International Budget Guide 2013: Asuncion, Paraguay

Asuncion
Why is 2013 the year to get to Asunción, Paraguay’s, lovely, riverfront capital? Because this landlocked tropical nation sandwiched between Boliva, Brazil and Argentina is modernizing at warp speed. Tourism is still a rarity (expect curious looks, especially if you venture into the countryside – and you most definitely should), but the city offers enough inexpensive, low-key pleasures to make spending a few days more than worthwhile.

While not as cheap as, say, La Paz, Asunción is still ridiculously affordable, especially if you’re not looking for luxury accommodations (lodging and cabs are pricey, compared to everything else). Spend your days in the laid-back downtown, or centro, visiting the shops, market stalls and restaurants; stroll La Costanera, the two-mile riverfront walkway in the centro; take a small boat to the nearby island of Chaco’i to check out the bird life; hit the town (Asuncion has quite the nightlife, because that’s when things finally “cool off”); or just do as Asuncenos do: kick back in the Plaza with a refreshing tereré (cold mate tea, often spiked with fresh medicinal herbs called yuyos) and watch the world go by (empanada in hand).

Although Paraguay is reputed to be South America‘s second poorest country, Asunción’s centro has the feel of prosperity. The country is rich in cattle ranching, soy exports and other agricultural food crops and is the continent’s only officially bilingual nation, thanks to the prevalent indigenous Guarani culture. (In most places, including Asuncion, Spanish is the dominant language over Guarani; you won’t, however, find English widely spoken, so bring your phrasebook.) Paraguayans are also legendarily hospitable, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself getting invitations to dinner or making friends at the drop of a hat.

Asunción calls to mind a smaller, saner, safer Rio de Janeiro, except that it’s located on the Rio Paraguay, instead of the Atlantic. Multi-colored, colonial and gothic-style buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries (both beautifully restored and in varying stages of glorious decay) make up the majority of the centro – although modern, upscale shopping malls and hotels are popping up, as well.Asuncion
It’s a city of flowering trees (lapacho, palo borrachos, jacaranda, chivatos…) and gardens. There are street vendors, markets and stalls of handicrafts, as well as parks, plazas and historical buildings and other cultural sights, mostly around the centro. Many of the outer neighborhoods, such as the area by the main bus terminal (Terminal de Omnibus, 30 minutes from the centro) are more what you’d expect from a major South American city: buses belching exhaust, ramshackle street stalls hawking everything from T-shirts and newspapers to termos, guampas and bombillas (equipment for drinking Paraguay’s ubiquitous yerba mate, and its cousin tereré) and generic restaurants and shops.

Don’t forget you’ll need a tourist visa if you’re visiting from North America; details are provided in the Getting Around section. For the purposes of this guide, all accommodations and dining, as well as most of the shopping activities, are limited to the centro, for the sake of both convenience and interest.

Budget Activities

Asuncion

Shop the mercados
Paraguay is renowned for its exquisite handicrafts (artesanias), and at the current market prices, you’ll most definitely want to bring a spare duffel (or purchase a hand-woven cotton bag) to tote home the goods. Delicate, web-like nanduti lace and finely woven ao po’i lace inset with encaje ju (a different form of lace often used as trimming) are turned into everything from tablecloths to clothing ($7 will get you a pretty table runner). Paraguayan cotton is also turned into beautiful, hand-woven hammocks, rugs and blankets.

There are hand-tooled leather belts, bracelets and purses, and leather-lined termos and guampas; all are high quality and super-affordable (just $1.25 for a cute little change purse). Silver filigree jewelry is another great souvenir, as are indigenous crafts from the local Maka Indians, such as woven bracelets and purses. The best place to find these goods is at the Plaza de la Libertad artesanias stands (closed Sunday), as well as the stalls along the main business drag of Calle Palma around the corner. Do note that siesta is from noon to 3, and most businesses shut down during those hours; the aretsanias stalls are about the only thing that stay open, besides department stores and some restaurants.

