Spain's western towns are gems of history

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Most people who are familiar with the place names Guadalupe, Merida, Albuquerque, Medellin and Trujillo will locate them somewhere in the New World; similarly, most educated people will recognize the names Balboa, De Soto, Cortes and Pizarro as great adventurers and conquerors -- conquistadors in Spanish. And what these lessons in geography and history have in common is that both the place names and the conquistadors are originally from the same part of Spain -- the under-traveled, untouristy, unfamiliar region of Extremadura.

Extremadura, which means "farthest out," is just that. It lies north of Andalusia and southwest of Madrid; if you travel west from Extremadura, you'll be in Portugal. There are hills, deep gorges and mountains -- snow-capped in most seasons -- in the distance, but for the most part, what you'll see for miles and miles outside the big towns is the horizon, with nary a soul in between.

The awesomeness of its landscape is matched by its historical tradition, its antiquity and the nobility of its architecture. Merida, Caceres, Trujillo and Guadalupe are the major towns of interest; the first three make up a triangle in which each city is less than 45 miles from the others and Guadalupe is 40 minutes by car from Trujillo in another direction.

Merida was founded by the Romans in 25 B.C.; 400 years later it was a more important city than Athens. As you enter the city from either north or south you'll see an ancient Roman bridge (or aqueduct). And within a spacious complex you'll find ancient Rome: A theater built by Agrippa in 24 B.C. seats 6,000. The stage is backed by a two-level wall with marble statues and columns from the second century -- all of it lovingly restored and the site of a drama festival every summer. A few paces away is an amphitheater for 14,000 in which sea battles were staged (it could be flooded), and where gladiators, and a bit later, Christians, fought for their lives. Nearby are the ruins of a first-century villa with vivid mosaics.

On the edge of town, you'll move ahead 800 years, and find the Alcazaba (citadel), built by the Moors, a huge building made of Roman and Visigothic materials. And to travel another 400 years ahead in time, take a look at the Romanesque Church of Santa Eulalia in the middle of town. Legend has it that it is built over an oven in which the child saint was baked alive for spitting in the eye of a pagan priest.

If Merida is an outdoor Roman museum, then Caceres is a showplace of Renaissance architecture. The old town, known as the "Monumental City," is enclosed by walls from the Roman period, which were strengthened by the Moors. Within these walls (and occasionally directly outside them) are a maze of old, narrow streets, and each one opens onto a splendid square crowded with glorious, honey-colored mansions of rough stone. They have been occupied since their construction in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.

If you take your time and look for details, you'll be richly rewarded. Each remarkable home bears the coat of arms of its original owner. Look for odd door knockers, internal patios, handsomely crenelated belfries and towers -- nowadays invariably home to storks and their nests.

Caceres is great to wander around in, but make certain not to miss the Plaza de Santa Maria, which is the heart of the old city. In addition to the town's graceful cathedral of the same name (check out the stunning altarpiece), the plaza houses the Bishop's Palace, with medallions depicting the Old and New Worlds; and the turreted Palace of the Golfines de Abajo, with its plateresque top complete with winged griffins and the coats of arms of the Golfin family and the Catholic monarchs (who visited the palace twice). Elsewhere in town, seek out the Casa de las Veletas, with its Arab cistern with 16 horseshoe arches and 12 columns, and the House of the Monkey and House of the Horses (decorative details will tell you why), both of which are now museums.

And one other thing: Stay overnight in Caceres and revisit the old city after dark. It completes the experience and, somehow, makes you feel like part of the history.

Trujillo is the perfect medieval village, with a magnificently crooked main square on different levels with arcades, connecting stairways, an equestrian statue of Francisco Pizarro (its most famous native son), and the 16th-century Church of San Martin, which is paved with tombstones and contains art treasures in its smaller chapels. Around the square are numerous handsome palaces, built with money brought back from the New World by some of the 600 conquistadors from Trujillo. There's not a building here that does not hold up to careful study: If it isn't a corner balcony with a two-headed eagle on a shield, it's heavily Gothic embellishments and wrought-iron grillwork; a bit of exploration and you'll find yourself in an enchanting interior patio. Don't be afraid to knock and ask to be shown around -- the buildings are not museums, but a well-placed request, even in broken Spanish, tends to pay off. And the whole town is looked-over by a 10th-century Moorish castle.

Last is Guadalupe, the religious center of Extremadura. The city itself is lovely, with arcaded streets and wooden balconies, but its main draw is the Royal Monastery of Guadalupe, one of the top Marian shrines in the world. Take a guided tour -- in Spanish only, but you'll get the point. The tours are free of charge and the only way you're permitted to see the whole place.

The building is perfect Gothic, but there's a fine Mudejar cloister with fountains and Arabic decoration and arches. In the sacristy are a group of wonderful paintings by Zurbaran, depicting the saints and monks in a natural setting. You'll also see, and be allowed to touch or kiss (closely guarded by a robed monk) the revered 12th-century Virgin of Guadalupe, made of dark holm oak and situated in a little room of mirrors, paintings and wildly exotic decor of gold and marble inlay. Half the people on our recent guided tour cried when they approached the statue: It overwhelms the devoted.

As you may have gathered, a great number of Extremadura's sights are of the outdoor variety, so the time to visit is any time other than peak summer, when the heat can be oppressive. Spring and fall are stunning; winters are mild -- sunny and about 40 degrees. Just bring a comfortable pair of walking shoes -- they'll take you through 2,000 years of history.

IF YOU GO . . .

From Madrid you'll need to rent a car. The drive from Madrid to Trujillo is about 250 miles; a night's stopover in Toledo, an hour from Madrid, is nice if you don't want to drive straight through. (Similarly, a night in the walled city of Avila on the way back is worthwhile.)

Each of the four towns discussed has a four-star parador, or government-owned inn; only in Merida was a double more than $120. Check with your local travel agent.

For more information, contact the National Tourist Office of Spain, 665 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022; (212) 759-8822.

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