Chris Dolan

Don’t go to Extremadura. You wouldn’t like it. For cyclists especially there’s nothing much there but flat roads, the odd hill, a village every 10 miles or so. It’s one of the least populated areas of Spain so you’d miss the buzz. The roads are virtually empty of cars, even other bikes. Seriously unfashionable. We went there so you wouldn’t have to.

If you must know, Extremadura is a region of Spain that runs alongside the Portuguese border, north of Seville up towards Salamanca.

For three Hispanophiles who have just turned 60 years old and spent more than half their lives exploring Spain, studying the language and history, walking and cycling the length and breadth of the place, we had never been to Extremadura. ‘What cyclist wants to go to a place called “Extremely Tough”,’ I’d asked when Liam first suggested the route.

It was a genuine journey of discovery going to the last bit of Spain unexplored by tourists, a world away from stag and hen parties, all-inclusive resorts. It was a special outing for us in several other ways too... Our first cycling holiday as sexagenarians; Liam and Eddie both having just retired (which they never let me forget); and, for Eddie in particular, a voyage of healing and remembrance.

Driving north of Seville, we quickly felt we were entering somewhere different. The colour of the earth deepens from chalk white to rich amontillado. There’s more greenery. The broad, flat plains plummet down from the Sierra Morena like a sudden drop in blood pressure. Crucially, the road surfaces get noticeably better, and the traffic lighter. It’s so sparsely populated you become very aware of the sky – pale smoky blue with puffy white clouds, as if drawn by a dreamy child.

We kicked off our cycle in Mérida, the ancient capital of Roman Lusitania which took in most of modern-day Portugal and all of Extremadura. The name Extremadura, we were relieved to find, refers to the outermost secure border of the classical province. We were loath to leave, having treated ourselves to a fancy parador (an old 18th century convent turned into a 4 star hotel), and the city celebrating a fiesta to mark the end of fiestas – though the next one was scheduled for 3 weeks later. Setting out we worried about talk of brutally high ‘Extremeño’ temperatures. But the day we took to the road the blue skies morphed into soft, almost Scottish, silver.

Even on A roads we seldom saw a car. We did, however, see lots of lakes, reservoirs, rivers. Landlocked Extremadura is known as the ‘Costa Interior’. There are thousands of kilometres of freshwater pools and gorges, inland beaches. So, weirdly, as you cycle along you hear peewits, see trees full of egrets, and I personally spotted a number of sea eagles. (’I think you’ll find, Chris,’ Eddie said on one such occasion, ‘that that is a crow.’)

Those first days cycling, largely on the rolling plains towards Badajoz, were serene. Gentle sun, clean air. Past herds of goats, their bells clanking atonally, turning the countryside into an al fresco Buddhist temple. There is something mysterious about Extremadura. Not quite Flamenco south, or stern north. Upcountry but with that coastal feel. It’s a bit Portuguese, and later, further north in the hills, the terraced vineyards look Tuscan. It’s an indeterminate land, but wilfully so.

The three of us consist of the Believer, the Atheist, and me the Agnostic – this felt like my land. We often found ourselves on the Via de la Plata, the silver route to Santiago de Compostela – the French camino, across the north cost of Spain, had been out first cycle together, years ago.

We ate with an old friend in Badajoz, in the shadow of the Alcazaba. ‘Should I spill the secret about this place,’ we asked him. ‘No! Well, yes, maybe you should. Then again….’ A quandary we discussed over warm partridge salad, bacalao dorado, wine from the nearby Duero. One of the finest meals of my life. Generally, we found the food simple, beautifully cooked from local ingredients. And cheap – one ‘menu del día’, three tasty, filling courses, wine and coffee, cost around £7.

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Our next major stop was Cáceres, an ancient walled town, with an elegant old central plaza. The cycling was getting a bit hiller now, the landscapes changing. And the sun hotting up. Talking to locals, or just noticing the names of streets and villages, you get inklings of Extremadura’s past. This bucolic, central region produced a plethora of sailors. And it’s the land of the Conquistadors. Francisco Pizarro – who kidnapped and murdered Atahualpa, the last Inca Emperor – was born in picturesque Trujillo. Hernan Cortés, the terror of Mexico, was from the little town of Medellín. Vasco Nuñez de Balboa founded the settlement of Darien. The original, tiny, Albuquerque is here.

