Extremadura: Spain at the Extreme

Madrid

Spain 

Saturday 

November 30, 2002

Sunny and Cool

Dear Family and Friends, 

Saludos de España!

My guest room at the Sofitel Hotel is richly decorated with solid walnut furniture and gentle gold, brown and mint green pastel accents. First Class all the way!

I am sipping an agua minerale con gas from the mini-bar.

Today I relax. I am tired from my travels.

My flight from Madrid to Miami was oversold so I “volunteered" to fly tomorrow. I thought "volunteering" was unpaid. You would be shocked to know, in their desperation, how much the airline "paid" me. Plus I am overnight in this four-star hotel enjoying three lovely meals, all courtesy of American Airlines. Though I think I do have to pay for the mini-bar refreshments.

For today's lunch I chose a colorful salad of sliced codfish and chopped vegetables with that heavy Spanish olive oil I have learned to like. My second course was grilled swordfish with roasted potatoes and red peppers, y una cerveza también. Creamy fruit tart y café con leche for dessert.

I know my choices were a little redundant, but the alternatives were meat ravioli or roast pork.

After lunch I took a walk and sat in a little park thinking about the meaning of life. Then my siesta. Dinner was a Grand Buffet!

Lunch here begins at 2:00 and dinner no earlier than 9:00. Despite this traditional schedule, Spain is a thoroughly modern country.

The first sign of modernity and wealth I noticed was that there are no motorbikes. Unlike other countries I have visited recently, it seems that in Spain every family has at least one car.

Secondly, almost everyone is, to put it politely, far from slim.

Finally, Spain has the Euro, clean streets, policemen distributing parking tickets and "boots," efficient, slightly brusque service, and well-built, well-maintained, well-marked roads.

Oh yes, everyone smokes.

(I am in a social setting with a small group. One of the men is a soccer coach. He is quite proud that a few years ago he was invited to California to teach. Since he is an athletic type, I am comfortable in commenting about my observations regarding the large-scale smoking and its hazards. He totally agrees and adds that smoking cigarettes is a tradition in Mediterranean countries.

Just between you and me, I don't think this "tradition" comes from the Romans or the Moors, do you? Most likely from the Dukes and the Leggett's, don't you think? Anyway not five minutes after our conversation ends, the soccer coach pops out that universally-recognized-American-symbol-of-I-am-cool-red-and-white-packet, and lights up!)

OK. Got your atlas handy?

I arrived in Madrid Friday morning, November 22. I rented a car and headed west to an area called Extremadura – “a land of rugged beauty” and the home of the conquistadors Pizzaro and Cortes. My destination was the city of Cáceres - a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

After a couple of stops along the way for lunch and souvenir hunting, (the area is known for its pottery and tile work), I arrived at the Castillo de las Seguras where I had made a reservation.

Well, this rural castillo was truly a 15th Century castle. One night only please! The heating was mostly the fireplace in the center hall. They did supply a small electric heater for the room, but I never did warm up. The place was just too rustic, even for me. So I found a small hotel in the center of town for the next three nights.

The old city of Cáceres was excellent. Restored and maintained 14th -16th Century public buildings, churches and palaces. An archeological museum with artifacts and carvings back to the Romans and the Goths.

From Cáceres I made day trips to other cities:

Alcántara. Over the Río Tajo, a high graceful five-arch Roman bridge that has supported vehicular and foot traffic for more than 1500 years.

Trujillo. A larger-than-life statue of Pizzaro on horseback. Another one is in Lima, Peru.

Guadalupe. An extraordinary monastery, as rich in treasure as any except the Vatican. Exquisite clerical robes, huge prayer books (100 pounds each). The words and musical notation clearly marked and illustrated. And two El Greco paintings.

Lunch that day was leg of baby goat. They simply roasted the entire leg, put it on a plate, hoof and all, and served it with French fries.

My favorite day trip was to Mérida, south of Cáceres. Yes, the name is the same as the Mexican resort town and a city in Venezuela. Mérida is known for Roman ruins.

My sightseeing began with a walk around and up and over a Roman aqueduct and a very large hippodrome. Next, across a Roman bridge over the Río Guadiana. Then up the hills of the city past the remains of a Temple to Diana.

