Of all the regions of Spain, Extremadura (land beyond the Duero) is the furthest removed from the modern world. Despite its isolated location, there is much to discover in Extremadura. Mérida has beautiful Roman architecture, for example a beautiful theater. Many new buildings were paid for with the wealth from the New World. These buildings, mainly mansions and palaces, can be seen in the towns of Cáceres and Trujillo. The monastery in Guadalupe best reflects the ties with the New World. Even more beautiful architecture can be found in Badajoz. This city has a beautiful small cathedral and a Visigothic fortress.
- Top locations
- Food and drink
- Fiestas in Extremadura
Extremadura / Source: Mutxamel, subido por Rastrojo , Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-4.0)
Extremadura is one of the seventeen autonomous regions of Spain. The region covers an area of 41,634 km² and has almost 1.1 million inhabitants (2016). The capital is Mérida with more than 59,000 inhabitants (2016). Extremadura borders the Castile-León region to the north, the Castile-La Mancha region to the east and the Andalusia region to the south. The west borders Portugal. The most important rivers are the Tajo (Tajo) in the north and the Guadiana in the south. Extremadura is divided into the provinces of Cáceres and Badajoz. These provinces have the same name as their capital.
The province of Lusitania / Source: Unknown, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-3.0)
The earliest period
People have lived in Extremadura for approximately 700,000 years. The first inhabitant was Homo erectus, which was displaced by Homo sapiens about 40,000 years ago. From about 1200 B.C. the region was inhabited by various pre-Roman tribes. These tribes were the Celts, the Lusitanians and the Vettones. They were of Indo-Germanic descent. They left their mark on the culture and ethnic composition of the population. In the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C. Extremadura was conquered by the Romans. They fought heavy battles with the original population, who only arrived in the 1st century BC. was defeated. In 25 B.C. the Romans founded Emerita Augusta (Mérida). The city became the capital of the province of Lusitania. This province included present-day Portugal and Extremadura. At the end of the 3rd century AD. Extremadura was regularly plundered by Germanic peoples such as the Alans and the Suevi. The Roman Empire weakened and in the 5th century the region was occupied by the Visigoths.
Moorish and Christian Extremadura
Because of their poor political organization, the Visigoths were easy prey for the Moors. The Moors from North Africa conquered almost the entire Iberian Peninsula between 711 and 714. The reconquista began in the north of Spain at the beginning of the 8th century. The Christians moved further south and reconquered more and more territory from the Moors. In the 13th century, Extremadura was reconquered from the Moors by Castile and León. The kingdom of Castile-León was founded in 1230. This kingdom recognized Extremadura as an administrative region and in 1390 the Province of Extremadura was created.
Extremadura, province of conquistadors
After the discovery of America in 1492, mass emigration started. Many were looking for a better life, a life that remote Extremadura could not offer. Some migrants became conquistadors (conquerors). Many conquistadors came from Extremadura. Many cities in the New World refer to their birthplace: Medellín, Mérida, Trujillo, Guadalupe… For example, Trujillo was the birthplace of Francisco Pizarro, who overthrew the Inca Empire in Peru. The famous Hernán Cortés, who conquered Mexico, came from Medellín. Many migrants returned with fame and fortune and had monasteries, palaces and mansions built. A good example of this are the capital 16th and 17th century mansions in Cáceres and Trujillo. The Monastery of Guadalupe, in Extremadura, also reflects ties with the New World. The first people Columbus brought from the Caribbean were baptized here in 1496.
The 17th century
From the 17th century onwards, Extremadura experienced a number of wars. From 1580 to 1640, Portugal was part of Spain. Economically this was beneficial for Extremadura. It was located between two wealthy capitals, Madrid and Lisbon. This was an era of economic prosperity especially for the city of Badajoz. After 1640, decline set in due to the Portuguese Restoration War (1640-1648). The war with Portugal caused Extremadura a lot of economic damage. The skirmishes along the border required many soldiers. Cities and villages emptied and almost no economic activities were possible.
