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Max Abroad : The Best of Spain

Quite simply writing about the best things Spain has to offer and anything that might crop up along the way. Spain is a lot more than just sun, sand and sea...

Cáceres, the heart of Extremadura
31 July 2020

 

Cáceres is an outstanding city that was ruled from the 14th to 16th centuries by powerful rival factions: fortified houses, palaces and towers dominate the views of the city. This city, in the heart of Extremadura, bears the traces of highly diverse and contradictory influences, such as Islamic arts, Northern Gothic, Italian Renaissance, arts of the New World, etc. The walls of the city bear exceptional testimony to the fortifications built in Spain by the Arab Almohads. 


Caceres or Caesarina, its name in the 6th century, played only a minor role in the Visigothic Kingdom. It had lost almost all its prominence when the Arabs seized it and made it a fortified city, called Qasri, which in the 12th century Al-Idrisi saw as the principal bridgehead against the Christians. Moreover, during the 12th-century wars, after the Almohads had lost and then retaken the city several times, they built remarkable fortifications which completely changed the appearance of the Roman walls which had marked the boundaries of Caesarina, although few example of these walls are still visible today. Flanking towers were positioned externally a few metres from the rampart and connected to it by a wall; five of the towers, rectangular in shape, still stand to the west, including the famous Torre del Bujaco; two polygonal towers can be seen to the south (Torre Redonda and Torre Desmochada); to the east, the Torre de los Pozos, rising 30 m above the rampart walk, is partly built into a barbican.


 

Few monuments have survived from the Muslim period within the walls, however the most significant is the five-nave reservoir with three bays, incorporated into the Casa de las Veletas in the 16th century. Although most of the monuments have been lost (the site of the Alcázar was parcelled out in 1473), the pattern of the streets, with winding backstreets that open on tiny squares or turn into narrow alleys, is a survival from urban planning during the Almohad period. The number of patios and interior gardens also bears testimony to the influence of Qasri on Cáceres.

 

Alfonso IX, King of León, recaptured the city from the Moors in 1229. The destiny of Cáceres shifted again in the 14th century with the massive influx of noblemen who had initially been excluded from repoblación as a result of measures imposed by Alfonso IX. In the space of a few decades, fortified houses dotting the landscape made the city a perfect example of a feudal city, which since 1312 had been the stage for power struggles between rival clans. Notable among the oldest seigniorial fortresses are the Palacio de la Generala, the house and tower de las Cigüeñas, Casa de Los Ovando-Perero, Torre de Los Espaderos, and Casa Espadero-Pizarro or Casa del Mono.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, noble pride was demonstrated by richly decorated coats of arms and a surge of towers, battlements and fortified residencies. The Catholic Kings tore down most of these unusual constructions but preserved some in deference to the wishes of a few select noblemen (e.g. Palacio de Los Golfines de Arriba, Palacio de las Cigüeñas). Only their smaller proportions and a more modest system of defence distinguishes the city's exquisite stone houses from the palaces (Casa de Aldana, Casa del Sol, Casa del Aguila, Casa de Ulloa, Casa de Carvajal, etc.). When the 'Americans' returned, new palaces were constructed: Palacio Godoy, built by a newly rich "conquistador" and Palacio de Los Toledo-Moctezuma, built in the second half of the 16th century for the grandson of the Aztec who had greeted Cortes when he reached Mexico. 

As always it's not all just about history and when visiting a city one must eat, fortunately, Caceres is also a wonderful city in gastronomic terms. The gastronomy of Caceres and the province of Extremadura is flavourful and varied, in which the Ibérico pig plays a major role, thanks to the quality of the processed meat products made in the region. Roast, stewed lamb, a variety of freshwater fish and game dishes are examples of the sobriety of Extremaduran cuisine. The vegetables produced in this region are also of widely recognised quality, particularly the asparagus and thistle greens. Among the fruits, apples, peaches and cherries from the Jerte Valley are worthy of special mention. Extremadura produces a type of cheese that is unique in Spain, the so-called tortas. With two Designations of Origin, PDO Torta del Casar and PDO Queso de la Serena, these are cheeses with a light, creamy texture and powerful flavour, some of Spain's most unusual. Honey, dried fruits and pastries such as 'perrunillas' (sweet biscuits made with anise) or técula-mécula (a rich almond cake) are all magnificent desserts from Extremadura.

 


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Castle of Zafra
24 July 2020

Like something out of a J.R.R. Tolkien fever dream, Spain's Castillo de Zafra sits atop a regal promontory in a setting that may as well be populated with roaming dragons. It is in fact the stand-in for the "Tower of Joy" in season six of Game of Thrones.

Built back around the 12th and 13th centuries, the stunning castle has been passed around amongst the Spanish nobility for hundreds of years. The tall towers of the castle sit atop a massive rock located on what was once the border between Christian and Muslim territories. The flat surface atop the rock is crowned with a high defensive wall that makes accessing the castle inconvenient even for those who live lived there.

