Extremadura, the least-visited part of Spain: Travel guide and things to do

They breed them tough in Extremadura. You can tell just by the name of this hardscrabble Spanish region. A portmanteau of "extreme" and "hard", the take-home inference is that this dry and dusty former Roman frontier has formed the character of its inhabitants. Their extreme hardness is a source of considerable pride for the roughly 1.1-million population of this rugged slip of land shoved up against Portugal, dreaming of the distant Atlantic as the sun beats down without mercy.

You could dismiss Extremadura as an in-between land: a rat run between Castile and Leon to the north and Andalusia to the south. It is the least touristed part of Spain, although the unrelenting landscape of ochre dirt and hoary olive groves, where thatched stork nests billow from abandoned towers and treetops and the occasional eagle or vulture swoops overhead, has its own beauty. It is generally considered no coincidence the conquistadors hailed from these parts, their hunger for New World riches fomented by their homegrown lack of power, wealth and status.

Five hundred years after their sudden fortune, flooding back to the region, formed the high watermark of its influence, Extremadura's time is nigh. Barcelona and San Sebastian to the north and Seville, Granada and Cordoba to the south may still get all the press, but it has its own plentiful examples of UNESCO World Heritage status, a wealth of Roman ruins, a proud food culture, and has been so far largely spared the tourist excesses that make its more publicised brethren a masterclass in patience.

Just don't go in summer. Really, don't do it.

Winter either, come to think of it. In a word: freezing. Any visit to Extremadura ought to pay heed to the Spanish notion of moderation (lesson one: nothing is so important it can't wait until after lunch) and stick to the in-between months when it's neither mercilessly hot, with summer temperatures averaging 34 degrees, nor yet raining on the plains of Spain.

The north-eastern part of Extremadura is only about a 2½-hour drive from Madrid, but after that graceful city with its broad boulevards the first time visitor will be greeted with something approaching culture shock. Medieval towns crown hilltops with a mad rush of higgledy streets bunching up towards the church or citadel at the top – a tactical move by early urban planners, who smartly hedged their bets that any attackers would get lost in the maze. There will be a graceful central square, ringed with identikit cafes and identikit black and white-clad waiters, and almost certain to be unbothered by the modern blight of convenience stores and fast food outlets. There will be a parador – an upmarket hotel in a restored historic building, such as a castle, palace or monastery, dripping with history and managed with proud aplomb as part of what surely has to be the world's best state-run hotel chain.

Our first port of call, the walled city of Trujillo, ticks off the triumvirate with consummate ease. There's a green-bronze statue of Francisco Pizarro, the illegitimate Trujillo native son who became conqueror of Peru, rearing on his horse in the gracefully stepped Plaza Mayor and eyeballing the grand palacio his family built, rich beyond belief, in Trujillo's 16th century heyday. A comfortable parador, housed in the 16th-century convent of Santa Marta, hides behind softly uplit grand stone walls, and the castle (an early example of upcycling, it was built in the 10th century by Arabs using Roman stone), recently received the imprimatur of the Game of Thrones crew for the visual drama of its bold ramparts linking eight stern towers.

It's beautiful, si, but above all, Trujillo personifies the typically Extremaduran feeling of a society calmly going about its business unconcerned about the efficiency targets of the modern age. Wandering downhill from the castle we stumble across the Monastery Santa Maria de la Conception, where cloistered nuns support themselves by selling biscuits. Buying these so-called "convent candies" is a time honoured ritual that involves ringing a bell, giving your order to a disembodied voice, and placing the money for the sisters' crumbly, sweet perronillas (almond biscuits) or tocinillos de cielo (custard-like egg yolk sweets) on the medieval answer to the Lazy Susan. This particular nun isn't completely cut off from modernity: she can provide change for €5, and is apologetic about the state of the floors (they're renovating the convent, she says, and it's very dusty).

A land of hard, extreme people it may well be, but they're neither so extreme nor so hard as to be isolated from the joys of Spanish life. Extremadurans share the beguiling Spanish approach to existence that values food and leisure above all else. In fact, they may well try and kill you with their hospitality, beginning with the snacks – typically potato crisps and olives – that arrive unbidden with any drink.

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One must be both extreme and hard to keep up with the exhaustive eating and drinking program, which begins mid-morning with coffee and a pastry, peaks with lunch, taken about 3pm (after which one retires for a nap by uttering the line, "I'm just going to deal with my correspondence") and re-emerges refreshed about 8pm for the tapeo, the nightly tapas procession that is the equivalent of the Italian passeggiata only with the addition of bite-sized morsels and vermouth, and culminates in dinner sometime about midnight.

A region as reliant on agriculture as Extremadura ought to take its food seriously, and it excels in proletarian dishes such as migas, the starchy fry-up of day-old bread, garlic, chorizo or pork belly and peppers with a resonant hit of smoked paprika that's just the thing to get a shepherd through a hard day in the fields.

