Things to see in Spain

Cáceres, Spain – An Untouched Renaissance Town

From Trujillo we continued on our journey driving west a short distance to Cáceres (46 km or 28 miles) and then south to Mérida (62 km or 38 miles from Cáceres), for an overnight stay. In this post I will share a few images of Cáceres and in my next post we’ll cover Mérida, a treasure trove of Roman-era ruins.

Location of Cáceres and Mérida, southwest of Madrid.

Cáceres is a pretty large modern city (population of about 100,000) that has a well-preserved old Renaissance-era center (Ciudad Monumental), located just west of the Plaza Mayor. We found a parking garage about 10 minutes walking distance from the old town. It seemed that we were the only tourists visiting this interesting and quiet historical locale.

A view of the modern town of Cáceres from the tower of the Iglesia de Santa Maria
A view of the old town of Cáceres also taken from the tower of the Iglesia de Santa Maria.

Most of the old town’s structures date from the 15th and 16th centuries, and they, along with remnants of Moorish walls dating from the 12th century, are the heart of this Renaissance enclave that seems stuck in time.

The Iglesia de San Mateo, built between the 14th and 17th centuries, one of Cáceres’ oldest churches.
A view of the main nave in the Iglesia de Santa Maria. This Church also has an interesting Treasury that can be visited.
The amazing 16th century Retablo Mayor, a cedar wood altar depicting Biblical scenes in the Iglesia de Santa Maria.

A Few Other Sights Around Cáceres Old Town

Cáceres experienced an economic boom after Columbus’ discovery of the New World and lucky for us, the old town has held up well over the centuries. While there are not many major tourist sights (a few palaces, towers and churches), our main objective was to just wander the quaint streets a bit and enjoy the ambience.

The modern city of Cáceres has a growing reputation in the worlds of art and modern cuisine, making it worth a stop for many reasons.

Southern Spain – Guadalupe and Trujillo

The first two stops on our self-guided tour of southern Spain were Guadalupe, home of an important monastery and Trujillo, known as the home of Francisco Pizarro, conquistador of the Inca empire of Peru. Our interest in visiting Trujillo was not really about conquistadors, but more the well-preserved old town and castle.

The towns of Guadalupe and Trujillo are show in relation to Madrid. Guadalupe is 240 km (150) southwest of Madrid and Trujillo is 78 km (48 miles) west of Guadalupe.

Guadalupe

This little town is not really on the tourist map, but its glorious Monasterio de Guadalupe should be. The monastery was founded in 1340 and is right in the center of town (the town grew up around the monastery over the centuries). It was the most important monastery in Spain for four centuries. The monastery was a great center of learning, having one of the largest libraries in Spain, and home to schools of grammar and medicine. It was the site of the baptisms of some of the first native Caribbean people brought to Europe by Columbus. It has an amazing embroidery museum (I cannot fathom the hours spent in making these vestments), and an ancient texts museum, among other treasures. The only way to visit the monastery is with a guided tour (in Spanish only). It looks like a giant castle from the exterior and photos are difficult–from the outside due to its cramped location in town and the fact that photography is forbidden in much of the interior.

The Guadalupe town square and monastery. The circular font in front of the monastery is supposedly where the Caribbean natives were baptized.
There are over 90 large illustrated music and other books from the 15th and 16th centuries in one of the museum rooms in the monastery.
The beautiful Baroque style 17th century Sacristy in the Guadalupe Monastery. I had to take this photo quickly.
The cloisters at the Guadalupe Monastery.
Bronze baptismal font.

Trujillo

Trujillo is just 78 km (48 miles) west of Guadalupe, and we spent a night here in an old converted convent.

A view of Trujillo as we drove into town.
The courtyard of our 16th century Dominican Convent hotel, just below the center of the old town (Convento de Franciscanas Descalzas de San Antonio).

While the occasional tour bus makes its way into the main square, this is a pretty quiet town also. Trujillo has many historical structures, and as you wander the narrow little streets, signs on the buildings will give you some historical information.

Plaza Mayor de Trujillo, with a statue of Francisco Pizzaro in the center. The church is the 16th century Parish Church of San Martin de Tours.
Another view of the Plaza Mayor in Trujillo – historical municipal buildings and palaces line the Plaza.

We were able to wander into a few churches and climb their towers for great views and also visit the ramparts of the castle, which stands as a reminder of the battles for this land between the Moors and Christians during the 1200’s.

13th century castle walls built on the remains of an earlier Islamic fortress stand at the top of the hill overlooking Trujillo.
My wife and mother-in-law on the castle walls (foreground).
One of my favorite images from our trip.
Overlooking the old town of Trujillo and countryside from the castle.
A view of the castle from a church tower (I love to climb towers in Europe!).

There are also several 16th century palaces in Trujillo built with the wealth obtained from the conquering of the Americas. Many of the historical sites are open and charge a small entrance fee.

