The coldest months in Spain are January and February. Temperatures on the plains drop down to freezing at night but reach well into the teens centigrade (50F) during the day. Snow dusts the hilltops and while it rains occasionally, weather rarely presents problems for travelers. With temperatures up in the 30s and even 40s (100F+) the rest of the year, Spain is geared for cooling, not heating. With that in mind, we bundled ourselves and all the down gear we own into our rental car and took off for points west and north. After a night at a B&B in the Tabernas desert, we continued in a wide circle with stops in Seville, Cáceres, Mérida, Toledo and Alcalá del Júcar. I’ll cover the first three stops in this post, so keep scrolling!
There’s a reason that Seville gets swamped with tourists, it packs about as much of Spain as you can manage into a single, walkable city. Carol visited Seville five years ago with Tai and was keen to show me some of the sights. We decided not to gamble with central heating and traded a few Accor hotel points for two nights in a Novotel. Not only was it dog friendly, it was a short walk from the major attractions.
Arriving in late afternoon, we parked the car, grabbed a leash and headed out with Marlon to see what we could find in the way of tapas. Diving into the old town’s winding alleys and cobbled streets is a bit like entering a maze. A maze with good food and drink on every corner. Carol oriented herself and we soon wound our way to the cathedral square. We wandered along the walls of the Alcázar’s gardens and let Marlon bark at the local dogs for a bit.
We plunked ourselves down outside the Bodeguita Romero tapas bar for a glass of wine and a bite. The warmth of the day hung around long enough to keep us comfortable as we perused an extensive list of wines by the glass. This isn’t a town that takes time off in low season. Everything was open and buzzing and mercifully uncrowded.
The sun rose brightly, and we headed back to old town to explore the palace and cathedral as close to opening time as breakfast would allow. Being unwelcome in public, Marlon stayed behind to guard our shopping bags.
Our first stop was the Real Alcázar, another of the great Muslim palaces co-opted by Spain’s reconquering Christian royalty. Compared with Granada and Cordoba, the Alcázar has more life to it. There are exhibitions of traditional art and many of the rooms were tastefully restored over the years. In spring and summer the extensive gardens come to life and are themselves a treat (Carol tells me).
We poked our heads into the cathedral and literally bumped into Christopher Columbus’ tomb. Well, in truth it’s more of a palanquin, but I’m not sure he knows or cares. The cathedral ceiling towers above your head and there are more antechambers than you can shake a heretic at. Still, it is one of those buildings that seems much bigger on the outside than on the inside. We grabbed a couple of tasty bites and a caña (small beer) at the bar of the Bodega Santa Cruz before heading back to give Marlon some relief.
That evening we went to a traditional flamenco show (see Carol’s post), after which we found a wonderful little tapas joint, the Vineria San Telmo.
Rather than spend all our time going over ground Carol had already covered, we agreed to head north and get off the beaten track a bit. After a little research, we landed in Cáceres, a hilltop town with prehistoric origins, Roman walls and post-Columbian buildings. Hunting for our accommodation led us uphill and (wrongly) into the heart of the historic quarter. The streets grew narrower and narrower and Google maps increasingly unreliable. My explorer’s motto of, ‘when in doubt, follow a local’ eventually led us out of the labyrinth and back downhill to modernity. At one point I got out of the car and made sure with my outstretched arms the road was wide enough. It’s as well modern vehicles are no broader than a 13th century hayrick.
For lunch on our second day we ran into Perhaps Tapería, tucked away a hundred yards from a 15th century chapel. With its cozy ambience and eclectic menu, we had one of our best meals in Spain for not much more than regular tapas. Full marks to Perhaps.
Cáceres, like so many Spanish towns, is mostly modern tower blocks surrounding an ancient core. Once we explored the narrow streets and saw the house of Moctezuma’s daughter (yes, that Moctezuma), we turned the corner and were back in the grip of 20th century concrete. In this sense much of the town was entirely forgettable. But that’s a bit of a disservice. There is a lively university that keeps the average age down, while a two-star Michelin restaurant keeps culinary experimentation up. Plus, there is a good supply of country rambles leading off in all directions. Moreover, it sits an hour north of Mérida, one of Spain’s better preserved Roman cities.
Founded in 25CE/AD, Mérida was emperor Augustus’ answer to the question, ‘Guv, what’ll we do with all these aging centurions?’ Again, the Roman location scouts did their homework, siting the former capital of Lusitania between two rivers, six kilometers from a large lake. The lake supplied fresh water via a viaduct (why-a-duck?) and the town’s effluvia floated off downstream. For as far as we could see the surrounding fields were still a lush green.
“Are you not entertained?” Keeping old folks busy two millennia ago was as big a challenge as it is today. Sporting both a small coliseum and a large theater, ancient Mérida’s arts calendar must have been lively. Along with warm weather most of the year and thermal baths, what more could an aging gladiator want? The theater is still active and hosts a festival every year.
A combo ticket for all the city’s main attractions costs 15 euro. It does not, however, include entrance the National Museum of Roman Art directly across from the coliseum and theater. Luckily, we arrived on a Sunday and this stunning museum was free to all comers. Three stories high, each floor in the museum displays artefacts from different eras in the Roman occupation. Several huge mosaics are safely on display and inspire awe.
Across town, large sections of the Aqueduct de los Milagros remain intact. Walking beneath the soaring arches you can see how heavily buttressed the structure is. A few sections have crumbled off, exposing carefully laid bricks beneath. A lot of work went into it. Big white storks have moved onto the upper levels and occasionally circle above your head, clacking their long bills noisily. Marlon was not a fan.
Perhaps my favorite sight in Mérida was the crypt under the Basilica of Saint Eulalia. Originally a small clutch of Roman houses, Christian martyrs turned them into a necropolis and for centuries interred their dead there. Around the 5th century a basilica covered the crypt and eventually expanded into its current form. You enter the crypt by walking down a set of stairs and into its cramped space. For me there was something compelling about standing, hunched over, in that dusty vault with thousands of human stories layered like a stack of books beneath my feet.
Stay tuned for part 2…