A Riveting Paradox - Page 4

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Merida parador in Spain
RESPITE: The entrance and bedrooms in Merida Parador  (image courtesy, Tourism España)

Among my favorite things about the region of Extremadura, west of Andalusia on Portugal's border, are the storks. As in many places, mothers here sometimes tell their children that storks bring babies—but, oddly, that they fly to Paris to pick them up! My guide in Zafra didn't know why, except to say that Paris is revered for its culture and beauty, so why not?

In Zafra, look up as you stroll. Atop steeples and pointy towers massive stork nests balance. Storks are revered here. Each February they're joyously welcomed back from wintering in North Africa as harbingers of spring. But in a little-discussed effect of global warming, southern Spain's temperate climate is heating up, and scientists are watching for environmental repercussions as some storks no longer bother to pack up and leave come winter.

Unlike the other towns, Zafra has a hip, cosmopolitan side with good shopping, and it has Bodegas Medina, a winery in an ancient building with an even more ancient Roman fountain used in its wine production. This is no sleek Napa operation. Still, the former rooftop—yes rooftop—bullring is being transformed into an outdoor café, and visitors can buy wines and house-made balsamic vinegar in the small shop and tasting room.

Zafra's crenellated castle was among my favorite paradors, its nooks and maze of narrow hallways ever intriguing. The ancient details of this castle-turned-hotel are well preserved, including the floorless balcony over the entryway from which previous owners slopped boiling oil on unwanted visitors.

Few cities offer the caliber of Roman ruins found in Mérida, where temples stand shoulder-to-shoulder with contemporary buildings, creating a sense of history as alive as the city around it. The ruins even have a lived-in look, thanks to resident cats sunning languorously among the pillars.

Mérida's two most impressive structures are set apart in an historical park. Between the amphitheater and theater is a series of arches under which the Romans themselves must have walked, leaving the bloody spectacle of gladiators and beasts for more genteel artistic productions on the stage, where columns of blue marble now hold up only the cloudless Spanish sky.

A must-visit here is the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano. The museum's light-filled contemporary design melds with its Roman focus, and antiquities are elegantly displayed. Among the most breathtaking are sections of mosaic floors hung on multi-story walls.

My last stop was 54 miles from Mérida in Trujillo, a flower-filled walled city and historic home of Francisco Pizarro. The exquisite hilltop parador is built around serene cloisters preserved from its days as a 16th-century convent, and given the olive-oil-induced weight of my suitcase, I was grateful for the elevator.

A grand statue of proud conqueror Pizarro astride a horse dominates Trujillo's main square. Above him, a tower rises with multiple stork nests, a veritable stork condo. By far the best part of walking here, though (lost or not), is high above, on narrow stone streets overlooking a panorama of church steeples and tiled domes, the valley spread out far below.

With 85 paradors still to visit, I'll return to Spain; I should need olive oil by about 2010. Until then, the words of my guide in Córdoba stay with me, a reminder of the warmth and graciousness that defines the southern Iberian Peninsula.

"Always," she said, placing my hand between hers, "we wait for you here in Córdoba."

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