A few big contenders line up when you think about places to visit in Spain: Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, Màlaga. These destinations ooze culture, architecture, great food, beaches, nightlife and shopping. But what if cities aren’t your thing? What happens if the thought of tramping concrete streets brings you out in a metaphorical rash. All those people. That hustle and bustle. Buses, trams, pigeons.
Perhaps, like me, you have a hankering for getting off the main-trail and experiencing small town Spain. Suddenly the roads are uncluttered, the views go on for as far as the eyes can see and the orange groves even further. The backroads of Spain unfurl like a tendril, revealing their hidden gems to those with a map on their knees and a yen for adventure. Curvy mountain roads, sleepy villages, dark green olive trees at the sides of the road; now, my friend, you are in the heart of Spain.
If like me you fancy discovering what life is like in rural Spain, then the first thing you need to realise is that it’s not that difficult to get off the beaten track. You will need your own transportation, as although public transport is available in places, the routes and times you can travel will be limited.
My friend and I recently spent three weeks tripping about Spain and Portugal in a campervan, with only our maps and our whimsical sense of adventure to guide us. Not keen on spending a great deal of time in big cities – scratch that, pretty much no time in big cities – we found ourselves in one of the least developed regions of Spain: Extremadura.
Situated on the bank of the Rio Ãgueda, the modern town of Cuidad Rodrigo hides an enchanting walled city at its centre. It is 90km south-west of Salamanca and about 25km from the border of Portugal.
Parking is available on the Avenida De Sefarad and a walk over the bridge takes you into the beautiful streets of the walled city. I wandered through the narrow lanes and sat in the main square, Plaza Mayor, to enjoy a laid back lunch and coffee. As the sun beat down, I perused the menu – totally in Spanish – and enjoyed the challenge of ordering something from the waiter with my rudimentary grasp of the language.
Possibly the best thing I did however, was to walk around the walls – which were built in the 12th century – to admire 360 degree views of the surrounding landscape. The river chugged lazily alongside the walled town and reflected the many arches of the beautiful old bridge.
Torre de Don Miguel
We were driving past this place and turned in on a whim. What a good decision that turned out to be as this Torre de Don Miguel was a gorgeous hideaway of a place where absolutely nothing out of the ordinary was happening. Sounds boring, doesn’t it? But it was a glorious example of small town Spanish life.
The miniscule shops were open to sell cured meats, fresh eggs and other local produce. Forget a giant supermarket; these places were tiny holes in the wall hidden behind a fly screen. The delivery truck squeezed into the main square – as did we, where we managed to find a parking space for the campervan whilst being stared at by all the locals – and delivered beer and supplies to the Carpe Diem café.
We wandered through the streets and said hello to the tottering elderly people who followed us with their eyes, starting quite unabashedly. The centre of the village was a dense clutter of shuttered houses, with crumbling facades and balconies with coats of arms above their doorways registering from the 1200s.
The Sierra de Gata
These mountain ranges are situated in the northern end of the province of Cãceres in Extremadura. At the time we visited the autumn colours were beginning to wash the landscape with a gorgeous golden hue. The roads were winding and narrow, the views into the gorges stunning. Here we based ourselves at a little campsite set in the hills between Gata and Torre de Don Miguel where we were the only occupants, it being slightly off season.
We drove along the road into Gata and were treated to a little village where people tended to their crops and vegetables in their gardens, the elderly promenaded together or sat chatting on benches. Woodsmoke seeped out from tiny chimneys and into the autumn air. Again, this was total rural perfection with nothing to do but enjoy a sensual stroll around.
The Alcãntara viaduct is a Roman stone bridge built over the Rio Tagus between 104 and 106 AD. It is a stunning place to stop for a while and admire the views. We also explored along the river by walking down one of the many little paths that wind along the edges of the gorge and discovered an absolutely wonderful, idyllic hideaway of a place to wild camp.
We were excited to read about the viaduct in our guidebooks, but what we failed to appreciate in the book was that in real life a gigantic great dam sat 600m behind it. The dam regulates much of the flow of the Tagus River, the longest of the Iberian Peninsula. It was built in 1969 and is the second largest reservoir in Europe. So, that’s pretty huge, really. You can’t help but see it, and whilst it’s obviously not high on the list of attractive tourist sites – or on any list in fact – you can’t help but feel impressed for a minute or two at the sheer engineering of it, so it’s worth mentioning.
What can I say about Mérida?
This place blew me away with its stunningly preserved Roman architecture. The Archaeological Ensemble of Mérida is one of the largest and most extensive archaeological sites in Spain and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993. Sites such as the Teatro Romano, Anfiteatro and the Circo Romano are all threaded throughout the city’s streets and you could spend at least a day or more exploring their jaw-droppingly preserved beauty.
The theatre was built from 16 to 15 BC. Nowadays you are free to wander through the site and I would have loved to have experienced a concert here as the town still use this as a venue for outdoor performing arts and music.
The amphitheatre was dedicated in 8 BC, for use in gladiatorial contests and staged beast-hunts. It has an elliptical arena, surrounded by tiered seating for around 15,000 spectators, although now only the lower tiers remain. Sitting here transported me to time past and I could imagine bloody battles being carried out before me. It was quite possibles these imaginings featured Russell Crowe in his battle-worn glory, but I’m sure you’ll excuse me.
The Alcazaba was built by Abd-er-Rahman II in 835 AD as a stronghold to control the city. The Alcazaba was the first Arab citadel on the Iberian Peninsula. Inside the complex of buildings is a reservoir for storing drinking water, which makes the building unique, consisting of an inexhaustible water supply (filtered from the Guadiana). To access it you climbed down the stairs of the tower to an underground viewing platform.
Hints And Tips
Go slightly off-season for two reasons: it will be a lot quieter in the campsites and a helluva lot cooler. In the summer, temperatures in this landlocked region can soar. Camping becomes a lot less fun when you’re sweating in a canvas sauna, and daytime sightseeing will be hampered by the heat.
Do some research on campsites / accommodation before you go. I wasted a lot of time out of the day searching for suitable places to camp each night, which could have been avoided if I had a better idea of locations to camp.
Take note of siestas; in these sleepy little villages and towns it is unlikely that you will find shops and supermarkets open in the afternoon. Plan your days around when you can do your food shopping, as rocking up at a campsite without any treats in the fridge is not conducive to a happy evening!
Do you love exploring away from the beaten track? Have you ever been to Spain? What are your recommendations? Share your thoughts!