders of 48 costaleros after more than 13 hours of procession. I stumbled into bed well after 3am, myself having done a procession of my own for 13 hours.

Have you ever seen Semana Santa in Sevilla? Which processions are your favorites?

Visiting Seville: Alternatives to the Tourist Beat

I love showing my adopted city to my family and friends, and even to my readers who come to the city (though they mostly see tapas restaurants and bars!) – it reminds me of how much the city still captivates me when they see the sunset over Triana for the first time or happen upon a hole-in-the-wall bar with phenomenal food.

Because of my busy work life, I often have to set my friends loose with a map and some recommendations. The tourist trail is totally the beaten path, thanks to a UNESCO World Heritage cluster of sites, a penchant for flamenco and more tapas bars than bus stops. But I usually save the good stuff for when I’m available in the mornings and on the weekend.

Off the Beaten Path in Seville

In getting a gig with Trip Advisor this month, I found myself revisiting places not listed in guidebooks (or at least buried in reviews) and breathing in a different sort of Seville.

Skip taking in the views from the Giralda for the Metrosol Parasol

As the unofficial city symbol, the Giralda stands high above Seville. History says it was once the minaret for the mosque that stood on the premises, and even when the 1755 Lisbon earthquake’s tremors reached Seville, the tower stayed put – local lore states that Saints Justa and Rufina prevented it from tumbling down.

up close and personal with the giralda

But what is a view of Seville without the Giralda piercing the sky? As in my native Chicago I recommend the cheaper alternative to the Sears Tower (take the elevator to the bar of the Hancock for free and order a drink), I tell visitors to contemplate old and new from the Metropol Parasol, a waffle cone-like viewing deck that boasts being the largest wooden structure in the world. For 3, you are treated to a drink and can traverse the catwalks, giving your the 360 view that the Giralda can’t. There are also informative signs to tell you what you’re looking at.

A view of Seville from the Setas

If you want to get up close and personal with the Giralda, have a drink at a terrace bar at sunset, or opt for the rooftop tour.

Read More: Seville’s Best Terrace Bars // A Rooftop Cathedral Tour

Skip visiting the Plaza de Toros for a Stadium Tour

Seville is the quintessential Spain you’d always imagined. The sun, the flamenco, the tapas and the bullfighting. The temporada de toros, the season where Sunday afternoons are dedicated to the faena, may be short-lived, but the stunning Plaza de Toros sits right on the Guadalquivir River as a reminder to a pastime that, despite its controversy, is ingrained in sevillano culture.

Plaza de Toros Sevilla

Whether or not you’re into the bullfights, you can visit the building and its small museum, though if you’re looking for insight into this Andalusian gem, fútbol is a bigger crowd pleaser. Seville has two teams – Real Betis Balompié and Sevilla Fútbol Club, both of which boast a fierce following.

Betis scarves at Villamarin

Both crosstown rivals offer stadium tours to fans, hitting the locker rooms, trophy storage and press areas. If you’re able to catch a game, that’s even better! Seville is in the First Division and often finishes strong, so tickets will be slightly more expensive, though Betis is a fair-weather team who has bounced around from Second Division to the Europa League and back in a handful of years.

Read More: Death in the Afternoon // What to Expect at a Spanish Soccer Game

Skip indulging in the tapeo tradition for a fusion restaurant or international cuisine

Seville has long called itself the capital of tapas, and it’s a pastime that locals take seriously. The art of the tapeo – I mean serious when I say there’s a verb to describe the act of eating these small dishes – is something you should definitely not skip, and you should do it standing up, have your bar tab tallied in chalk in front of you and get your fill of solomillo al whisky, espinacas con garbanzos and fried fish.

Tapa of Tortilla Española

I have a love affair with Spanish cuisine, but Seville is becoming a hotbed for fusion dishes and gastropubs that have more than typical fare. Many of these restaurants are found near the Alameda and tucked into neighborhoods, and they’re perfect for when you’re tired of the same tapas.

tapas at nazca

Imagine presa ibérica niguris, like the ones pictured above, from Nazca, a Peruvian-Japanese restaurant, or grab sushi to go in the Mercado de Triana as you slurp oysters and knock back an artisan beer from Taïfa across the aisle. Eating in Spain is seriously fun and a must when visiting.

A good place to start might be the newly-opened Mercado de la Lonja del Barranco before ordering blindly off a poorly-translated menu. Be daring – I would have never dreamed of liking grilled blood sausage or blood with onions, but trying new food is half the fun of eating in another country!

Read more: Where to Eat in Sevilla // Five Spanish Foods I Didn’t Know Existed

Skip exploring Santa Cruz for Triana

Santa Cruz is the neighborhood sandwiched between the Alcázar and the old city walls, once a haven for the city’s Jewish community. Think winding streets and latticed windows that lead to tile-lined fountains, notes of a bulería wafting through the air and the Giralda peeking about between buildings that have been built so close together that your wingspan leaves both of your palms on the wall.

The streets of Santa Cruz, Seville

Yeah, the charm kind of ends there.

