I visited unforgettable Extremadura, Spain, last summer to meet artisanal cheese makers. I ended up writing the following story, but about the remarkable place instead of the remarkable cheese:
It was going to be my first trip to Spain and I didn't want to pack in the sights. Double-decker tourist buses, dumbed-down tapas bars, Continentals "on holiday?" No thanks. I wanted to experience the authentic country. I wasn't sure what that meant, exactly, but I was sure I wanted to sit with my elbows on a Spanish table in a Spanish bar and sip some unheard-of Spanish beer. I wanted to be the only non-Spaniard in the place. I wanted to drill down and hit Spanish bedrock, even if I couldn't understand it.
I checked my map and the region of Extremadura caught my eye. Hey, I liked the name, which comes from the Spanish word for "extreme" or "furthest out." I booked my ticket.
I asked a few old Spain hands what they thought. They tried to talk me out of it. They said it was asphalt-melting hot in the summer. They were right. They said it was stuck in time like Appalachia. They were right. They said I'd meet more sheep than people. They were right.
But they also agreed: Extremadura was the real deal, as Spain as Spain gets, an austere land packed with castles, walled cities, medieval towns, Moorish villages, Roman ruins and arresting natural beauty.
Extremadura is a sparsely populated area of plains and mountains, one and a third times the size of Maryland. It sits along the Portuguese border in the far west of the country. Make that Wild West. This was Spain's frontier land, where Romans battled Visigoths and Christians attacked the Muslim Moors who conquered Spain in 711. Christians also fought Hatfield and McCoy-style wars here between themselves. So did the Moors. Defensive fortifications erected by Romans on down litter this place -- sixty-five castles still stand today.
This rough and tumble zeitgeist also bred the New World's conquistadors: Cortes, Pizarro, Balboa, Alvarado and Valdivia all poured out this part of Spain, hightailing it to the Americas to soldier for the kind of fortune they couldn't find in this battle-scarred, isolated land.
I spent a week road-tripping across seven hundred miles of rural highways here, routes marked on the map by "EX." I tasted traditional life that didn't bend for a short-timer with broken Spanish; I felt a small-town feel even in the cities. Extremadura didn't owe me an explanation -- and neither did the Extremenos I met along the way.
I wasn't going to crack this place in a week, of course. But that wasn't the point.
I pull into Monterubbio, a village of 3,100 along the "oil, cheese, wine and ham" route, as a brochure describes it, famous for its olive oil. I heard of an inn here.
Extremadura is speckled with countless hamlets like this one. I feel like I just stepped back a half-dozen centuries. I navigate a narrow lane barely wide enough for my subcompact that winds like a twisted strand of spaghetti. A sixteenth century stone church sits in the village center. Black and white storks land on a huge nest built atop the bell tower. It looks like a kiddie pool made from twigs. Whitewashed houses with windows shuttered tight against the heat remind me of colonial villages in Mexico.
I try to buy a bottle of olive oil but it's siesta time; no dice. So I hop in my car and steer to an enticingly un-numbered EX to see where it takes me.
The village ends abruptly. The highway cuts across buff-colored savannah, a wide-open sea of dried grass that swells in places and runs to the horizon. Here and there grow fifteen-foot high Holmes oak; their branches fan out like an umbrella. This austere, arid -- and breathtaking -- canvas of yellow with green dots looks oddly manicured. Why isn't the ground covered with tangles of brambles?
I find out later the Spanish call this landscape dahesa, a natural geography shaped by the not-so-natural hand of man. Centuries of sheep grazing, pig foraging and quixotic stabs at dirt farming have kept the underbrush down; centuries of pruning for charcoal have sculpted the scrub oaks.
Thirty minutes later I see a stark castle perched on a bluff. My rental should have a bumper sticker that reads, "I Brake for Castles." I make for it.
The Castillo de Sotomayor towers over the hamlet of Belalcazar, which I realize from my map is just across the Extremadura border in Cordoba province. I park the car and head on foot along a medieval path bordered on both sides by five-foot high stone walls.
We're not talking the Disney castle here. This place is intimidating: Forty foot walls make a tight square box, fifty yards to a side. A fringe of crenellation runs along the tops of the walls. Rectangular watchtowers anchor each corner and a massive "keep," or central tower, built into one of the walls, rises a hundred feet. I image a time when banners fluttered above it as knights in armor galloped below. It's as austere and functional as a Colt .45.
Today the castle slumbers in the middle of a peaceful grove of olive trees. A faded sign offers a single paragraph of history. But that's it. No tour guides to tell me who blasted the six-foot holes I see in the walls, who was victor, who was vanquished. A relic raw and unfiltered, the difference between seeing a lion at the zoo or on the Serengeti.
I can't figure out how to get back on the EX so I pull up to old man in a sleeveless undershirt watering trestled grape vines. Before I can squeeze out a word out he asks, "are you German?" That threw me. But he points me to a dirt track which -- astonishingly -- does the trick.
I find my inn back in Monterubbio; it sits across a cobblestone street from the church. I poke my head inside the chapel; the monsignor leads a service. But only women sit in the pews. What happened to the men?
