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Cáceres should be your first stop in Spain after the pandemic

Tthis is the latest edition in our bimonthly series on underrated destinations, It’s Still a Big World.

Ask a friend who has traveled extensively where you should spend a holiday in Spain after the pandemic, and you’ll likely have a listening ear for Barcelona’s dream architecture, San Sebastian’s epic pintxo tours, and flamenco tablaos in Seville. But here’s my advice as a six-year-old transplant in Spain moving to pay the bills: Some of the most exciting news from Spain’s 2021 trip concerns Cáceres, a sleepy medieval town 180 miles west of Madrid.

I visited Cáceres for the first time in 2017, drawn by the promise of pork delicacies (acorn ham! Spicy patatera sausage!), Orange-shaded plazas and one of the best-preserved medieval enclaves in Europe . As I approached the city, I remember panting at the skyline, all at right angles to its low whitewashed houses and thirty towers, some almost 1,000 years old. Bell towers and brick domes sprang up between them, lending aristocratic grandeur to the place. The storks soared above their heads.

My first stroll through Ciudad Monumental, or Old Town, revealed winding streets lined with stone-built mansions, churches and monasteries, a sinister sepia-tinted maze built to last. Browsing through the signs on each historic facade as if I were visiting a museum, I struggled to find a single building newer than the 16th century. The ornate coats of arms hovering above the doors bore the seals of fairy-tale surnames that were fun to say out loud: Godoy, Saavedra, Golfín and Ovando-Mogollón. Everything has been preserved as in amber. The only glaring signs of modernity were in the form of film crew vans and extension cords: The Old Town was used as the filming location for Game of Thrones.

Cáceres reached its peak early and then somehow calcified. Although the Romans, Jews, and Moors laid the foundations for the city, erecting towers and installing cisterns (the one below the Cáceres Museum is worth a visit), the city’s heyday was between the end of the 15th and mid-17th century. It was during this time that explorers of the surrounding region – such as Hernán Cortés, Francisco de Orellana, and Francisco Pizarro – brought back ships of plundered riches from the so-called New World to finance the city’s opulent constructions.

But then, due to the royal family’s financial mismanagement, the money dried up. Simultaneously, Cáceres was caught in the crossfire of a protracted war against Portugal, forcing many locals to flee. At the turn of the twentieth century, the city was a poor, sparsely populated backwater ravaged by centuries of latifundia and neglect. People didn’t start giving Cáceres a second look until 1967, when the Council of Europe declared it the third most important monumental complex on the continent, beaten only by Tallinn and Prague. UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site in 1986.

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The irony of Cáceres’ dark chapter is that he may have saved the Ciudad Monumental from ruin. If the city had remained prosperous through the centuries, its old town would have been destroyed to make way for newer buildings.

Over the weekend I was struck by how well Cáceres was suited for trips from Madrid. It had it all: stunning churches (I will never forget the view from the steeple of Iglesia de San Francisco Javier), tasty tapas served brilliantly and hotels to suit all budgets. Toledo and Segovia are the most popular excursions from the Spanish capital, but while fascinating in themselves, they are touristy in your face (think magnets and postcards in every corner store). Cáceres, by comparison, felt like a real vacation – it oozed Spanish history and culture without a tourbus in sight.

After this trip, I told everyone who listened to me about Cáceres, but I had no compelling reason to come back until the beginning of the month, when I heard of a wave of new things: an opening hotel, a museum extension, revamped official tours and a new restaurant run by one of Spain’s greatest chefs. Finally, I thought Cáceres would have the international buzz it deserves. But then I realized that with leisure travel stalled and foreigners largely banned from visiting Spain, Cáceres’ biggest year in over a decade could potentially go unnoticed abroad, another blow to the already hampered tourism industry. Determined to spread the gospel, I bought a train ticket, packed up a bunch of masks, and set off to see what to expect in Cáceres in the After Times.

