By Elly DeVries
My years of traveling have taken me to many places in Spain. I’ve visited the Prado Museum in Madrid, stood before the beautiful castle of Segovia and watched flamenco dancers in Seville. But, my visit to Extremadura last fall opened my eyes to the heart of Old Spain and the historic cities and towns that lie within.
The Extremadura region of Spain sits along the country’s western border. It’s neighbored by Portugal to the west and is bounded by the autonomous communities of Castile-León to the north, Castile–La Mancha to the east and Andalusia to the south.
My first impression of the region upon arriving to the medieval city of Robledillo de Gata was how rural it felt. The Midwesterner in me already felt connected to the vast farms, but the mountain range in the distance reminded me that I was, indeed, a world away. The region is known for its olive, fig, cherry and Iberian pig farms, as well as its UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Roman history and picturesque natural landscapes.
These five experiences are just a small taste of what Extremadura has to offer.
1. Learn all about Spanish paprika
Paprika, that red powdered spice that sits in your kitchen cupboard, has a long history in the La Vera region of Extremadura. There are three varieties of paprika: sweet paprika, Hungarian hot paprika and smoked paprika — the kind Extremadura is known for. Northern Extremadura has the perfect growing conditions for the peppers used in its smoked paprika, which is known as Pimentón de la Vera. Smoked paprika is a staple in Spanish cooking and is the key ingredient in classic dishes like Spanish chorizo, paella and traditional brava sauce.
We toured Las Hermanas paprika factory, which is the only female-owned paprika producer in Spain. They use three different varieties of peppers for their paprika, two sweet and one spicy. We learned about the process of making the spice — bags or peppers are dumped out and viewed for inspection before they are cleaned and dried over oak fires for more than a week. The peppers are then milled seven times before the paprika is ready. To schedule a group tour, operators should contact the Protected Designation of Origin Pimentón de la Vera.
2. Tour an olive oil factory
The Extremadura region is responsible for approximately 6% of the total olive oil production in Spain. I visited the Almazara As Pontis olive oil mill, one of the most advanced of its kind in Extremadura. The family-owned company is located in the little town of Elijas in Sierra de Gata. On a tour of the mill, my group saw the entire process of making its extra virgin olive oil brand, Vieiru, from the time the farmers dropped off their olive loads through weighing, sorting and pressing. The company exports to over 22 countries with a production of over 300,000 liters (79,000 gallons) per year! Group tours can be scheduled in advance.
Next door to the olive oil mill is A Velha Fabrica, a four-star hotel that stands on the remains of an old textile, olive oil and soap factory. It’s owned by the same family that owns the mill. Guests can buy botttles of the Almazara As Pontis olive oil right on-site. My group toured the beautiful property before enjoying our olive oil tasting. As the experts say, “swirl, sniff, taste and swallow.”
3. Taste Jamón Ibérico
Extremadura is famous for its specialty Iberian cured ham. Iberian pigs, a traditional breed, graze in the area’s oak forest landscape, or dehesa. The pigs feast on acorns and herbs, which gives the cured ham delicacy its unique flavor.
I toured an Iberian pig farm before visiting a factory to learn about the ham’s journey from the countryside to the table. There, I learned the art of carving the meat before sampling some myself. The ham’s flavor definitely lived up to the hype!
An official Iberian Ham Route links woodlands, mountains, towns and villages throughout Extremadura. To book group jamón tours, contact Pepe Alba with Turismo del Jamón or Marcos Torres of EXTREM jamón factory.
4. Visit heritage sites
Extremadura is home to many heritage sites and historic places.
The charming city of Plasencia combines culture with nature. On a guided tour of the city, I learned the walled city center is designated a Cultural Heritage Site, in part because of its religious buildings, aqueduct, palaces and natural surroundings.
The city of Cáceres is a UNESCO World Heritage City because of its blend of Roman, Islamic, Northern Gothic and Italian Renaissance styles. I was taken aback by how truly beautiful the city was and my photographs didn’t nearly do it justice. As I walked along the narrow, cobbled streets, I took in the sights of mansions, palaces, churches and towers. While here, consider staying at NH Collection Palacio de Oquendo, it’s centrally located but also very conducive to groups, espcially because coaches can pull up right in front of the hotel.
Another UNESCO World Heritage City is Extremadura’s capital, Mérida. Touring the city is like traveling back in time to the Roman Empire. A Roman theater still operates some 2,000 years later, in addition to other Roman ruins like an amphitheater, a temple and a bridge. Visitors can take in more Roman culture at the National Museum of Roman Art.
5. See the dolmens
The town of Valencia de Alcántara, which sits in the mountains along the Spain-Portugal border, lies inside the Tagus International Nature Reserve. The Spanish portion of the reserve covers 28,000 hectares (69,190 acres) and is home to many threatened species. My group took a Jeep tour in the park, where our guide showed us cork trees and explained how cork is harvested.
Our guide then took us to see one of Europe’s largest groups of dolmens — single chamber megalithic tombs. The municipality of Valencia de Alcántara has 48 dolmens in total. The monuments are individual or collected burial sites that date from between the Neolithic and the Chalcolithic periods. The structures are simply amazing and are best experienced with a guide, although self-guided exploration is also an option.
In addition to the dolmens, another must-see for visitors is the beautiful Roman Bridge at Alcántara. The massive Roman construction is 180 meters (590 feet) long and 9 meters (30 feet) wide. It offers a stunning background for group photos!
More to know
Where to stay: Choose a parador (luxury accommodations in a historic building) for your groups’ overnights. I can personally recommend Parador of Jarandilla de la Vera (a castle), Parador de Plasencia (a 15th-century convent) and Parador de Mérida (an 18th-century convent). All are very accommodating for groups.
Hear another language: No, I don’t mean Spanish! The residents that live in valley towns in northwestern Extremadura speak a different language called A Fala. The romance language is only spoken by some 10,500 people. Most Spaniards don’t know how to speak it or that it even exists! I heard it spoken in the charming village of San Martín de Trevejo.
Closest airports: I flew into Madrid Barajas International Airport, but if you start your journey in Mérida, you could fly into Seville Airport.