I’m thinking about ancient treasures while driving the Silver Route between the Spanish cities of Salamanca and Seville, a route used historically to transport riches plundered from the New World by Spanish conquistadors. The riches I seek along this route are those of a transitory type, like finding excellent tapas bars and sipping flavoursome Spanish tempranillo.
The road carves through the western region of Extremadura, a name derived from the word extremo, meaning “extreme”. Historically, this relative wild section of Spain was the birthplace of famous conquistadors such as Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizarro, Pedro de Alvarado and Núñez de Balboa. I expected frontier flavours and I’m not disappointed.
Passing through Las Hurdes, a range of ridges and valleys straddling the province’s north, the way south drops into Extremadura proper and links the towns of Plasencia, Cáceres, Merida and Zafra. I pass olive groves with rows of old gnarled trees enclosed within ancient dry-stone walls. Pigs snuffle in the grass. Holm oaks cast deep shadows on fertile pastures that in spring and summer are carpeted in a lush purple bloom. Roadside stalls sell a bounty of gourmet grazing; hams, sausages, pimentos, preserves, olive oils and cheeses.
Every so often the immense silhouette of a black bull appears on the horizon. These iconic metal sculptures celebrate the thriving local business of breeding huge, suitably testy animals destined for “a glorious and noble death” in Spain’s bullrings.
Within this walled city, overlooked by watch towers and squeezed between high stone walls, a maze of narrow lanes, steep steps and dark alleys create a matrix that links the Old Town’s numerous tiny plazas. Each small square is dominated either by a church or palatial medieval home, a monastery or convent. A 14th Century palace within these ancient walls is my hotel for the night. The Parador Cáceres belongs to a network of historic accommodation spread throughout Spain.
The nearby Casa de Carvajal houses the provincial tourism office. I study a large, detailed model of the walled city in order to get my bearings. The small Renaissance-style garden within the house has a gnarled old fig tree which I’m told is 1000 years old.
Across the street, in a side chapel of the Church of Santa Maria, is the Cristo Negro, a daunting religious effigy with the macabre reputation of killing those who dare look directly at it, or touch it. Rather than risk my life, I opt to simply ramble through the narrow streets as the soft radiance of a late afternoon sun warms the flagstones. It casts a luminous glow on high stone walls, the reflected sunlight sparkles in mullioned windows. I can’t imagine a better light in which to enjoy my unique surroundings.