By the 15th century, the castle had come under siege by a Castillian king who was fighting with the then owner of the castle. But unsurprisingly the imposing defence held.

The castle has been owned by a long list of noblemen, some of whom repaired or expanded the grounds. There are even rumours of secret rooms that were carved into the rock beneath the structures. While these have never been found, Castillo de Zafra absolutely looks like the type of castle that would have them.

By the modern day, the towers and buildings had been badly damaged and many were crumbling. But thanks to restoration efforts by the castle's 20th-century owner, Don Antonio Sanz Polo, it once again looks like something out of fantasy. Today the Castillo de Zafra is privately owned and anyone wishing to tour the castle grounds must get permission to enter the premises, and it is said that the only way in is by climbing a ladder. Up the rock. Incredible.


 



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Spectacular spots to visit in the Basque Country
17 July 2020

 

At the mouth of the estuary is a stunning natural bay, in which the beaches of Gorliz and Plentzia are to be found. The large sandy beach and safe bathing make Gorliz beach extremely popular with families. 842 metres long, the beach is right by the town centre of Gorliz. Nearby are recreational areas, a large car park beside the beach and green areas with tables, benches, barbecues and a children's play area. Really a fantastic destination.

The beach at Plentzia, slightly further along the bay, has a promenade running beside its fine, golden sand. Its calm waters makes it ideal for families with children and anybody looking for water sports like windsurfing, surfing or kayaking. Its waters offer one of the best alternatives in adverse conditions or when the sea further out is rough, as one can continue up the estuary to calmer waters.

 

Gorliz is located on the coast of the historical territory of Bizkaia, in the Uribe-Costa region. This municipality has a great touristic tradition and its beaches attracts many people int he summer.

Gorliz offers different cultural treasures. The Elexalde neighbourhood is in the town centre, where the Iturritxu and Axeo palaces, dating back to the 19th century, are situated. Likewise, the magnificent church of the Inmaculada Concepción de Santa María and the Town Hall itself, next to the church, are outstanding constructions which are well worth visiting.

One of the most emblematic and characteristic buildings is located on the promenade: The Gorliz hospital, quite impressive with unbeatable views. Another great example of heritage and coastal character is the hermitage of Nuestra Señora de las Nieves or Andra Mari. Located in a privileged area in the Andramari neighbourhood, this temple from the 11th century offers the opportunity to visit the bay of Gorliz and the estuary of the ria Butrón. 

 

 

Nature lovers can make ecological trips through the different routes prepared in the surroundings of the village. Once you have discovered the nicest places, the still waters of the bay of Gorliz allow the practice of several nautical sports such as canoeing, bodyboarding and the ever-growing sport of SUP (Stand up paddling)

A number of festivities and traditional events take place throughout the year in Gorliz. The festivities of Santiago, in July - although not this year - flood the streets of Gorliz with music and joy. The Andra Mari neighbourhood holds its celebrations at the beginning of August too.

This is truly a breathtaking place to visit so if you fany exploring the Basque country this destination is simply a must.



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Discover the finest salt
09 July 2020

Salt is probably the most ancient condiment used by Mankind. Romans and Phoenicians used to collect sea salt from beaches throughout the Balearic Islands. One of the most important locations is a natural 3.5 km long beach on the south-east of Mallorca, which is also one of the most unspoilt areas in Mallorca. During the mid-20th century, the Salt Flats of Es Trenc (Las Salinas) were the centre of much activity for salt producers in Mallorca. Since then the tradition has continued: harvesting ecological sea salt from the flats which are irrigated by crystalline water from the Mediterranean Sea. The salt accumulates on the surface of the water and is bathed in summer sunshine producing precious crystals called “Flor de Sal” (Salt Flowers).

This area of Mallorca boasts the ideal conditions for the creation of this very special natural product. The water is crystal clear and a gentle inland breeze blows throughout the summer months favouring the crystallisation. Each salt crystal carries within a very different mineral composition to other sea salts or your average table salt.

Flor de sal is the purest and most precious form of salt. Very specific meteorological conditions are required for this mineral-rich aromatic salt to crystallise on the surface of the salt flats: a lot of sunshine, a gentle constant breeze and low air humidity. A fine layer of flower-shaped crystals form on the surface of the water, which are then harvested with rakes in the longstanding traditional way.

Contrary to other common sea salts, nothing is added or removed from flor de sal during the entire process and It is entirely harvested by hand. After drying, the salt is either taken to be packaged or it is blended with Mediterranean herbs, spices and even olives. Seasoned Salt is a fairly recent innovation and has become extremely popular all over the world and Spain leads the world with this culinary product.

 

 

As well as the full aroma of the sea, flor de sal contains over 80 minerals and trace elements. Its sodium chloride content – the main component of common salt- is, however, very low. When the sun and the wind shake up the salt flats, the magnesium contained in the seawater is one of the first to emerge to the surface. This is why Flor de Sal contains between 16 and 20 times more magnesium than common sea salt. It also has double the potassium and calcium content as well as high counts of many trace elements.

