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Spain’s Best Kept Secret
Located in the South-west of Spain and bordering Portugal, Extremadura translated literally, means ‘the land on the outskirts of Douro’, the Douro being one of the more important rivers crossing Portugal and Spain.
This is Secret Spain.
Covering an area bigger than Switzerland, but getting a mere 1.5 million tourists in 2015 – of which less than 250.000 are foreign visitors – Extremadura is virtually unknown to the outside world.
And even with the recent subtle promotion by the Game of Thrones series, Extremadura remains Spain’s least known region. Which makes it absolutely perfect for off-the-beaten gem hunting!
Best Hanami in Europe
Imagine a million and a half cherry trees blooming in snow white unison every year, late March.
You may be picturing iconic Japan right now. However, the setting for our little weekend getaway is a rather remote corner of Spain called Extremadura, located south-west of Madrid.
And the main attraction: Valle del Jerte. Covering over 70 square kilometers, Valle del Jerte is the largest uninterrupted area in Europe covered with cherry trees.
The entire cherry tree-lined valley gradually comes to life in spring, to quench your hanami appetite.
Valle del Jerte is possibly Europe’s Best Hanami
Timing the Hanami
The flowering typically starts mid-March and lasts until around April 10.
Since elevation in the valley ranges between 300 and 1000 meters altitude, it’s perfect for ensuring a gradual production of cherries – offering increased chances to witness the hanami during one month.
There are three main points of reference to Valle del Jerte Hanami:
- Despertar del Valle, or The Waking Up of the Valley
Typically occurring around mid-March. This time is marked by budding cherry flowers and impressive waterfalls; a great time for trekking and enjoying the first days of spring.
- Cerezo en Flor, or The Flowering
Around March 22. By far the most popular time to visit Valle del Jerte and witness the blanket of white covering the valley. The full-blown hanami will last, depending on the weather, around 2 weeks.
- Lluvia de Pétalos, or The Petal Rain
Around April 10. This is when trees shed their flowers and the ground becomes white, proving there may be a seed of truth in that legend (see below)
That being said, no one can guarantee the exact dates. It’s all in Nature’s hands.
We had expected to catch the valley just in time for the famous petal rain.
However, because the coldest spring in recent years put a significant delay on the hanami, we arrived on April 7 to see a valley that had just started to wake up.
And forget the cherry flower petal rain: we were welcomed by a series of very literal spring rain showers!
To be fair, David our guide at Naturlingua did say spring always comes with lots of rain. But he was also very confident that we’ll have plenty of rain-free chances to admire the views. He was right, of course.
Between the short outbursts, we had plenty of opportunities to step out of our 4×4 and take in the amazing views of the terraced Jerte valley.
An Arab Inheritance
The word Jerte has been derived from the Arab xerete, used to name the valley’s river, which literally means crystal-clear river.
It is believed that the cherry tree was introduced by the Arabs and after the reconquest, the new settlers found it perfectly adapted to these lands – there are clear references to its cultivation since the 14th century.
The legend says that cherry trees were a testament of love spanning borders and cultures: the love of Arab prince, who wanted to make his Swedish homesick wife happy, and for that purpose ordered the planting of a million cherry trees in the valley.
Each spring, the white of the cherry trees flowers would replace the snows in her home country.
Valle del Jerte Facts
Valle del Jerte was named by TripAdvisor One of 10 Most Impressive Corners of Spain. Thanks to its unique weather and geological conditions, Jerte Valley provides a unique environment for cherry growing, which are highly appreciated because of the all-natural growing and picking methods.
Did you know that, already in 2009, Spain was the fifth highest producing country in the world, after Turkey, the United States, Iran, and Italy?
Cherries are the highest employer in the district of Valle Del Jerte, with over 10.000 families living off the industry; and this, without taking into account the wider tourist and gastronomic appeal that they bring.