If you have the time, add a visit to Guadalupe and Trujillo to your Spain tourist experience! I love quiet, interesting, and almost undiscovered destinations like these.

I had to throw this image in. All along our route between Guadalupe and Trujillo we saw orange trees just loaded with fruit. We decided to try them. WOW – were these oranges BITTER! We found a few sweeter ones, but now we know why the oranges are just left to drop on the ground!

A Tour Through Southern Spain-Overview

Overview

This spring we decided to take our first international trip in over two years due to the pandemic. It felt so good to be out in the world again! The COVID situation is changing rapidly as I write this, but we found the actual travel to be very easy. We decided on southern Spain for several reasons: While we had toured northern Spain (and as far south as Toledo) a number of years ago, we had not previously visited some of the primary tourist destinations in southern Spain (such as Seville, Cordoba, and Granada). Also, Spain’s COVID travel restrictions as of this spring were a little less restrictive than other countries. Finally, we love Europe!

Our primary destinations were: Trujillo, Merida, Seville, Ronda, Gibraltar (U.K.), Granada, Córdoba, Conseugra, and Cuenca, with a number of other interesting stops along the way.

The Roman Temple of Diana in Merida.

Pandemic Travel

The biggest hassle was the paperwork required by the airlines (United and Lufthansa) prior to departure and return. We had to upload our vaccination cards and fill out questionnaires besides providing the typical passport information. All this information had to be approved by the airline prior to receiving boarding passes, but not more than 24 hours in advance. Frankly, it was easier just providing all the required documentation at the airport check-in counters. Spain required us to fill out a straightforward questionnaire and obtain a QR code ahead of time that we could show (upon arrival at the Madrid airport they just scanned the QR code and that was it, simple). Traveling back to the U.S. (at the time) required a negative COVID test which we were able to get at the Madrid airport prior to our departing return flight (test results were available in less than 30 minutes). Masks were required indoors in Spain, so we just kept our masks with us at all times, and also kept our vaccination cards with us in case anyone asked (which they didn’t).

We traveled in early March, a pretty good time to go. Tourist sites were not crowded, and the weather was generally pleasant (we had one rainy day and one stormy/windy day with Saharan sand covering our car with a fine layer of dust and turning the sky an orange hue).

Tourist Site Reservations

The only reservations we made ahead of time were for the Alhambra in Granada and the Cathedral/Rooftop Tour in Seville. There were no lines to speak of at either site, but we thought it would be smart to book ahead for these popular sites. Under normal travel conditions, reserving tickets for the Alhambra is a must.

A view of the Alhambra in Granada. In March, the mountains were covered in snow.

Logistics

As we typically do, we rented a car (through Avis this time) and are very glad we did. Having a car allows you to explore surprising little out-of-the-way villages or sights that would not be accessible otherwise. Examples include Alcalá la Real, Calatrava la Nueva and Alarcón – more to come on these little gems in later posts.

Alarcón castle – now a parador (hotel).

We covered about 1,600 miles during our two-week tour and didn’t need to drive more than about 3.5 hours in any given day. A map of our approximate route is shown below. We will break down the trip into segments for future posts.

Our approximate route through Southern Spain and Gibraltar. We covered a lot of ground over two weeks, but never felt rushed. We saw an amazing number of interesting sights and also enjoyed the varied landscape.

We stayed in lovely apartments in most destinations and found some great deals at the time – often not more than $100 US per night for 2+ bedrooms, kitchen, clothes washer and often 2 bathrooms (we had 4 people in our group). Our hosts were very prompt, friendly and welcoming.

Street entrance for our Granada apartment, in the old Albaicin quarter of the city.
Our bedroom in Granada, we loved the old architecture.

It felt GREAT to be “back on the road again”….keep a look out for more to come on this amazing adventure!

Salamanca – Home of One of the Oldest Universities in Europe

Along with Toledo, Salamanca is one of my favorite cities in Spain. It has so much to offer in a compact area: an ancient university, two old cathedrals, a beautiful Plaza de Mayor, an old Roman bridge, and other remarkable sights. Salamanca is 132 miles (212 km) northwest of Madrid.

Salamanca is northwest of Madrid.

Salamanca is northwest of Madrid.

The founding of the city goes back to pre-Roman times. The stately architecture of the old town gives it an aura of distinction, which has been earned–Salamanca has been an important center of learning for a thousand years .

The narrow streets of Salamanca.

The narrow streets of Salamanca.

Plaza de Mayor

Although “Plazas de Mayor” are found throughout cities in Spain, one of the grandest is Salamanca’s. I had heard how great it was, but didn’t understand until I visited. This 18th century plaza is one of Spain’s largest, bordered by majestic architecture.

Salamanca's great Plaza de Mayor.

Salamanca’s great Plaza de Mayor.

