The Spanish city of Caceres is full of character, thanks to the fine Renaissance mansions built by returning conquistadors - and the noise of the storks who inhabit their towers
Everywhere I went, I could hear them, squabbling over their untidy nests; the lack-a-lack-a-lack of storks' bills clicking. They had set up their colonies on every tower, every turret, every pinnacle, claiming the city as their own.
Caceres isn't one of those Spanish cities with four-star sights to see. There are no great monuments; there's no Alcazar, no royal palace; the cathedral is modest, and there are no El Greco or Velasquez canvases to see. The sight in Caceres is the city itself.
The historic centre of Caceres is still protected by its city walls, parts of which go back all the way to the Romans. The legions marched through the Arco del Cristo; you can still pass through that gateway today. Later, the Roman city of Norba Caesarina became Hizn Qasris; its walls were decorated with crisp crenellations, like those of the Bujaco tower.
But it was in the 16th century that Caceres acquired its fine palaces, as emigrants from this region of Spain made their way to the New World, and returned with immense wealth. The arms of the conquistadors look down from every house, florid shields with many quarterings - the subdivisions that divide the shield into tiny compartments, showing how the noble families of Caceres intermarried, generation after generation.
The Palacio de los Toledo-Moctezuma celebrates the imperial pretensions of the local nobility, and the South American heritage of the conquistadors. Juan Cano de Saavedra, a local lad, made his fortune and married the daughter of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma, before retiring here on his considerable wealth. Later, one of the daughters of the Carvajal y Toledo family who lived in this palace married into his family. You can still see the Moctezuma coat of arms on the top storey of the palace.
Most of the high towers of medieval Caceres were dismantled under Ferdinand and Isabella - perhaps to prevent the nobles from rebelling, or simply to cut them down to size.. But one remains - charmingly named the Casa de las Cigueñas, 'house of the storks' - at the palace of the Caceres-Ovando family.
It's not the towers that give Caceres its character, though, but the monumental façades of the palaces. Some are Gothic, some Renaissance, with chilly classical formality offset by the exuberance of the coats of arms. But all are built to impress - and impress they do. Despite their fortress-like exteriors, many have delightful patios inside, like the Casa de las Veletas, which houses the archaeological museum. Here, the original Arab cistern lies deep underneath the house, with its elegant horseshoe arches; the water glitters in the dim light.
But Caceres is not about individual palaces or churches (though there's a nice Berruguete altarpiece in the church of Santiago that's worth visiting). It's about crooked, narrow streets and dark alleys; the walls of finely-dressed stone, precisely cut; and the noise of the storks.
Where to stay
For luxury and atmosphere, try the Parador in the Palacio de Torre Orgaz, a 14th-century palace in the heart of the historic city. It has a fine restaurant and wine cellar; look to pay around €200 a night.
For those with more frugal budgets, the Husa Alcantara costs €30-€40 a night. It's in a modern building a few minutes' walk from the historic centre, and has its own restaurant.
Extremadura is renowned for its fine hams and sausages; the pigs forage under cork oaks in the woods. A bitter sheep's milk cheese, 'torta del Casar', is made just down the road in the small town of Casar de Caceres. Figs, chestnuts and game are all prominent in Extremaduran cuisine, while the use of honey in savoury dishes such as honey soup shows the influence of the Moors. Best of all are the heavy, meaty stews that are a fixture of Caceres cooking.
Try El Figon de Eustachio, on Plaza San Juan, famed for its local cooking; or try a more 'nouvelle' slant on Spanish cuisine at Torre de Sande, in a Renaissance palace on Calle de los Condes. Or hang out in the modern part of town, for more nightlife, around Plaza de Bruselas and the Paseo de Canovas.