Tuesday, April 07, 2009

A holiday in Extramadura, world politics – the Queen meets the Obamas, royal protocol is broken, Obama meets Zapatero and an earthquake in Italy.

A sign of a change in the times maybe? Michelle Obama puts her arm round the Queen at Buckingham Palace last weekend. It's not done to touch the Queen and is a complete break in protocol. However, the Queen, perhaps softening as she gets older, returned the gesture and here is the photo to commemorate that unique moment.

Hi again,

This post was supposed to be all about our holiday in Extremadura last week but world politics must have their part as it’s not every day the Queen (of England) receives the leaders of the G20 in Buckingham Palace. Nor is it every day that she (the royal she!) breaks with protocol to have a private meeting with Barack and Michelle Obama.

The Queen and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, receive Michelle and Barack Obama in Buckingham Palace on the occasion of the G20 summit in London.
As you will have read, they got on so well that later Michelle broke with protocol once again and charmed her Majesty by putting an arm around her. Her Majesty promptly responded with the same gesture; a gesture never before seen in all her reign. As usual Prince Philip put his foot in it when he jokingly asked Obama how he could tell who was who in the G20.

The G20 was not only about tea at Buckingham Palace. The subjects at stake are of such importance to the world, immerse in the biggest financial crisis since the Wall Street Crack in 1929, that it attracted many disgruntled people whose protests were aimed mostly at the banking world. In fact they brought the city to a halt with their riots and banking personnel were even warned not to wear ties to work so as to avoid being targeted by the ferocious protestors.

Riots in London at the G20 summit.
As we were travelling through Extremadura, that off the beaten track region of Spain where the best ham comes from, the world’s most important politicians were meeting in London to find a common solution to the financial crisis. They then met in Strasbourg to commemorate the 60th anniversary of NATO and yesterday in Prague for the US EU summit.

The Nato 60th anniversary meeting
Obama was cheered everywhere he went and his presence and charisma left the likes of Sarkozy looking very normal next to him; the difference in their heights not being of help to the latter. The same could not be said of Michelle Obama and Carla Bruni, the two first ladies of the US and of Europe, I would say. They met as equals in glamour and fame and in stature unlike their powerful husbands.

The Summit in Prague this weekend was of special significance for Spain as it was here that Obama met Spain’s President, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, thus putting an end to 5 years of distance between the two countries.

Zapatero finally got to meet Obama. He never met George Bush though!
And today, Monday, as I am beginning this post, I must sadly record the eruption of a devastating earthquake in L’Aquila in central Italy, some 90km from Rome. The toll so far of this 6.3 scale quake has been 179 dead, 34 missing, 1,500 injured, 10.000 buildings destroyed and thousands homeless. Italy is in a state of shock and the tragedy is enormous.

The earthquake in Italy

But this blog is about my life and thankfully we have suffered no earthquakes nor are we affected greatly by the credit crunch. Instead we have been in the quiet and peaceful region of Extremadura in the mid western area of Spain that borders with Portugal. Extremadura which takes its name from the river Duero (or Douro in Portuguese), is a region or “comunidad” of two provinces, Cáceres and Badajoz. Funnily enough the regional capital is the smaller town of Mérida in the province of Cáceres. Mérida was, however, in Roman times, the Iberian capital and there are many signs of its Roman past, some of them quite intact.

This was one area of Spain we were not very familiar with and as we had some spare Parador points we decided to use them on this trip a week before Easter so as to avoid the traffic and general congestion. Our first port of call was Cáceres where we stayed at the slightly run down Parador in the old city. As soon as we had checked in we made our way to the famous Atrio restaurant, the only 2 star Michelin guide restaurant in the area. It was as good as I had expected but the portions somewhat mean and very expensive. It’s amazing to think it cost three times more than Arzak in San Sebastián for example.

We visited the historic centre of Cáceres in the afternoon and it was like walking into another era, a medieval era of course. It’s all stone and palaces and churches and beautiful squares, specially the Plaza de España, a somewhat unique rectangular shaped square – probably not a correct mathematical description but that’s what it is.

Cáceres, the medieval town.
You could see preparations for Spain’s still and ever important Easter celebrations or Semana Santa as it is called here. In fact we were to see them throughout our trip.

Wooden crosses to be used in the Easter processions of the Holy Week or Semana Santa which is still so important in Spain despite increased laicism. It's the tradition that seems to count.
From Cáceres we made our way to Guadalupe. Had we done our geography correctly we should actually have started in Guadalupe and then worked our way south as we ended up driving more kilometres than necessary. To get to Guadalupe we drove past Trujillo which was a must to visit. Trujillo, equally steeped in history and similar in architecture to Cáceres, is the home of some of Spain’s most famous “conquistadores” or discoverers of América, such as the Pizarro brothers who discovered Peru or Orellano who discovered the Amazon. The city or town is breathtaking in its beautiful buildings and castles. Here we visited the Plaza de España, another splendid medieval square, Pizarro’s house and the tenth century castle with great views of the city. Here too we purchased some lovely local pottery.

