Spain: Hidden gems await beyond Barcelona

Merida is a stunningly beautiful city with some of the best kept Roman remains in Western Europe...

Merida is a stunningly beautiful city with some of the best kept Roman remains in Western Europe including a Roman theatre that is still used for performances today. SPANISH NATIONAL TOURIST OFFICE PHOTO

Christina Blizzard, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:36 PM ET

If the jewels in the crown of Spain are Barcelona and its beaches and Madrid and its culture, then places like Toledo, Cordoba and Merida are its hidden gems.

Steeped in the rich traditions of Spain’s diverse cultures and colourful history, these smaller cities offer spectacular treasures and are home to some of the most breathtaking World Heritage Sites in western Europe.

Some of Spain’s most remarkable ancient monuments are preserved and celebrated in smaller towns and cities that are well worth a side trip off the more popular track.

The Andalusian city of Cordoba is remarkable in its diversity. It boasts a cathedral in a mosque. Or is it a mosque in a cathedral?

It’s a stunning piece of architecture combining elements of both Christian and Muslim faiths — with a fascinating history dating back to the 6th century.

Originally constructed as a shrine to St. Vincent during the Islamic invasion of Spain, it was converted into a mosque.

Later it was restored to its original Christian roots — but the Muslim part was preserved and respected. There is still a special room with the Qur’n inside.

In the very heart of what was once a mosque is a cathedral with two altars — one used for special holidays, the other for ordinary services.

This extraordinary building attracts 1.2-million visitors a year, with the peak times for tourism in spring and fall. Easter’s Holy Week with its many solemn parades is an especially popular time to visit.

It’s a living monument to Spain’s strong multicultural history.

Andalusia has a long-standing horse-riding tradition, so be sure to take in the equestrian show at the Royal stables. You’ll be thrilled by the magnificent show of horsemanship.

Nearby, the gardens of the Christian King Alazar are well worth a visit. Impressive Roman mosaics dating back to the 3rd century were discovered in 1959. These have been carefully preserved and are on display.

The Palace of Viana and its lovely gardens are a must-see for anyone wanting to get a sense of Spain’s fascinating history.

Merida, near the Portugal border, is another city of stunning beauty. Its heritage is well-preserved — with some of the best kept Roman remains in Western Europe.

Dating back to 15 BC, the theatre and amphitheatres are next door to each other.

In the theatre, you can get an idea of how the Roman civiliation kicked back.

While it fell into disrepair during the middle ages, it is well maintained, and has been used recently for operatic productions.

Next door, the amphitheatre is not as well preserved, but you can still almost smell the blood of lions and the fear of the gladiators as they clashed in deadly battle.

This was ground zero for such contests.

Maximus — Russell Crowe character in the movie Gladiator — was from Merida, where he was then known as Emerita Augusta.

You can still see opposing tunnels where the animals and gladiators were kept before engaging in mortal battle.

Another remarkable building is the temple of Diana.

Built in the early Augustan era, the building was actually dedicated to the Imperial regime and was not to Diana.

Merida’s museum is especially worth a visit. It has a wonderful collection of Roman artifacts that truly give you an idea not just of the way the Roman empire ruled — but how they lived.

In central spain, just south of Madrid, Toledo is a city that takes pride in its multicultural past.

Just like Cordoba, historically, Muslims, Jews and Christians have thrived side by side in this city. The people of the city enjoyed their multicultural mosaic, even if their political masters tried to destroy it with the Inquisition and similar purges. The cathedral is built in a Muslim style.

The impressive Alcazar dominates Toledo’s landscape. The Romans built it as a palace; Christians reconstructed it. Today it houses a museum and an army office.

The spectacular Monastery of St. John of the Kings is also well worth seeing.

It was founded by the legendary Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, to commemorate both the birth of their son, John, and a 15th-century victory at the Battle of Toro (1476) over the army of Afonso V of Portugal.

It’s a fascinating building, incorporating many styles of architecture — Gothic as well as Moorish.

Toledo is also the city of El Greco.

The Renaisssance artist settled in Toledo and he incorporates its landscape — with its sweeping hills and elegant cypress trees — in many of his masterpieces. This year is the 400th anniversary of his death and there are numerous celebrations of his work happening in the city.

Toledo is also known for its iron work — especially sword-making. Swords for many Hollywood movies have been made there.

Spanish food is as delicious as it is varied, relying heavily on local fresh fruit, vegetables, seafood and meat.

Tapas - small dishes that allow you to savour a number of different flavours are a good way to get a variety of Spanish flavours.

If you enjoy taking your time over food, you’ll love Spanish mealtimes. You can dally for a couple of hours over a variety of foods, from beef-stuffed pastries to delicately flavoured cod to oxtail soup and lemon custard.

Add a bottle of Spanish wine and hola! The perfect end to a perfect day of sightseeing.

ANCIENT CACERES A WELL KEPT SECRET

Well off the beaten tourist path but well worth the detour are two other small Spanish cities, that are home to World Heritage sites.

Caceres is the capital of the Extremadura region.

You can still see the walled part of the ancient town that boasts a multicultural history enriched by the many faiths that have called it home.

The first thing you notice about Caceres, though, are the massive stork nests that dominate the skyline.

The larger nests can weigh thousands of kilograms but are protected and cannot be disturbed.

Caceres — the town of towers — is the first Spanish town to be made a World Heritage site. It has 30 towers from the Muslim era.

The ancient Cathedral of Santa Maria is Gothic and Roman in style. In the old town, the church of San Mateo was built over a mosque from the town’s Muslim era.

In the Palacio de las Ciguenas you can find the only tower that survived after Queen Isabella ordered the destruction of all the others in the town.

Water is a highly valued commodity in Spain and its collection and distribution has, over the centuries, been a major part of the country’s infrastructure. Palacio de las Veletas, which houses the museum, also has an ancient cistern dating back to Muslim times.

And check out the quirky House of the Monkey. Legend has it that the wealthy owner married a much younger woman, and bought a monkey for his young wife to entertain her when he went away on frequent long trips.

While he was away, a mysterious traveller stayed at the house. His wife became pregnant but when the child was born, the jealous monkey killed it as well as others in the house. As punishment, the husband chained the monkey to the stairs. You can see a replica of the monkey — still chained to the stairs — to this day.

To the west, the Plaza de San Mateo has the Cas y Torre de la Ciguena, or “House of the Stork.” This is the only tower in Caceres that was allowed to keep its original defensive tower because its owner stayed loyal to Isabel.

TASTY TOWN

Food — and wine — are important parts of life in Spain.

In Caceres, you can buy pastries and baked goods at the convent. Fig cake is a local speciality and locals pride themselves on their Iberian ham — a strong, distinctively flavoured ham made from pigs that feed on acorns.

Spanish wine has become extremely popular and for a few euros you can buy a bottle of extremely good red wine. Extremadura is renowned for its full-bodied reds.

ALCALA DE HENARES

Not far from Caceres, Alcala de Henares makes a good first or last day stop-over. Only 26 km from Madrid, Alcala is the home of the original Man of La Mancha.

Best known as the birthplace of Miguel Cervantes, you can visit the house where the Don Quixote author was born and grew up. Alcala is also a university town and has a rich culture of food and music. It, too, is home to storks and you can see their massive nests throughout the town.

NEED TO KNOW

— For travel information, contact the Tourist Office of Spain at spain.info/en_CA.

— To book a room at a Paradore, see parador.es/en.

— For more information on World Heritage Cities of Spain, ciudadespatrimonio.org.


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