The Plaza Mayor is a great place to rest and absorb the wonderful surroundings on a sunny afternoon.

Catedral Vieja and Catedral Nueva (Old and New Cathedrals)

These two cathedrals adjoin one another. The old Romanesque cathedral is from the 12th and 13th centuries and the “new” 16th century cathedral is more Gothic and Baroque in its design. Luckily the old cathedral was preserved, rather than being torn down to make room for the new cathedral.

Although hard to tell, the old cathedral is on the right and the new cathedral towers over the old.

Although hard to tell, the old cathedral is on the right and the new cathedral towers over the old.

They both have beautiful frescoes, altarpieces and other precious art. Be sure to go up to the roof for a great view of old Salamanca.

View of Salamanca from the roof top of the Cathedral.

View of Salamanca from the roof top of the Cathedral.

Salamanca University

Founded in 1218, Salamanca University is one of Europe’s oldest and still functions as a top university in Spain, attracting students from around the world. One of the lecture rooms still has its original furniture.

The 13th century student seating in this lecture hall is original.

The 13th century student seating in this lecture hall is original.

The elegant courtyard of Salamanca University.

The elegant courtyard of Salamanca University.

Columbus met with geographers here to make his case for his famous western voyage to the Indies (which of course turned out to be the Americas).

The Patio de las Escuelas of Salamanc University.

The Patio de las Escuelas of Salamanc University.

Other Sights

Venture south of the old town to take a look at the Puente Romano (Roman Bridge), built in the 1st century AD. The Torre del Clavero (a 15th century tower), other old churches, convents and museums also beckon.

The 1st century AD Roman Bridge in Salamanca.

The 1st century AD Roman Bridge in Salamanca.

The intracately carved entrance to the Iglesia-Convento de San Esteban, a 16th century Dominican monastery.

The intracately carved entrance to the Iglesia-Convento de San Esteban, a 16th century Dominican monastery.

Huge ancient manuscript in the Iglesia-Convento de San Esteban.

Huge ancient manuscript in the Iglesia-Convento de San Esteban.

The Torre del Clavero (15th century) in old Salamanca.

The Torre del Clavero (15th century) in old Salamanca.

Just wandering through the old town is a joy. Be sure to visit Salamanca on your next trip to Spain!

Toledo – One of Spain’s Most Atmospheric Cities

View of the old town of Toledo. The Cathedral is on the left and the Alcazar is on the right.

View of the old town of Toledo. The Cathedral is on the left and the Alcazar is on the right.

Toledo is one of my favorite places in Spain, I think partially due to the setting. Toledo sits on a steep hill above the River Tagus (Tajo), which encircles about two thirds of the old city. The streets are narrow and the city’s walls, gates and bridges give it a real medieval feel.

The narrow streets of old Toledo.

The narrow streets of old Toledo.

The old walls of Toledo.

The old walls of Toledo.

Toledo is only about 72 km (45 miles) from Madrid, making it possible to visit as a day trip from Madrid. However, I would suggest staying at least overnight to enjoy the ambience of this town. A walk at sunset around the perimeter of the city is very romantic and peaceful.

One of the several bridges over the River Tagus in Toledo.

One of the several bridges over the River Tagus in Toledo.

There is plenty to see, including the 13th century Cathedral which has both Gothic and Baroque elements, the 15th century Franciscan Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes (one of the great monasteries of Europe), the rebuilt Alcazar (castle) and many other churches. We also enjoyed just wandering the hilly narrow streets and around the old town’s walls. For additional good views, consider the tram ride that goes around the far bank of the Tagus River.

The main entrance to the Toledo Cathedral. The building is so huge, it's hard to get a good picture from the narrow streets of the old city.

The main entrance to the Toledo Cathedral. The building is so huge, it’s hard to get a good picture from the narrow streets of the old city.

The Toledo Alcazar sits high on the hill, rebuilt after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). It's now an interesting museum.

The Toledo Alcazar sits high on the hill, rebuilt after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). It’s now an interesting museum.

The Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes is in the upper left, which was part of the old Jewish Quarter of the city.

The Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes is in the upper left, which was part of the old Jewish Quarter of the city.

Due to its history as home to Christian, Jewish and Muslim cultures over the centuries, Toledo has a unique atmosphere – feeling a bit like Jerusalem as well as medieval Europe. Originally, the Romans settled here, followed by the Visigoths in the 6th century and then the Moors in the 8th century. Toledo was also home to the famous artist El Greco (“The Greek”) in the 16th century. We stayed in the heart of the old town at the Hotel Santa Isabel which has a great view from its rooftop.

A view of the Cathedral at night from our hotel rooftop.

A view of the Cathedral at night from our hotel rooftop.

Driving is a nightmare in the old city, so take advantage of the large parking lot outside the northern perimeter near the bus station, and just hike up into the old town.