Following its conquest by the Christian troops of Fernando III, around 1240, the Moorish town of Ellerina was renamed the city of Llerena. Soon afterward the city became the headquarters of the Order of St. James of the Sword, more usually called the Order of Santiago. The High Court and Treasury of the Order of Santiago moved to Llerena and in 1493 the last Grand Master of the Order of Santiago, Alfonso de Cardenas died and was interred in the Iglesia Parroquial de Santiago. The Order had originally been charged with repopulating the area devastated by the war with the Muslims and by the end of the 15th century their efforts resulted in a population of 8,300 and a thriving agrarian society, compared to just over 3,000 today.
Meanwhile, in 1478, Llerena also became the main centre of the Santo Oficio, or Inquisition. One of the Inquisitions more famous sons, Inquisitor Pedro Alvares de Paredes, became notorious for his ability to extort confessions and forge evidence and for reading deceitful Tribunal decisions to the accused along the lines of, ‘you will be released if you confess’. He was moved to Evora in 1541 to hone his talents on the Portuguese heretics. The Inquisition kept a presence in Llerena until the city was taken over by Napoleon’s troops in the early 19th century.
Little wonder then that Llerena is a deeply religious city with four large churches and one convent serving its diminished population. Much of the impetus to construct these buildings came from the Knights. Such was the influence of the Mudejars that the religious buildings, along with other monuments, such as the Courtyard of the High Court of the Inquisition, the Bishop’s Palace, the Casas Maestrales, home of the Grand Masters of the Order of Santiago and the Town Hall and Palacio de Luis Zapata both overlooking the magnificent expanse of the Plaza Mayor, all combine Mudejar elements with the recently arrived in Extremadura, Gothic fashion. The result is an unusual combination of roofs made of wood with exposed masonry fixed on pointed arches, ogive vaults and stone ashlars with ornate balconies and windows.
Unlike Cáceres in the north of Extremadura that has managed to retain a Renaissance feel and Merida in central Extremadura with its Roman heritage, Llerena is still to all outward appearances, apart from the proliferation of motor vehicles, a Mediaeval town complete with the sombre, repressed atmosphere that must have been engendered by the brooding presence of the Inquisition and enhanced now by the narrow, shadowed streets and, during the long siesta period, a stillness not often experienced in a city. That is not to say the inhabitants feel that way. On the contrary, they appear to be cheerful and welcoming to strangers. A visit to the Tourist Information office, housed in the Palacio de Dona Mariana, a wonderful example of the architecture typical of the city, exemplifies both the architectural style with its ornate interior patio, columns, porticos and interior carved wooden panelling, and the attitude of the people. A charming young lady apologised for not having the opportunity to practice her English very often and then produced reams of information about the town, surrounding area and the province itself, all in impeccable English.
To really obtain a feel for the town you can, quite safely, wander the streets. You sometimes emerge in small squares with the inevitable church and occasionally at one of the two surviving gates through the city walls, the 1577 Puerta de Montemolin with a fresco of the Inmaculada Concepcion or the earlier Moorish, Puerta de Villagarcia with its broad stairs leading to the main entrance for pompous formal occasions, with a smaller arch to one side with a ‘z’ shaped entrance built to deter unwanted visitors. The dark bars, once the eyes are accustomed to the gloom, provide liquid refreshment and bowls of locally prepared plump, sweet, pickled olives.
Relief from the sun is found in the Plaza Mayor. On two sides a colonnaded walk, built in the 15th century, provides deep shade with, recessed into what was the aforementioned Palacio de Luis Zapata, a couple of bars that also serve food but only when the sun has gone down, after 8.30pm.
Having explored the city itself, that has no evidence whatsoever of any history before the Moors, it is time to look for the Romans. Drive out of Llerena following a sign for Roman ruins towards Fuente del Arco. You soon leave the city behind and emerge straight into farming country. 8 kilometers later you will reach the junction to Fuente del Arco, ignore it, carry on, do not follow the signs for the ruins, you end up in back streets hopelessly confused. Another kilometre on is a good junction with a road on your left that you follow for another kilometer to the signposted ruins. This huge site is still unexcavated. We know it is, potentially, a huge site because the only building standing, the theater, will seat 1,000 people and the Romans tended to build their theaters to cater for one third of the population at any one performance. In size, though not in decoration, it rivals that at Merida. It is likely that this is the site of the Roman settlement known as Regina and that, during the three hundred years between them leaving and the Moors arriving, the center of population moved 8 kilometers down the road to the more easily defensible hamlet that the Moors then called Ellerina. There are indications that the low hill on which Llerena sits was once a fortified iron age settlement. In any case the location of Regina does indicate that the Romans felt unthreatened here since it is located on a fairly flat plain with a high, in Roman times, undefended ridge behind.
On this ridge, overlooking the Roman site, is another Moorish hill town with an interesting fortification on its summit, the village of Reina. Unlike Llerena this tiny village crammed into a small rift below the castle has not changed since Moorish times. Check with the tourist office at Llerena for the opening times of the castle. In March 2009 it was closed for major renovations. Finally, a few more kilometers down the road are the abandoned iron mine, Mina de la Jayona. The iron ore has been extracted from this mine since before the Romans arrived and they quickly realized its importance. Worked continuously until the 20th century the mines are now a National Monument and open to visitors. The tours are guided and have to be arranged through the tourist office at Llerena. Tel. 924 870 551.
The rural route to Llerena produces a tantalizing expectation of things to come. Leave the newly finished autovia, grandly called the ‘Autovia de la Plata’ that takes you from Seville to Merida, a few kilometers before Monesterio at a junction signposted Pallares. Drive to Pallares and then follow the signs for Llerena. A winding road takes you through fertile valleys, first cultivated during the Roman and Moorish occupations and then at the behest of the Knights of Santiago. Plump Merino sheep and dark grey Iberian pigs graze placidly amongst fruit trees. Fields burst with vegetables of all kinds. Rough hunting country separates the valleys. On these stretches game birds explode from the roadside vegetation and disappear into thickets. There are pheasant and grouse and, a culinary delight when available, red legged partridge. There is so much game on the hills and crops and domesticated animals in the valleys that it occurs to you that here is a place, hopefully, where food is important and lovingly prepared to extract every last morsel of pleasure. And so it proves. The restaurant at the Hotel Mirador has a menu crammed with the local delicacies, succulent lamb, crisp suckling pig and plump partridge cooked with sage followed by sweet confections made at a Convent nearby. If seeing your dinner running around is not to your taste then leave the autovia at Zafra and follow the straight Roman road southeast to Llerena.