Bordering on Portugal, the sprawling but thinly populated region of Extremadura has long been Spain‘s poorest, with per-capita GDP at just over two-thirds the national average.
From the foothills of the Gredos mountains, where Jaraíz de la Vera lies, to the harsher landscapes of the south, this has traditionally been an area of landowners and poor agricultural labourers. At 32%, its unemployment is rivalled only by the Canary Islands and southern Andalucia.
Just over a million Spaniards – one in 40 – live here in the two sleepy frontier provinces of Badajoz and Caceres. It is also home to the much prized, acorn-fed black Iberian pig, whose fatty, cured ham – jamón ibérico – sells at up to €250 a kilo.
The gentle dehesa countryside of sometimes scrublike grazing land, dotted with ancient cork and holm oak trees, provides a home where the pigs can scoff their acorns in liberty.
As a region that produces just 1.6% of Spain’s wealth, Extremadura is often held up by angry Catalans and others as an area that lives off taxes provided by wealthier and harder-working areas of Spain. It has also traditionally been a receiver of generous EU funding.
After two decades of socialist rule, the region’s government was last year taken over by a bizarre alliance between the conservative People’s party of Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy and the communist-led United Left.
At €16,100, the per-capita GDP is lower than in Slovakia or the Czech Republic, and only slightly higher than Poland or Hungary. And with Spain back in recession, it is likely to get even poorer over the next two years.
“We are always behind what happens in Madrid,” explained truck driver Victor Hernández in Jaraíz de la Vera. “So the crisis got here later, but we will probably get out of it later too.”
It was from here that many of Spain’s conquistadors set out looking for adventure and riches in the New World – men like Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizarro or Vasco Núñez de Balboa.
If the young people of Jaraíz de la Vera are to be believed, many more will be leaving in the next few years.
• This article was amended on 4 May 2012. The original misspelled Vasco Núñez de Balboa as Vasco Núñez de Bilbao. This has been corrected.