Tour companies also offer travelers agrotouristic options in the months of May and June during the cherry picking season. It’s a great chance to blend with the locals, especially since it comes with the possibility to take home the cherries you’ve picked!
Highly demanded activity, note that you’ll have to book in advance to be able to secure your spot.
Beyond Hanami: Gastronomic Cherry Tasting
Local restaurants come up with delicious proposals at the time of harvest. The choices go wild from the famous cherry gazpacho, Focaccia with caramelized cherry or Sirloin with caramelized cherry, to more bizarre cherry flavored molecular gastronomy feats – a good way to get your fix for unusual pairings.
We had our gastronomy fix at the Parador de Plasencia, 15 Century monastery turned hotel, with an exquisite restaurant on site (and beautiful underground lounge bar).
Visiting Jerte in Autumn
In autumn the cherry trees are dressed with a wide palette of yellow-reddish hues. During this season the Otoñada del Valle del Jerte is celebrated, from the end of October to the beginning of December, with a broad cultural and gastronomic program across the 11 municipalities.
Surprisingly, despite the international fame of the spring flowering, autumn is considered by locals as the most beautiful time of the year.
Other Things to Do
Garganta de los Infiernos
Jerte is the gateway to the Garganta de los Infiernos Natural Reserve, another spectacular area with an abundance of streams, waterfalls, natural pools and wetland forests.
The Garganta de los Infiernos Natural Reserve is the second most visited natural site in Extremadura. It has an extension of almost 7000 hectares and was declared protected enclave back in 1994. Due to the variation in altitude, ranging between 300 and 2000 meters a great biodiversity has developed, with a variety of ecosystems, fauna and flora.
We combined our Jerte hanami trip with a stop at the reserve, to see the famous Pilones.
Los Pilones, found in the Natural Reserve of the Garganta de los Infiernos, is considered one of the most beautiful natural bathing areas in the world.
This geological formation was by carved in granite by the water stream, over the centuries, forming a mesmerizing succession of natural pools, or giant pots. In summer, these natural pools are very popular among locals, and you can well see why.
The entire region is a reference to active tourism, offering a variety of outdoor activities such as trekking, canyoning, canoeing, climbing, caving or paragliding, to name a few.
Monfragüe National Park
If you like nature, I also recommend you go for a birdwatching tour in the Monfragüe National Park, said to be one of the best sites in Europe for birdwatching.
We only really added to our itinerary out of curiosity, but I’ll tell you this much: you don’t need to be a bird lover to be impressed by the raw beauty of the area, home to a number of spectacular birds of prey, or by the sight of a Griffon vulture soaring overhead.
Getting to Extremadura
While planning our trip to Extremadura, the reason for the region’s relative isolation transpired unequivocally: If you don’t drive a car, getting there can be a real treasure hunt! But I didn’t promise hidden gems just as a metaphor.
Extremadura is about 3 hours from Madrid Airport and the same distance from Lisbon Airport. It’s a bit closer to the Seville Airport – about 2.5 hours.
Fly/Train: From the Madrid Airport, head to the beautiful Puerta de Atocha train station in the city and take the morning or afternoon train towards Merida. The train stops in both Plasencia and Caceres, among others.
Trains run twice daily from Madrid. Visit Renfe’s website (http://www.renfe.com).
By Bus: There are several bus services to reach the city of Caceres, such as Avanza Bus. They run special offers for those interested in coming to the festival from Madrid, Lisbon, Badajoz, Merida and back. For more information visit their website.
Car Sharing: BlaBlaCar is quite popular in Spain, so if you need a ride. Car sharing services are a great alternative to promoting a more immersive, local travel style and also contribute to your environmental engagement.
Ever since I moved to Spain, I keep being taken by surprise and end up making the same statement: Wow, this is the most beautiful region in Spain! – only to have myself proven wrong by my next Spanish destination.
Still, I’ll say it again: Extremadura is possibly the most naturally beautiful region in Spain!
Make time to visit now, while the tourist hoards are still far.