The 18th century
In the 18th century, economically hard-hit Extremadura again faced war. This time it was the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1714). This war, over the succession of the Habsburgs, ended in favor of the Bourbons. Philip V became the first Bourbon king in 1700. He then had to compete against a number of other pretenders to the throne. One of them was Archduke Charles of Austria. Philip V emerged victorious and also had relatively much support in Extremadura. The city of Badajoz was almost completely destroyed by the Austrians. Some places around the Tajo River and the Guadiana River were also destroyed.
The 19th century
In the 19th century, Extremadura was involved in the Spanish War of Independence (1808-1814). During this war, Spain was occupied by France. The war caused famine and further depopulation of Extremadura. Several towns and villages were also attacked. For example, the Monastery of Guadalupe was plundered by Napoleon’s troops in 1808. In 1822, Extremadura was finally divided into the provinces of Cáceres and Badajoz. The administrative reform of 1833 established the capitals, namely Cáceres and Badajoz.
The 20th century
After Franco’s death in 1975, Spain became a parliamentary monarchy. Several Spanish regions were given autonomy in 1978, allowing them to form their own government. In 1978, Extremadura did not yet become an autonomous region, but the Junta de Extremadura was established. This was a kind of pre-autonomy that gave Extremadura its own historical and political identity. In 1983, Extremadura received its official autonomous status.
Cáceres was recaptured from the Moors by Alfonso IX in 1229. In the 16th century, the first ‘extremeños’ returned from South America laden with gold and fame. Their palaces and mansions still fill the historic center, protected by the Moorish fortress walls.
The murallas , the city walls, are unique because they are among the few surviving structures of the Almohads. The 12th century walls are almost complete, although they are no longer easily recognizable everywhere due to the adjacent buildings. The Arco de Estrella , an 18th-century gate in the wall, connects the Plaza Mayor with the historic center.
The beautiful mansions within the Moorish city walls / Source: Nouhailler, Flickr (CC BY-SA-2.0) Most palaces are located around the Plaza de Santa María . The Palacio Episcopal (bishop’s palace) dates from the 16th century. The portal is decorated with medallions representing the Old World (left) and the New World (right). The Palacio de Mayoralgo was built in the 15th century and has a beautiful courtyard in Mudejar style. Through restoration it has regained its beautiful 16th century facade. The Gothic Renaissance Iglesia de Santa María has an altarpiece in Plateresque style. It was created by Roque Balduque and Guillén Ferrant (1551). The Palacio de los Toledo-Moctezuma is a Renaissance palace from the 15th century. It takes its name from the marriage of the conquistador Juan Cano de Saavedra to the daughter of the Aztec king Moctezuma II. The Palacio de los Golfines de Abajo belonged to the Golfin family. On the facade of this 16th-century palace you can see the family’s coat of arms.
There are more interesting buildings around Plaza San Mateo . The Iglesia San Mateo was built in the 14th century on the site of a mosque. It is one of the oldest churches in Cáceres. The Casa de las Cigüeñas (House of the Storks) now belongs to the Spanish army. The owner was able to stipulate that his fortified tower could remain standing. The other towers were demolished in 1477 on the orders of Queen Isabella. The Museo de Cáceres is located in the Casa de las Veletas . The collection of this museum includes archaeological finds and modern art.
A number of conquerors of South America came from Trujillo. Many of them spent the money they earned from America, just like their colleagues in Cáceres, on building beautiful houses and palaces. There are many beautiful palaces surrounding the Plaza Mayor. In the walled upper town you will find palaces, mansions, churches, museums and a castle.
The statue of Pizarro on the Plaza Mayor / Source: Jafsegal , Flickr (CC BY-2.0)On the Plaza Mayor there is an equestrian statue of the conqueror Francisco Pizarro (1475-1541), who was born in Trujillo. Next to Pizarro’s statue is the 14th-century Iglesia de San Martín . Many conquistadors found their final resting place in this late Gothic church. The Palacio del Marqués de la Conquista dates from the 16th century. This palace was built by order of Hernando Pizarro, the brother of the conquistador. It has a beautiful corner window with stone statues of the Pizarro brothers and their wives. The Palacio de Orellana-Pizarro is one of the most beautiful palaces in Trujillo. This 16th-century palace once served as a recruitment office, where volunteers for the New World could register. The palace has a beautiful patio built in Plateresque style.