Hard to imagine such violence, pedalling past pastures and orchards and meadows. We spotted figs, peppers, plums, tomatoes, cereals, oranges and lemons, artichokes, you name it. Then again we did see another of Extremadura’s famous exports – bulls, bred for their strength, size and aggression for the bullring.

Then, one magical day, we came across a road that all of us agreed was among the best we had ever cycled. Nary a car for well over an hour. Beautiful white horses running alongside us, behind hedgerows bursting with fruits and flowers. Tarmac as smooth as Liam’s baldy heid. You could hear our Scottish tyres sighing with relief and delight, as we swept along. At the end of it we saw one of the very few semi-busy roads of the entire trip. Eddie turned his bike round. ‘We’re doing it again, lads.’ An extra, unplanned, wonderful 25km. I’m not telling you where that road is. Seek it out for yourself, pilgrim.

Increasingly we were surrounded by oak groves. Extremadura is the epicentre of Jamón Ibérico. It’s here they raise the essential black Iberian pigs and feed them nothing but acorns. Or oak-nuts, as Don Quixote called them, declaring them the basis of all great cuisine. In any bar, any restaurant, get the ham, it’s always fantastic.

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Heading up towards Plasencia, mountains suddenly erupt out of the plains. The Sierra de Gredos, with its scary category 1 hills. Our first big challenge was Peña Negra, the highest point in La Vera – The Vale of Extremadura, home to high hills and brooks and, we discovered, Europe’s best paprika. One of the reasons we were here at all was because Lizzie had insisted. Eddie’s wife, and our old friend, had died in the summer. Throughout the ride we remembered Lizzie stories – and laughed, and gret. Eddie calculated hills not in metres or yards but how often he could say ‘Elizabeth McKim Hamill Morrison’. Peña Negra got him into the hundreds, and up the hill way before us. Twelve hundred metres high, over an hour’s climb – but the views from the top are a rich reward.

Only on our last ride did we encounter any problems. We all had punctures – tyres covered in tiny thorns. By the time we were mobile again the afternoon heat had intensified. After a couple of hours of category 2 hills we were seriously drained and dehydrated. The town of Jarandilla saved us. In a local cafe we were given fresh figs, homemade tortilla, cool mountain water… travellers saved by a kindly soul.

Extremadura. Well, I suppose it’s fine for the likes of us – Sunday cyclists with dodgy knees and tickers (Eddie stretched his back one day and put his knee out) and major life events to come to terms with; blokes endlessly gobsmacked by Spain and its revelations. For me, the route had a Zen feel, each day, every hill and road, each push of the pedal melding into one long, calming, experience. ‘I think I’ve mastered mindfulness,’ I said, ‘I forget where I am, just keep going forward, uphill or down’. Liam thought about this for a mile or two then worried that I might be confusing mindfulness with stupidity.

And personally I think it’d be daft for you, or anyone else, to go to Extremadura. We’ll go back and keep an eye on it for you. But, honestly, there’s not much there but space and sky and light. And maybe a kind of miraculous healing power.

Liam’s Travel Tip 1:

Malaga and Lisbon airports get you closest, non-stop, from Scotland. But Malaga flights are generally cheaper – and so is car hire than in Lisbon airport.

Liam’s Travel Tip 2:

Our most expensive stay was in the Parador in Mérida - £100 per single room per night. The cheapest, at £45, was La Botica in Pasaron de la Vera, Plasencia. A beautiful old village house, run by Minerva and Miguel and their family.

Liam’s Travel Tip 3

We bring our own bikes – fairly cheap on board as sports luggage. We get cardboard boxes from cycle shops. Then you can either chuck them when you’re away and get more from cycle shops in Malaga or wherever. Or collapse them and keep them.