I get my answer around the corner: The local bar. Inside forty men talk and laugh, play cards on green felt card tables, watch the news on the tube and drink beer and white wine. They eyeball me warily as I ask for a mug of Estrella Damm, but don't say anything. I'm like the "stranger" character in an old Western. The men's faces glow bright red from working in the ferocious sun all day; their hands are thick and creased, the tools of whatever their trade.
'Digame" -- talk to me -- the waiter says by way of greeting as I pull up a stool at "The Roaster," a down-home joint in the city of Caceres. I came to taste authentic Extremeno cooking, a rustic, manly-man fare that reflects this rugged land. Think: Pig Heaven.
I order a plate of Jamon Iberico, Spanish ham cured for two years, from pigs fed on acorns from those oaks out in the dahesa. The waiter cuts parchment-thin slices directly from the meaty ham part of a three-foot leg with the hoof still attached. The jamon is dense and burgundy-colored and marbled and intense -- and delicious. Prosciutto, it could be over between us.
The menu on the wall advertises chorizo, pork sausage, lomito, pork loin, morsilla, pork blood sausage and migas -- bits of chorizo fried with bread in bacon fat. If you're not in a pork kind of mood, there's lamb prepared six ways; goat meat stew; tart sheep and goat cheeses; and chicken. Forget about vegetables.
This is how it goes in Extremadura, a Dr. Atkins dream come true. It's practical eating given the hard geography, if you think about it. I just wonder how much pork I'll be able to pack away.
I call for a beer to go with the jamon. The bartender pulls a draft from a tap with a bronze-colored metalized handle -- cast in the shape of a pig's leg.
Fortified, I pick up a map from the tourist office and check out the old walled city. The Romans settled this place in 29 B.C. The Moors took over later, and in the 12th century built walls and fortifications on top of Roman ones to fight the Christians.
Stone walls, stone buildings, stone streets: I walk along timeless lanes that twist and kink and open to tiny squares. When the Christians pushed out the Moors, hidalgos, or noblemen, built luxe palaces cheek to jowl and turned this place into a medieval Beverly Hills. They stamped coats of arms above their doors; my favorite is a shield with a puffy face carved in the center like a stylized sun, fat rays radiating from it in all directions.
I cut across more dahesa out of Cacares. From the EX I spot a stone belfry in a village called Casar and wind my way to the church to check it out. An old lady walks over. She jangles a set of keys and launches into Extremeno Spanish, a patois with a drawl as thick as a Texan's. I can't keep up after, "do you want to see?" But that's all I need. She unlocks a weather-beaten wooden door and waves me inside.
If you Google the words "Monfrague" and "bird" you'll get seven hundred-plus hits: This nature preserve in northern Extremadura is to European birders what Sturges is to Harley bikers. Griffin and Black vultures, Black storks, owls, falcons, finches, swifts, swallows, thrushes, five kinds of eagles -- and many more -- make this place home.
The EX-208 narrows and I suddenly start to climb. I navigate hairpin turns and switchbacks; the dahesa falls away. I see a structure set on the rocky spine of a mountain range that ribbons east and west: The remains of Monfrague castle.
The sign says it was originally built by the Moors in the 12th century. I climb two steep flights of stairs to a flat roof. I creep carefully to the edge; there's no railing. From here I see wilderness in all directions; scrubby green hills. The emerald waters of the Tajo River snake alongside the mountain range fifteen hundred feet below me. No sound except the wind. Dozens of Griffin vultures loiter in the air currents, some as close as ten yards.
I continue driving a wide arc for the heck of it through Extremadura's other geography -- the cool, green highlands that ring the broiling plains. I arrive in the village of Guadalupe 150 miles later, nestled in mountains of breathtaking parallel ridges.
Yes, it's Guadalupe as in "Virgin of." Before this icon of the Virgin Mary became the symbol of Christianity in the New World, Catholics were already making pilgrimages here for 300 years to honor their own version, an olive-wood statue said to be carved by St. Luke.
I head to the Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Guadalupe, a magnificent gothic and mudejar (Moorish-inspired) complex from the 14th century of cathedral, chapels, cloisters, buildings and spires peaked with blue-and-white-tiled crowns. I join a group of Spaniards on a tour and come face to face with the Virgin, her face and arms now burnished deep ebony by the centuries.
Back outside I walk the stone-paved lanes of this village. In the 15th century Guadalupe was a religious boom town -- the monastery handed out over three-thousand pairs of shoes to pilgrims every year.
That was then. Now sleepy two-story houses painted white and mustard line hilly one-lane streets; flowers and ivy spill from 500-year-old balconies. Riveted wooden doors just as old have keyholes that look like they'd fit a dinner fork. Some are wide open; I hear chatter inside. I say hello to an ancient woman dressed in all black embroidering a square of lace. Her face is crinkled with wrinkles, her hair is bright white and tied up carefully. She sits in the quiet, cool shade next to pink and violet hydrangeas that sprout from a row of flowerpots.
As I pass her I realize suddenly that this was what I came here to see. I bet a woman just like her has been embroidering in the same, quiet spot, century after century after century. I had found the authentic Spain I was looking for here in Extremadura, here in this timeless place of history, tradition, faith and pork.
The following morning I drive back to the airport. As I zip along I catch sight of another castle, saw-tooth crenellations along its walls, cylindrical watchtowers -- the works. You can't see them all, I think.
Ten miles later I change my mind. I hook a U and make for it.