The walled upper town also has some interesting buildings. The Castillo is located within the 13th-century Moorish city walls . The castle looks like a fortress wall with battlements, reinforced with many square towers. From the castle you have a beautiful view of the old and new city. The Iglesia de Santa María la Mayor is also interesting . Numerous conquistadors found their final resting place in this 13th-century Gothic church. The royal couple Fernando and Isabella also sometimes attended a service here. The Casa-Museo de Pizarro is a small museum about Pizarro. This 15th-century house houses an exhibition about Pizarro, the Incas and Peru.
Guadalupe is built around the Monasterio de Guadalupe . Around 1300, a shepherd found the statue of the Virgin Mary here, after which a chapel was built. Shortly afterwards, Alfonso XI enlisted the help of the Virgin of Guadalupe and defeated the Moors at Salado (1340). Out of gratitude, he had the sanctuary replaced by a grand monastery. Thanks to royal support, the monastery flourished and became an important place of pilgrimage. After the discovery of America, the monastery became the symbol of Hispanidad . This community of language and culture connected the Old World with the New World. Columbus gave the name Guadalupe to one of the Antilles. The first Indians from America were baptized in the monastery.
The Monastery of Guadalupe / Source: Jörn Wendland, Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)The church dates from the first construction phase of the monastery, the 14th century. At the center of the reredos is the Virgin of Guadalupe, which is better seen from the Camarín (Side Chapel). In the side chapel (18th century) pilgrims come to venerate the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. In the adjacent room, the Relicario (Relic Room), the Virgin’s clothing is kept. This concerns various cloaks and the crown that the statue wears during processions. Eleven paintings by Zurbarán can be admired in the 17th-century Sacristía (Sacristy). The Gothic Sala Capitular (Chapter House) contains dozens of manuscripts from the monks of Guadalupe.
The monastery section also has some interesting rooms, where art treasures can also be admired. The Claustro Mudéjar (Mudejar Monastery) was built in the 14th and 15th centuries. This cloister has a beautiful corridor and a remarkable fountain in one of the corners. The 16th-century Claustro Gótico (Gothic Monastery) is special because of its flamboyant Gothic style. The Museo de Bordados (Museum of Embroidery) has a collection of copes and altar cloths. These were made by the monks between the 15th and 19th centuries. The Museo de Libros Miniados (Antiphons Museum) has 87 antiphonaries. These are large, richly illuminated Gregorian songbooks. They were made between the 14th and 18th centuries by the monks of Guadalupe. In the Museo de Pinturas y Esculturas (Museum of Painting and Sculpture) you can see statues and paintings. A well-known image is the ivory statue of Christ attributed to Michelangelo. There are also paintings on display by Zurbarán, El Greco and Goya, among others.
Emerita Augusta was born in 25 B.C. founded by Augustus. Due to its favorable location on the Guadiana River, at a crossroads of major Roman roads, the city quickly became the capital of Lusitania. In Mérida you will find some of the most beautiful Roman buildings in Spain.
The Theater of Mérida / Source: Vmbb, PixabayThe highlight of the city is the Teatro Romano . The theater was built in 24 BC. built and could accommodate approximately 6,000 spectators. It is still used today for events such as the annual Festival de Teatro Clásico. Next to the theater is the Anfiteatro Romano . This amphitheater was built around AD 8. 14,000 spectators could sit here. Gladiator fights and chariot races were held, and even sea battles were simulated. Next to the amphitheater is the Casa del Anfiteatro . Subterranean colonnades and large areas of mosaic floors have been preserved from this Roman house. Opposite the house is the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano . This museum shows the collection of Roman finds from Mérida. The collection partly consists of images from the theater. You will also see pottery, mosaics, coins and jewelry. The museum is placed above one of the many excavations. To the west of the museum is the Museo de Arte Visigodo . This museum is a branch of the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano. The collection of Visigothic art consists of utensils (brooches, belts, lamps) and architectural elements (friezes, columns, pilasters and sculpture fragments). In the north of the center is the Basílica de Santa Eulalia . Excavations were carried out under the current 13th-century church into the history of this place. Here were previously successively Roman houses, an early Christian necropolis and a 5th-century Visigothic church. This church was dedicated to Saint Eulalia. She was a young Roman who converted to Christianity and was martyred in Mérida in 303-305.
