Far from the madding crowds, yet within close reach, Extremadura is located in western Spain, bordering Portugal. One of Iberia’s last undiscovered gems, Extremadura maintains its authentic soul while elegantly incorporating it into the present. Inspired by the stunning beauty of the land, it is a place where time seems to move more slowly, where quality is cherished over quantity and where the blissfulness of simplicity reigns supreme.
Extremaduran cuisine is a near perfect reflection of the place itself. The food centres on celebrating the region’s nature, putting pure, diverse and delicious ingredients centre stage. The simple yet stunning results reflect the humility of Extremaduran people, who, without an abundance of wealth, have maintained a deep appreciation for life, land and good food.
“It’s proper food. With the diversity of the land, the mountains and our rivers, we have stunning ingredients that taste like they should. And the dishes are simple but have some of the best flavours in the world,” says José Pizarro, a world-famous chef from Extremadura.
Pizarro, who has become one of the most fashionable chefs in London, attributes much of his success to his privileged culinary upbringing. He grew up on his family’s farm in Talaván, Cáceres, where his grandmother Faustina and mother Isabel cooked traditional local dishes, inspiring within him a deep passion for food.
“I was lucky that I got to eat such great food. Everything came from our land – the vegetables, the game, the birds, the milk, the lamb,” he says.
Award-wining chef José Pizarro
runs four successful restaurants in the UK.
A Chanfaina made with fresh, local ingredients
Photo: José Pizarro
Migas (crumbs in English), is a humble but surprisingly delicious bread dish
Photo: José Pizarro
Caldereta de Cordero, a traditional lamb stew
Photo: José Pizarro
With its vast natural landscapes, Extremadura adds to the soul of Spanish cuisine, which has risen to prestigious heights in the world of gastronomy over the last decade. The region is the top producer of jamón ibérico de bellota, the iconic Spanish ham that comes from black Iberian pigs that roam freely throughout the oak-tree-spotted, savannah-like dehesas, feeding on fallen acorns. It is the best of the best when it comes to Spanish ham.
Black Iberian pigs roam freely on an Iberian dehesa
Each carefully cut piece of ham is served simply – plain, or perhaps with some local olive oil – and behind each wafer-thin slice lie centuries of agricultural tradition. The taste, as celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain once described it, is “enlightenment in a mouthful”.
The same philosophy that is behind the iconic ham applies to Extremaduran cuisine more generally – slow, organic farming, based on practices passed down from past generations, resulting in simple yet powerful flavours. This can be observed perfectly with other iconic fare such as Pimentón de la Vera paprika, some of the world’s best olive oil, Torta del Casar cheese, local wine, exceptional cherries, juicy tomatoes and other favourite meats such as goat or lamb.
Creamy Torta del Casar cheese, made from sheep’s milk, is a must try for cheese lovers
Picota cherries from the Jerte Valley in Extremadura
Jamón ibérico de bellota, which, due to the acorns the pigs feed on, has an earthy but stunning taste
“It shouldn’t have to be called ecological or free range; it’s just the way it should be: natural, no chemicals and the animals are happy. Then those happy animals make the meat and the milk happy, and you can taste it,” says Pizarro.
The uniqueness of Extremaduran food products has even been solidified in Spanish law. Throughout the region, there are ten protected Designations of Origen (DO) and two geographical indications (GI), which means products including cheeses, ham, cherries, olive oil, wine and honey can only be given certain prestigious names if they come from Extremadura.
“It’s just the way it should be: natural, no chemicals and the animals are happy”
Exploring the Ribera del Guadiana vineyards
Besides the flavours of the ingredients and dishes, another key aspect of the Extremaduran gastronomic scene is warm, friendly service, which aims to make foodies from all over the world feel as if they were in their own homes. And as the region is off-the-beaten path for travellers, the restaurants remain authentic and welcoming; far from the tourist traps that have become something of an invasive species in more common destinations.
Los Barruecos Natural Monument
“Today, everyone is busy, running around in cities full of people, but Extremadura is the opposite. It’s all about despacito; there’s no running, you relax and take the time to enjoy the scenery, the food, life… it’s like going back 500 years. It’s a proper life,” Pizarro says longingly, before sharing his plans to start splitting his time between London, where he has lived full time for 18 years, and his original home in Extremadura.
At the core of all of Extremadura’s simple elegance is the profound beauty and formidable health of its nature. One of the last virgin paradises of Southern Europe, much of Extremadura remains untouched, protected by large expanses of natural parks or by private landowners aware of the importance of conservation.
It is a place which possesses breathtaking landscapes and stunning skies, hosting silence that is only punctured by birdsong or the ringing of far-off church bells.
Extremadura is the size of the Netherlands but home to barely one million people. It has more than 50 protected wildlife areas, reflecting the extraordinary natural variety of the region, from its mountains and valleys to plains and babbling rivers. And just a drive away from international airports in Lisbon, Madrid and Seville, Extremadura is easily accessible to international visitors looking to get to the pristine heart of Iberia.
Just a drive away from international airports in Lisbon,
Madrid and Seville, Extremadura is easily accessible
to international visitors looking to get
to the pristine heart of Iberia.
The Extremaduran sky as seen from Trevejo, Sierra de Gata
Those in search of a refreshing summer dip, but who want to maintain a healthy distance from the frenzied hordes on Spain’s costas have 50 freshwater bathing areas to choose from. Small natural swimming pools dot the gently flowing rivers. The unique Orellana Reservoir was even Spain’s first inland beach to be distinguished with a blue flag.
