I first visited Cáceres around sunset on a crisp winter evening, and as I swapped the bustle of the modern town for the tranquility of the walled city — perched on a hillside and guarded by watchtowers — the contrast was extraordinary. Roman, Moorish, Gothic and Italian Renaissance styles jostle for space in this well-preserved old town. It’s no surprise it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, or that it’s often been used as a set for historical films.
Cáceres sits at the heart of some of the Iberian Peninsula’s most remote countryside, in the Extremadura region. This is a landscape of sun-baked plains and gorges that provides glimpses of a Spain that’s hardly changed in centuries. Cities like Cáceres and nearby Mérida, with their immaculately preserved buildings, are slowly attracting the attention they deserve, while remaining off the typical tourist trail.
Founded in 35BC by the Romans, Cáceres flourished as a trading post before falling under Visigothic rule around the fifth century. The Moors conquered the city in the eighth century and hundreds of years of battles with the Christians ensued. In 1227, Alfonso IX of León overtook the city and Cáceres prospered as a free trade town, where merchants and aristocracy built palaces and the Jewish population thrived. By the 16th century the city’s fortunes had dwindled, although that changed when conquistadors returned from the Americas, many lavishing their plundered fortunes on mansions.
As I first wandered into the old town from the arcaded Plaza Mayor, which sits just outside the city walls, surrounded by bustling outdoor cafes, lights were beginning to cast a golden glow over the stone facades, adding an ethereal beauty to the scene. Entering the city walls through the low Arco de la Estrella, I found myself in the Plaza de Santa Maria, surrounded by the grandeur of the looming Santa María Cathedral and mansions.
Many architectural gems date from the 16th century, the heady days of the conquistadors. These include the Palacio de Mayoralgo and the Palacio de los Golfines de Abajo. As I wander on, I find the elaborate, domed Palacio Toledo-Moctezuma, once home to the daughter of an Aztec emperor who was brought back as a bride with other spoils from the Americas. Heading uphill, I come to the Iglesia de San Mateo church, and the Torre de las Ciguenas (‘Tower of the Storks’).
Returning the next day, I explored the Jewish quarter, climbed the tower of the Santa María Cathedral for dazzling city views and visited the 16th-century Casa de las Veletas (‘House of the Weather Vanes’), built over a 12th-century Moorish cistern — the sole remnant of Cáceres’ Muslim castle. Along with local archeological finds, it’s home to an art collection that includes works by Picasso, El Greco and Miró.
Every corner I turned in the labyrinth of alleyways, I found another tiny plaza or staircase, and while few palacios are open to the public, glimpses through open doors show enchanting courtyards. Known locally as ‘the city of a thousand and one coats of arms’, Cáceres’ houses often bear elaborate family motifs, while the facade of the Casa del Sol (‘House of the Sun’) is emblazoned with a sun. The Casa Mudéjar, with its red brick and zigzag patterns, is a rare relic from Cáceres’ Muslim past.
But Cáceres offers much more than history. In recent years, there have been two notable modern developments. The first was when Atrio, a two-star Michelin restaurant long favoured by food-obsessed Madrilenos, swapped its original premises in the new town for a prime spot in the historic Plaza Mateo. The state-of-the-art complex was designed by Spanish architects Mansilla+Tuñón — also behind Cáceres’ second modern addition, the Centro de Artes Visuales Fundación Helga de Alvear, a contemporary-art museum.
Even without these new additions, Cáceres is no staid museum piece — a university adds energy to a city known for its nightlife. Extremadura’s superb local cuisine includes Spanish specialities like jamón serrano and pimenton de la Vera (smoked paprika), while the region is building a reputation for excellent wine. The city is also known for its WOMAD Cáceres world music festival which will be held from 7-11 May in 2015. And, of course, this is the perfect base for exploring the spectacular Monfragüe National Park and tiny villages where time really seems to have stood still for centuries. turismo.ayto-caceres.es/en
This ancient Roman capital can’t match Cáceres for its laid-back charm but it’s in its own league when it come to Roman relics, including aqueducts and amphitheatres, while the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano is one of Europe’s finest.
Did you know? While a distinctly far-flung feel pervades Cuenca’s quaint, quiet maze of alleys, a new route on the fast AVE train line from Madrid now whisks you there in under an hour.
Cuenca has long been known for its Hanging Houses — when space became tight atop the city’s precarious cliffs back in the 16th century, homes were built jutting out from their sides, their facades dangling over the valley below. An interconnected cluster of these Casas Colgadas now hosts the Museu de Arte Abstracto Español.
Viewing this modern art collection, situated over the vertiginous cliffs, is a surreal experience. In fact, a thriving modern art scene pervades the ancient alleyways — despite the historic charm, Cuenca is no dusty relic.
The entire old town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 and it remains an intriguing place to wander; so small that stunning views of the dramatic landscape appear at almost every corner, and from the top of the old town, a labyrinth of tiny historic streets unravels below you, complete with an imposing Gothic cathedral, a ramshackle castle and sun-drenched plazas lined with cafes that are perfect for sampling the hearty local cooking.
You can even explore a network of tunnels that bring Cuenca’s chequered history to life — having served at different times as aqueducts bringing water to the castle, crypts for the churches and shelters during the Spanish Civil War. turismo.cuenca.es
Well and truly off the beaten track, Teruel is home to minaret-style Mudéjar towers, which were originally part of the city walls. A 16th-century aqueduct and a beautiful cathedral in the historic quarter are also must-sees. teruelversionoriginal.es/Turismo/home_eng.nsf
Did you know? Segovia has one of the most dramatic settings of any Spanish city — atop a rocky ridge between two rivers — and possesses a wealth of treasures that are perhaps even more enchanting than its castle. The 800-metre-long granite aqueduct is an impressive sight that becomes even more extraordinary when you consider it was built by the Romans in the first-century AD. Glorious churches and cathedrals, some fine museums and a alluring centre that’s home to elegant, laid-back plazas lined with restaurants make Segovia worthy of much more than just a day trip from Madrid. turismodesegovia.com
Even without the dazzling Gothic cathedral for which Burgos is famous, this is a beautiful place, with spacious streets and grand old buildings that hark back to a bygone era. turismoburgos.org
Read the complete Spanish cities feature in the March 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)