 

This particular mineral composition makes flor de sal an ideal choice for health-conscious people. Magnesium acts as a natural flavour enhancer, so only a small pinch must be added to any dish. This low usage reduces sodium chloride ingestion. Flor de sal is highly recommended by dietitians and nutritionists.

Gourmets appreciate its balanced aroma and the smooth texture of its crystals. A 100% natural product, Flor de sal is always slightly moist. The crystals melt on the palate contrary to traditional rock salt and it turns the simplest dishes into true culinary events.

 

 

 



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When travelling this summer why not take in some stars?
01 July 2020

 

When travelling to or around Spain this summer “Star Tourism” is maybe something you want to keep in mind. If you have never considered this type of tourism and like the idea of gazing and interpreting the firmament, a great place to do so is Spain. Spain has some of the best vantage points in the world to marvel at the sky at night, so why not combine your passion for astronomy with an unforgettable trip to the Spanish countryside.

Spain's clear skies have preserved their natural darkness owing to the lack of light pollution. Indeed, at present, the Canary Islands, along with Hawaii and Chile are the homes of the observatories where the telescopes of the future are to be installed. The good climate offers endless nights with clear skies. Additionally, many of the areas from which the stars can be observed from are protected natural areas, such as nature reserves, that are sure to impress visitors.

There are country house lodges and small hotels in Spain that specialise in stargazing. These normally have planispheres or star charts, educational material and a telescope. There are also companies and associations that specialise in organising events for important moments such as eclipses and meteor showers. Indeed, Tenerife even hosts the Starmus Festival, which is aimed at astronomy, science and music enthusiasts and which has counted with people of the stature of Stephen Hawking as speakers.

There are several types of Starlight certifications (Starlight Reserves, Starlight Tourist Destinations, Stellar Parks, Starlight Hotels, etc.) that are granted to places that include sky watching as part of their natural heritage, thus ensuring a quality tourist experience. You can get more information at the website of the Starlight Foundation, created by the Canary Island Institute of Astrophysics (IAC).

 

 

Here is a selection of the Starlight areas in Spain : 

Sierra Sur District. (The Sierra Sur mountains in Jaén Andalusia, southern Spain). This is a landscape abounding in mountains and canyons where the air is clean and transparent. Different astronomy associations and the Andalusia Astronomy Observatory normally organise guided observation activities. There are even companies that provide private astronomy guide services at those country house lodges that have professional telescopes.

Andalusia Sierra Morena Mountains. There you will find a marvellous network of star gazing vantage points and accommodation. They also offer package holidays that include specialist guides, observation material, day and night activities, accommodation, 4x4 travel, etc.

El Montsec. This is a Starlight Tourist Destination located in the foothills of the Pyrenees in Lleida (Catalonia). You could do no better in this area than pay a visit to its large astronomy park made up of the Universe Observation Centre (COU) and an Astronomy Observatory. Did you know that the well known “Montsec Eye” is to be found there, the 12-m dome which opens out to bring you “face to face” with the Montsec sky?

Tenerife. Both the Teide National Park along with other mountain peaks on Tenerife and the town of Granadilla de Abona hold Starlight certification. If star gazing is exciting in itself, watching them from a volcano at over 2,000 m above sea level is an incomparable experience. What better place to gaze at the moon than from a lunar-like landscape? The geographical situation of the Canary Islands offers visitors a chance to observe both the northern and southern hemispheres. You can sign up for a guided visit to see inside one of the most modern telescopes in the world or to take a photograph of the night sky.

La Palma. Known as the “beautiful island”, this is the most rugged of the Canary Islands and the one with the clearest skies. It is definitely an understatement to say that this is one of the best places on earth to observe the stars. All the towns on the island have astronomy vantage points. Its famous Roque de Los Muchachos Observatory, standing some 2,400 m above sea level is one of the most complex telescopes, and indeed one of the most complete, in the world. You can visit it, but only by prior arrangement. La Palma has several hotels and country house lodges with observation instruments. There you will find sundials and even restaurants that offer “galaxies” and “constellations” among their dishes.

 

 

Gredos Norte. This is in the south of the province of Ávila (in Castile-León, inland Spain). It has a network of star watching vantage points that are equipped with information panels, car parks, etc. The Astronomy and Astrophotography Congress is held there every year.

Biosphere Reserve of the Valleys of Leza, Jubera, Cidacos and Alhama. We are talking about the beautiful countryside of La Rioja (northern part of inland Spain). Several activities have been organised there in recent years such as talks about the sounds of nature, tours to spot nocturnal birds, explanations on the link between the Celtiberian culture and the stars, bathing under the stars in thermal springs, learning about the constellations, etc. La Rioja also has two star parks: the Laguna one in Cameros and other in Cervera del río Alhama.

One of the most popular times of the year to stargaze in Spain is during what is known as the “Tears of Saint Lawrence”. They refer to the Perseids meteor shower of shooting stars that usually takes place between the 11 and 13 August every year. Not every night is suitable for sky watching on account of moonlight and wind factors however the best nights are those just before and after a new moon.  



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