It was a hot, cloudy sky that covered the world south of Badajoz as we peeled southwards. These were roads less travelled, far flung dusty stretches of tarmac than ran parallel to Portugal. Simple countryside that recalled the Serengeti and which produced manifold conquistadores. Did they simply want to get out?
Out on the plains Zafra appeared. The locals call the town ‘Sevilla la chica’, little Seville, for its apparent resemblance. I had only gone past it once on a hungover train ride back in 2010 on my way from Cádiz to Mérida and always though the name sounded intriguing. I had been travelling around Spain to write my first book and had spent the whole evening with a group of European misfits drinking sweet sherry on a hostel terrace. I was keen then to see if the name fit the face. Ultimately it reminded me as much of Córdoba as Seville, but I suppose that’s splitting Spanish hairs.
A small, crenellated Gothic castle sat looming over a small car park and some shops selling jamones while small old ladies walked through the morning streets that shone from recent rains. This is the first impression of Zafra. Then we found a shopping street with all the usual amenities that a person wanting to offload some euros could want. A scallop shell was spied on the wall of a small hidden convent - for Zafra is on the southern arm of the Camino de Santiago, the Vía de la Plata.
The centre of the casco histórico was more to my liking. Sturdy palm trees populated the interlocking web of tight cobbled streets and little squares; squares that were almost all lined with attractive arched colonnades. I thought they were probably for shade more than rain protection.
The tangle of stony lanes recalled Córdoba’s Jewish quarter, but could easily have been Évora snaking a tendril out from the Alentejo. We were spat out in a flurry of churches, pastel-coloured door-frames and Virgin-icons hanging on white walls and had coffee, sent postcards and drove west.
The land became more attractive, a wavy world of grass and olive trees and barely another vehicle. At Burguillos del Cerro I took photos of the hilltop castle, pestered a flighty young horse who didn’t know if he wanted his photo taken or not, and remarked on how the treelined central street recalled Windsor Boulevard in Los Angeles, though, of course, a much smaller Spanish version.
Then came a dinkier, though perhaps more visually stimulating vision of Extremadura with an even more pompous name: Jerez de los Caballeros. Its name is shared with that most excellent southern wine town Jerez de la Frontera, both enjoying the root ceret in the original Phoenician. I can’t for the life of me find out why. It appeared, sitting in a wobbly hollow surrounded by dumpy green hills full of pigs and wine. A ECG of white houses and fine, sharp brick spires.
Parallel streets peppered with nuns and locals going about their business ran southwest up and down. We elected to pass through the medieval gate Puerta de Burgos and past a statue of Hernando de Soto, he being the first European to delve the depths of the US and also be the logo of Chrysler’s DeSoto range. To our right, rising north, were incredibly steep streets that we chose not to take.
At the edge of town the streets stop at a charming park with a monstrous church - the Iglesia de Santa María de la Encarnación, the remains of the Moorish alcazaba, plump, beautifully-tended flower gardens and stellar views out to that most Spanish of sceneries. We didn’t stay long however, as lunch was beckoning and we were still more than 160km away from our destination.
Soon the land rose into green peaks, not big, but enough to give the car a work out and views to make you halt on the side of the road. The Sierra de Aracena, among many other places in this part of Iberia, is home to the dehesa, Iberia’s multifunctional agrosylvopastroal countryside and cultural landscape. Cork trees, olives, game, mushrooms, firewood, pigs, pigs, more pigs. A veritable hodgepodge of well-tended Mediterranean agriculture. And very visually appealing as well.
The clouds persisted and then exploded as we arrived at the adorable little white ham town of Almonaster la Real. Lunch was had at a lovely traditional restaurant - the requisite Spanish quantity of wooden beams, low-lighting, wide bar on entry. El Rincón de Curro. It was here that I enjoyed one of the finest pig-based meals I have had the pleasure of eating in Spain - this being ham country I expected nothing less.
We ordered a bottle of local wine, local as in from the village itself, the only registered winery in the area. Bemoles was a nice dark sticky red wine and went delightfully with our starter: a plate of jamón ibérico de bellota. Those fat, black, free range pigs that roam the dehesa in a state of pure bliss and for the last few months of their lives stuff themselves silly with acorns, whose sweetness translates to the shining fat that makes the ham taste so good.
Then a dish that was a shrine to pig: solomillo de cerdo ibérico al Jerez, a solid slab of Iberian pork fillet that had been grilled to perfection, like a sturdy medium steak, served with a sherry wine sauce, caramelised onion potatoes and a chubby mushroom filled with a garlic alioli.
I left the car and ran through the rain towards the ancient 10th century Mezquita - built over a Visigothic basilica from the 5th century - that sat coiled up like a brown stone cobra on its hill. The interior columns seemed like someone had got some bricks and had been practicing a miniature version of the Great Mezquita at Córdoba.
I waited until the rains had stopped and stood in the doorway enjoying the view. A little snuggled up huddle of white houses with orange roofs surrounded by green mounds and with the only thing marking any architectural topography being the the little sandstone-coloured church.
The award for more scenic town was awarded to the delightful Aralar, a place I would have liked to spend some time, though had to make do with a wonderful look at it from the mirador at the Reina de los Ángeles chapel. I wondered how many pigs were hiding just outside the village boundary.
We had a brief rain-soaked stop at Aracena, the head town of the area, but I was a little disappointed. I was of course affected by the weather, but it seemed to lack a bit of the polished charm of the previous villages. No doubt in sunny Spring weather I would think differently. Again I obstinately walked up through the deluge to the church so I could take a photo and ‘say I’d seen it’.
The views were nice enough from the top though and I spared a thought for the poor shepherd, no doubt also sodden to the marrow, moving his healthy-looking sheep slowly through the town fields. A heavy low cloud, flirting with becoming mist, had descended and sapped the colour from the world leaving it a muted place of white and moss-green. We pushed on south to sun-splashed Palos de la Frontera on the Huelva coast, but more on that next time.