Alcántara is inevitably associated with its bridge. Even the name of the town means ‘The bridge’ in Arabic. This small town in the province of Cáceres has been on my Extremadura destinations list for a while and I am glad I eventually visited it. Not only because the views from the famous bridge are stunning, but also because I discovered Alcántara has loads more to offer.
I chose probably the worst possible day to visit Alcántara. The fog was so thick I could barely see the house on the other side of the road, but I decided to go anywhere with the hope the fog would lift up at some point during the journey. I spent almost two hours looking out of the car window and almost regretted persuading my dad to drive me there in that fog. To our surprise, the fog suddenly disappeared barely 3 km away from our destination, leaving a bright and blue sky perfect to enjoy the many things to see in Alcántara.
What to see in Alcántara
The bridge (Puente de Alcántara)
The main tourist attraction of the town and one of the most famous sites in Extremadura. Built by the Romans in the 2nd century in honour of Emperor Trajan over the River Tagus, it is more than 70 m high and a beautiful arch with inscriptions can be seen in the middle of the bridge. Alcántara was, for many centuries, a strategic point and the bridge was partially destroyed several times during wars against Arabs, Portuguese and French.
This was the first place we visited in Alcántara. We parked the car on one side of the bridge and crossed it several times, enjoying the fascinating views of the river and the surrounding hills.
San Benito convent (Convento de San Benito)
This convent dates back to the 15th century and was home to the powerful Military Order of Alcántara. It can be seen on a free tour guide only and the visit takes you along a beautiful arcade to different areas of the building. After popping into several rooms and seeing the original plans on how the bridge was made, we were taken to the church. Its great dimensions are a clear sign that it was to become a cathedral, but the project was left unfinished. Following the expropriations that took place all over the country in the 19th century, local people took over the building and used it for various purposes, including keeping the cattle. Chaos dominated in the convent.
In 1980 an electrical company acquired the building and carried out a general refurbishment. Some of the works carried out generated quite a lot of controversy among locals for being too modern. An example of such controversy is a nice outdoor patio with walls displaying complicated geometrical shapes. They were later covered with vines, as you can see in the picture below.
The above-mentioned arcade surrounds the central patio, where you can see orchards, a well and the gargoyles on the roof. The coat of arms of the military orders with powers over Alcántara are displayed on the floor in each corner.
After the guided tour we went outside to see one of the highlights of this building – a magnificent arcade called after Emperor Charles V (galería de Carlos V). In recent times a semicircular stand has been built, making it the perfect place to hold Alcántara’s Classic Theatre Festival every August.
San Pedro square (plaza de San Pedro de Alcántara)
This square is dominated by a statue of Saint Peter of Alcántara in the centre and is flanked by two churches – iglesia de San Pedro de Alcántara (where the Saint Peter of Alcántara was born. It dates from the 17th century) and iglesia parroquial de Santa María de Almocóvar (build over the ruins of a former mosque in the 13th century).
Tajo Internacional Information Centre
Located only a two-minute walk from the square, it is an interesting visit if you are interested in nature and need information about Tajo Internacional Natural Park to organize a walking route or even a boat trip along the river. There are a number of interactive displays about the fauna and flora you can spot in the area. Free entry.
Historical houses and the Jewish neighbourhood
The high costs of taking part in numerous battles during the 15th century led to a transfer of estates and properties to the nobility. Local nobles obtained lots of power and built themselves beautiful palaces all over the town.
Today most of them are empty and deteriorated. A real pity. Stroll around the town centre and you will bump into a small arch (balconcillo) leading to the narrow streets of the Jewish neighbourhood.
With so many properties for sale and nobody on the streets on a Saturday morning, Alcántara looked like a ghost town. A terribly beautiful ghost town. Locals say in summer Alcántara is full of people visiting the town and its theatre festival in summer is really popular. I am sure it is, but I was happy to have Alcántara all to myself. It seemed like the perfect place to move to if you want to get away from people, live a slow life and get inspired and creative.
Alcántara said goodbye to us with a pinky sky that turned foggy white as soon as we drove a few km away. And we drove in the fog all the way back to Don Benito. Contrary to what the guide told us at the San Benito convent, Alcántara was a fog-free little oasis. At least that day.
Distance: From Madrid: 337km; From Cáceres: 65 km; From Mérida: 131 km; From Badajoz: 114 km
Tourist Office: avenida de Mérida, 21; email: [email protected]