December 6, 2020: Legacy of the Conquistadors: Guadalupe, Trujillo, and Medellin
Today Sean and I visited three cities that heavily influenced the Americas. As mentioned earlier, almost all the conquistadors came from Extremadura. This is because Extremadura was the poorest region of Spain and they figured the New World would be their pathway to fame and fortune…and for many it was.
Our first stop was Guadalupe- a small town nearly 2 hours east of Caceres. Guadalupe is famous for its UNESCO World Heritage Site monastery which is home to the world-famous Virgin of Guadalupe. The Virgin of Guadalupe is a dark-skinned statue of the Virgin Mary reportedly carved by Luke (author of the Gospel of Luke in the Bible). The statue was buried in the hills to hide it from the Moors in the 700’s. Around 1300 the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared to a local cowboy and told him to dig into the ground where he found the statue. Since then, Guadalupe has been a pilgrimage site.
The cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe spread to the New World with the conquistadors. In 1531, the Virgin of Guadalupe reportedly made 4 appearances in Mexico to indigenous farmer Juan Diego. The site of these appearances is now the most visited Catholic site in the world and the Virgin of Guadalupe is now associated with Mexican patriotism.
But it started here in Extremadura. The monastery is open to the public. The Virgin sits on a throne on the alter in the main church. The church was strangely busy- in fact this was the only busy church I have ever seen in Spain. Perhaps it was a special holiday.
Additionally, there are guided tours of the rest of the complex. The tour leads through Baroque chapels containing relics, an art museum, a collection of ancient books and a collection of ancient clothing. Photos are not allowed inside the museum portion of the monastery.
For our next stop, we drove 1 hour west to the town of Trujillo. This monumental town is the home of Fracisco Pizarro, who conquered Peru and defeated the Inca empire. A huge statue of him graces the Plaza Mayor- one of Spain’s best. The town center is full of historic stone buildings. The old town nearly rivals the old city of Caceres.
We arrived during the siesta, so everything was closed including the churches, Pizarro’s childhood home and the imposing Alcazaba (Moorish fortress that was also used in Game of Thrones Season 7). But that mattered not since the town was so beautiful.
Trujillo became rich due to Pizarro. His family moved to an enormous palace in the Plaza Mayor. The Pizarro family must be the gaudiest people in town. The house is covered in stonework with the family’s crest and images of enslaved Incas.
Our final stop of the day was Medellin (namesake of Medellin, Colombia). This small town was founded by the Romans but is most famous for being the hometown of Hernan Cortez, the conquistador who destroyed the Aztec Empire. The town center looks like a typical small Spanish town with buildings from the early 20thcentury. The only old building I could see in the town center was the church. That said, it is still a nice place.
The main plaza has a huge statue of Cortez. It turns out that the town demolished Cortez’s house (and 40 other houses) to build the plaza. The location of the house is marked with a gravestone-like market.
Above the town is a hill containing Medellin’s famed Roman theater and, at the top of the hill, the Moorish alcazaba. Both sites are in great shape. At max you will spend an hour in Medellin.
We then drove to Merida, our home for the next two nights. We got dinner in a traditional restaurant where (shocker) we were the only people there.
December 7, 2020: Merida
Merida is Extremadura’s capital and undisputed top tourist destination because it has the Iberian Peninsula’s best Roman ruins. I had seen some impressive Roman ruins in Tarragona, Empuries, and Cartagena, so the expectations were pretty high. We blocked all day to see the sights.
Merida was founded as Augusta Emerita in 25 BC as the capital of the Roman province of Lusitania. The province contained Extremadura, Salamanca, and the central part of Portugal from Porto down to Lisboa. Merida was originally settled by war veterans and the Roman government put lots of money into giving them a nice place to live. This money funded the incredible array of public buildings that have withstood the test of time. Merida is the namesake of a few cities in Latin America: the Mexican (which I have visited) and Venezuelan ones are both quite famous.
The ruins are spread throughout the town and can be viewed individually. However, you get a huge discount if you buy the combo ticket which gives you access to 7 or 8 different sights.
Our first stop was actually right across the street from our hotel. It was an old very large home. The roof and most of the walls were gone but the foundation and incredible mosaics remain.
Next we headed to the Roman bridge. This 27-arch bridge is the longest intact Roman bridge in the world.
It is next to the Moorish alcazaba which also functions as the office of the President of Extremadura.
Right in the center of town is the Temple of Diana. In the 1700’s a Spanish noble was interested in Roman history and built his home attached to the temple. He only kind of ruined it.
Next, we visited the Basilica of St. Eulalia. This church contains the grave of St. Eulalia, a Christian Roman girl. In the year 304 at the age of 14, she was forced to also acknowledge the Roman gods. She did not and was crucified and then burned at the stake. As she died, a white dove flew out of her mouth. Ever since then, her gravesite has been venerated (although the body was actually moved to Oviedo around the year 780). In fact, I saw 3 middle-aged people devoutly praying at her grave.
Next, we visited the hippodrome, where the Romans would hold chariot races. The stadium was enormous- 400 meters long (or 4 football fields) and could fit 30,000 fans.
Next, we visited the gladiatorial arena in pristine shape.
We saved the best stop for the end: the Roman theater. This is by far the most impressive Roman ruin I have ever seen. The marble somehow still glistens! In my opinion, Merida is worth a visit just to see this theater.
It was getting dark, but we had just enough time to get a quick visit to the archeological museum. It was free today. The museum contained a dizzying array of enormous mosaics, statues and other artifacts found around town. The museum has one of the best Roman artifact collections in the world.
The ruins at Merida are incredible and live up to all the hype. When you go, just don’t expect anything special about the town. There are plenty of amenities but most of the town is just meh by Spain standards.
December 8, 2020: Badajoz and Olivenza
Sean was flying out from Badajoz today, so we decided to check out the city first.
From Merida, it was a 45-minute drive into town. Our first stop was the alcazaba. This one appeared to have some modern use. There was a free archaeological museum, a huge parking lot and some offices. There was also a well-designed walk around the walls with views of both the city and surrounding countryside.
We then walked through the historic center, which is quite pretty. The only attraction is the cathedral, which is very pretty. Other than that, there are zero attractions in town. For both this reason and the overall feel of the place, it reminded me a lot of Murcia City.
With nothing to do, we got a snack and then drove to the airport where I dropped off Sean.
Then I drove south to the town of Olivenza about 20 minutes southwest. This town- right on the border with Portugal has quite the interesting history. It was actually part of Portugal all the way up until 1801 when it was ceded to Spain in the War of the Oranges. Portugal still claims it is theirs. Despite the territory dispute, the issue is not a big deal for either country.
The city looks and feels like a Portuguese city, complete with the Portuguese tile and the blue azulejo paintings.
I then drove over to the border where a ruined medieval bridge once stood. It was destroyed during the War of Spanish Succession in 1709. Today a modern road crosses the Guadiana River.
Back in Badajoz, I checked into my hotel and got a drink at the super cool mudejar-themed Rincon Nazari bar. Then it was off to bed. The next morning, I drove to the airport and dropped off the car.
Extremadura is spectacular. Not only does it have solid sights: natural beauty, Romans, medieval, and more modern Spanish history, but it also is completely devoid of tourists. This gives it a level of authenticity that is hard to find in big-ticket items elsewhere in the country.
There is a downside- not every town is packed with activities, place have more limited operating hours and English is much rarer. However, I think the upsides outweigh the downsides. I would recommend Extremadura to any traveler to Spain.