Enter At Your Own Risk

Extremadura in the western region of Spain is a land of fortresses and castles and defensive strategies to ward off marauders, all of which is history that can’t be written off. Today, add another dimension to complete the picture: charging bulls

By Troy Nahumko

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Published: Fri 22 Feb 2013, 12:19 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 8:35 PM

‘Danger, Fighting Bulls, Do not Enter’ reads the sign and as if to prove its jagged point, razor sharp barbed wire ran along the heavy stone fence. Whether the fence was meant to keep us out or the 500 kg-plus horned beasts in wasn’t clear but only the military goes around laying razor wire for fun.

The reason for staring at this Guantanamo-like fence was that I had joined a small team of researchers who were cataloguing some of the estimated 200 castles that lie scattered across this remote western region of Spain... land of the conquistadors, Extremadura.

That morning the team’s search was focused on sites along the Tagus, a river that once acted as the frontier between Muslim and Christian Spain around 800 years ago. Eight centuries is a long time and up until reading the threatening sign hanging on the barbed wire fence, all we had turned up were piles of rocks that had even disappointed the professionals.

Before reading the less than gentle warning, we had already lost our way in the fog, forded small rivers, skirted snarling shepherd dogs, knowingly trespassed and unknowingly the same, but the mere thought of crossing fields where toros de lidia were somewhere pasturing was taking exploration to a new level. Peering through the barbed wire reminded me that amateur archaeology was one thing, amateur bullfighting was quite another.

“Don’t worry, in their natural environment bulls are nothing like the savage beasts you see in the ring,” my colleague happily chirped as he scrambled over the sharp-toothed fence. Taking care not to catch my clothing on the spikes, I consoled myself with the fact that at least no one was wearing red.

1,000 years before our questionable decision, as Muslim armies quickly spread north from modern-day Morocco into southern Spain and beyond, they found ready built cities, fortresses and bridges that the Romans had left before the fall of the empire. Sturdy infrastructure that was then occupied by their mercenary army of Visigoths and was still in perfectly good shape when the North African Berbers and Middle Eastern Arabs arrived to often welcoming arms.

This layering of civilisations became startlingly clear to me as one of my companions pointed out to me that the red rocks that I had been walking on weren’t rocks at all, but Roman roofing tiles that lay scattered over wide spaces.

Using these materials and bases left by the Romans, the Caliphate’s army set up a series of garrison outposts that could signal each other all the way back to the capital in Cordoba in case of attacks from the then still disjointed Christian north. Each garrison tower (bury in Arabic) was usually located in a strategically defensive area that allowed the small garrisons to hold off attacks until re-enforcements arrived.

But crunching those roofing tiles at that particular moment I was more worried about another Roman import to Iberia, wondering whether or not the morning would turn into an impromptu running of the bulls over the next hill.

“Ever seen a matador jump over the boards when a bull is charging behind him?” my friend whispered to me, “Well we call that, Tomar el olivo here in Spain and that’s just what you should do in case we run into some of those beasts. Get up an olive tree as fast as you can!”

The abundance of cork, holm oak and olive trees that were our only hope in the event of charging horns, make this area one of the most beautiful, singular landscapes that can be found in Spain. Precious shade-producing trees and enormous granite boulders dot the countryside while wild lavender, thyme and oregano remind you that the Mediterranean is not that far off. This year’s drought had made the wild flowers that usually paint the area a little more timid than normal, but even still wild orchids could be found sprouting in moist areas. Locals claim that these dehesas are second to the Amazon in biodiversity, a surprising fact given its extreme climate, but I have to admit I had never seen a wild orchid outside the tropics.

Extremadura is one of the last great undeveloped areas in cluttered Europe and when castles aren’t your prey, the great open spaces offer some of Europe’s best birding as they stop over on their migrations to tangibly nearby Africa. That day we had already spotted a golden eagle, some black-shouldered kites, European rollers and the seemingly ubiquitous white stork. More menacingly, huge Egyptian vultures soared overhead, making me wonder if from up there they knew something we didn’t in regards to the bulls’ location.

Coming out of the wooded area we crossed a dry riverbed, another victim of the severe drought the area has seen this year; from here on in, our precious bull escape routes would lay behind us. Scanning the horizon below the greyish Gredos mountains in the distance, we suddenly saw what we had been looking for all morning and thankfully it wasn’t the bulls.

Ruined defences made of flinty stone lined the ochre wall of the riverbed. Row upon row of decaying defensive lines marched their way up the hill. Scattered cork and olive trees had since taken advantage of the ancient terracing to sprout from the rock that once repelled arrows. All of this led up to a stunning two-toned stone tower that wouldn’t have looked out of place in far away Damascus. Interchanging whitish and red stone grew out of the crag above and were transformed into massive, meter thick walls. Defence was its original purpose but the very same makers that had created the great mosques in Damascus and Cordoba couldn’t help themselves in making it beautiful in the process.

From the top, the entire valley could be seen, the perfect defensive position in case of attack from marauding Christians or, in our case, enraged fighting bulls. The miserably low Tagus river, yet another victim of the drought, lay like a line of green mossy velvet far below, adding the final line of protection to the north. These towers provided security and the ruins of a small town could be discerned among the scrub that now ruled the hill.

While my able comrades were nimbly taking measurements and magically reconstructing the ruin, gleaming white finca ranch houses marked the distance we had come. Subtle reminders that the walk back to the Jeep was still somewhat dangerous, but thanks to this observation post built so long ago at least we knew that for now the enemy was nowhere to be seen and if we did run into them, we could always take an olive tree.

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