South From Madrid: #1: The Road to Caceres

Time to leave the city. Time to breathe in deeply and inhale cleaner airs and take in new scenery. Or old tracks revisited. 

The road left the underground highways and ugly trading estates of the southwest of Madrid, through Mostoles and the small wine town of Navalcarnero where I had once stalked summer streets in search of local tempranillos, and shot into the vague and featureless plains that characterise that part of the Madrid region. 

 Plains of the conquistadors

Plains of the conquistadors

Then further west to flirt with La Mancha through the empty flats that sit prettily and hot between the hulking rises of the Sierra de Gredos to the north and the low, always shadowy, Montes de Toledo to the south. Talavera, described by Brenan as ‘a disagreeable place and one of the few places in Spain that one can call squalid’, was not a town to stop in. Neither was there time to gawp at the impressive fortifications at Oropesa. We had a meeting with a conquistador. Through undulating groves of ilex and holm oak Trujillo arrived, sat dusty and alone, spilled out over a small hill. 

 Plaza Mayor at Trujillo

Plaza Mayor at Trujillo

The signs were portentous on entry. A pigeon, injured, flapped painfully from a doorway and sprayed my back with blood. Was this some sign? Some ghost of an angry colonialist? No, and the town still shone. Its main square was grander than I had remembered from my first visit. The heat was lesser but still May had flexed its muscles and the shadows were the glad places. Its main church, stained with lichen the colour of rust, towered over everything and was guarded by the statue of Pizarro. One tower pinched into a tiled spire above a clock and bell; the other was square and squat. An almost unbroken ring of handsome houses and grand conquistador mansions, all busy with coats of arms and arches, circled the plaza. Every high point was covered with white storks; those clacking and clumsy sentinels of the plains that bedeck ancient towers from Extremadura to Alcala de Henares and all the way to the east of La Mancha.  

 Trujillo

Trujillo

Then the small jumble of honey streets that creeps up the hillside to the old castle - a once grand edifice now slowly being taken back by nature. One storey, or maybe two, buildings made of stone winding around in each other in sunny and narrow loops. No high and white flats of Andalusia abound in these medieval clusters. Heat is the enemy here. A little nun pokes her head out of a doorway with iron bars. She smiles and I buy some cinnamon cookies from her. The rock churches provide the only points of reference until the fortified summit arrives and achieves the delightful removal of air from the lungs. 

 Watchers in the wings

Watchers in the wings

The castle, now just an empty husk of walkways and wells where you can pay 50c to see a stone Virgin spin around and light up in a chapel, is the one that watches over so many miles of nothing. Hot plains, mustard-beige studded with blobs of mossy green, spread out to a horizon fringed with dark bumps. Extremadura is a land of space.

 In the belly of Caceres

In the belly of Caceres

Caceres, Trujillo’s outsized neighbour, has all the markings of a city, but only for its size relative to the sparse expanses that surround it. It is in reality just a large provincial town. Once again the medieval architects found their vantage point and covered it in buildings. Caceres is pleasant and well put together and its historic centre is perfect. Clean and the colour of shining barley, it is an opulent conjunto of ecclesiastical buildings, grand mansions, towers and the odd fat-cobbled street bursting with flower pots. Jolly nuns cluttered the streets and quickly rushed inside buildings with big wooden doors. Forming a thin rind down one side there is room enough in the old walled town to include a couple of Jewish streets; small and white with Hebrew markings and a low chapel where people chanted. 

 The main square

The main square

The plaza mayor sits at the bottom, facing the entrance to the historic part, opposite the Marrakech-like towers and entrance archways. A handsome and roomy square of pleasing white buildings full of restaurants, old men painting and middle-class, noisy French people. As light fell, out came the swallows and bats; the hunters of dusk out to catch the flies. The hefty red wine from the Ribera del Guadiana took effect and before the day was out there was time enough to have one last stroll around the deserted streets of the old town where the only sound was the hum from the electric lamps. Wonderfully remote and a fine way to start shaking off that blustery coat of the big city and put on those carefree summer shirts of the South.