I have a confession – I have never seen Game of Thrones. Not a single episode. As each season arrived, and the people around me talked of little else, I remained happily outside the circle of GoT.
Then I travelled to Spain. And that was it. We happened to be visiting the location for some of the show’s most iconic scenes in the stunning surroundings of Los Barruecos in Extremadura – and I was shown the Battle of the Dragon on someone’s phone. I was hooked.
The images of the dragon swooping in over the rocky terrain made me want to see more of the series, and of this beautiful region in south west Spain.
Extremadura is the size of the Netherlands but is home to just over one million people. Bordered in part by Portugal, it is a largely unspoilt region of green plains, forests of oak and outcrops of granite.
The Celts, the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors and the Christians all came and saw and conquered, leaving behind a wealth of monuments and artefacts. It is home to three Unesco World Heritage sites – the Roman city of Merida, the old town of Caceres and the monastery of Santa Maria in Guadalupe.
We flew from Dublin to Seville, and then travelled by bus to Zafra, an hour and a half away, as guests of Turismo Extremadura. The small town of Zafra is also known as Little Seville and its streets are lined with orange trees, though the fruit is more for show than for eating. In Zafra, however, we enjoyed a taste of things to come, with a delicious lunch at the Plaza Grande restaurant, including lomo, a rich and tender sirloin of the internationally renowned Iberian pork, and Torta del Casar, a local cheese made from sheep’s milk.
Walking from Plaza Grande to Plaza Chica, Marco Mangut – linguist, historian and tour guide extraordinaire – brought the town’s rich history to life.
Then it was on to Merida, the regional capital of Extremadura and the former capital of Lusitania (Spain and Portugal). Merida is a history lover’s dream, and a builder’s nightmare, as every project reveals more Roman remains. Even the offices of the regional government are built on stilts to accommodate the Roman ruins visible beneath.
Merida, or Emerita Augusta as it was known, was founded in 25BC. The well-preserved Roman monuments are magnificent, from Trajan’s Arch to the Temple of Diana, the Los Milagros aqueduct and the Roman bridge. The latter was in use until 1991 when the new Lusitania bridge was built. Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava is also the man behind Dublin’s Samuel Beckett and James Joyce bridges.
Most spectacular of all is the Roman theatre and amphitheatre. Excavations began in 1910 in what was a potato field, when all that could be seen were the so-called Seven Chairs. However, buried beneath centuries of earth were the incredible remains of the theatre which dates from 16BC. Today, the theatre is used to host different events, from the Festival of Classical Theatre in June and July, to pop singer Gloria Gaynor this weekend.
The amphitheatre, where gladiators once did battle, is also the setting for a dramatic procession at Easter when the Catholic Brotherhoods, in their distinctive robes and pointed hats, celebrate Semana Santa (Holy Week) with elaborate religious floats.
The National Museum of Roman Art, based on the design of Trajan’s Arch, contains a wealth of artefacts and mosaics found during the excavations in the city.
Tapas is an important part of life in Spain, and as dinner at La Carboneria restaurant in Merida showed, it does not always mean ‘small plates’. Five courses, including wine, for around €35 was an absolute feast. We were early diners for Spain, arriving at 9pm, with the majority of customers not arriving until after 10pm. A table of men, some still in their hi-vis work jackets, arrived just as we were finishing up.
However, the five-star luxury of the Hotel Ilunion Merida Palace, a restored palace on the main square, the Plaza de Espana, was calling and so we were ready to say goodnight.
From Merida, we moved on to the beautiful city of Caceres, where the past is a powerful force. Within the 12th Century Moorish walls of the old town lies a mix of Roman, Moorish, Gothic and Renaissance architecture. Walking around the town is like stepping back in time.
