Something’s not right. I’m standing outside the Church of San Francisco Javier in Cáceres, Spain, looking across St. George’s Plaza. People are scurrying to and fro, hunched over their smart phones. Cars are rumbling up and down the stone streets. A group of tourists is gawking at the old, sand-colored buildings, their mouths hanging open, cameras dangling around their necks.
But the Old Town of Cáceres is evoking very different images in my mind. Shutting my eyes on the 21st-century scenes in front of me, I listen to the Old Town speak. Now I hear horses’ hooves making a wonderfully melodic clip-clopping on the stones. When they reach the oh-so-steep street next to me, it’s the creaking of the wagon wheels that fills the air, coupled with the squeaking sounds of the leather harnesses, pulled taut against the straining muscles of the magnificent animals’ bodies.
I can see tiny grandmothers, or abuelas. Hunched with age, they’re busily sweeping their front doorsteps, paying no attention to the horses. Neither do the jabbering housewives I picture vying for the freshest produce at the market stalls.
In Your Bucket Because …
- You want to explore more of Spain than Barcelona and Madrid.
- You’re partial to smaller cities.
- Good for history, architecture and religion buffs.
But everyone seems to pause a second, even the horses, when the bells of the Church of Santiago begin to strike the hour, followed by those of San Francisco Javier and St. María of Cáceres. The pealing isn’t melodic — the bells were cast in a long-ago era ― but they’re compelling just the same. Perhaps moreso.
Opening my eyes, someone whizzes across the plaza on a skateboard, and once again I’m back in the 21st century.
Cáceres’ Old Town a UNESCO Site
It’s easy to be transported back in time when you’re in Cáceres’ Old Town. The ancient enclave is so pristinely preserved, so beautiful, so filled with impressive structures, it begs you to remember the past.
The city has a complex history marked by numerous battles between the Moors and Christians. Their cultures, plus those of the Romans, are played out in its architecture, which is an intriguing blend of Roman, Islamic, Northern Gothic and Italian Renaissance. Today a UNESCO World Heritage Site that hasn’t seen any modern construction, the Old Town of Cáceres is a treasure not to be missed.
Plan to spend at least two full days and nights in town. It’s pretty easy to create your own walking tour of the Old Town. First, head to the tourism office on Calle Ancha just off of San Mateo Plaza and pick up a map. The map lists over 50 monuments, which can be a bit daunting. But here are the ones you shouldn’t miss:
- Church of Santa María de Cáceres. Most important church in town, built during 15th and 16th centuries. Gothic structure constructed over 13th-century Mudéjar (Muslim)-styled building. Pay extra euro to climb bell tower, which offers killer views.
- Church of San Francisco Javier. 18th-century Baroque building sporting two towers, which also offer great views of city. Also contains striking gold retablo.
- Church of Santiago. Romanesque building constructed over 12th-century temple.
- City of Cáceres Municipal Museum. Small museum with various displays related to city.
- Provincial Museum of Cáceres. Contains archeological, ethnic and fine arts displays, plus 11th- or 12th-century Arabic cistern ― one of two largest in world.
- La Estrella’s Arch. Baroque-style arch from 18th century.
It’s not too difficult to see all of these places in one day. On Day 2, see any of the other monuments that interest you, saving some time to simply lose yourself in the Old Town. Don’t worry, you can’t really get lost; it’s not all that big. But it’s fun to wander up and down the warren of streets and picture what life was like 100 or 200 or 1,000 years ago. When you want to pull yourself back to the present — if you want to pull yourself back to the present — there’s a great shopping district just outside the Old Town on the back side of Plaza Mayor.
- There are plenty of places to stay in Cáceres. But a few good choices are the Parador de Cáceres, created from two old palaces, and Hotel Casa Don Fernando, which sits right on Plaza Mayor.
- To get here from Madrid, take the AeroCity shuttle from Barajas Airport to the Estación Sur de Autobuses, then board an AvanzaBus. Cost for both the shuttle and bus is roughly 45€.
- If you enjoy your time in Cáceres, head a short distance south to Mérida, home to another UNESCO World Heritage Site: the city’s extensive and well-preserved Roman ruins.