Modern-day gastronomic sleuthing has also fingered Extremadura as the origin of the Spanish national obsession, tortilla des patatas (potato omelette, found in any bar across the land), which was invented in the late 1700s in Villanueva de la Serena, while other towns boast their own specialities. It might be a version of gazpacho made with the region's famed denomination-protected cherries; in another, the sopa blanca de ajos (white garlic soup). At Trujillo's Bizcocho Plaza, one of several traditional restaurants hugging the Plaza Mayor, the menu boasts a sub-heading of "Products from our hunting" and the house specialty is lamb caldereta, a milk-fed shoulder lavished with white wine, garlic and thyme and roasted until its carapace resembles toffee. At a shiny modern factory outside Casar de Cacares we watch the making of the local cheese known as Torta del Casar, a gooey-centred sheep's milk cheese with a history stretching back to medieval times. Boasting modern-day protected origin status, it is coagulated not with rennet but cardoon, a wild thistle, which lends a slightly bitter note to the richly gloopy cheese. (Another reason to visit Extremadura: it can't be imported into Australia because of regulations around raw milk).

And it's impossible to forget the jamon. Extremadura is the home of the jamon Iberico, the black-footed, acorn-snuffling pig that is as revered as it is delicious. They inhabit the dehesa, ancient forested estates where gnarled, tough-leaved oaks spread as wide as they are tall and help produce what any Extremaduran will argue with passion is the best ham in the land.

Gastronomy is certainly a priority in Caceres, one of the region's two provincial capitals where the streets are lined with endless palaces (thanks again, conquistadores) along with 30 Moorish towers ordered cut to a uniform size by Queen Isabella in the 15th century (the royal rationale was that it would stop squabbling among the noble families – only the narrow Casa de la Ciguena, or House of the Stork, survived the decree, reputedly because the family was in Isabella's good graces).

Gonged in 2015 in the moveable feast known as Spain's capital of gastronomy award, Caceres is a World Heritage wonderland where a mix of Moorish, Roman, northern Gothic and Italian Renaissance architecture happily cohabit the warm-hued cobblestone streets of the Old Town.

It's here that you'll find Extremdaura's only Michelin-starred restaurant. Atrio, in fact, has two stars and a softly lit, architecturally magnificent wine cellar packed with so many illustrious names – Petrus, Chateau d'Yquem, Latour and Chateau Margaux – that it gives rise to reveries about returning at 3am with a balaclava and a white van. After a tour of the cellar dubbed by America's influential Wine Spectator magazine as one of the world's best, the food of chef and co-owner, Extremadura native Tono Perez, is no let-down.

"It's the taste of Extremadura with a playful personality," says Perez of his degustation menu that flits from an edible Bloody Mary with onion ice-cream and vongole, to his very upmarket take on migas ("with just a little foie gras").

And on to Merida, the region's capital, as well as the exception to the general Extremaduran rule of thumb we have come to know as "when in doubt, say it's from the 16th century". Founded in the the 1st century BC and once the third largest city in the Roman empire, Merida (founded by Augustus Octavius, and known as Augusta Emerita) housed 40,000 people at its height and is the best preserved Roman city in western Europe, with UNESCO World Heritage status to prove it.

The extant Roman legacy includes a 792-metre-long bridge arching over the Rio Guadiana, a well-preserved forum, the Temple of Diana, and a still graceful amphitheatre dating from 8BC, where a double tier of columns rise vertiginously from a stage on which performances are held in summer. In 1986 the Roman relics were joined by the stunning modern architectural masterpiece housing the National Museum of Roman Art, where the Roman-referencing soaring brick arches of architect Rafael Moneo house innumerable treasures of antiquity, from meticulous mosaics to marble statues with detachable heads (very handy when a new Caesar rose to power).

The city is stunning, helped by that discombobulating Roman approach of having architectural wonders jumbled into a living streetscape. The triumphal Arch of Trajan appears almost casually on an otherwise unremarkable pedestrian thoroughfare, while the 62-span bridge looping across the broad Guadiana River has similarly been incorporated into everyday life.

Visiting the bridge is a Merida sunset ritual. It's something of a teen hangout, the plaza and the park below it crowded with young people. There are local families with ice-cream, a girl proudly wearing a sash proclaiming it is her birthday, and everywhere you look gaggles of teenagers mooching with intent. Even in Extremadura, the legacy of the Romans is clearly no match for the age-old rituals of youth.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

Traveller.com.au/spain

turismoextremadura.com

FLY

Emirates airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Madrid (emirates.com/au); hiring a private driver is a good way to get around Extremadura.

STAY

The Spanish government operates more than 90 paradors across the country. These upmarket hotels in historic buildings are often highly subsidised, and profit goes towards the upkeep. See paradores-spain.com

Larissa Dubecki was a guest of Spain Tourism.

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