There were always corners of Spain, far-flung places with historical and political significance, that you never seemed to quite get to. Badajoz was one of those places. A provincial capital of 150,000 people, a legendary border town near Portugal where battles and skirmishes raged between French, Spaniards, Portuguese and the British, and a city that I was always told wasn’t worth visiting. So more my desire to go then. With me it was never a direct route. In this country gems were always scattered along any route.
Morning coffee was had at El Puente de Arzobispo; a nothing-town from the outside. A place that seemed quietly populated by not much more than old men and women. The former propped up little bars that had plastic beer-sponsored chairs outside. They stood, one elbow bent onto the bar counter, the other holding small beers. The latter set up solitary wooden stools outside their front doors and just watched the world go by.
That would have been the end of it, until I noticed an objectively high number of ceramic shops. Then I remembered we were in La Mancha and not too far from Talavera de la Reina - a scummy town with no real merit except a vast industry in cerámica. And on closer inspection, this village was clearly living and breathing off this very trade. Small details began to shine out: the tiled dome of the church, brick benches with striking tiled panoramas of Spanish cities, little multi-coloured tiles chunks studded into the pavements and curbs. It was ultimately quite a charming place.
Then an obligatory stop at the village/monastery of Guadalupe, hiding in a hollow surrounded by green wildflower hills. When the sun hit the village the main attraction was evident. At its highest point was the Real Monasterio de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. This was one of Columbus’ remote stopping points before he set off for his travels to the New World.
I first came to this vast Gothic UNESCO bulk on my initial trip around Spain to write my first book back in 2010. I had arrived with my friends Elena and Carlos. We had hauled his old car up the absurdly tiny streets and suffered the screaming summer temperatures. Now in May, I could enjoy the utterly unchanged village without turning pink in seconds. The building is a grand old hodgepodge of turrets, towers, spires and domes, with both heavy bricks and delicate filigree completing the decoration. It felt like a settlement built to seem like it was bowing down in awe of the thing.
And the old Jewish quarter itself was also worthy of respect. A small rambling web of channel-lined streets - to deal with heavy sierra rains - and wooden houses hanging over walkways that in turn were held aloft by wooden columns.
Our thoughts turned to food so I followed a recommendation from my friend Miguel, part of the troupe of friends I made when I first moved to Spain and who hail from Extremadura. At homely-little Restaurante Guadalupe we sat in the interior courtyard and indulged a menu del día: rice covered in gooey fried eggs and tomato sauce, hunks of bread, a bottle of strong local wine, fresh garden salads. And then on to the capital.
Badajoz arrived under a hot and steamy sky that threatened rain. Almost nine years living in Spain and finally I had made it to this famous city: home to Peninsular warring and a Moorish castle. Driving in, it could be seen shining in the rays of evening sun that had punctured the cloud cover. It looked tropical almost. Something truly Arabic. The inside of it was really just a town-park. But from without it was quite imposing.
Walking around Badajoz, it was clear that the city wasn’t a real looker. A bit scruffy and rough around the edges and lacking much in the way of a sustained old town. There were a couple of attractive buildings here, an old gate there, but centuries of war had left the place a little bereft of beauty.
The rather surreal Plaza Alta was an exception though. Backed on one side by the turreted wall of the alcazaba and on two-other sides with a Moorish dreamlike design of red and white tiles and arches that mimicked the bowels of the Mezquita at Cordoba and also the Croatian flag, it provided a shock of real uniqueness to a town whose only other monument of interest was its fairly appealing but small and squat cathedral.
Having finished with our somewhat limited options for tourism, we decided it was high time to down some more local wine and eat some food. We followed another suggestion and ate at La Corchuela; a rustic old bar with a century-old tradition. A bar of low brick arches, old photos, barmen in white shirts, locals at the bar drinking beer and eating free dishes of chorizo. We ordered gambas, carne al ajillo, some croquetas and morcilla mondonga (a local fried blood sausage).
We turned in content with a day of Extremaduran travel and prepared for the next stage that would take to Spain’s deepest depths.