Badajoz is strategically located on the Portuguese border and the main routes to Castile. As a result, the city was often involved in a number of wars. This was especially the case during the War of the Succession and the battle against the French. Witnesses to all that military violence are the walls around the center and the Visigothic fortress. Besides the fortress, the cathedral and museums are the main attractions.
Badajoz is located on a hill in the shadow of the Alcazaba . Unlike most fortresses, this alcazaba is not a Moorish, but a Visigothic fortress. It possibly dates from the 7th century. The high, octagonal tower is nevertheless Almohadic in origin. The Museo Arqueológico is located within the walls of the fortress . The museum displays an archaeological collection of objects found in the area. They come from prehistoric times, Roman times, the Visigothic period and finally the Moorish and medieval times.
Badajoz Cathedral / Source: Jodastephen, Flickr (CC BY-2.0)The fortress occupies the northern corner of the city center, which is also surrounded by a wall. The 13th-century Catedral de San Juan Bautista stands on the Plaza de España . The cathedral was built in Gothic style, but was extensively renovated during the Renaissance. In the center of the nave is an imposing Coro with sculpted choir stalls from 1557. In the Sacristy there are six beautiful Flemish tapestries from the 17th century. Near the cathedral is the Museo de Bellas Artes . This museum of fine arts shows paintings by Zurbarán, Picasso and Dalí, among others. There are also paintings on display by the painters Morales and Checa from Badajoz. Outside the city walls is the Museo Extremeño e Iberoamericano de Arte Contemporáneo (MEIAC). Contemporary art from Spain, Portugal and Latin America is exhibited here. The permanent exhibition consists of almost 500 works, mainly from the 1980s. Temporary exhibitions are also held there.
Food and drink
The cuisine of Extremadura is based on meat and meat products. The best ham in Spain comes from Extremadura. Thanks to hunting tradition, partridge, hare and wild boar are regularly on the menu. The region also produces delicious cheeses and excellent wines.
In Extremadura, soup is a popular starter, especially tomato soup, garlic soup and asparagus soup. Many salads are also eaten as a starter. A specialty of Extremadura is macarraca (salad of chopped ripe tomatoes with peppers and garlic). A classic main course is migas Extremeñas (crumbs of garlic bread baked with peppers, olive oil, pork and chorizo). Another regional specialty is perdiz al modo de Alcántara (partridge with truffles and port).
The jamón Ibérico, Iberian dried ham / Source: Londonp, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-2.5)Extremadura is also known for its cured meats ( embutidos ). The jamón Ibérico (Iberian dried ham) is the best ham in Spain. The ham comes from the pata negra , the black-hoofed Iberian pig. This pig eats acorns, which forms the basis for its soft and characteristic taste.
Extremadura has a number of products with the designation DO (Denominacíon de Origen). The products with this designation include cheese and wine. The DO designation guarantees the origin and quality of a product. In the region there are three cheeses with the designation DO. The queso de los ibores is a goat’s milk cheese. The queso de la serena comes from the milk of sheep of the Merina breed . The torta del casar is a very creamy sheep’s milk cheese.
Wine is also produced in Extremadura. Wines with the DO designation come from the Ribera del Guadiana wine region. Excellent red wine, white wine and rosé are produced here.
Fiestas in Extremadura
Extremadura’s calendar is full of festivals. The most important festivals are usually held on the occasion of the Blessed Virgin or the name day of a patron saint. These festivals have a religious background. There are also festivals with a cultural background. Music, dance and theater festivals are regularly held in Extremadura.
Festival de Teatro Clasico
The Mérida theater is still used for events today. It serves as the setting for the Festival de Teatro Clásico. This classical theater festival is held every year in July and August. It is the oldest classical theater festival in Spain and the most prestigious of its kind. In the theater mainly plays from ancient times are performed.