Santa Cruz is lovely and has a few great taverns and historic sites sprinkled in amidst souvenir shops and overpriced eateries, but if you’re looking for a more authentic Sevilla, cross the bridge to Triana. 

Plaza del Altozano Triana 

Known as the gypsy and seafarer enclave, the ceramic factories of the 18th and 19th centuries brought a bit more notoriety to the rough-and-tumble barrio. Today, its bars buzz and the views from Calle Betis towards the historic city are unforgettable. You won’t find a lot of monuments or museums here, but the neighborhood feels a world away, and you’ll do more mingling with locals. Don’t skip the ceramic stores – far cheaper than what you’ll find in the center – the pedestrian San Jacinto street or the tiny plazas.

Read more: the Triana Category

Skip the taxis and buses for a bike ride

Seville is one of Europe’s best cities for two wheelers, and its 200+ kilometers of bike lines set away from the street are ideal for cruising. Plus, the historic center is full of pedestrian-friendly streets, proving to be impossible for taxis.

sevici bike tour seville

Rather than using public transportation to get around, use your own two feet or grab a Sevici. This public bike service costs about 13€ for the week, and you’ll find them useful for getting some exercise in with all of the tapas chowing.

If you’d like to get a feel for where the historic sites are, considering taking one of the city buses. The circular routes (C3 and C4 for the inner historic ring, C1 and C2 for the outer ring and La Cartuja and C5 that snakes through the center of town) costs just 1.40€ for a single trip or 5€ for a one-day pass, and it will help you get your bearings.

Read more: Is Seville Spain’s Best Biking City?

Skip a flamenco show for an alternative concert

Sultry, sensual flamenco is intrinsic in Seville. They say flamenco – a mix of dance, song and music – originated somewhere between Seville and the Gaditana coast, and most visitors take in a show at one of the many tablaos or even an amateur jaleo while in Seville.

Flamenco show in Seville

While the Andalusian capital is (sometimes achingly) traditional, pockets of alternative groups are popping up around Macarena and the Alfalfa, helping to change Seville’s deep-rooted cultural identity. There’s often live music on the Alameda and in its bars. Pick up a copy of Yuzin, a monthly cultural events magazine with plenty of offerings for the alt crowd in both Seville and Granada.

Read more: Where to See Flamenco in Seville | Visiting a Flamenco Guitar Workshop in Madrid

Things you shouldn’t skip? 

It’s not that the cathedral and Plaza de España aren’t worth seeing,  but sticking to the Top Ten Sites won’t give you a full picture of Seville’s soul. Find time to see the cathedral‘s gold-laden altar if you love religious art, wander around the Plaza de España and contemplate the tile recreations of Spain’s historic moments, and knock back a sherry under hanging jamón legs. Drink a granizado. Marvel at the Alcázar palace. Buy a fan and wander around with a map – just seek out places beyond Avenida de la Constitución.

NO8DO NODO Seville Spain Sevilla

A large part of Seville’s magic is seeing how the city transforms from day to night and back, how locals go about their daily lives and by discovering the hidden rincones.

Are you planning on visiting Seville? Check my posts on Two Days in Seville (guest post by Sandra Valuare) | Packing for a Trip to Spain | Things to do in Sevilla

I’m hosting my next out-of-town guest in a month – one of my closest friends from Chicago. What other recommendations do you have for the capital Hispalense? Do you know any hidden gems in your city?

Tapa Thursday: Vermouth

vermouth in Spain

My biggest ambition in life is to become a Spanish abuelo. Who wouldn’t want to spend the days leisurely reading a paper in the bar down the street, sucking down a vermouth while looking adorable? I’ve already got the vermouth obsession down, after all.

My first taste of vermouth was actually on a food tour. I didn’t think I’d learn anything I didn’t know about Spanish cuisine, but an early stop at the Mercado de San Miguel’s vermouth bar proved that I had a lot to learn, and a new favorite beverage.

Vermouth Bar Madrid

Vermouth is making a comeback hard in Spain, much like G&Ts not so long ago. Pop-up bars called vermuterías, tastings and pairings and even the Adrià brothers of El Bullí fame are spearheading a sort of vermouth renaissance. While this beverage never really disappeared, it’s become the drink of choice for hipsters and for me anytime I’m in Madrid or Barcelona.

On my last trip to the Ciudad Condal, I happened upon a small bottega, or local watering hole, where vermouth was poured from a tap in the wall. No frills, no sky-high price tag, despite being a mere 150 meters from tourist hell. The girl behind the bar filled my glass, shoved a few mussels and a toothpick my way and charged me 1,85€. Other patrons trickled in, drinking the sweet wine by the glass or simply asking the bar keep to fill up old water bottles. 

The Novio even came back from the capital with a gift from my soon-to-be familia política recently: a bottle of vermouth with its flavorless soda water.

Vermouth at Cafe Comercial

What it is:  Fortified wine has been drunk for more than three millennia, often for medicinal purposes. Its name comes from the German ‘wermut,’ or wormwood,  

At its most basic, vermouth is a young fortified wine brewed with aromatic herbs like cardamom and and cinnamon and occasionally its namesake, wormwood. Sweet varieties also contain a fair amount of sugar – around 20% – whereas dry vermouths contain less than 4%.

