Cáceres: Spain’s Forgotten City
By Will Peach
Passing through the eastern autonomy of Extremadura, its cities a delightful mix of urban and ancient, one can’t help but feel a sense of connection that carries further than that of the country of Spain itself.
Wandering through Cáceres, one of the areas signature cities, is a case in point. Owing to its carefully kept walled quarter and the tranquillity that still echoes through it, it’s not particularly difficult to imagine it that far removed from a time 500 years ago when the great Spanish conquistadors, to whom we owe our Latin American wanderings, roamed its cobbled streets.
In fact this southern capital of the province of the same name, surrounded by the stark, barren landscape of one of Spain’s most sparsely populated regions, might almost be mistaken for having been forgotten in the midst of time. It’s population, a relatively small 92,000, gives nothing away as to just how unique a stay here is.
As one of the major stop-off points on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, many visitors arrive in Cáceres in the same manner the Romans did before them, on foot. If traipsing the old paved road on the Ruta de la Plata isn’t quite your idea of fun however you’ll be happy to know that you can easily get to Cáceres via a far more convenient route.
Arriving in Madrid to the north, a €2 EUR metro fare is all it takes to reach one of the capital’s largest and best served train stations Atocha (stop Atocha Renfe). From there you can take a train with Renfe (approximately 3-4 hours) to Cáceres from around €25-35 EUR. Book a few weeks early and it’s possible to get further discounts.
Alternatively you can also take a bus with the reliable Auto-Res from the Estación Sur (stop Méndez Álvaro) in Madrid. A ticket will usually set you back around €20 EUR with the journey a slightly longer 4-5 hours, yet buses are comfortable, run throughout the day and night and terminate in Cáceres – so there’s no danger of missing your stop and being stranded in that harsh Extremaduran landscape!
Wondering the labyrinthine paved streets of the old town (Ciudad Monumental) and getting ensconced in its grand mix of Romanic, Moorish Gothic and Renaissance architecture, takes the best part of a day. Throw in crumbling stone edifices, ancient towers and a plethora of ancient churches and you’ll have plenty to see and do for a few days either side.
Since being bestowed UNESCO world heritage status in 1986, Cáceres has opened up a range of museums and sites at free or low entrance prices (€1-3 EUR). To take full advantage of your day it’s best to first make your way to the glorious sloping open square of the plaza Mayor, the principal entrance point and central hub of the city, where you can pick up a map of all the significant spots for free at the tourist information centre located at the mouth of the domineering Torre de Bujaco.
From there take a wander up through the old city walls and stop to admire the entrance at the Arco de la Estrella, an 18th century archway preceded by a group of steps that provides a great night time resting point for observing the buzz from local families and friends meeting in the restaurants and bars of the plaza below.
From the Arco take the path through the magnificent square of San Jorge (home to many local weekend concerts) up to the Museum of Cáceres (free), found in La Casa de las Veletas y la Casa de los Caballos. Take a look at the prehistoric and stone artefacts on display that tell the story of Cáceres original settlement before making your way down to the museums basement to sneak a peek at the ancient cistern eerily lit up in the spotlight.
Also worth a look is La Casa-Museo Árabe (entrance €1.50), just around the corner from Plaza San Jorge, which tells the story of Cáceres’ power struggle between Moor and Christian forces between the 8th and 13th centuries.
Finish off the day with a wander inside the many splendid churches and cathedrals located in the centre of the Ciudad Monumental. The Gothic Church of Santa Maria, dating back to the 13th Century, is one of the oldest and most structurally impressive.
Eat and Drink
As in the rest of Spain, you’ll be spoilt for choice in Cáceres. One thing you won’t want to miss however – and something you’ll quickly notice soon after arriving in Extremadura – is that it’s signature food staple, jamón, reigns supreme. Almost every bar or restaurant will be carving up a leg outside and you’ll undoubtedly get a sample taste with the tapas brought along at any eating spot located in the plaza Mayor.
For a healthy dose of modern-day Cáceres café culture though I’d recommend heading to Liceo on the Avenue de la Virgen de la Montaña, opposite the central park of Canovas. Here you can get one of the best coffees in town and a racion of that great Spanish favourite, tortilla española, for just €3 EUR.
If you’ve rolled into town looking for a typical Spanish night out head to the many bars and nightspots in La Madrilla, the trendy part of Cáceres, around a 10-minute walk away from the plaza mayor. Carpe Diem is a good spot. A low-fi wine and spirit lounge, it attracts a local clientele of sharply dressed Spaniards enjoying the local “vino de casa”.
For something a little less low-key head to the more alternative Calle Pizarro and check out La Habana, a gallery-cum-bar space which often plays host to live jazz, rock and blues music throughout the week.
Where to Stay
Finding somewhere to stay in Cáceres can be a bit tricky, especially if you’re a budget traveller who can’t afford the luxury of a stay in one of the upscale hotels around the main plaza. The level of English among the staff of the cheaper albergues and hostales makes booking over the phone a particularly challenging prospect too.
The best thing to do would be to arrive in the day and head to Calle Margallo, about a two-minute walk from the plaza Mayor. You can get a taxi ride there from the train or bus station for about €3 EUR and drop in to the many hostales advertising for rooms. A nights stay in a single room here averages about €15 EUR, and is well worth the money. Try Albergue Turistico Las Velletas – rooms are small but cosy.
Cáceres, due to its relatively small size, is easily walkable in the space of a day. Pedestrian crossings and walkways abound in the modern part of the city and there are plenty of comfortable benches and terraces to rest on. Just watch out for chattering abuelos looking to mark their territory with a copy of the local Extremadura paper. Walking around the old city, on the other hand, the only thing you’ll have to watch out for are for other tourists gazing up at the many archways and detailed walls. Oh and the nesting stalks overhead!
When to go
From boiling summers, to the balmy conditions of early autumn, right through to the chilly, yet not bone-shiveringly so, winters, Cáceres is a safe bet for a trip all year round. If you can, however, try and coincide a visit with one of the many cultural events the city is best known for. The largest, WOMAD, takes place in May and brings together crowds from all over Spain flocking to sample the best in the creative fields of music, art and dance from around the world. Free and slap bang in the centre of the city it doesn’t get better than that.
About the Author
Will Peach is one of the site editors and writers over at Gap Daemon, the gap year community website for backpackers and gap year travellers. You can find out more about his adventures travelling in Spain at myspanishadventure.com.