Extremadura means ‘beyond the Duero’, a term coined by Christians as they fought their way south against the Moors. The area they settled had been largely emptied during the early Middle Ages, and remains sparsely populated to this day, consisting of a high undulating plateau drained by the rivers Tagus and Guadiana. To the south rise the mountains of the Sierra Morena, while to the north the high sierras of the Iberian Sistema Central separate Extremadura from the southern limits of the Castilian plain.
The Roman colonisation of the area responded to these geographical circumstances by effectively creating a major city on the Tagus (Toledo) and a series of cities that punctuated the rivers to the west (Plasencia, Cáceres, Mérida, Seville). Most remarkably, the city selected by Augustus as the administrative capital of Roman Lusitania – Mérida – not only retains enough of its Roman fabric for one to be able to trace the first-century plan in the present city, but moreover several of its public buildings survive above ground.
Matters changed with barbarian settlement, and the arrival of Vandals, Suevi and Visigoths was mirrored by a shift in population towards the Mediterranean, and by the shrinking of the cities. Most strikingly, the Visigoths took Toledo as their capital, and though the next wave of invaders, the Moors, preferred the old Roman provincial capital at Córdoba, the prestige that was conferred on Toledo by virtue of its early mediaeval status was profound. It is rare to find much material from this period surviving above ground, though the major survivals – Alcuéscar, the tiny Mozarabic church of Santa María de Melque and the Visigothic treasure from Guarrazar – are quite astonishing, ranking among the most compelling objects to remain visible from early mediaeval Spain.
Notwithstanding the occasional Romanesque church, the major buildings are thirteenth century and later, and the quality and quantity of work which survives from these periods cannot fail to impress. The crucial first steps towards a fully articulated Gothic architecture were taken in the 1220s at Toledo cathedral, and its combination of a French-inspired plan and elevation with discreet Mudéjar detailing was to prove influential. However, the critical event in thirteenth-century Spain was the Christian victory at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, and the subsequent picking off of Moorish cities to the south and west of Toledo – Cáceres in 1229, Zafra by 1236, Seville in 1248. This opened the eyes of Christian Spanish patrons to a whole new wave of Islamic art and architecture – the effects of which can be seen in the exquisite stucco and brick buildings of the second half of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, beautifully preserved in the stunning synagogues of the Barrio Judío in Toledo, and in the impetus that it gave to a whole new wave of Spanish church construction in Plasencia, Trujillo, and Cáceres.
The third of the tour’s main themes is the extraordinarily inventive, almost fanciful architecture of the later Middle Ages and Renaissance. One might see this at a number of levels, in the stepped elevations of the new cathedral at Plasencia or the brilliance and virtuosity of the tracery at Guadalupe, in the unruffled calm of Coria or the dazzling application of ceramics across the exteriors of towers at Jerez de los Caballeros. Perhaps most magically, one sees it in that improbably picturesque silhouette that greets the visitor as you approach Toledo from the south and realise, as you gaze over the river Tagus, that within that walled city is one of the greatest concentrations of fifteenth and sixteenth century palaces, churches, towers and town houses that Spain has left to offer.
Zafra. Fly at c. 11.15am (TAP Portugal) from London Heathrow to Lisbon. Drive into Spain to the small town of Zafra (c. 4 hours, stops are made en route). The towered castle where Hernán Cortés was received by the Count of Feria en route for the conquest of Mexico is now the parador. First of two nights in Zafra.
Zafra, Jerez de Los Caballeros. In Zafra begin with the two adjacent squares, the Plaza Grande and smaller Plaza Chica with the collegiate church (housing an altarpiece by Zurbarán). Lunch is in a rural restaurant. The afternoon is spent in Jerez de los Caballeros, once a Templar town, with famously ornate Baroque church towers.
Mérida, Alcuéscar, Cáceres. Augusta Emerita (Mérida) was laid out on a classic Roman rectangular grid, much of which survives, along with the 60-arch bridge over the river Guadiana, theatre, amphitheatre, fortress and temple platform. In addition, there are great collections of Roman sculpture in Rafael Moneo’s outstanding National Museum of Roman Art. The tiny and recently rediscovered early mediaeval church of Santa Lucía del Trampal, near Alcuéscar, is on the road north. First of three nights in Cáceres.
