Extremadura, the backwater that conquered America

Much of the culture, language, even the cuisine of South and Central America originates in a few small towns in western Spain. Extremadura, a dusty, sun-blasted region along the border with Portugal, bred the Conquistadors, a ruthless and relentless band of adventurers who carved out an empire across the Atlantic.

These days, Extremadura is more concerned with cuisine than conquest. Visitors are drawn by the culinary traditions of acorn-fed pigs and the resultant delicious hams and chorizo. Then they discover the beautifully-preserved cities of Trujillo, Cáceres and Mérida, in this evocative region of Spain.

Photo of the statue of Francisco Pizarro in Trujillo
Statue of Spanish conquistador
Francisco Pizarro in Trujillo

Trujillo in the afternoon seems like a sleepy, peaceful kind of place, with the sun beating down on atmospheric medieval squares. It's difficult to believe that its streets bred some of history's cruellest warriors. A restless bunch of 15th-century Trujillo men put the town on the map, driven by religious fervour or desire for wealth, and led by the talented buccaneer Francisco Pizarro (who tended to put gold before God).

One telling example of Trujillo's influence is the word "chico", used by locals to mean small. It's a usage rarely heard elsewhere in Spain, but a common expression in South America.

Pizarro built the lavish Palacio de la Conquista, on the corner of the Plaza Mayor, as a gift for his half-brother Hernando, who also became his son-in-law after he married Pizarro's half-Inca daughter. To see how far the family ascended, visit the Pizarro museum in his humble birthplace in the heart of the old town.

Principal City: Mérida
Tourist Board: Extremadura Tourism

The old city of Cáceres (in the Province of Cáceres) now a World Heritage site, has a marginally less bloody history. Its stone medieval centre takes on a timeless quality when the day-trippers have departed, the shadows lengthen, and the storks' nests are silhouetted against the Extremadura sky. The Moors built the curved outer walls. Locals who returned to the city from the Americas spent their gold on graceful townhouses (known as solares). Otherwise Cáceres is characterised by tough stone fortifications, solid dwellings letting in only chinks of light.

Visitors with a reverence for the Aztecs might like to pay their respects at the Casa De Toledo-Montezuma, once the residence of the last Aztec emperor's daughter, brought to Cáceres by one of Hernan Cortes's sidekicks.

The identity of Extremadura, as a frontier region with a thirst for overseas booty, is moulded by two cataclysmic events: the occupation by the Moors and the conquest of the Americas. The region had a certain importance long before that though, as an outpost of the Roman Empire.

The Roman remains at Mérida are among the most significant in Europe. There are the ruins of a Circus, a Forum, an Amphitheatre and several substantial villas, as well as a bridge over the river Guadiana, the longest of all surviving Roman bridges.

Seeing all the sights can be exhausting so it's better to spread the visit over a couple of days, to do justice to the ruins and mosaics. That also allows plenty of time to enjoy Mérida's restaurants. You'll be amazed at the innumerable dishes on offer involving some part of that beloved pig.

Provinces of Extremadura

Cáceres | Badajoz