|Sitting across the border from Portugal in west-central Spain, Extremadura is a region that mixes some of Spain's best-protected wilderness areas with historic battle sites and ancient buildings. Once part of the old Kingdom of Castile, its location makes it the natural stopping point for travellers plying the path between Madrid and Portugal, although its virtues are such that it can serve as a travel destination in and of itself.
For British historians, some of the place names of Extremadura hold special reverence. The fortress of Badajoz was besieged by first Napoleon's French and then British forces between 1808 and 1812. The final action there was the bloody, yet ultimately successful assault on the fortress directed by Sir Arthur Wellesley, later to become the Duke of Wellington. Napoleonic War buffs visiting this historic place will also find that many of the city's medieval fortifications remain intact, and there is a lovely, colourful fine arts museum nestled next to and complimenting La Giralda de Badajoz.
Merida, the capital of Extramadura, is also the centre of its Roman legacy. The town and surrounding countryside are dotted with excellent Roman ruins, including temples, theatres, bridges, a circus and an aqueduct. With so many ancient ruins in one place, Merida ranks just below Pompei and quietly stands among places like Athens as one of Europe's great destinations for classical ruins.
Elsewhere is Caceres, whose old town has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Connected by rail to Madrid, Seville, Lisbon and Badajoz, the town of Caceres features a dense complex of walls, towers, churches and palaces of Gothic and Baroque design that range from the 12th to the 15th centuries. However, there are relics of even earlier times, with some older buildings being incorporated into newer structures and a few ruins, both dating to Islamic and even Roman times. The town's antique charms are so marvellous that Caceres is a strong contender to become the European City of Culture in 2016. Nearby is the town of Trujillo, offering more medieval architecture and the setting for Spain's annual National Cheese Fair.
Caceres is the capital of a larger province of the same name, which is home to the 85 square kilometres of Monfragüe National Park. Enclosing one of the largest forests left standing in Spain, the park is a magnet for European bird watchers. It is home to Spanish imperial eagles, black cultures, black storks, and black-shouldered kites among other bird species. There is no camping in the park, although there are campgrounds in the surrounding countryside.
Although little known even to other Spaniards, Extremadura is the home of three of Spain's most iconic foods. First is the iconic Iberian ham (jamon iberico), which many claim to be the finest ham in the world. Second is the pimenton de la vera, or smoked paprika, which has been adopted worldwide. Third are the cheeses, such as torta del cesar and la serena, which have stolen the hearts of cheese-lovers everywhere with their creamy texture and rich flavour.
The one thing Extremadura is not is well-connected to the rest of Europe. There are no major airports in the region, with the best option being to fly into Madrid and either take a train or rent a car, or alternatively to fly into a city in Andalusia and rent a car there instead.