“Extremadura was pre-eminently the country of the adventurers for many of them went to the New World… and often returned rich and the region is full of their memorials…. The old part of Cáceres is embellished everywhere with the heraldry of imperial nouveaux-riches, whose principal object of retirement seems to have been to bask in titled superiority to the family next door” Jan Morris – ‘Spain’
Because of the city’s blend of Roman, Islamic, Northern Gothic and Italian Renaissance styles, the result of many tug-of-war battles fought here throughout history, Cáceres was declared a World Heritage City by UNESCO in 1986 and as we walked from the car park we passed into the old town through one of the eight hundred year old Muslim gates.
Saint George is the patron saint of the city and the story goes that he knew that there was a dragon terrorizing the population of Cáceres, so he captured it and brought it to the city; he told the citizens that if they all converted from Muslims to Christians he would kill the dragon. Fifteen thousand men converted (the women weren’t so important) so he slayed the dragon and Cáceres lived in peace.
The route from the gate took us to the immaculate Plaza Mayor which had recently been resurfaced and tidied up in preparation for a submission to be considered as Spain’s representative as the 2016 European capital of Culture. It was hot now under a clear blue sky so after we had walked the circumference of the square we took a table at the Meson ‘Los Portales’ and ordered drinks and tapas. Because of a communication problem (We can’t speak Spanish, the waiter couldn’t understand English) we didn’t get the one that we ordered but it was nice enough and we enjoyed it anyway.
After Alfonso IX of Leon conquered Cáceres in 1227 it flourished during the Reconquest and the Discovery of America, as influential Spanish families and nobles built homes and small palaces here, and many members of families from Extremadura participated in voyages to America where they made their fortune and then returned home to enjoy it.
“The colour of the walls was of the richest golden brown to be found anywhere in Spain, as though drenched, steeped, saturated with all the sunlight of centuries of summers.” Ted Walker – ‘In Spain’
The old quarter, with its numerous palaces, churches and convents is enclosed by the city wall, most of it Moorish in construction, many of the defence towers are still standing and there are even a few Roman stone blocks visible. From the Plaza Mayor we walked up the steps and through the Estrella de Churriguer archway. The two towers which flank the steps are the Bujaco Tower, which is the city’s best preserved monument and the gothic Púlpitos Tower built into the city wall.
Through the archway we entered the Plaza de Santa Maria where close by is the Palacio De Los Toledo-Moctezuma, which is a vivid reminder of the importance of Cáceres in the conquest of the Americas because it was built for Techichpotzin, the daughter of the Aztec ruler Montezuma by one of her three Spanish husbands.
Dominating the square was the Iglesia de Santa Maria so we slipped inside and took a look around carefully remembering to avoid the image of the Cristo de los Blázquez, also known as the Cristo Negro or Black Christ which, tradition has it, brought death to all those who looked at, or touched it. It cost just €1 to climb to the top of the bell tower so we paid and took the stone spiral staircase to the top where there were good views of the old town and beyond which we shared with all of the Storks that had built their untidy nests at the highest possible points.
From here we walked the old narrow streets. Past the Palacio De Los Golfines De Abajo, with its spectacular and architecturally important facade in a style that was widely used in Spain and in South America throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This Palacio was where the house the Catholics Kings stayed in when they visited Cáceres, as guests of the Golfin family, the most important people in town, and the royal crest is carved above the doorway to prove it.
From the old town we came back to the square and walked into the shopping streets and around the old town walls from the outside and then with the afternoon slipping away we returned to the Plaza Mayor and to the car. If I was planning this trip again I would have stayed for a night in Cáceres but it was too late now and our accommodation was booked in Mérida about fifty kilometres south.
We estimated that we would be there in a little under an hour and at first all went according to plan until suddenly the motorway was closed and there was a diversion. Unfortunately no one had told the satnav navigator and she was totally confused. Actually everyone was totally confused and there were queues of traffic wondering where to go as the diversion signs unhelpfully just petered out to nothing. I took a decision to take the Badajoz road because although it wasn’t on the route to Mérida it was at least going south and I was confident that there would be a minor road to make the correction.
We started to travel south west and because this is such a sparsely populated region of Spain it turns out that there are not a lot of roads at all so we just kept going towards Badajoz and further away from our intended destination. At one point the satnav suggested a farm track but I certainly wasn’t taking the VW Polo down there so we just kept going. Eventually after quite a lengthy detour we came across a road that was so new that it wasn’t on the map but it said Mérida so we trusted to luck and took it and started to drive in roughly the right direction
The journey that should have taken under an hour took nearly two and it was very late afternoon/early evening when we arrived at the Hotel Mérida Palace, parked the car and presented ourselves at reception for check in.