If we had followed the route outlined in the Lonely Planet’s ‘Road Less Travelled’, we would have bypassed Badajoz altogether and driven straight north from Zafra to Cáceres. There were two reasons we did not. The first was that Cáceres sounded like a place we would like to spend time exploring and it had a nice boutique hotel as well, and secondly (or thirdly if you are really counting here) we were so very close to the border with Portugal, that we wanted to get right up close, without actually stepping across.
The city of Badajoz is only 4km from the border and from the sounds of it, has plenty of beautiful buildings and an intriguing history as well. It’s funny how I didn’t have to convince Anil to go out of our way, just to say that we had been to one of the most western reaches of Spain. We are such similar travellers in that way, little things like that seem to matter to us both.
The citadel and the historic centre are charming with typical narrow pedestrian streets filled with restaurants, cafés and bars. Who would ever imagine that this tranquil place has been the scene of numerous massacres and national strife? After centuries of Muslim occupation, the Portuguese gained control in AD 1385 and it passed back and forth between the warring armies of Spain and Portugal for the next three hundred years. During the War of Spanish Succession, it was besieged and then during the Peninsular War, was attacked again three times by the French.
It was time for yet another foreign power to get in on the act. The British expelled the French in 1812 in a bloody battle that saw 6,000 people lose their lives. The Nationalist army carried out atrocities when they took Badajoz during the Spanish Civil War in 1936. When at last peace came to the region, Mother Nature let loose with a ferocious storm in 1997 causing the Rio Guadiana to flood killing dozens of citizens.
The sun was shining but there were black clouds on the horizon as we walked the battlements of the hilltop fortress. The magnificent ‘Alcazaba’ (Muslim walled city) once enclosed a thriving community within its 8-hectare site. Very little of it has been excavated, but work is underway and artifacts from prehistoric times to Roman, Islamic and medieval Christian periods are being unearthed. I was particularly interested in seeing the ‘Torre Espantaperros’ (Scare Dogs Tower), now the symbol of Badajoz. It was constructed by the Arabs and a later addition saw a bell tower placed atop it. Though the tower has been restored, it isn’t nearly as interesting as the name it was given. However, it was wonderful to stand on the high walls and survey the landscape below and look across to what must be Portugal. We’ll leave exploring Portugal for another trip; there’s no use messing up our heads with yet another language, not with all the different ones we’ve encountered already so far this year.
Those rain clouds I mentioned moved faster than we could have anticipated, and we were forced to seek refuge in the Museo Arqueológico Provincial, located in a nearby restored Renaissance mansion. The skies opened up just as we entered the central courtyard, and it was magical to stand under the protection of the second floor interior verandah while the rain plummeted from above. I’ve been in many of these types of buildings, but never during a rainstorm, and I couldn’t have felt more sheltered in the face of the downpour.
We were delighted to learn that all the tourist sights in Badajoz are free, a rarity in Europe nowadays. We didn’t have time to visit many of them, but now that we were inside the museum, we took advantage of the delay caused by the storm and toured the exhibits. It is a magnificent museum, simply done, but with only the best of the best on display. I was particularly fascinated with the prehistoric rock paintings found in the region. The focus was entirely on Extremadura’s history, so everything was relatively new to us.
The storm was over as quickly as it came, and I was relieved to find that we wouldn’t have to face a flash flood like the one that struck Badajoz thirteen years earlier. It was clear it has been a long, wet winter in this region. The land looks soaked to capacity, and very green as a result. We had been anticipating visiting here ever since our visit to Spain the previous September, so we had been watching the weather during the intervening months. It was entirely possible that the river could flood again, but we were long gone before it could endanger us, or keep us from heading northwards and then on to Madrid.