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Among Spaniards, the region of Extremadura is more known for farming pigs than as a tourist destination. Outside the country, Extremadura is barely recognised at all: holidaymakers searching for a quick and easy getaway often overlook the region because it lacks the allure of a Mediterranean coastline. For the novice traveller, this is perhaps well-advised. Very few people speak English, signposted tourist attractions are few and far between, and an all-inclusive deal is hard to come by. However, while it might not be as picture-perfect as Andalusia or as sleek and sophisticated as Madrid, Extremadura has simple, rustic charm and an enduring natural beauty that captures the imagination. Almost entirely untouched by the demands of English tourists, it offers a rich, cultural immersion in a more traditional Spain that doesn’t often make it on the glossy covers of travel magazines.
With a population density of just 26 people per square kilometre (compared to 809 over the same area in Madrid) and three-quarters of inhabitants living in small hamlets and villages, there is no denying that Extremadura is decidedly rural. Local agriculture plays an important part in the community here: regional products, such as the Torta del Casar, a strong, gooey, sheep’s milk cheese, or the world-famous Iberian pork fed on local acorns, are enjoyed and celebrated in town festivals. Extremadura is also home to Monfragüe National Park, famed for its expansive, rocky views and spectacular birdlife. The white storks that cruise calmly overhead are the nationally recognised symbol of Extremadura, illustrated by the big, messy nests that crown every rooftop across the region.
But Extremadura is not just farmland and wildlife. Its cities hold a unique cultural legacy, inherited from a long history of settlement starting with the Romans, through a period of Islamic rule and then a return to Christianity with the Reconquista. This is reflected in the world-class architecture dotted around the region: the capital city, Mérida (formerly Emerita Augusta in Roman times), a UNESCO World Heritage site, boasts the most Roman ruins in Spain, including a beautifully-preserved amphitheatre, a bridge over the Guadiana river and a traditional Roman circus. The city of Cáceres in the northern province of the region also holds a UNESCO World Heritage title, due to the seemingly inexhaustible array of architectural treasures hidden inside its walled city centre. Walking through the old town of Cáceres takes you on an immersive historical journey through different cultures and generations, giving the town a captivatingly dream-like atmosphere. These assets have not gone entirely unnoticed: the latest series of Game of Thrones was filmed in Cáceres’ old town last year, as well as in various other locations across Extremadura.
While its cities might preserve a glimpse of the past, Extremadura’s people are by no means stuck in the olden days. Like much of Spain, the dine-out culture is an important aspect of the Extremaduran lifestyle, and during the long spring and summer months the city streets come to life with happy chatter until long after the sun has gone down. Although not as exuberantly inclined as their southern counterparts, local people are friendly and interested in visitors – if you speak to them in Spanish, that is (watch out for the distinctive accent and be prepared for a strong phonetic reduction and a complete disregard for the letter ‘s’).
Extremadura really is off the beaten track – with no local airport, it takes a four-hour trek from Madrid to arrive at its borders. But for the value of the experience that the region offers, it’s worth it: Extremadura has retained its natural charm and gentle beauty and will enchant and inspire those who make the effort to visit.
By Mary McGowan
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham