times new roman
It would have been worth travelling to Extremadura just to visit the Roman Theater in Mérida. More than an experience, it was a privilege. We arrived at first light, too early for even the earliest risers among the sightseers, and entered from stage left. Before us lay the auditorium – la cávea – utterly empty, and utterly majestic. Behind us, the scaenae frons, a magnificent sight, with its two stories of marble columns, its sculptures of gods and deified emperors. Total silence. Pure magic. We had a vivid sense of the age-old cosmopolitan bustle of this exclusive Roman colony. It’s a sensation that lives on in the Archaeological Ensemble of Mérida, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can feel it in the Temple of Diana, and in the National Museum of Roman Art. You can picture the refined, worldly lives and the day-to-day realities of the Romans in Extremadura. Striding across elaborate mosaics in their villas, or raising Iberian pigs on the plains of the dehesa. These were our impressions of Extremadura: a past that is always present, ecosystems that are sustainable farmland, the best cork in the world, millions of cherry trees in flower, tolling bells and good food, as attested by a dozen protected certificates of origin. A real discovery. Welcome to Pedro García’s Extremadura.
In the theatre, the emperor occupies a place among gods and demigods. The power and universality of Roman civilization.
on a pedestal
Use your head!
We’re used to the sight of Roman statues without heads or arms. Often this was due not to accidents or the passage of time, as might be expected, but to the fact that sculptures were what Romans left for posterity. They were portraits. Since they were expensive, they were usually inherited by a person’s descendants. As a result, the head could be detached, so it could be adapted to the new owner’s face - as could the arms, because they held objects that denoted an individual’s profession or rank.
Soaring columns are topped by capitals decorated with acanthus leaves. Monumental shoes and Roman architecture. Epic proportions.
A gable in the form of a semicircular arch crowns the main façade of the Temple of Diana in Merida. During the Renaissance, the Counts of Corbos built their palace inside the temple, which helped preserve the Roman structure down to the present day.
Open for business
A Roman city of any standing had to have a theater. No so much to please the people, who preferred to watch chariot races at the circus and gladiatorial combats in the amphitheater, but for political, and above all, business reasons. In fact, the play being performed was of little importance. What really mattered was to establish commercial relationships, to see and be seen, and to win the favor of the emperor and his inner circle. Although Caesar Augustus never attended Mérida’s theater, his presence in the audience was respected and venerated in the form of a seated statue in the most prominent location: the center of the ima cavea, the area of the auditorium closest to the stage. Neighboring seats were occupied by those closest to him, who would later report to him on everything they had seen.
Detail of the Corinthian capitals of the scaenae frons, the two-story, porticoed stage building at the Roman Theater in Mérida.
In full color
Although we are used to seeing the monuments of Roman civilization in the natural colors of marble and limestone, when these theatres and temples were built, all these elements were painted in primary colours - not only the walls and the columns, but also the capitals and even the statues.
On the left, folds in the toga of one of the statues of the emperor in the Mérida Theater. On the right, a fragment of the marble arch leading to the stage from the peristyle.
Side entrance to the peristyle at the Roman Theater in Mérida. The peristyle was a quadrangular garden courtyard behind the stage, surrounded by columns and porticoes, with a well in the center. It was used as an area for relaxation. In the background, a statue of actor Margarita Xirgú in her famous role as Medea at the Mérida Theater.
mighty oaks from little acorns grow
The first hundred years are the hardest
Mediterranean tree species have adapted to the drought conditions prevalent in Extremadura, which means that they photosynthesise less efficiently, and grow more slowly than those in wetter regions. As a result it takes a century for a holm oak to become a mature tree.
Beyond time. Stimulating, inspiring.Eternally fresh.
We walk through the endless greenery, following the shepherd. There are scents of woodland herbs, and a chill in the air. When we reach the oleander-crowded banks of the stream, with traces of the morning’s frost, we see them close up for the first time. Under the branches of a huge tree, a herd of black pigs, oblivious to our presence, not lifting their snouts from the ground for an instant, guzzle everything in their path. This is the Iberian pig, true king of the Extremaduran countryside, the dehesa, land managed according to the mixed pastoral and agrarian system typical of the region - and of the western Iberian peninsula in general. The pigs are in the montanera phase of rearing, during which they feed voraciously on the ripe acorns that fall on the endless plains of the dehesa, this immense and well-preserved ecosystem that in Extremadura covers almost one and a half million hectares. The landscape that surrounds us resembles a sprawling meadow – although, long ago, it was densely forested – in which holm oaks, cork oaks and the occasional olive tree grow, strategically distributed, as if in a garden. The result of centuries of human effort to clear the undergrowth and turn it into pasture.
It’s a unique ecological paradise, one of the best preserved agroforestry environments in Europe, in which human have managed to live in perfect harmony with livestock roaming freely, forest wildlife, native flora and plant species, creating a balanced system of land use that conserves natural resources rather than overexploiting them. Iberian pigs, Merino sheep, Pure Spanish horses and the vaca retinta, the dark-brown native cows, share the same habitat as eagles, otters and wild boars, grazing and feeding on the acorns of the oak forests that cover the region. This sustainable, organic equilibrium dates back to Roman times, and makes it possible for animal husbandry, hunting and the harvesting of forest products such as firewood, cork and wild mushrooms to take place in parallel. It is the fine-tuned natural harmony that guarantees the quality of the products of this extensive farming system, such as cured Iberian acorn-fed ham, which has its own regional certification, the Denominación de Origen de la Dehesa de Extremadura - or cork, appreciated worldwide for its quality. Nature is wise.
Only the best
They call it the black gold of the dehesa. Due to its exceptional quality, cork obtained from the bark of cork oaks on the Sierra de San Pedro, in Extremadura between Cáceres and Badajoz, is highly sought-after all over the world. The specific climatic conditions of the area – low rainfall and extreme temperatures – mean that these trees, so rare in other latitudes, yield superlative bark, which is used almost exclusively to make cork stoppers for wine bottles. A good wine that has to age in the bottle is always sealed with a natural cork.
At least six decades must go by before a cork oak’s bark has acquired the right characteristics to produce good cork. As a result, the trees tend to be hundreds of years old. The entire outer bark is harvested every nine years – the time the tree needs to regenerate – using laborious and highly-skilled manual techniques. It is an artisanal process that calls for great dexterity, to ensure that the underlying tissue is not damaged and the bark can regrow. Tradition and specialization come together to preserve the sustainable cycle of the dehesa’s cork oaks.
During the hottest months of the year - June, July and part of August - bark piles up in the factory warehouses at San Vicente de Alcántara, the cork capital of Badajoz. There it is left to rest for several months, before being boiled in water to give it greater flexibility, then trimmed and sorted by thickness and quality. The result is sheets of cork, which are cut into shape so that cork stoppers can be punched out of them. To produce a natural cork stopper, only sheets twelve centimeters thick and in perfect condition can be used. The quality control process is rigorous.
Cork is an environmentally-friendly material, no part of the harvest is wasted, and the production process is a model of sustainability. Any leftovers from stoppers, as well as cork that is not of sufficient quality for use with food, can be used to make tiles and insulation, or ground down to create agglomerates used for pressed cork stoppers, or soles for footwear.
Depending on the thickness of the pieces of cork, and the material used to hold them together, the composite will have different characteristics. Pedro García’s rubber-cork anatomical insoles are made with granules of precisely the right size for their intended purpose, bonded by natural rubber. This guarantees their strength and flexibility, and creates a cushioning effect that absorbs the impact of each footstep. Pedro García uses only natural cork from Extremadura.
Ring a bell?
At one time the only means of mass communication in towns and villages was the peal of large, sonorous bronze bells. Master bell-makers travelled from town to town, casting their bells at the foot of the tower that would house them. In 1850, one of their number, Gabriel Rivera, followed his trade from Santander on the northern coast of Spain, to Montehermoso. There, he fell in love, married, and decided to settle down. This was the beginning of a long line of master bell-makers in Cáceres, a family business today in its fifth generation and a leader in its field, whose bells ring out all over the world. You’ll find them in churches, cathedrals, town halls, government buildings and monuments all over Europe, the Americas and even Australia. New bells, painstakingly restored ones, or exact replicas of historic examples: Campanas Rivera are the heirs of a tradition and a set of skills that have remain unaltered over two hundred years.
