The Acts of “Little Carmen”

Atrio Hotel
Carmina Directora Atrio Restaurante Hotel

I agonized about reserving a room at the Atrio Hotel in Spain’s poorest region, Extremadura.

On the plus side, the hotel was in the ancient walled city of Cáceres, a well-preserved UNESCO site, quiet, haunting and untouristy. Fewer than 400 people live in the “Old Town,” cited as one of the one of the best examples of medieval and renaissance architecture in the world. Atrio’s contemporary design suited our tastes. As did its small size—only 14 rooms. Equally appealing was its Michelin-starred restaurant, renowned for decades before its owners wrapped it inside a modern hotel.

On the minus side, a labyrinth of narrow twisting streets would make it difficult—even for “Magellan,” Kerry’s Latitude65 nickname—to get to its hilltop location. The Atrio is also one of the Relais et Chateaux hotels, often stuffy places that frown (discretely) upon our backpacks. And then there was the price, multiplied by the three nights we wanted to be in Extremadura.

I gulped, and clicked “Book Now.”

Act 1: Check-in

“Here we are at Plaza de San Francisco,” I said to Magellan who was in his usual position behind the wheel. “We’re almost there.”

Then our GPS lost its signal. Around the roundabout again while I struggled to get Google Maps onscreen.

“Take Calle Damas. No, don’t, it’s one-way. Take the next one.”

“I can’t. It’s one-way, too,” said Magellan.

Playing merry-go-round on the cobbled plazas wasn’t so merry late in the afternoon after hours of driving and no lunch.

Finally, dazed and stressed, we reached Plaza de Santa Clara, the gateway to the Old Town. As directed, we called the hotel to lower the bollards.

A lovely woman, casually dressed in tan slacks, welcomed us in.

Carmina, like ‘Little Carmen,’ makes you feel as welcome as a concertmaster to an opera stage

“Hello, welcome. I’m Carmina Marquez—Carmina, like ‘Little Carmen.’ How was your trip? Did you find us okay?” Carmina quickly discovered we’d skipped lunch. She abbreviated our check-in and got us seated in the courtyard with wine and salads and ham croquettes even though lunch service was over.

Act 2: The Room

The Old Town of Cáceres, which dates back to 25 BC, owes its architecture to Columbus’s discovery of the New World. Spaniards returning from the Americas with newfound wealth built towered palaces, churches and convents. Then came centuries of slow decline.

As we made our way to our room, Carmina told us how two Cáceres restauranteurs, two Spanish architects and a Madrid art collector set out to reverse the Old Town’s decline.

José Polo and Toño Pérez, friends since high school and owners of a 20-year-old Michelin-starred restaurant, wanted to relocate to the Old Town. They hired the famed partnership of Emilio Tuñón Álvarez and Luis Moreno Mansilla to design a restaurant/hotel. Helga de Alvear, who fell in love with Cáceres on her first visit, donated a massive contemporary art collection to the city and hired the architectural duo to design a cultural museum nearby. Both her Fundación and the Atrio opened in 2010.

Opening the door at the top of the stairs, Carmina said, “I’m going to give you my favourite room. It was the architect’s favourite, too. As Luis couldn’t find a place for a bathtub, he decided to make it the only room in our hotel with an outdoor terrace.”

Extremadura was beginning to seem extraordinary.

Act 3: Los Ibores

Hiking was one of our reasons for visiting Cáceres. I’d spent hours searching for a good day trek and made my selection with almost the same trepidation as booking the Atrio. I found only one description in English:

The walk is fairly easy but there is one steep, short climb near the start, a very steep descent to the river and a goat track along the steep side of the valley. Walking poles are essential and so is patience and sure-footedness. Do not walk alone but enjoy the route with company.

Rain was in the three-day forecast, so we decided to do it the next day. Magellan got to work plugging in the lat/longs on his phone from an online PDF of the hike I’d brought along. For a break from this arduous task, we went downstairs to have Carmina print out the PDF and see if she had any further information, particularly from guests who’d hiked the trail. As we expected, it’s not one of the usual activities for Atrio clientele. However, she knew the area.

“I don’t know the hike but it’s in Los Ibores, a beautiful place. I love hiking, especially to see the wildflowers,” said Carmina as she pulled out area maps and told us how long it would take to drive to Campillo de Deleitosa, the starting point.

“I am a little worried for you. Please, will you do two things for me? Here is my card. I’ll write my cell number on it. Please text me when you have finished your hike so I know you are safe. And will you please bring me some flowers? Oh, and would you like coffee before you leave? Of course you would. And I’ll ask for a little something for you to eat, too.”

(Not everything is perfect here. The coffee came with a few bite-sized choux-like sweeties; the bill for it was not sweet. Although the dinner was tasty—especially the monkfish with citrus fruits and cumin bread—with surprisingly reasonably priced wine pairings, it was uncomfortable being served by gloved waiters. No matter.)

Atrio Sauterne Library
Sauterne Library

The hike is another story—you’ll read about it in our next post.

When we returned to the hotel, Carmina—the Directora of the Atrio Restaurante Hotel as we discovered from her business card—was about to go home. “I was telling my husband about you at dinner last night and he said, ‘They’re Canadians. They’ll be okay.’ You look happy so it must have been a great hike. And these flowers; they’re my favourite! What time are you leaving tomorrow? It’s my day off, but maybe I will come to say good-bye.”

Act 4: The Finale

It’s not always the big operas in life that touch us the most. It’s the acts of kindness of the little Carmens that make us marvel at the depth of human kindness.

Navigation Tips

The Atrio is a Relais & Chateaux hotel and restaurant that we booked through Tablet Hotels.

Fundacion Helga de Alvear

Locator Map for Atrio Hotel and Goat Horn River Hike

6 Responses

    1. Monet or Picasso? Sagrada Familia or Notre-Dame? Rhône or Rioja? Chorizo or pâté? How do you choose? We find Spain has un poco de más: the people warmer, the value for the experience higher.

  1. We were in Caceres the night San Francisco had its last significant earthquake, 1989.

    About 60 km. east is Trujillo, the home of many of the men who went with Pizzaro to conquer South America. What is interesting there is that many bought or had constructed homes on the Plaza Major when they returned. When they were recruited by Pizzaro they were dirt poor. When they came home they were wealthy relative to others in the town. Many of their faces are carved on the corner of the buildings they built.

    Also, there is a famous local restaurant on the northwest corner of the Plaza, Meson de Troya. Really neat, sitting there, looking out on the Plaza Mayor, and recognizing what was happening in the early 1500s. Google Pizzaro and see how complicated things were for a country boy from Trujillo who made it big.

    1. Thanks Jim, you’ve given us yet another reason to return to Spain as we haven’t seen Trujillo. Checked out Pizzaro—what a guy, and a distant cousin of Cortés.

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