Vegas Altas del Guadiana

The county of Vegas Altas del Guadiana, located at the heart of Extremadura, relies on irrigated agriculture and agroindustry as its main economic drives. It also has important Roman monuments, villages with an interesting cultural heritage, highly valuable natural spaces and the footprints of historic figures that changed the course of history.

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The river of history

The county of Vegas Altas del Guadiana, located at the heart of Extremadura, relies on irrigated agriculture and agroindustry as its main economic drives. It also has important Roman monuments, villages with an interesting cultural heritage, highly valuable natural spaces and the footprints of historic figures that changed the course of history.

The Guadiana is the backbone of a fertile area which, throughout history, has served as a crossroads for Tartessian, Roman, Visigoth, Arab and Christian cultures. Two important pilgrim’s routes cross the area: the Mozárabe Route to Santiago, that foes to Mérida, and the Roman Way, one of the Ways that lead to Guadalupe and follows the tracing of the old road from Augusta Emerita (Mérida) and Toletum (Toledo).

Medellín, the Roman Metellinum founded on the Guadiana riverside, has an impressive historical heritage, the highlights of which are the Roman theatre of the 1st century a.D., which in summer is used as a venue for the International Festival of Classical Theatre of Mérida, the Arab castle dating back to the 10Th century and a 17th century bridge, called Puente de los Austrias (in honour of the ruling House of Habsburg) or Puente de Felipe IV (in honour of Philip IV), which replaced an older one, destroyed by floods in 1603.

On the castle hill sits the Conisturgis necropolis, one of the best known of the so called, Orientalizing period between 7th and 6th centuries b.C., closely related to Tartessic culture.

In order to know the history of this town, deemed by experts to be the most important city in Extremadura prior to the foundation of Emerita Augusta, it is advisable to visit fist the Centre for Interpretation of the Archaeological Park, located in the Church of Santiago.

The village is also the hometown of Hernán Cortés (1485-1547), the conquistador who caused the fall of the Aztec empire and discovered the Baja California Peninsula, among other highlight of certain historic importance.

As it is the case with many other names of places in Extremadura, there are other cities called Medellín in the Americas, especially in Colombia, Mexico and Argentina. A statue of the most universal native of Medellín stands in its main square, as Villanueva de la Serena honours Pedro de Valdivia (1497-1553), founder of Santiago de Nueva Extremadura (currently Santiago de Chile) and Governor and General Captain of Nueva Extremadura (currently Chile).

The Testament of Madrigalejo

History lovers will enjoy a visit to Madrigalejo, the town where King Ferdinand II of Aragon, the Catholic Monarch, died on his way to Guadalupe, in 1516. Staying in Casa de Santa María (today a National Monument and an museum open to visitors),the King dictated its last will, appointing his daughter Joanna as his heir and making his grandson Charles of Ghent, future Charles V, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, the most powerful man of his time, who also came to die to Extremadura and passed away in 1558 in the Monastery of Yuste, in La Vera. In its last will, King Ferdinand established that a single king was to rule, for the first time, all the territories in current Spain. Thus, the historic importance of the Testament of Madrigalejo.

The landscape of the area of Vegas Altas del Guadiana combines vast farmlands, dehesas and steppe, and constitutes the habitat of a large number of birds and thus a paradise for birdwatchers. Cranes, great bustards, little bustards, Anatidae, Accipitrade, red kites, golden eagles, Bonelli’s eagles, black storks, common swifts and bee-eaters, among others, can be spotted here.

In fact, the area is the winter home of one of the largest populations of Eurasian cranes in Extremadura. It encloses several protected spaces, such as the Community Interest Area (CIA) Embalse de Cornalvo y Sierra Bermeja and the Areas of Special Protection for Birds Arrozales de Palazuelo y Guadalperales and Colonias de Cernícalo Primilla in Acedera and Guareña, among others.

Cornalvo Natural Park

Nature and historic heritage are just two of the main reasons to visit Cornalvo. This Natural Park, with an area of 10,570 hectares, is dominated by Mediterranean vegetation, holm oaks, ash and bushes like rockrose, heather, hawthorn and brooms. Here you’ll find the Roman reservoir of Cornalvo, a National Monument that still retains its dam, regulation tower for the discharge of water and part of the pipeline that reached as far as Augusta Emerita, some 15 km away. The Natural Park extends across two municipalities of Vegas Altas de Guadiana (San Pedro de Mérida and Guareña), as well as Mérida, Aljucén, Mirandilla and Trujillanos and boasts viewing points, observatories and signposted routes.

Don Benito and Villanueva de la Serena, separated by just a few kilometres, are two of the most important urban centres in the area.

Worth a visit in Don Benito is the church of Santiago, from the 16th and 17th centuries, a temple with the dimensions of a cathedral; and the church of San Sebastián, the oldest religious building in Don Benito, of Romanesque influence (late 9th century); the chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Spanish baroque style ( 16th century) and the hermitage of Our Lady of Las Cruces, in the Sierra de Ortiga, dedicated to the patron of the town.

This temple, which dates back to the late 14th century, is the starting point of La Velá, a Festival of Regional Tourist Interest. Ten days before, on 12 October, the Virgin is carried shoulder-high from the chapel and the procession is received by thousands of parishioners around the city. During the period the virgin remains in the church of Santiago, religious acts are celebrated and there are cultural and music events and events showcasing local gastronomy, in particular the pumpkin. On 12 October, the Virgen de las Cruces is carried, amidst applause, cheers and songs in her honour, back to the hermitage in a day with a real festival atmosphere.

You can explore the pre-industrial history of Don Benito in the Ethnographic Museum, a building from the early 20th century that was the Palace of the Condes de Campos de Orellana. It has a collection of more than 3,000 historical artefacts: traditional crafts, agricultural and livestock tools, clothing and games. Close by is the Casa de Cultura, the work of the architect Rafael Moneo in the 1990s.

The town of Villanueva de la Serena is home to an interesting religious and civil heritage with the church of Our Lady of the Assumption, a large early 16th century building in the Herrerian style; the monastery of San Benito or Palacio Priroral, built by the master of the Order of Alcántara, Juan de Zuñiga y Pimentel in 1494; and the Town Hall, itself a fine example of 16th century civil architecture. Opposite the town hall there is a statue of Pedro de Valdivia. A much more recent addition, from 2017, is the Palacio de Congresos, a contemporary building that resembles an immense bale of hay, blending in harmoniously with the landscape.

Just a few kilometres from the city, on the north bank of the Guadiana is the 14th century castle of Castilonovo or La Encomienda, which was the headquarters of the Order of Alacántara. From its elevated position it dominates the surrounding plains, occupied by irrigated crops.

During Easter Week, the locals passionately celebrate La Carrerita, a Festival of Regional Tourist Interest named after the race of those who carry the statue of the Virgen de la Aurora to the encounter of the image of Christ Resurrected. The three-minute race around the Plaza de España attracts thousands of onlookers and represents the joy of Christians upon hearing the news of the resurrection of Christ.

Natural Bathing Areas and the Greenway

To end this itinerary, two nature tourism recommendations: a tour of the fluvial beaches of Medellín (River Guadiana), Entrerríos in Villanueva de la Serena (River Zújar) and Santa Amalia (River Búrdalo); and the Vegas del Guadiana Greenway, a nature trail that connects Villanueva de la Serena, Madrigalejo and Logrosán in the heart of the Villuercas-Ibores-Jara Global Geopark. A well-signposted and conditioned nature trail of some 57 kilometres is suitable for walkers and cyclists alike to enjoy the beautiful landscape of dehesa, wetlands and farmland.