The Garganta de los Infiernos natural pools in the Jerte Valley. Photo: © Extremadura Tourist Board
Surrounded by nature and history, bathers cool off in the natural pool near Madrigal de la Vera. Photo: © Extremadura Tourist Board
With an incredible 75 percent of Extremadura having been declared an Important Area for Birds, it is no surprise that birdwatching has become a hugely popular activity. The region hosts majestic endangered species such as the Iberian imperial eagle, the black stork and the golden eagle, and is home to the world’s largest colony of black vultures.
“The colonies have healthy numbers so the birds are easy to see. Even if you’re not specifically birdwatching and are just driving from one town to another, it’s strange if you don’t see an impressive bird of prey flying by,” says Santi Villa, director and guide of Spainbirds Nature Tours, the first birdwatching travel agency in Spain, which organises birding trips throughout the country but especially in Extremadura.
“Even if you’re just driving from one town to another, it’s strange if you don’t see an impressive bird of prey flying by”
The unique landscape of Monfragüe National Park.
One of the most outstanding destinations for birdwatching and nature lovers is the Monfragüe National Park. Designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, it is a rare and magnificent example of a virgin Mediterranean ecosystem. And Monfragüe is not a place whose only charms are known during the daytime. Due to cloudless skies and minimal light pollution, this year the park received a Starlight certificate recognising it as one of the best places in Europe to observe the shimmering night sky.
The International Tagus Natural Park, teeming with wildlife and defined by a wide river, is another example of nature at its best and is the only EU Natural Park to be shared by two countries (Spain and Portugal). The Villuercas-Ibores-Jara Geopark, created in 2011 and declared a geological site by UNESCO, is an outstanding example of sustainable tourism and offers breathtaking views, paleontological treasures dating back 540 million years and archaeological remains.
While visitors are more than welcome to explore Extremadura on their own, using private or public transportation, a bicycle, or their own two feet, numerous businesses also specialise in tours related to nature, birdwatching and stargazing.
“If more eco and nature tourism comes to the region, it not only generates income, but also proves to decision-makers that this zone is interesting. And it’s possible that it could become a motor to help further conserve this special corner of the world,” adds Villa.
The spectators milled into the open-air auditorium, murmuring amongst themselves before taking their seats on the stone terraces to watch a great work by a Greek dramatist, or will it be a Roman this time for a change?
Mérida’s Roman theatre generates a unique atmosphere on warm summer nights. Photo: © Jero Morales
Then a friendly loudspeaker voice urged them to turn off their mobile phones. It was 2017, after all.
The magical experience of a midnight performance at Mérida’s Roman theatre, still operational 2,000 years after being constructed, is possible at the city’s summer theatre festival. This revival of tradition dates back to the 1930s, now also incorporating other venues in Roman Extremadura, such as the theatres at Medellín and Regina, besides the archaeological site of Cáparra.
“It is the only festival of its kind in Europe,” says Jesús Cimarro, director of the two-month long festival since 2012. The event is singular not only in its emblematic stages, history and dedication to classic theatre, but also because every production is created for and premieres at the festival.
And organisers of Mérida’s classical theatre festival are not the only discerning artistic eyes to recognise the value of Extremadura’s stunning patrimony. Game of Thrones, one of the world’s most highly-regarded television shows, has filmed extensively in Cáceres, Trujillo and around the extraordinary scenery of Los Barruecos.
“There’s something ancient and epic about it” says Jerome Flynn, the English actor known for playing Bronn in Game of Thrones, while commenting on the series’ predilection for surprising Spanish locations.
A haunting scene from Euripides’ The Trojan Women, which premiered at the 2017 edition of the International Classical Theatre Festival of Mérida.
Photo: © Jero Morales
“There’s something ancient and epic about it”
The old town of Cáceres, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was used for the setting of King’s Landing in the latest season of Game of Thrones.
Extremadura is living history. Apart from its vibrant reframing of drama, the streets of all regional towns flood with music and colour with festivals for all seasons, such as Los Conversos to celebrate the Jewish influence on picturesque Hervás, and the Templars festival in Jerez de los Caballeros in acknowledgement of the medieval knightly order. A walk in the walled city of Cáceres takes the visitor from Roman Hispania, through the Visigoth era and Arabic splendour before the city’s return to Christian rule in 1229.
History is so alive that the status of Olivenza, near Badajoz, is still claimed by the Portuguese on the other side of the Guadiana River as one of Europe’s few remaining disputed borders. Peace and dual cultural status now reign, of course, with Olivenza joining other Spanish and Portuguese towns and cities in creating a Euroregion in 2008.
With Roman Mérida and multicultural Cáceres, Extremadura’s third UNESCO heritage site is the remarkable Monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe, whose architecture reflects gothic, mudéjar (Muslims who remained after the Christian reconquest), Renaissance, baroque and neoclassical traditions.
Roman bridge of Alcántara
Mudejar design of Santa María de Guadalupe
Jewish neighbourhood in Cáceres.
Another key monastery in the history of Spain, Yuste, is resolutely gothic, the site of the retirement and, in 1558, death of Charles V, ruler of both the Spanish Empire and Holy Roman Empire for much of the first half of the 16th century.
Big and small, Extremadura’s towns and villages harbour surprisingly monumental historic quarters. Zafra and Trujillo are two examples in which glory rained on the Extremaduran birthplaces of conquistadors who made fortunes in the Americas, with the latter being the birthplace of Francisco Pizarro.
But away from the masterpieces, the region’s history remains palpable on nearly every corner and throughout daily life. Extremadura is truly a magical place, yet subtle in its charm, and genuinely welcoming towards visitors who wish to discover it for themselves.
“Extremadura really is the great undiscovered part of Spain. Its unexploited mix of beautiful land, rich culture and well-preserved history makes it a place where the classic resides peacefully alongside the modern”