From Badajoz, we took a small road that went cross-country directly to Cáceres, and left out Mérida altogether. The route outlined in the ‘Roads Less Travelled’ portion of our Lonely Planet guidebook did not include Badajoz, but instead, suggested travellers head straight north from Zafra to Cáceres. This allows for a stop to see the some of Spain’s most impressive Roman ruins at Mérida, but Anil would have no part of it. As far as he was concerned, he was done with Roman ruins. It would definitely take some serious arm-twisting if I was keen on seeing any more myself. When I read that the modern-day town was just ‘ordinary’, I readily agreed to give it a miss. Dougga, in Tunisia, had left such an impression, and that was good enough for the both of us.
As we drove northwards, we kept seeing signs that indicated we were paralleling the ‘Ruta de la Plata’ (Silver Road), first constructed by the Romans in the 1st century and stretching 1000km from the silver mines near Seville in the south to the northern coast and the Bay of Biscay. Travellers, goods, merchants and soldiers used the route for centuries. It later became a pilgrimage highway for worshippers travelling to Santiago de Compostela from Andalucía. The weather continued overcast and drizzly and at one point we passed a group of hikers struggling with the wind and the rain. We were well past them before it dawned on me that they were probably walking the Ruta de la Plata; there was no other reason for them to be walking in a group along such a deserted stretch of highway in Extremadura.
It was late afternoon when we arrived in Cáceres. We were immediately struck by the beauty of the city; many streets had boulevards lined with shrubs that contrasted nicely with the stone buildings. The map in our guidebook showed a great view of the streets around the Cuidad Monumental (old town), but did not indicate that most of them were now one-way. We circled the district several times looking for the hotel we had picked out, and to make matters worse, the skies had opened up and it was pouring rain. What made it even more difficult was the fact that some streets were recently closed to traffic and we couldn’t get closer than a block to the Hotel Don Carlos.
At last, I had Anil drop me off and pull into a loading zone, and I ran through the rain to find the hotel. I almost gave up completely, and started walking back down a steep, slippery cobbled lane. I happened to look up and found the Don Carlos right smack in front of me. The lobby was warm and welcoming, and I was delighted to have a choice of rooms. I picked the one overlooking the small plaza in front, even though it was slightly smaller than the others. It had a floor to ceiling window and on that dull evening, more light was coming into the room, making it seem more spacious. I hoped Anil would like it too.
It must have seemed like I was gone for good, but Anil looked relieved when I appeared at the car window. We had to make yet another loop through the streets in order to get in a position to access the lane where the Don Carlos stood. The receptionist had explained that I could ring the police on a monitor near the entrance to the lane, and they would have the automatic post retract into the ground so that we could drive right up to the front door. How very clever. We were able to unload our luggage without getting soaked, and then drive to a nearby parking garage to leave the car for the night. Anil loved the room as much as I did, and we decided then and there, to stay for two nights instead of one.
By the time we had settled our things and were ready to set out, the rain had stopped and the sun had come out again. We only had a short window of time before sunset, so we decided to walk directly through the pedestrian streets to the Cuidad Monumental and get an overview of the place before exploring it extensively the following day. The rain seemed to have driven most residents inside, so it was almost deserted. We walked through the Plaza Mayor and admired the massive Arco de la Estrella (Arch of the Stars). The gate was built in the 18th century and was wider than most to allow for the passage of carriages in and out of the old city.
Once inside the gate we were presented with a series of narrow cobbled streets that twist and turn around magnificent palaces and mansions that are crowned by turrets, gargoyles, spires and the ever-present stork’s nests. What made this extra-special was the complete lack of any commercial enterprise within the city walls. Well, I must correct myself and admit that there were some discrete restaurant here and there, but one had to look for them to find them. One of the buildings has been converted to a Parador Hotel, but it was under renovation and was closed for the season. The overall impression was one of a great 16th century town with its citizens suddenly spirited away.
We passed out through an entirely different gate and made our way through lanes that now contained small apartments and shops to service the residents. However, it still had the feeling of emptiness as most people had stayed inside to keep warm or to have a glass or two of wine and a light meal. We appreciated the fact that this was the ‘off-season’ and we could wander at will without feeling like tourists. We popped into a small confectionary and picked up some great items to prepare a tapas meal in our room and found a bottle of red wine to wash it down. Life was good; the gods were smiling on us once again.
