There is an electrical substation on the outskirts of Cáceres; it’s an image from my childhood. I would spot it from the backseat and ask, “Are we there yet?”
“Almost,” my father always replied.
Every December until my twenties, I would make the voyage from Madrid to Cáceres, my father’s hometown and the setting of my childhood Christmases.
Long lunches and never ending dinners took place around the brazier (it was the 70s in Spain) at my grandfather’s house. My beloved Tío Fernando would sit with us, the kids, and tell jokes to make us laugh nonstop. Dogs were family members too, with their distinctive personalities: Terry, Chiri, my aunt’s dogs.
To say that Cáceres is a gem is an understatement.
Located in Western Spain near Portugal, Cáceres is off the beaten track for most travelers, but I can assure you that it is well worth a visit.
The old, medieval town of Cáceres, the Ciudad Monumental, is breathtakingly beautiful. Its gorgeous architecture creates a magical atmosphere. The Ciudad Monumental is still almost entirely surrounded by the walls and towers built by the Muslims around 1184. These walls surround Roman, Islamic (Almohad), Gothic, and Renaissance buildings that are so well preserved that in 1986 UNESCO declared Cáceres a World Heritage City. Today, as many as thirty towers from the Islamic period are still standing, tall and proud, next to Gothic cathedrals, churches, and notable palaces that regional noble families commissioned throughout the centuries.
Though, from the outside, Cáceres might seem like a small town with no special appeal, appearances are deceiving. Cáceres not only has a thriving history but also a superlative gastronomy. The city is at the heart of Ibérico Bellota, black foot country where pata negra, one of the top-rated Ibérico hams, is produced.
Furthermore, with the opening of the Centro de Artes Visuales Fundación Helga de Alvear, Cáceres has also become a hub of culture and contemporary art. Bird lovers will not be disappointed by the National Park of Monfragüe, a wildlife sanctuary declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 2003.
In a town far more charming than its inconspicuousness would suggest, lies yet another rarity: Atrio Restaurant & Hotel.
Atrio is located next to the church of San Mateo, in the oldest area of the medieval town, which dates back to the 13th century. You could well pass by it and not notice. On the exterior, it is like any other of the “old buildings” of the casco viejo (old town). But past the local sandstone façade you will find a modern and sleek interior, in stark contrast to the Almohad, Gothic and Renaissance palaces that surround it.
José and Toño hired one of Spain’s most sought-after architectural firms, Mansilla and Tuñón (also behind the Fundación Helga de Alvear nearby), to turn around a building where the new two-Michelin-star restaurant and five-star chic boutique hotel would flourish.
Nothing in this enterprise was left unattended, every light or shadow was thoroughly planned and placed to create a specific effect. The minimalism of the place is captivating– the clean lines transmit a feeling of calm and peace. There is indeed an atrio (or atrium) at the heart of the premises: a small, enclosed garden, a sort of empty void that connects the restaurant, the hotel, and the open kitchen.
Even the artwork hanging in the building belongs to the private collection of José and Toño. Andy Warhol, Sean Scully, George Baselitz, Antonio Saura, Tracey Moffat, Santiago Sierra, Juan Muñoz, and Juan Barjola, are among the many artists present at Atrio. Indeed, this project has been a labor of love and care, and you can feel it the moment you cross the threshold and Carmina Márquez, their general manager, greets you. This triumvirate will make the term “a rare experience” reminisce in your head for a long time.
But, I am meandering. Let me go back to the dining experience.
For more than two decades, the original Atrio was regarded as one of the best restaurants in Spain. Having heard so much about this second incarnation, which boasted not only a restaurant but also a boutique hotel, I couldn’t resist paying a visit. So I made reservations for dinner with my sister, Elena, to the dismay of our Tía Loli, who couldn’t believe that we were about to spend more than 125 Euros per person when she could prepare us a plate of croquetas, huevos fritos, and jamón ibérico in no time and for free. . . .
And what an experience it is. Before you even take a bite of the food, you know you’re in for a treat: the dim background accentuates the perfectly lit tables. The attentive and impeccable service dances seamlessly.
Toño Pérez is a gifted chef that cooks with craft and passion. His food is full of authentic flavors presented with imagination and originality. Toño’s characteristic fare include, roasted scallops with creamy boletus and truffle, ibérico panceta with lobster, pimentón and garlic, marinated carpaccio of gambas with seasonal shoot salad. . . . Superb and exquisite are two adjectives that come to mind when describing his creations.
His sweet dishes are just as delicious as the savory Torta del Casar (a local classic)with quince paste and scented vanilla oil.
Being rookies, we had the menu degustación or the tasting menu following the suggestions of the knowledgeable staff: five dishes and two desserts. One of my favorites was rodaballo with pulpo garnish.
We also relied on the staff’s suggestions for wine. Their wine list is an overwhelming encyclopedia of around 2,600 wines, mostly Spanish and French. In fact, once at Atrio, you absolutely must ask the sommelier to visit the wine cellar. The underground cave houses a priceless collection of wines. “The chapel”—Atrio’s jaw dropping rare collection area—is dedicated to the legendary wines of Chateau d’Yquem. One bottle dates back to 1806.
Yet, if you still have any concern, José and Toño are there for you. They constantly (and discreetly) go around the tables to check in on your experience and make sure that you are really, really enjoying the food. If not, they will do whatever it takes for it to happen.
José, Toño, and Carmina say Atrio is a “restaurant with rooms upstairs.” Because family called– after all, I had already passed on Tía Loli’s croquetas—I did not spend the night in the hotel. I returned in the morning for a tour, led by Carmina through the rooms, rooftop, gardens, kitchen, and even the back stairs. Carmina, enamored with the place herself, instructed us to place ourselves at different points in the rooms to appreciate the effects of light and the views. Her love for the place is clearly infectious; as I followed her lead I too fell in love with the place.
I admit I had a Stendhal moment at Atrio. Did I pique your curiosity?
Photos by Carles Allende.