You’ll also find some permanent artesanias stores in the historic La Recova region, about five minutes of a walk away, across the street from the Port. The prices may be a bit higher, but the quality can also be better, especially for lace goods. If you’re looking for historical Paraguayan artifacts, don’t miss the Sunday antiques market, held in front of the Nueva America (“na”) department store on Calle Palma and Independencia National. It runs from around 8 a.m. until mid-afternoon, and while prices aren’t exactly budget, you’ll still find deals on everything from antique, silver-plated horse bridles and rusty, vintage license plates to swords and other military artifacts from the Chaco War.

For food (mainly produce, cheese and fresh and cured meats, but also some street food) and cheap clothes, electronics and other goods, the warren-like Mercado Cuatro is a must. It’s a half-hour walk from the Plaza de los Heroes, which, along with Plaza de la Libertad across the street, is the social heart of the centro. Go early, as the mercado gets hellaciously hot and crowded, and bring a camera (always ask before snapping photos of vendors or other people, por favor). The good stuff is in the permanent stalls in the heart of the market: there’s cheese, butter, lard, all different shapes of fideos (noodles), herbs and mate. Food lovers will also want to check out Agroshopping, which is held Tuedsays in the Shopping Mariscal López parking lot in the Villa Mora neighborhood, just outside of the centro. Here, you’ll find all the many types of produce grown in Paraguay (including organic and tropical fruit crops, in season), as well as prepared foods, cured meat, baked goods and fresh fruit juices.

Your best friend while planning your trip and traveling in Paraguay will be local author Romy Natalia Goldberg’s “Other Places Travel Guide: Paraguay” (2012). Her website is equally helpful for hours and locations on the above, or anything else you might want to know about the country, or Asunción, from where to get the best chipas, to the etiquette of joining a tereré or mate circle. discoveringparaguay

Visit Museo del Barro
Paraguay’s finest museum is absolutely worth the cab or bus ride (it’s about 10-15 minutes from the centro by taxi; about $6). The contemporary building is in a largely residential area, and houses a remarkable collection of folk art and indigenous handcrafts, ceremonial costumes and ceramics from across Latin America, as well as excellent contemporary Paraguayan art. There’s also a museum shop where you can purchase reproductions of ceramic figurines and other works. Note that most of the museums in Asunción are free or charge a symbolic entrance fee (approximately 10,000 Guaranis or $2.50). The Museo del Barro is $2, although it’s free on certain days (the website has details). Closed Sunday; hours vary so check the website. Grabadores del Cabichuí 2716 e/ Emeterio Miranda y Cañada, museodelbarro.org

Other museums worth checking out for a dose of Paraguayan history or culture include the Museo de la Memoria, located in the centro and dedicated to those who suffered under the Stroessner dictatorship in the latter part of the 20th century; it’s also a human rights center. The Museo Etnográfica Andres Barbero also has an outstanding collection of Paraguayan indigenous artifacts.
Asuncion
Walking, tereré sipping and snacking
Most of Asunción comes to a screeching halt on Sundays; the streets of the centro are nearly deserted. While a handful of restaurants, bars and shops remain open, you should leave the day open for walking tours because Asunción was made for sipping, strolling and snacking.

Take a cab or bus to the Jardin Botánico, which has over 165 acres of parkland and gardens. There’s a small (admittedly, not great) zoo, two museums and over 300 plant species, more than half of which are indigenous. It’s a great place to get a taste of Asunceno life. Join in a soccer game or tereré circle or enjoy lolling on the grass. Don’t forget a hat!

Other great places for walking are the majestic Cementerio de la Recoleta, and the newly designated (as of April 1, 2013) tourist destination of Barrio San Jerónimo. This tiny, historically relevant 19th-century neighborhood is located at the edge of the centro, just north of the Costanera. It’s part of the state tourism agency’s plan to create a destination neighborhood similar to La Boca in Buenos Aires, or Valparaiso’s Cerro Algre. The vibe is bohemian, and brightly painted, flower-bedecked houses (most of which have belonged to the same families for generations) and narrow, cobbled alleyways (where residents hid during the Chaco War) make for intriguing exploration. Right now, it’s still strictly residential, but the plan is to build restaurants, cafes and bars, and more of a cultural arts scene. Even without the retail aspect, it’s one of the most alluring spots in a city full of them. For directions, go to facebook.com/lomasanjeronimo or email lomasanjeronimo@gmail.com. The main street through the barrio is Calle Piraveve.

Hotels

Black Cat Hostel: Paraguay’s first hostel opened in late 2009, and while a handful of others have come and (mostly) gone, the Cat remains one of Asunción’s most popular accommodations for adventurers of all ages. This is due partly to the owners – Paraguayan mother-daughter team Lilia Valdez and Violeta Colman. You’ll go far to find two more genuine, kind, helpful people, and their love of Paraguay is apparent. The rest of the staff are equally wonderful and the hostel will happily provide domestic travel info and assist you with ongoing arrangements, because they understand what a challenge it can be.

The other reasons the Cat rocks? Its location, literally minutes from everything you might want to do in the centro, as well as the property itself. A former, 100-year-old private home, the hostel has large, high-ceiling dorm and private rooms with fans (AC costs extra). There’s a rooftop patio surrounded by lush greenery and historic buildings, a tiny pool, kitschy painted walls and a relaxed vibe. Bathrooms are shared, but kept spotless, as is the rest of the hostel, and breakfast, coffee and bottled water are included. If you’re not a cat person, be forewarned: resident cat Mathias rules the roost. From $11/dorm, $27/single. Eligio Ayala 129, blackcathostel.com
Asuncion
Hotel Palmas del Sol: If you feel like springing for something other than a hostel or dreary budget room, this modern, white, immaculate little hotel on the edge of the centro near the river will set you back $55 for a private double with bath. Rooms are small but cheerful and relatively bright with no frills. Breakfast is included and there’s also a swimming pool. Bonus: it’s on a quiet side street, yet within walking distance to everything. Avenida Espana 202, tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g294080-d543605-Reviews-Hotel_Palmas_Del_Sol-Asuncion.html

Hotel La Espanola: This brick hotel has a grittier, urban feel due to the busy street it’s on, but it’s just a five-minutes walk from the Plaza(s). There’s a front garden with an amusingly phallic fountain statue, but once you get inside, the airy lobby and soothing, pistachio-colored walls of the dining room seem a world away from the heat and humidity. Rooms are small and a bit dark, and consist of little more than a bed, but are clean and comfortable. Breakfast and Wi-Fi included. From $24/single with bath and AC. Luis Alberto de Herrera N° 142, hotellaespanola.com.py

Eating & Drinking

Lido Bar: Asunción’s most beloved spot for Paraguayan cheap eats is essentially a diner with a snaking, horseshoe-counter (there’s patio seating as well, should you not wish to take advantage of the arctic chill of combined AC and ceiling fans). Old school waitresses bustle about, preparing fresh juice and slinging plates of plump, addictive empanadas and excellent chipa guazu (a cheesy, soufflé-like cornbread). The caldo de pescado (Paraguay’s famous fish soup) is reputedly the best in the city but whatever you order, it’s going to be good-and inexpensive. It’s also open late and on Sundays. Empanadas nearly the size of a softball are just $2.50. The corner of Calles Palma y Chile, facebook.com/pages/Lido-Bar/136901396379100

El Bolsi: While Bolsi could be considered Lido Bar’s competition when it comes to Paraguayan food, it’s closer to a North American coffee shop. The affordable, extensive menu also includes items like sandwiches, burgers, pasta and salads, but the real draw here are the fresh juices made to order (passion fruit? mango?) and desserts. You haven’t lived until you’ve had their dulce de leche mousse or tres leches cake. Open 24 hours; patio seating also available. Estrella 399, facebook.com/elbolsi

Street food: Asunción’s street vendors offer some of the best tastes of Paraguay. Whether they’re hawking fruit, mate cocido (hot, sweetened tea made with milk), chipas (baked corn flour-and-cheese biscuits – you’ll see vendors carrying baskets on their heads, calling out “Chiiiiiipas!”), empanadas, or any number of grilled meaty treats – lomito (steak), sandwiches, costillas (ribs), lomito arabe (schwarma) and even hot dogs. Delicious and so cheap, you can go out for a beer, afterwards. The Brittania Pub or 904 Bar (located kitty-corner from one another on Cerro Corá, in the centro) are fun spots that draw locals and tourists.
Asuncion

Getting Around

One advantage of having a country without almost no tourism infrastructure: Asuncion’s small, modern Silvio Petirossi International Airport is a breeze as far as arrivals and departures go. Just be sure you have your visa ready, or be prepared to purchase one at Immigration upon arrival for $160 in U.S. dollars. (Very important: make sure those bills are crisp, clean and without any visible flaws, including creases.) Buses are quite pleasant for a developing nation and the main form of transit for Asuncenos. They cost next to nothing (say, a dollar, if that). If you’re on a time constraint, however, cabs are everywhere, and you’re unlikely to need one if you stay in the centro. A trip to the Museo del Barro, by way of example, will run you about $12-$14 round trip. You can also change money or use the ATM outside of the sterile zone of the airport.

Allow roughly 20 minutes during regular hours for the cab ride to/from the airport; it will run you approximately 100 Guaranis ($24). You won’t have any trouble scoring a metered taxi in front of arrivals, or you can take the bus for $5. Look for the Linea 30 (Aeropuerto), which makes hourly stops from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. and will drop you either mid-way between the airport and downtown, (near the Sheraton Hotel/Shopping del Sol center) or about 10 minutes away in the centro proper, along the main drag of Presidente Franco to Calle Colon (which will put you within walking distance of all downtown lodging, if you’re backpacking; you don’t want to lug suitcases over cracked and potholed sidewalks, even if they are surprisingly clean).
Asuncion

Safety

Paraguay is relatively politically stable; most rabble-rousing is internal, and comes in the forms of demonstrations. As far as large South American cities go, Asunción may well be the safest. This isn’t to say that you can throw caution to the wind, but, especially in the centro, it’s remarkable how relaxing it is to be a tourist. Compared to Lima or Rio, it’s safe to walk the streets during the day, or while returning from dinner or a club, even if you’re a solo female (depending upon your location, obviously). That said, this is still a machismo culture, and women need to remain aware at night, and in dodgy neighborhoods. Petty crime is the most common problem, so just use good judgment, and keep hotel doors locked and valuables out of sight (and locked up, as well), and don’t flaunt wads of cash or expensive jewelry. You’ll find Asunción is no more threatening – and, if anything, safer – than many major cities in the United States.

Don’t be concerned about the uniformed armed guards (both police and private security) that you’ll see around Asunción or elsewhere in the country, and do note that uniforms are required, unlike in some developing nations (it’s far more unnerving seeing apparent civilians with machine guns). While it’s difficult for Norte Americanos to feel casual about semi-automatics on busy city streets, the guards are a common sight in front of banks, change houses and upscale shopping malls. They’re there as a deterrent (as previously mentioned, much of Paraguay’s economic prosperity comes from cattle ranching and soy exports). Also, due to economic disparities, there’s a need to protect establishments (and patrons) where large amounts of cash are present, just like in the States. Tranquilo pa, you’ll find the guards are actually very friendly.
Asuncion

Seasonality

Being a tropical nation, Paraguay has a “warm” climate year-round. Fall and winter (theirs, not ours, so April-October) is the best time to visit, because things cool down a bit, although you’ll still have to contend with monsoonal rains if you’re venturing beyond Asunción, and this can mean flooding and road closures – often for days at a time. Asunción itself doesn’t get a lot of rain, and the evenings can even get a slight chill, so bring a light sweater and pants or leggings.

November through March is only for masochists, or those who enjoy vacationing in a sauna. Air-conditioning is widespread throughout the city in malls, theaters and museums but if you’re on a budget, don’t assume your accommodation (or restaurants, bars or taxis, for that matter) will have AC. Usually, it costs a bit more for a room with an air-conditioning unit, but bear in mind that this is a city made for walking, so if you tend to get wilty in any kind of heat or humidity, visit another time.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]

Lincoln Cathedral quieter than usual as 176 year old bell gets repaired

Lincoln CathedralGreat Tom, the giant bell at Lincoln Cathedral that has struck the hour every hour since 1835, has stopped ringing.

The clapper has almost shared off, a church official said. The last time the bell was silenced was during the filming of The Da Vinci Code in 2005.

Lincoln Cathedral is one of the great cathedrals of Europe. The original cathedral was commissioned by William the Conqueror and consecrated in 1092. Fires and earthquakes caused a few rebuilds over the years and like so many cathedrals, different parts date to different centuries.

Still, it’s one of the best examples of Gothic architecture in England. The soaring nave and the three tall towers make it a memorable landmark.

Lincoln cathedralOne odd little bit of decoration is the Lincoln Imp. This is said to be one of two imps sent by the devil to cause mischief. They smashed the furniture, tripped the bishop, and caused general mayhem until an angel floated out of a book of hymns. One imp became scared and hid, while the other threw things at the angel. The angel then turned the more aggressive imp to stone while the cowardly imp ran away. An imp is still the symbol of the city of Lincoln.

Smaller bells will continue to ring the quarter hours and church officials hope to have it up by the end of the year.

Imp photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Cathedral photo courtesy Geograph.

Antwerp: Belgium’s historic and modern port

AntwerpI’ve often wondered why Belgium is such a rich country. Its main claims to fame–chocolate, beer, Tintin, and a heroic fight against the Kaiser’s army in World War One–are all noteworthy but hardly the stuff to earn billions. Some background research for this series taught me that Antwerp has a lot to do with Belgium’s wealth.

It’s the second largest port in Europe, and one of the top ten in the world. It has a petrochemical works second only to Houston. The diamond industry is a major factor too. It’s strange, then, that Antwerp isn’t better known as an economic center the way London or Zurich is. It seems the Belgians just quietly get on with it, without making too much fuss.

Legend has it that the city gets its name from the antics of Antigoon, an evil giant who charged a toll on those crossing the River Scheldt. The toll was one hand, which he tossed into the river. One day a youth named Brabo fought the giant, cut off one of his hands, and threw it into the river, thus saving the city for us regular-sized folk. The Dutch name for the city, Antwerpen, means “throw a hand.”

Etymologists say the name actually comes from the old way to say “on the wharf” or “on the warp” (manmade hill), but any story with a giant gets my vote.

Like so many Western European cities, Antwerp can trace its origins to Roman times. It steadily grew until it enjoyed a golden age in the 16th century as a major port during the Age of Exploration. Overseas colonies sent their wealth through Antwerp, and this wealth is reflected in the glorious curches and fine homes built during this period. The city has had its ups and downs over the centuries and is currently enjoying an up.

Walking around Antwerp’s historic center you’ll see architecture reminiscent of Amsterdam without the canals. The Gothic spire of the Cathedral of Our Lady acts as a landmark. It was consecrated in 1521, when Antwerp was really getting going, and is adorned with some of the finest art of the Low Countries. Rubens has several works here, including his Descent from the Cross, included in the gallery in this article. As I was admiring it yesterday, two British boys came up beside me. The older one said in his best public school accent, “It’s quite good”, to which his younger brother replied “Not for Jesus.”

The Virgin Mary is important to the people of Antwerp and you can see statues of her on many streetcorners, looking down on the passersby.
Antwerp

%Gallery-137603%A lesser-visited but equally interesting church is the 17th century Saint Carolus Borromeus. There’s some fine art and an interesting relic. Just to the left as you enter, look up and you’ll see a headless statue of a boy holding a little silver sphere. Through the glass of the sphere you can see a skull. This is said to be the skull of Justus, a Roman boy whose family converted pagans to Christianity. Roman soldiers captured him and demanded to know where his family was. He refused to say and they cut off his head. Visiting this relic is said to cure headache and nerve pain.

Antwerp is a combination of winding little streets, a few broad avenues, and some stately squares. Many of these squares are lined with bars where you can sample some fine Belgian beer. The best bars have an immense variety to choose from, like Kulminator, which had literally hundreds of varieties on offer. A friend of mine recommended this place, saying, “They sell a beer bottled in 1984, consistancy of marmite. I didn’t remember anything for the next six hours.” I didn’t drink that one!

The city center is very walkable, and filled with museums, galleries, and palaces. I’ll be visiting some of them later in the series, but I did want to say that if you’re going to see just one museum, make it the Mas. This ultramodern high-rise along an old dock contains the collections of four previous museums. There’s everything here from video installation pieces to the Dutch Masters, all mingled together to give you a visual overload. It stays open until midnight (!) so it’s a great place to walk off some calories after a dinner of rich Flemish cuisine.

I’m not much of a shopper, but many travelers say Antwerp is great for fashion and jewelry, especially diamonds. I also noticed a large number of well-stocked bookstores. The Flemish region of Belgium is known for having a lively literary scene. If anyone out there can suggest some good Flemish authors who have been translated into English or Spanish, I’d like to hear about them.

The people of Antwerp are proud of their city, as I discovered on my first night as I was puzzling over my map trying to find my way back to the hotel. A guy came up and asked where I was going and pointed the way. A minute later he came running up to me to apologize. He’d sent me the wrong way. These medieval streets can even confound the locals! After he pointed out the correct route I thanked him and said, “You have a beautiul city.”

“We have the only beautiful city. You know what we say of the rest of the world?”

“What?” I asked.

“It’s the suburbs of Antwerp.”

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Visiting a German bunker from World War Two!

This trip was partially funded by Tourism Antwerp and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

The best views of Oxford, England

Oxford
Oxford is the most beautiful city in England. Its famous “dreaming spires” have inspired generations of writers, poets, and scholars. The problem is, there are only two easily accessible spots to get appreciate Oxford’s skyline at its best.

This photo shows the Radcliffe Camera, part of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library and where I work when I’m not feeding hyenas in Harar, Ethiopia. I took this from the top of the spire of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. The tower and spire were built between 1280 and 1325 and are the oldest parts of the church. It’s covered in ornate Gothic carvings and leering gargoyles so don’t forget to take a photo of the exterior before entering the church gift shop and buying your ticket to go up!

The stairs are steep and the staircase is narrow. If you are not reasonably fit do not try to go up. Once you huff and puff your way to the top, you’ll be treated to a 360 degree view of Oxford–its churches, its famous colleges, and the green countryside beyond. You’ll also see the gargoyles up close and personal. The nice folks at the gift shop will give you a free map showing you where everything is. After five years living part time in Oxford I still can’t name all the colleges!

%Gallery-122796%Once you come back down be sure to visit the rest of the church, most of which dates to the 16th century and features some beautiful stained glass. There’s also a cafe serving tasty and reasonably priced food and coffee. There’s something soothing about sipping a mocha under medieval arches. If the weather is good, you can sit in the garden and enjoy views of the Radcliffe Camera and All Souls College.

An even more interesting and much easier climb is up the Old Saxon Tower of St. Michael at the North Gate. While it’s not as high as the spire of St. Mary’s, it’s the oldest building in Oxford. It dates to the late Saxon times and was built around 1040. This used to guard the city gate of Oxford, but all that’s left is the tower. Climbing up here you’ll see a little museum filled with medieval and renaissance bric-a-brac, including a raunchy church sculpture I’ll blog about later. On one landing is an old clockwork mechanism. If you put 20 pence in it, the gears grind to life and chimes start to play. The last time I climbed this tower with a kid I spent a whole pound on it!

Peering over the parapet you can watch shoppers stroll along Cornmarket St., Oxford’s busiest pedestrian road, and you can see birds wheel and soar amidst the spires of nearby colleges. The 13th century church downstairs is worth a look for its rare medieval stained glass and a font that William Shakespeare stood next to as his godchild was baptized. It was the kid of a local innkeeper, and I hope The Bard got a few free pints for his trouble!

If you know anyone who works at or graduated from Oxford, try to get into their college and climb up one of the towers. While most colleges are open to visitors for at least part of the year, the “dreaming spires” generally aren’t, so you need an insider to gain access.

Top five castles of Extremadura, Spain

castle, castles, Spain, Badajoz
Spain is one of the best countries in the world to see castles. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Iberian peninsula was split between various Christian states and the Moors, Muslim invaders from North Africa. These factions fought and traded with each other in a constantly changing network of political alliances. Leaders protected their domains with castles and walled cities. One of the hot spots for fighting was in the southwest in what is now the autonomous community of Extremadura, including its provinces of Badajoz and Cáceres. There are literally hundreds of castles here. Below are five of the best, picked for their accessibility and general coolness.

Olivenza
Olivenza is a town in the province of Badajoz. It’s right on the border with Portugal and is actually claimed by that country, although it has been under Spanish jurisdiction since 1801. The castle of Olivenza is an impressive Templar fortress adapted from an earlier Muslim castle taken in 1228. It features high walls and imposing square towers. As you can see from the photo in the gallery, these included “murder holes” set out from the edge of the tower from which to drop rocks and boiling water on attackers. The idea of dropping boiling oil is a myth. Water was much cheaper and easier to obtain, although one account from a siege in France talks about using boiling lead! The castle at Olivenza was expanded in the 14th and 16th centuries and is very well preserved, still dominating this small town of 12,000 people. A gate flanked by slender, semi-round towers, and a wide moat also survive.

Fregenal de la Sierra
This castle is also in Badajoz and guards the road to Seville. As you can see from the above photo, courtesy Fregenal01 via Wikimedia Commons and taken under much better conditions than the crappy weather we had on our trip to Extremadura, the high walls and seven towers now share the skyline with church spires. This wasn’t always the case. The first fort here was built by the Romans, later reworked by the Visigoths and Moors. After the land was taken from the Muslims, King Fernando III gave the castle to the Templars in 1283. They expanded and improved the fortifications and they were still being used as late as 1808 by Napoleon’s troops! The castle courtyard is now the town’s bullfighting ring.

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Trujillo
Perhaps the most visited castle in Extremadura is in the charming old walled city of Trujillo in Cáceres. In the 16th century Extremadura was a poor region that had seen generations of warfare. This bred tough and desperate men willing to take a chance to better their lives. Trujillo was the home of many of the Conquistadores that won the New World for Spain, including Francisco Pizarro. His house is now a museum and sits in the shadow of one of Spain’s most impressive castles. Trujillo was taken during the Moorish invasion of 711 and remained in Muslim hands until 1232. You can see many Arab flourishes to the design, such as the horseshoe-shaped arches. An informative tour takes you all around the battlements. The guides like to point out where the Virgin Mary appeared to rally the Spanish in their final assault against the Moors.

Castillo de Floripes
For something a little different, head to this partially submerged 15th century fortress. Close to the small town of Garrovillas de Alconétar in Cáceres, it got inundated by a reservoir project in 1969. The main tower still rises majestically from the waters, and when there’s a drought you can see much more of the Gothic stonework and even walk around the grounds. It’s a bit squishy, but atmospheric. Supposedly it has its origins in Roman, Visigothic, and Moorish times, but there’s no chance to conduct an archaeological excavation.

The Fortified Monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe
Spain was a rough place back in the Middle Ages, and monks weren’t immune to the violence. This World Heritage Site in the town of Guadalupe, Cáceres, has been one of Spain’s most important monasteries for centuries. Founded in 1340, it became a center of learning and medicine. The tour takes you around the tall towers, the cloisters, and painting of monks done by Zurbarán. The highlight is Our Lady of Guadalupe, a holy image of the Black Madonna. It’s a popular pilgrimage spot, so the town has many hotels.

For more information and photos, check out the Castillos de España website (in Spanish) and its English sister site (which sadly doesn’t have as much material) Castles of Spain. Both feature a handy interactive map. For more general information on castles, go to the website of castle expert Lise E. Hull. She focuses on the British Isles, but includes a lot of general information on castle construction and daily life in the Middle Ages.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: Paradores: the luxury hotels of Spain!