Cáceres: don't tell a soul
Published by inedito on Thursday, 20 of March 2014
Could this be most unspoilt medieval town in Europe? Among Cáceres's silent, winding alleys and ancient squares, life seems to have been going on in much the same way for more than 600 years.
Like you, I have never travelled in time –tempting though the thought has often been. But I have discovered the next best thing: the city of Cáceres in the region of Extremadura –possibly the most authentically medieval and Renaissance city still in existence. Little has changed in this historic walled city for five or six hundred years, so it's not surprising it was made a world heritage city in 1986.
It's late morning and I am walking up the road in the Ciudad Monumental –the old town– where there is complete silence, broken every now and then by some church bells or a noisy gust of wind. The place is deserted ... but what is that rumbling sound in the distance? I half-expect it to be horses' hooves, as horsemen come galloping the narrow cobbled streets to rescue a lady from dastardly doings or keep the local peasants in check.
Cáceres was the scene of conquest and reconquest between the Muslims and the Christians during the 12th century, and the Ciudad Monumental is still almost entirely surrounded by the walls and towers built by the Muslims around 1184. In 1227 the Christian kings conquered the city for the last time, and in the following centuries regional noble families settled here, many of them commissioning palaces to live in.
As a result, I am doing what travellers to Cáceres should do: walk. The buildings tend to be high –about as high as a modern four-storey house– and many have coats of arms on them, alleviating the plainness of their design. Many also have small histories of the buildings attached on Perspex notices. Yet, while some of the biggest are open to the public, others are still private homes, or government buildings, or sections of Cáceres university. So a lot of the pleasure is in looking up: the Casa de los Cáceres Nidos from the 15th century in Calle Cuesta de Aldana, for instance, has odd carvings up the top at 90 degrees. One looks like a terrified mother clutching her child.
Sometimes the big wooden and iron doors of the buildings are left open, revealing courtyards with ferns, stone staircases, and what seem to be doors leading to modern-day flats.
The silence ends unexpectedly as I turn into the Plaza Santa María, with its 15th-century gothic cathedral of the same name. Two young men play enthusiastic flamenco guitars to the delight of an audience of three (one of them me), and an old woman rubs the feet of a statue next to the cathedral. It turns out to be San Pedro de Alcántara, who was born in Alcántara, Cáceres, in 1499. The statue was only erected in 1954 but its toes are already extra shiny because it's good luck to rub its feet. The church itself is built in the plateresque style, with a carved cedar retablo.
There are many other notable buildings on this square: Palacio del Obispo (Bishop's palace), Palacio de Ovando and Palacio de Carvajal, which houses the local tourist office. Its shady gardens have stone benches where you can take a breather and gaze at the tumbling bougainvillea.
A few minutes' walk away is the Plaza de San Jorge, with the Iglesia de San Francisco Javier rising steeply in one corner, its largely white frontage showing a church built in the 18th century –later than most of the buildings nearby. Inside, its gold retablo makes a fine and gaudy contrast to the church's plainness. As on many buildings in the city, storks have made their nests on the highest points of the church towers.
Suddenly I see something I have not come across before in this city: tourists! There are about 10 of them, plus a tour guide, and I feel a bit disconcerted. What, this city isn't just my discovery? Time to move on.
The Plaza de San Mateo is silent except for the birds, and the bell from the square's church (which remains resolutely closed). About five minutes' walk away is the Parador, built in a 14th-to 16th-century palace, but it is shut at present for refurbishment. Nearby, though is Cáceres museum, on the Plaza de las Veletas. The museum has artefacts dating as far back as the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods, my favourites being from pre-Roman times: three bizarrely cuddly looking stone boars. I do like its most famous exhibit, though: the basement cistern, which was probably part of the Islamic fortress on the site between the 9th to 11th centuries.
By this time, I need a drink. There are only a few places to eat or drink in the old town –many of them being upmarket restaurants. One option is to sit at one of the pavement cafes on the Plaza Mayor. From here you can take in the 18th-century Arco de Estrella, an entrance through the city walls that has a plaque where the monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand promised respect, privileges and a charter to the city in 1477 and 1479.
But a mustn't-miss is Arabia, a charming Moroccan-style cafe just at the edge of the Plaza Mayor. With chillout music and a little courtyard at the back, it's a great spot for a refreshing orange juice or mint tea.
Then, for a brief trip back to modern times, I walk down the Calle Pintores, leading off the Plaza Mayor, and step bang into the 21st century –the bustling, modern (or rather less old) part of town. Time for a nice sit-down in the long narrow park that runs along the Avenida de España –specially shaded with tall trees, lots of benches, and more cold drink opportunities.
Right at the bottom of the park at Avenida de España 30, there's the Michelin-starred restaurant Atrio, incongruously sited in the middle of a brutalist concrete apartment complex.
I, though, want just a tad more history for my money and walk back to the Ciudad Monumental. It's evening now, a little cooler and, if people don't exactly fill the streets, they are sprinkled throughout.
At the Casa del Sol, just behind San Mateo's church, a bride in a traditional flamenco-style, flowing, ruffly dress poses against the wall for photographs. Her groom looks on in amusement. The house is decorated with a big, radiating sun on the wall, below a round stone balcony and coat of arms with arrows and laurels. Just as the newlyweds leave, a man unlocks the door and goes in. Inside, it looks quite plain and ordinary. Somewhere you could live. Fascinating to think that, in this utterly unspoilt city, where nothing seems to have changed for hundreds of years, modern life still goes on regardless.