Trujillo. The morning is devoted to the magnificent hilltop town of Trujillo, birthplace of the conquistador, Francisco Pizarro. The irregular main square is here enclosed by conquistador mansions and overlooked by the parish church of San Martín. Climb to the surviving Moorish castle with glorious views of the surrounding countryside. The afternoon is spent in the exceptionally well-preserved historic centre of Cáceres, with visits to the 17th-century Casa de las Veletas and late mediaeval collegiate church of Santa María.
Plasencia, Coria, Alcántara. Strategically situated on a bend in the river Jerte and overlooked by the Sierra de Gredos, Plasencia was refounded by Alfonso VIII towards the end of the 12th century, close to the site of Roman Dulcis Placida. Visits this morning will include the extraordinary and unfinished cathedral (part-13th-century, part-late-mediaeval), San Nicolás and the Palacio Marqués de Mirabel. Visit also the 16th-century cathedral at Coria and the breathtaking Roman bridge over the gorge of the River Tagus at Alcántara, which dates to ad 106.
Guadalupe, Santa María de Melque, Toledo. Scenic drive over wooded hills to the loveliest of Extremadura’s late mediaeval churches at Guadalupe, the monastery having been designed to accommodate a miracle-working image of the Virgin that developed into one of the great pilgrimage destinations of mediaeval and Renaissance Spain. Continue east via the stunning Mozarabic church of Santa María de Melque to Toledo. First of three nights in Toledo.
Toledo. Morning spent in Toledo’s old Jewish quarter, starting with a pair of former synagogues, Ibn Shoshan (converted to Christian use as Santa María la Blanca) a superb 13th-century aisled synagogue that retains its original stuccowork and wooden ceiling, and El Tránsito, a more lavish galleried synagogue financed by Samuel Levi in the 1360s. Thence to San Juan de los Reyes, the breathtakingly ambitious Franciscan monastery constructed under Ferdinand and Isabella. The afternoon will unfold with the best of Toledo’s Mozarabic churches, San Román, and the incomparable and vast cathedral.
Toledo. Visit the interlocking cloisters of the former Dominican house of San Pedro Mártir along with a celebrated former mosque, converted into the church of Cristo de la Luz but still preserving the touching inscription informing all that it was built in the Hijra 377 (ad 999) for Ahmad Ibn Hadid. The Museo de Santa Cruz is housed in a remarkable early 16th-century hospital built to the designs of Antón and Enrique Egas, and is best known for its late mediaeval and later paintings, including works by El Greco. The afternoon is free.
Madrid. Closed over several years for a comprehensive renovation and re-design of its display areas, Spain’s National Archaeological Museum in Madrid finally reopened in 2014. Its holdings of Roman and mediaeval work are extraordinary, and extend to the Gurrazar Treasure, a carefully assembled cache of Visigothic metalwork discovered near Toledo in 1858, most of it now in the museum and centred on a spectacular group of jewel-encrusted votive gold crowns, one of which bears the legend Recceswinth (d. 672). Drive to the airport for the afternoon flight (Iberia) which arrives at London Heathrow c. 6.00pm.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,610 or £2,450 without flights. Single occupancy: £2,870 or £2,710 without flights.
Flights (economy class) with TAP Portugal and Iberia (Airbus A330 and A319); travel by private coach; hotel accommodation; breakfasts, 2 lunches and 5 dinners, with wine or beer, soft drinks, water and coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Parador de Zafra: 4-star parador in the 15th-century castle. NH Palacio de Oquendo, Cáceres: 4-star hotel in the historic centre of town. Hotel Fontecruz, Toledo: 4-star hotel in the Jewish Quarter with smart but small rooms, dinners are in good restaurants. Single rooms are doubles for sole use throughout.
There is a lot of walking in town centres, sometimes on uneven ground, and sure-footedness is essential. There is also a large amount of coach travel. Dinners tend to be at 8.30 or 9.00pm in Spain, so you might get to bed later than you would usually. Some days involve a lot of driving. Average distance by coach per day: 78 miles. Group size: between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.fco.gov.uk.