The vast area covered by this chapter is some of the most travelled, yet least visited, country in Spain. Once south of Toledo, most tourists thunder nonstop across the plains of Castilla-La Mancha to Valencia and Andalucía, or follow the great rivers through Extremadura into Portugal. At first sight this is understandable. Castilla-La Mancha, in particular, is Spain at its least welcoming: a huge, bare plain – the name La Mancha comes from the Arab manxa, meaning steppe – burning hot in summer, chillingly exposed in winter. But this impression is not an entirely fair one – away from the main highways the villages are as friendly as any in the country, and in the northeast, where the mountains start, are the extraordinary cliff-hanging city of Cuenca and the historic cathedral town of Sigüenza. Castilla-La Mancha is also the agricultural and wine-growing heartland of Spain and the country through which Don Quixote cut his despairing swathe.

It is in Extremadura, though, that there is most to be missed by just passing through. This harsh environment was the cradle of the conquistadores, men who opened up a new world for the Spanish empire. Remote before and forgotten since, Extremadura enjoyed a brief golden age when its heroes returned with their gold to live in splendour. Trujillo, the birthplace of Pizarro, and Cáceres were built with conquistador wealth, the streets crowded with an array of perfectly preserved and very ornate mansions of returning empire builders. Then there is Mérida, the most completely preserved Roman city in Spain, and the monasteries of Guadalupe and Yuste, the one fabulously wealthy, the other rich in imperial memories. Finally, for some wild scenery and superb fauna, northern Extremadura has the Parque Natural de Monfragüe, where even the most casual birdwatcher can look up to see eagles and vultures circling the cliffs.

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