The origins of the festival date back to 1933, when the play Medea was performed. The last edition was held for the time being in 1934. Due to all the political tensions, such as the Civil War, it would take 19 years before the festival was resumed. In 1953 the play Phaedra was performed by a university theater company . A year later the festival took on a professional character with the play Oedipus .
The festival has been held continuously since 1954. Over the years, plays such as Aquiles , Caligula , Seneca , Ben-Hur , Nero , César and Hipólito have been performed .
Other artistic expressions have also been introduced in recent years. The festival now also has room for opera, dance, ballet and classical music. These performances also refer to the Greco-Roman world, on which the festival is based.
Fiesta de Las Carantoñas / Source: Biblioteca Virtual Extremeña, Flickr (Public domain) Fiesta de Las Carantoñas
Fiesta de Las Carantoñas is held on January 20 and 21 in the village of Acehúche. The fiesta focuses on San Sebastián. This saint was sentenced to martyrdom at the beginning of the 4th century because he had become a Christian. After being shot he was tied to a tree. Wild animals should have devoured him, but they did not because they would respect his holiness. During the celebration of San Sebastián, the carantoñas take to the streets, dressed in animal skins and wearing strange, terrifying masks.
Preparations for the festivities begin on January 19. The butler, the central figure during the celebrations, collects rosemary. Then the butler, together with a number of residents, makes a pilgrimage to ‘Gorron White’ (white man). After this trip they meet the drummer, also an important person during the festivities. After returning to the village, the festivities start with the firing of rockets and the ringing of bells. A parade is also held through the village, with the drummer taking center stage.
The day of San Sebastián, January 20, starts with the ‘Alborá’. Local residents are woken up with music from the drummer, accompanied by the butler. The men who will dress as carantoñas will receive a hearty breakfast of crumbs and coffee. Then the rosemary, collected the day before, is scattered. It is spread in the area of the church, the square and the street where the butler lives.
Then it is time for the carantoñas to get dressed. They wear masks and animal skins of sheep, goats or foxes. Everyone gathers at the butler’s house and then goes to church. A mass is held there for San Sebastián. The carantoñas must remain outside.
After Mass, a procession is held with the image of the saint. The carantoñas walk at the front of the procession . Also present in the procession are the ‘Regaoras’ (boys firing volleys into the air) and the ‘Tiraores’ (singing and dancing girls). All this is accompanied by music from the drummer.
The procession ends at the butler’s house. Here words of thanks are spoken from the balcony. These words refer to the life of San Sebastián and the good things he is said to have done. When the festival is almost over, the so-called cow torah (bull cow) takes center stage. This carantoña , which looks like a cow, is supposed to scare the other carantoñas . The party ends with a tasting at the butler’s house.
The celebration in honor of San Sebastián continues the next day, January 21. The festivities are the same, just with a different butler.
The train from Cáceres to Mérida / Source: Melcoman and Ferropedia, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-4.0)
Badajoz has a small regional airport. This airport is not directly accessible from Schiphol. Madrid airport is the best destination for international air traffic.
Railway lines run through Extremadura from Madrid to Portugal via Cáceres and Mérida/Badajoz respectively. These are crossed by the north-south connection Salamanca-Hervás-Plasencia-Cáceres-Mérida-Zafra-Sevilla.
Buses are a convenient way to explore Extremadura, although public transport is limited in rural areas. There is a good bus connection between the larger towns in the region. The following places have a bus station (as of 2018): Cáceres, Trujillo, Guadalupe, Mérida and Badajoz. All these places (with the exception of Badajoz) can also be reached by bus from Madrid.
Most places are easily accessible by car. All major cities can be reached by highways. There is a highway from north to south, from Plasencia towards Seville via Cáceres and Mérida. There are also good connections with other regions, such as Castile-León, Madrid and Castile-La Mancha. There is a highway from Mérida and Badajoz to Portugal. The other destinations in the region can be reached by main roads and secondary roads.
- Basque Country, the region of art, culture and good food
- Navarra, the Spanish region of culture and tradition
- Castile-León, the largest region in Spain
- The autonomous region of Madrid, more than the Spanish capital
- Castile-La Mancha, the region of (building) art and architecture