Lunch was a light tomato soup with bread and eggs, followed by baked trout.

Best of all, the spectacular archeological site of a Roman theatre and amphitheatre side by side at the highest point of the city. The amphitheatre is still in use, seats 14,000 spectators, and has perfect acoustics. Up front is a double layer of tall marble pillars with original carvings.

Sadly I left Cáceres and in the pouring rain drove north to Placencia. A "pleasant" city with a beautiful cathedral, central square with shops and restaurants surrounded by winding streets with more shops, and homes with small balconies. Come to think of it, all the cities I visited have this same layout.

In Placencia I treated myself to a night at a Parador. Paradores throughout Spain are old castles converted to luxury hotels. As I walk the ancient passageways and staircases and public areas, I am truly in the footsteps of royalty.

The guest rooms, really small suites, have every amenity. The restaurants are in the old dining halls or chapels. Everywhere are works of stone and carved archways. A castle! Built for luxury and security. I could have stayed a month.

The meals in the Parador are graciously served. For lunch I had veal stew as good as my mother used to make. For dinner, roasted vegetables and a platter of local cheese with the regional crunchy bread. Local wine.

The next morning, the breakfast buffet had everything! Including my favorite - tiny almond pastries with café con leche. Of course café in Spain is espresso with hot milk. So classic. So civilized.

I was sad/glad to leave the Parador. Had I stayed a month I would have gained 10 kilos.

I continued north towards Salamanca, the city that motivated my trip in the first place. On the way, two detours.

First to an area called La Vera. A string of quaint villages surrounded by snow-capped mountains. I bought more terra cotta hand-painted dishes.

The second detour was Hervás. A small town noted for the ancient, now restored Barrio Judeo. Yes, I found Stars of David in the grillwork of doorways. Large cobblestone Stars of David inlaid in the pavement at the entrance to the Barrio.

Salamanca is splendid. A golden city built with a local tinted stone. All the public buildings and the Cathedral glow in the sunlight and the moonlight.

Since the freshly quarried stone is soft, the facades of the buildings are intricately carved, as delicately as silversmith's work. The style is thus known as Plateresque - like silver. Later the stone dries to become hard and durable.

The Plaza Mayor was grand and spectacular. Bells tolled from atop the city hall.

The University of Salamanca is one of the oldest in Europe and ranks with the famous schools of Paris and London. International students come to study and to enjoy the culture.

I visited two museums: a collection of Columbian gold amulets and masks and an exhibit of 19th Century Polish art including a drawing and painting of Chopin.

Salamanca is on my "To See Again" list.

On the drive back to Madrid I made two more stops:

Ávila. A city surrounded by its original stone walls and towers that I could view from the hillside as I approached. Breathtaking.

Finally, Segovia. A huge, I mean huge Roman aqueduct in the heart of the city. A double layer of arches. Yes, I climbed to the top.

This was Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. I had to celebrate. I found the best restaurant in town. I ordered roast grouse in a tasty stew of little onions and mushrooms. A typical Thanksgiving leftover meal?

Now it was on to Madrid, return the car, spend the first night at an ordinary hotel, then “volunteer,” and enjoy a second night in luxury.

The trip was beautiful. “Rugged beauty” is not an exaggeration. Challenging mountain ranges and rolling farmlands dotted with monster boulders. It rained a lot, sin problema. I drove only about 1200 kilometers (750 miles) in a week.

I will admit that this was the first trip I felt alone. The Spanish are very cool and straight-faced. They were always helpful yet seemed uninterested in meeting other people. There were few Americans and I met no tourists from other European countries. Usually I do bond with someone, but not this time.

Al fin I am proud of myself. In these remote, off-the-regular-tourist-track towns, the local population spoke almost no English whatsoever. I was prepared with a little book of restaurant menu translations and a dictionary. But mostly I just "spoke” Spanish.

Miss Goldman, my teacher at Taft High School would be horrified at my grammar but I do believe she would be pleased with my Castilian accent, adequate vocabulary, and overall comprehension. Gracias Señorita Goldman. Vale.

Bueno mis amigos, I wish you a joyous Holiday Season and a Healthy New Year. And of course, Safe Travels.

Hasta la vista,

"Juan”

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