A few miles outside Caceres is Los Barruecos National Monument, an incredible landscape of granite rocks, lakes and reservoirs. Nearby, in what seems like the middle of nowhere, is the Vostell Malpartida Museum. German artist Wolf Vostell, a founder of the Fluxus Movement, came to Extremadura in 1958 because he loved the granite of the area, and fell in love with Mercedes Guardado, a woman from Caceres. Now, in what was an old wool laundry, is the most amazing collection of contemporary art, with work by Vostell, and other Fluxus artists such as Yoko Ono. Cars, TVs and motorbikes all feature in the installations in the grounds of the museum.
After lunch at the Torre de Sande restaurant in Caceres, it seemed as if we would never need to eat again. Fortunately, we rediscovered our appetites in time for a wine-tasting dinner with sommelier Catalina Bustillo (Cata con Cati) at La Minerva Tapas Bar. Each course of organic local produce, such as cochifrito (fried pork) and pineapple soup, was paired with a different wine, all expertly explained by Cati.
In Herreruela, a ‘ham safari’ with Pepe Alba of Turismo del Jamon brought us up close and personal with the black Iberian pig. The pigs roam freely on the dehesa, the managed forests of holm oak and cork oak, and during the montanera, from February to October, they feast on acorns, giving the ‘Jamon Iberico’ its prized quality.
Every wedding in Spain has ‘a man with a ham’, and Pepe treated us to a masterclass in carving as we ate lunch outdoors in the beautiful surroundings of Martin Cotrina’s Rural Hotel before heading back to the NH Palacio de Oquendo in Caceres. This fabulous 16th Century converted palace, near one of the gates to the old city, is pure luxury.
Wine-tasting at 10am sounded like it could be a challenge after our ‘late-for-us but early-for-Spaniards’ dinner in the hotel’s tapas bar the previous night. However, the visit to the Bodegas Habla winery on the way to Trujillo was worth it. The grapes are picked by hand but inside the winery, innovative techniques are used to create the high-quality wines. The reds come in distinctive black bottles, numbered from 1 to 19. Only 1,000 bottles of No3 were produced in 2005, and just 91 remain. A bottle of Habla No3 would cost around €302, with the price rising as the stock is reduced. However, one of the most popular wines, Habla del Silencio, costs around €10.
Our final stop was Trujillo, a walled town rich in history as each new conqueror claimed the structures of the previous inhabitants. The 13th Century church of Santa Maria la Mayor was built on an Arab mosque. However, one of the more unusual additions occurred in 1971, when restoration work was being carried out and the stonemason, an Athletic Bilbao fan, carved the club’s shield on to the side of one of the towers.
Trujillo was the birthplace of many of the conquerors of the New World, including Francisco Pizarro, conqueror of Peru, and Francisco de Orellana, who, in searching for El Dorado, became the first man to navigate the Amazon. Trujillo was also the home of Maria de Escobar, who followed her husband, one of Pizarro’s officers, to Peru in the 1530s, bringing with her the first wheat and barley seeds, revolutionising agriculture there.
Lunch in Bizcocho was another feast, and its location on the beautiful Plaza Mayor makes it a perfect spot to soak in the historic surroundings while dreaming of my next visit to Extremadura. I might even have watched all eight seasons of Game of Thrones by then.
Take Two: Top attractions
Live like a Roman
If you want the enjoy a real Roman experience, go to Aqua Libera Rural Hotel in Aljucen where you don your toga and enjoy a Roman feast, relax in the spa, and then get a massage. aqualibera.com
Extremadura prides itself on its cuisine, and a cooking class at Espezia in Merida with Josefina and Cristina is a fantastic way to try recipes such as goat’s cheesecake with red fruit chutney. espezia.es
Ryanair has regular flights from Dublin to Seville, which is a one-hour drive from the south of the region, and Madrid, which is a two-and-a-half hour drive from the north-east of the region. ryanair.com
* Hotel Ilunion Merida Palace: en.ilunionmeridapalace.com
* NH Collection Caceres Palacio de Oquendo: nh-hotels.com l Vostell Malpartida Museum: museovostell.juntaex.es
* Extremadura tourism: turismoextremadura.com