After ditching my suitcase at the NH Collection Cáceres Palacio de Oquendo, a reliable mid-range hotel set in a 16th-century stone palace, I zigzagged through the old town. It was quiet, no cars, no people, just the creaking of my shoes on the wet cobblestones. My first stop was the Helga Alvear Contemporary Art Museum. When I got here in 2017, I left to scratch my head: the low-ceiling medieval building housed some puzzling concept art (a pyramid of multi-colored balls, clothes pinned to a folded rug), and the collection looked clunky and out of place. . The German art collector has since thrown money at the problem to the tune of 10 million euros. The architects of Tuñón (renowned MUSAC) are behind the renovation, which added 54,000 square feet to the existing 32,000. From the outside of the building, I could make out the iconic Tuñón wooden slats above the scaffolding. “It’s going to look like a whole new museum,” a representative told me over the phone, adding that it would open “for a while” in 2021. “The new space will finally allow us to showcase large-format pieces from the collection that we were not able to display previously. “

The Helga Alvear is a five-minute walk from the heart of the ancient Judería, or Jewish Quarter, a tangle of narrow streets and one-story white houses huddled around the Hermita de San Antonio, originally the main synagogue. “Jewish Cáceres” is one of many new tours of niche interest that the local tourist office will launch in 2021, alongside other routes such as “Muslim Cáceres”, “Roman Cáceres” and a route reaching the the most picturesque viewpoints in the city. (Stop at the tourist office in Plaza Mayor to inquire about tour times.)

But perhaps the most exciting developments of all are in the hospitality sector of Cáceres. To be fair, there was already a lot to say: the city is home to one of Spain’s most exclusive design hotels, Atrio, chaired by partners born in Cáceres (both in business and in love) Toño Pérez and José Polo. Atrio’s rooms are dramatically lit and feature original works by Warhol, Tapiès, Ruff and Saura. Downstairs, Pérez runs a two-Michelin-starred kitchen where Extremaduran specialties like lomo doblao (confit Iberian pork bacon) and torta del Casar (a creamy, herbaceous sheep’s milk cheese) are incorporated into menus. tasting sessions that will make you bite into a “butterfly” tapioca filled with salmon mousse one minute and braised partridge draped in black truffles the next.

The duo’s latest passion project, slated to open in the second half of 2021, is an 11-suite hotel in Atrio called Casa Palacio Paredes Saavedra. “It’s taking on a phenomenal shape,” Polo told me over coffee and meringues. “The accommodations are going to be huge. One of the suites has a 215 square foot bathroom, which for me is a real luxury. Obviously, Tuñón Arquitectos has had a busy year. In addition to the Helga Alvear, they are undertaking the renovation and redesign of this 16th century mansion. When complete, guests paying over € 800 per night will be able to enjoy amenities such as showers for him and his, heated floors, butler service, and deep sink tubs cut from simple slabs of Italian marble . There are plans to transform the original underground cistern into a candlelit sauna and hammam.

Pérez’s food is second to none in Cáceres, but not expensive. So when the couple announced that they were taking over Torre de Sande, the average casual restaurant next door, and opening an informal Extremaduran asador (steakhouse) in its stead, locals took to it. jumping out of joy. The space, which opened this month, is absolutely stunning. The Torre de Sande owes its name to the 14th century tower it occupies, so you can imagine the bones: stone pillars, vaulted ceilings, roughly hewn stone walls. In fact, Pérez and Polo rent the place to a viscount (!), Who gave them his blessing so that they have a weird look on the place …Hello, deliciously subdued track lighting and black marble table top. If Covid wants it, you can enjoy Pérez’s smoked roast meats and locavore tapas outside on the ivy-lined terrace this summer. But whether it’s a trip to Spain next year or 10 years from now, Cáceres will undoubtedly still be there, proud.

Where to stay

Atrio is one of the most prestigious hotels in Spain, with prices to match. More affordable launch pads include the NH Collection Cáceres Palacio de Oquendo, located 100 meters from bustling Plaza Mayor, and the Gran Hotel Don Manuel, a few blocks north of the Old Town. Both hotels stand out for their warm service and hearty breakfasts, but are also a bit frayed around the edges (peeling paint and flimsy towels – that sort of thing).

Where to eat

Beyond Atrio and Torre de Sande, there are few very good restaurants in the old town. Take a six-minute taxi ride to Javier Martín, in the Nuevo Cáceres neighborhood, and you’ll be rewarded with tasting menus at incredibly affordable prices and plenty of a la carte options from Iberian pork carpaccio to rice. creamy lobster and Almadraba tuna tataki. Much more casual, in the best possible way, is La Marina, a third-generation bar that shamelessly produces old-school raciones like white gazpacho, scrambled eggs with lamb’s brains and zarangollo, a tangy Extremaduran salad of smoked roasted peppers and good Spanish tuna with a garlic vinaigrette and a few chunks of parsley.

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