EXPLORE WESTERN SPAIN: ROMAN RUINS AND CONQUISTADORES

You will find many unexpected and pleasant surprises when you explore western Spain, especially the province of Extremadura.  Extremadura, far to the west of the country and bordering Portugal is an area of vast, dry plains and rich history. Many cultures have settled and mingled here. The Roman established themselves in and around Merida, the capital of Extremadura. The well-preserved ruins are a testament to the ancient glory of Rome in these lands.

The Moors inhabited this part of Spain for hundreds of years influencing the architecture of the churches and monasteries which dot the landscape.     Guadalupe shrine in Guadalupe, Caceres, western Spain.

Guadalupe shrine in Extremadura, Spain

Many of the conquistadors that explored new worlds came from Extremadura province in western Spain. Among them are familiar names; Hernan Cortes, conqueror of the Aztec empire, Francisco Pizzaro, conqueror of the Inca empire, Vasco Nunez de Balboa, first European to see the Pacific, Hernando de Soto, explorer of the south-western United States and Ines Suarez, defender of Santiago, Chile.

During the time of the conquistadors in the early 16th century Extremadura, meaning “westernmost” was an impoverished region of Spain, far from the centers of power.  The harsh conditions and lack of opportunity drove many ambitious young people to try their luck elsewhere. Once one intrepid explorer found fortune in the New World others followed.

Many of the conquistadors did, in fact, find fortune but sadly at the expense of the local populations. Upon their return from the New World, they built spectacular homes many of which can still be seen and visited today.  In the town of  Trujillo you can see the legacy of the conquest in the meticulously preserved residences surrounding the principal plaza with its impressive statue of Francisco Pizzaro, Trujillo’s native son.

Want to know more about the conquistadores…click here.

THE LEGEND OF GUADALUPE

The town of Guadalupe in eastern Extremadura is a charming village with a spectacular shrine and a great legend.  The legend says when the Moors conquered Seville in 712AD the local priests rescued the statue of the Virgin Mary and hid it in Guadalupe many miles away.  Six hundred years later the Virgin appeared to a local herder telling him to dig where he was standing.  The herder reported this apparition to the local priests who organized an excavation and found the statue of the virgin.  In celebration, they built the shrine you see today where the statue of the virgin, one of Spain’s three Black Madonnas, is enshrined. Whether you buy into the shrine legend or not, this is one amazing structure.

Today the shrine includes a monastery, Real Monasterio de Santa Maria de Guadalupe,  which doubles as a reasonably priced unique hotel.  The rooms are decorated with the sparse, rustic furniture and adornments of the era giving you a feeling of traveling back in time.  Why would you stay anywhere else?

Another one of Guadalupe’s claims to fame is that it was here where the Catholic Monarchs, Isabel of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon signed the documents authorizing the first voyage of Colombus in 1492.  I love stuff like that, wandering around places where really cool historical figures once walked and imagining their conversations during important events. What did Isabela say to Ferdinand as she debated signing off on Colombus’s  dubious project; “So you think this guy is legit, or what?”

“I would sooner be a foreigner in Spain than in most countries. How easy it is to make friends in Spain!” ― George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia Click To Tweet

THE RUINS OF MERIDA

In southern Extremadura, you find the city of Merida, the ancient Roman capital of the province of Lusitania founded in 25 BC at the height of Roman power. Today it is capital of culture, art and a surprising little gem of a city.

Merida boasts the largest and most impressive ruins in all of Spain. The ruins are everywhere; amphitheaters, forums, columned temples, fountains, bridges…and they are impressive. If you are interested in Roman history and architecture, Merida is easily a two-day visit.   Be sure to include the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano (National Museum of Roman Art). This beautifully curated, three-floor museum has some of the best Roman mosaics in existence.

Learn more about the Romans in Spain and how their influence is apparent even in modern Spain.

THE ROMAN ARCHITECT

I had one of my most memorable travel experiences in front of the Alcantara Roman bridge outside of Merida. I had heard the bridge, built in 107 AD by order of Emperor Trajan, was worth the trip to the outskirts of town. When I got there I was overwhelmed by the graceful arches and beautiful symmetry.  This magnificent structure, over 2000 years old, was still in use. I crossed it in my car several times to see its beauty from several angles.  I imagined what this place was like when the bridge was being built so long ago. What was the architect thinking? Was he worried about being over budget? Was he happy with the design? Was he thirsty in that hot sun? Was he satisfied with the work so far? Did he put his heart and soul into this impressive combination of artistic grace and practical functionality? Or did he just want to get it done so he could go back home to his family? As I was getting ready to leave I noticed a plaque attached to the bridge over one of the arches.  It said,  Pontem perpetui mansurum in saecula (I have built a bridge which will last forever).  I felt the architect had read my mind and answered my questions from 2000 years in the past. He was proud of his work and wanted visitors in the future to know it.  It was as if he tapped me on the shoulder, pointed to his bridge and said, “Hey, you…check this out.  Pretty cool, huh? Do I rock or what?”  That was one of those travel experiences that make it all worthwhile.

Spain has a wide variety of accommodations from hotels to standard hotels to luxury stays. Check them out here. One of the most interesting places to stay at are the government-run converted monasteries, abbeys and churches know as paradores. These historic medieval structures can be pricey but if you can save for at least a one-night stay, go for it. It’s an unforgettable experience. The official website is here.

There is so much more to see in Extremadura Province. Include this majestic province on your next trip to Spain.  You won’t be disappointed.  

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Long Roman bridge in Extremadura, western Spain

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