Goes great with: Vermouths come in sweet and dry varieties, but salty snacks like potato chips, cured meats, olives or mussels in azabeche sauce are tart and will offset the sweetness or bring out the dry flavors. Typically, vermouth is consumed much like fino sherry wine in the South – as a before-meal drink, and most often at the weekend.

Where to find it in Seville: I have yet to find vermouth anywhere but the grocery store, and even then, it’s commercially branded martini mixes. I’ve yet to try smaller specialty shops, though sherry seems to be preferred to vermouth in these parts. You can find it for sale in 2.5 liter jugs at Bodegas Salado in nearby Umbrete for 7,20€.

 Are you a vermouth drinker? Any preferred watering holes, whether in Seville or further afield?

Photo Post: the Chirigotas of the Carnavales de Cádiz

How to do the Carnavales de Cadiz

Pá qué quieren ir ha Chipiona shi aquí tenemoh Caí?

Two more beers and a plate of chicharrones were slammed down in front of us as the bar keep expressed exasperation. Why would anyone want to head to nearby Chipiona if the peninsula’s best Carnival celebration were right here in Cádiz?

We’d braved an overcast, misty day to head to San Fernando for the Novio’s wedding tuxedo the morning, and the fried fish and carnavales celebration were calling his name. 

A view of the bay of Cadiz

Entering the barrio de Santa María just north of the old city walls, there were few signs of debauchery and partygoers. I myself have been to the nighttime festivities of the Carnavales de Cádiz twice. Two booze-soaked nights where I stepped in puddles of urine and around broken glass.

Ah, youth.

When the Novio suggested making a day trip to see a friend of his and see the famed chirigotas, I was in. Not that I didn’t have fond memories of botellones and ridiculous children’s costumes, of course.

The Plaza del Ayuntamiento, one I’d seen so full of drunk people and bottles of San David, was bright in the midday sun. As we’d drank our beers, the mist had rolled off of one side of the Atlantic and over the Bahía Sur, passing Cádiz’s skinny land mass in the time it had taken to drink two cervezas

We’d met Jorge in the tangle of streets in the old town. Cádiz is one of Europe’s largest cities, and thus there is little rhyme or reason to the layout of the peninsula. Long on one side, short on the other, I was instantly turned around in the colonial-style pedestrian streets.

Streets of Cádiz old town

Lunch was at trendy La Candelaria, owned by a far-flung relative of Jorge’s. In this city of water and industry, it sees that families have been here as long as Hercules himself, and nearly everyone who walked into the bar over our long lunch knew one another.  

But we came for more than atún rojo en tempura and never-ending glasses of wine (the good stuff, not the plastic bottle stuff). We came for the chirigotas and costumes. 

The origins of carnival celebrations worldwide are rooted in Christian tradition. Celebrated each year just before Lent, believers often used this six-week period to refrain from life’s excesses. Carnaval, a play on the Latin words ‘carne’ for meat and ‘vale’ for farewell, is a last-ditch effort to eat, drink and be merry/drunk before Lent begins. I’d taken that advice to heart all of those years ago, but today would be a far lighter – I’d volunteered to drive home.

Costumes are traditionally worn, and Cádiz’s celebration – one of the largest in Spain – makes light of the humor of gaditanos. Rather than extravagant costumes, gaditanos use their costumes as social commentary. Especially popular this year were Pablo Iglesia, whatsapp icons and the Duquesa de Alba.

costumes of the carnivals de cadiz

Funny Costume Ideas Carnavales de Cadiz

Crazy costumes at Cadiz carnavales

san esteban Carnavales de Cadiz

The chirigotas themselves are the huge draw of the daytime during the two weeks that the festivities drag on. These choruses, usually made up of men in the same costume, sing satirical verses about politics, current events and everyday life while troubadoring around the streets of the Casco Antiguo.

Small clumps of people choked the skinny alleyways as chorus members drank beer until they’d deemed that enough people had gathered to watch. They’d break into song, often asking audience members to join in. We saw everyone from kids dressed as housewives to men dressed as questionable nuns with plastic butts under their habits and plastic cups of beer in their hands.

what is a chirigota

costumes for Carnival

carnival in Cadiz chirigotas

The most famous chirigotas perform for crowds in the famed Teatro Gran Falla, but those who take to the street are often illegal – illegal as in looking for a good buzz on the street!

We wound our way from the Plaza de la Catedral to the Plaza San Antonio and up Calle Cervantes to the Plaza del Mentidero. Named not for liars but the fact that this is where town criers often announced news and events, this square has transformed into the place for rumors to be born – making it a focal point of the festivities (and closer to the Carnavales I knew – littered with bottles and half-eaten food!).

What it's like at the Carnavales de Cadiz

We were back in Seville before nightfall, thoroughly exhausted and still sporting wet shoes from the morning rainfall. Jorge took us around the Alameda park on the northern tip of the island as the sun began to set, a welcome respite from the crowds and noise.

Want more Spanish fiesta? Read my posts on the Feria de Sevilla | La Tomatina de Buñol | The Feria del Caballo de Jerez 

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

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