As well as cork oaks, holm oaks, Iberian pigs, sheep, horses and Spanish fighting bulls, olive trees – which are abundant in the southeast of the province of Badajoz – are a common sight on the Extremaduran dehesa. Spain is the biggest olive oil producer in the world. Virgin olive oil is the only oil that is actually a fruit juice, obtained by pressing the olives, without any chemical or industrial processes. Five kilos of olives are needed to produce a litre of oil. Just as there are wine tasters, there are olive oil tasters too, specialists in defining its scent and flavor, its finely-nuanced qualities, acidity, and the uses to which it is best suited.
come rain or shine
The climate of the dehesas of Cáceres and Badajoz is typified by extreme temperatures both in summer and winter, which is why the load-bearing walls of rural homes are so thick, to ensure the inhabitants are insulated.
The Sumerians crushed precious stones to decorate their lips, but carmine-painted mouths did not really appear until 130 years ago, when actors began to use a dye extracted from the cochineal, a kind of scale insect that lives on the prickly pear cactus. In those days lip color did not come in a tube, but was applied with a brush, and was considered an eccentricity, not to be worn in public under any circumstances. Later, when the carmine pigment began to be mixed with oils and waxes, it was more widely adopted. However, it was not until women began to apply lipstick to be photographed that it was considered socially acceptable. Dare to wear red.
Originating in the New World, capsicum annuum, the chili pepper, was brought to Spain, where it flourished in a specific area to the north of Cáceres, due to its microclimate. Today it is the principal crop in the La Vera region, where it is used to make a highly distinctive variety of paprika, its quality guaranteed by the closely regulated denominación de origen of the same name. The traditional production process has changed little since it was first developed at the beginning of the last century. Air-dried peppers are milled to a fine powder, but in La Vera, they are first smoke-dried using oak wood, which gives the paprika – pimentón de La Vera – its unique earthy flavor. A smoky taste that comes in three varieties: spicy, mildly spicy and sweet, to make a seasoning that is also a natural colorant. The tin in the photograph is from one of the oldest family-run businesses in the region. The brand, La Dalia, owes its name to the flower the founder chose to declare his love to his future wife.
single or taken?
Single, married or widowed. A straw bonnet to mark your marital status – or at least that’s what tradition once dictated. These are the gorras of Montehermoso, in the province of Cáceres, so eye-catching and attractive that they have become part of Extremadura’s regional costume. The bonnet in the photograph, for an unmarried woman, is a colorful explosion of craftsmanship, known as the gorra de espejo – the mirrored bonnet – because of the small, round mirror sewn onto the front, amongst colourful woollen yarn and mother-of-pearl buttons. Young women would use the mirror to spruce themselves up before setting out for home, when they had sold all their produce at the market. After a woman was married, her husband would break the mirror and she would wear a married woman’s bonnet - known as the gorra morada (violet bonnet) or clavelera (carnation bonnet). If she became a widow, she wore a mourning bonnet, in black. Although the bonnets seem to date from the remote past, they first appeared in the late 19th century, when a craftswoman from Montehermoso by the name of García decided to make her straw bonnet more attractive. It’s amazing what a little yarn can do!
A Bowl Of Cherries
More than one and a half million cherry trees in bloom. Hillsides literally smothered in white. It’s a spectacle that can be seen every year in the Valle del Jerte, in the province of Cáceres, in the northeast corner of Extremadura. The display is so impressive that it has given rise to the Fiesta del Cerezo en Flor – the cherry blossom festival – a celebration of springtime that begins with the thaw, which locals call the ‘awakening’ of the valley, and ends with a blizzard of petals, as the tiny flowers fall slowly from the trees and carpet the ground. The outstanding quality of the trees’ fruit is certified by their own Denominación de Origen, the D.O. Cereza del Jerte, which includes picota cherries, which are smaller, crunchier and sweeter – and have no stem, because it naturally remains attached to the tree when they are picked.