We slept late the next morning and arrived for breakfast just as a large group of women were amassing in the lobby and loading their luggage into awaiting vans. When the vans pulled away without the hikers, I realized that they were pilgrims who were walking the Ruta de la Plata. I remembered reading the Jane Christmas book entitled ‘What The Prophet Told the Pilgrim’, about Jane’s 800 km walk across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela. She mentioned that some of the pilgrims stay in comfortable hotels along the route instead of the miserable hostels she described so vividly. It seemed this group was doing the pilgrimage in a way that would interest me, but walking in the pelting rain was more than I would be willing to endure.
We had a fabulous breakfast in a lovely stone room on the main floor of the Hotel Don Carlos. I haven’t mentioned that the small hotel is situated in a converted 19th century stone house, just outside the walls of the old city. It has already been added to our list of most memorable hotels. It’s not at the top of the list, but it’s solidly there nonetheless. Well fortified for a day of exploration, we headed into the sunshine and back to retrace our steps from the previous evening. What a shock we received when we passed through the main gate once again. Here and there we encountered a car parked along the narrow stone streets and in the small plazas in between.
At times we had to stand close to the walls to let cars pass us as they drove deeper into the old town. When we arrived at the Bishop’s Palace, we found the doors open and we then learned that it is now used as an office building, either for a government department or for one of the restoration companies responsible for maintaining the monuments. I poked my head inside in order to see the interior courtyard and was shocked and dismayed to find it full of parked automobiles. It seems outrageous to allow vehicles into the old town, why can’t the workers leave their cars in the parking garages as we had done the night before. They are only a short ways off.
I cannot tell you how glad I was that we had made the effort to walk through the old town during the previous evening. The atmosphere we witnessed as we walked alone through the stone streets was nothing like what we saw that morning. In addition to the cars, there were groups of tourists making it impossible to photograph the beautiful buildings without someone getting in the picture. (You may have noticed that I like to take my photos without tourists standing in the foreground).
There isn’t a great deal to see in Cáceres outside of the old town, but we did enjoy going for a long walk through the leafy streets in the early evening. It was great to stretch our legs after spending long hours in the car the previous few days and we always like to people watch when we can. The main business streets come alive in the evenings and people seem refreshed after their afternoon siesta. We walked for a couple of hours and then headed back to our little shop to replenish our tapas table. We had taken advantage of the economical ‘menu del dia’ (menu of the day) at lunchtime and had eaten a hearty meal earlier.
It seems to suit us best to have our main meal in the afternoon and have a light meal in the evening. The Spanish people don’t even think about having dinner until after 9:00pm and we don’t relish the idea of going to bed on a full stomach. I suppose if we lived here, we’d eventually get into the rhythm of Spanish dining, but we’ve moved through so many different countries on this fourth year of travels, and each one has its own nuances when it comes to meal times. We never seem to be in any one place long enough to adapt completely.
Later that evening, we had to make some tough decisions with regards to our plans for the next few days. While the ‘Roads Less Travelled’ route outlined in our guidebook suggests continuing northwards all the way to Salamanca before returning to Madrid, we knew we didn’t have enough time to see all the places mentioned before we had to get to Madrid to meet our daughter Adia, due to arrive from Canada to join us for ten days. I was very keen on seeing Guadalupe, the small town in the interior of Extremadura that is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. A small statue of the Virgin Mary was discovered there, and she was so revered that she was made the patron saint of all Spain’s New World territories in the 16th century.
I first heard of the Virgin of Guadalupe when we spent a couple of months in Mexico in the fall of 2008. We were in Manzanillo when we witnessed the processions carrying statues through the streets in the days leading up to the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe on December 12th. I knew we would be returning to Manzanillo one day and I wanted to be able to tell our new Mexican friends there that I had visited the monastery where the original statue of the Virgin is housed. Anil didn’t really see the point, but could tell that I would be disappointed to have come so close and not visited the site.
We decided to forego Salamanca and put it on our list of places to see with Adia. In the end, it was the right decision as we saw some amazing sights along the small roads to Guadalupe and again, as we cut across country and over a range of mountains towards Avila. If I haven’t lost you already with all the writing I’ve done so far on this year’s journal, read on. I’d love to tell you about the adventures we had during our last two weeks in Spain. It was a great finish to a great ‘year’ of travel, starting in Madrid in September 2009 and ending there in May 2010.