Trujillo, the cradle of the Spanish "conquistadores"
The drive from Trujillo through country roads to Guadalupe took us past some very different scenery, from solar panel “farms” and orange trees to evergreen oak fields dotted with merino sheep or white horses and black pigs, to mountainous roads and gorges; all of which led us to the enchanting enclave of Guadalupe, a Unesco Heritage site, better known as the Royal Monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe

The Monastery in the background and the Parador in the foreground. Truly one of the best located paradors in Spain.
The monastery has its origins in the 12th or 13th century, when a shepherd called Gil Cordero, discovered a statue of Mary by the Guadalupe River which had been apparently hidden by local inhabitants from Moorish invaders in 714. It is on this site that the church and monastery were built. The place is quite unique and very beautiful and has become something of a pilgrim destination for many Catholics from Spain of course, but also abroad. I think there is a story of Mary appearing to Gil Cordero and a possible miracle. Even today you can read that the statue’s eyes move or close and open. We saw it close up, showed to us by one of the 10 Franciscan monks left. I kissed it, as did the other visitors, more out of respect than anything else and I certainly did not see any eye movement.

We stayed at the much nicer Parador with its charming orange and lemon tree patio and got upgraded to room number 1 which was actually a suite. As we opened our balcony doors there was the monastery right in front of us. We also visited the tiny little town with its upper and lower streets. As we climbed the very steep streets to the top of the village we happened upon Daniel, a local villager who actually invited us into his house which he claimed had the best view of the Monastery in all of Guadalupe. Well here is the result, so you can judge for yourselves.

The monastery as seen from Daniel Merino's house high at the top of the village of Guadalupe. I promised to send him the photos and I will.
From Guadalupe we made our way to Mérida, some 130km away and checked into the lovely old Parador which in the past had been both a convent and hospital. Having got a taste for the suites, we upgraded again but paid the difference and got given room 122 with one big lounge and an even bigger bedroom. It was so good I could have moved in!

Here we visited many of the Roman landmarks such as the Trajan arch, the splendid and intact Roman bridge as well as the famous amphitheatre and theatre.

The superb Roman bridge that crosses the River Guadiana in Mérida. Perhaps the best of all the photos.
I fell in love with the Plaza de España once again. This one had many buildings of the typical colonial style architecture, the sort the Spanish “conquistadores” exported to many cities in Latin America, such as Hernán Cortés from Medellín. In other cities, such as Badajoz, you would see the colonial style next to the Arab style, fitting perfectly together.

The Plaza de España in Mérida.
From Mérida we visited Badajoz which is just 5km from the Portuguese border. Here we visited the Moorish Citadel (or Alcazaba – the biggest of its kind still standing in Spain) and drove through the famous Puerta de Palmas archway into the old town. Badajoz is not a thriving tourist destination, is rather sleepy and in great need of a lot of renovation if it is ever to become so.

The famous Puerta de Palmas of Badajoz, the gate or archway into the old town.
It does, however, boast the excellent restaurant, Aldebarán, highly recommended by my trustworthy travel book companions, the Michelin and Campsa guides. It is of a similar standard to Atrio in Cáceres but a third of the price.

The final leg of our tour was to be in La Parra, a small village in the province of Badajoz. We were to stay at the Hospedería Convento de la Parra which had been recommended to me by a Facebook acquaintance and which had rave reviews in Trip Advisor, my other great source of information when preparing our trips.

The hotel Hospedería Convento La Parra from the outside.
The old convent, turned hotel, is a 17th century white washed building with an orange tree patio in the centre of the cloisters. It supposedly maintains the spirit of a convent in that it is a haven of peace and place to get away from it all. They stick to that claim and purposefully do not offer television or internet connection. As I cannot live without the latter and was not a burnt out case as such, of course I brought my own connection. Thanks Yoigo!

Eladio in the orange tree patio in the centre of the cloister at the Hospedería.
The rooms and style are true too to that original spirit. Thus the décor is basically white washed and stone walls, flagstone floors and white is the colour used for all drapery and bedclothes. The only note of colour in the whole place comes from the green plants and oranges from the trees in the patios. Whilst everything is supposed to be quite sparten, the same cannot be said of the food which is top quality whilst retaining village recipes. I found the whole place truly beautiful and could quite happily have moved in there too.

Again we indulged in a suite, room number 23 and enjoyed our fire place. Eladio found it a bit dark but I loved it.

From La Parra we could have visited a host of pretty places such as Olivenza, Jérez de los Caballeros, Feria or nearby Zafra but instead decided to enjoy the installations and do what the hotel recommended, read, rest and enjoy the countryside with beautiful walks. We did all of these things and also discovered that the village of La Parra itself without boasting any great tourist interest was one of the loveliest white washed villages we had ever seen. I would have appointed it the best kept village in Spain.

A 90 year old villager from La Parra, José, making friends with my Father aged nearly 90 too. We all had a good laugh at the encounter.

We loved it so much that I wrote in the guest book that we would return again and again and again. If any of you are need of a rest or want to get away from it all, this is the place.

Our two days at La Parra were very soon up and Saturday was the day for our return. We packed leisurely to make our way back to Madrid but not before purchasing two wonderful jamón ibéricos (Spanish cured ham). Supposedly Extremadura is the area of Spain where the best ham comes from. Well we certainly saw lots of pigs (dark coloured ones) along on our walks in La Parra as this video proves here.

We came home on Saturday to find the girls had had a great time too, entertaining their friends. But soon we will be parted again as on Thursday they will be off to Santa Pola and we will be going to Montrondo to join Eladio’s family for Easter.

And that’s my post on Extremadura. It was a great trip as you can see here from my photo album in Facebook, but there are more to come this year. I always love having things, generally trips, to look forward to and the next big one will be to Yorkshire in July.

But that’s it for now.


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