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The clue's in the title

"Extrema y dura", said our friend Ángel slowly, "the clue's in the title". People around here are proud of the fact that in Spanish their region's name literally means "extreme and hard". Its isolated, rugged landscape and scorched summers have shaped its history. The conquistadors, who left behind its dusty towns in the 16th century to brutalise the Incas and Aztecs, were certainly extremely hard. But that's not what it actually means.

As is often the case with Spanish place names, there's more than one explanation for its etymology. I remember a guide in Valladolid explaining that its name may mean "Valley of the olives". Plausible, until she went on: "except they've never grown olives here."

The most common explanation for Extremadura's name is that it means the land beyond the river Duero (Douro in English), from the Latin Extrema Durii. And it is beyond the Duero, if you're arriving from the north. But it's quite a long way beyond. Extremadura's two big rivers are the Tajo (Tagus) in the north and the Guadiana in the south, so why isn't it called the land beyond the Tajo? Indeed, the Portuguese region just across the border is called exactly that: Alentejo, or além Tejo.

The explanation is that Extremadura was once a moveable concept. During the Christian reconquest of the Iberian peninsula in the 10th and 11th centuries, it was the name given to the lands outside Moorish control, a sparsely populated buffer zone between the Christian north and Muslim south. Its original frontier ran along the Duero towards Coimbra and the sea, in what is now Portugal. The strip along the coast to the north of Lisbon is also called Estremadura.

In 1085-86 Alfonso VI, king of León-Castile, helped by his legendary ally El Cid, took on the Moors and extended the reach of Extremadura to the south. The frontier fluctuated for hundreds of years - that's why you see lots of towns in Andalusia called de la Frontera - until the Moors were finally driven out of this part of Spain in the 13th century. They hung on in Granada until 1492.

Where we live, in southern Extremadura, many of the villages still have the words de León after their names. That's because the knights of León who took part in the reconquista were given enormous parcels of land here as a reward. Hence Fuentes de León, Segura de León, Cañaveral de León and more. To avoid confusion, they even called it Extremadura beyond the Duero.

Which gives us a clue about the other theory. It says the region was originally called Extrema ora by the Romans, meaning the farthest edge, the equivalent of Lands End or Finisterre. Extremadura is landlocked, but its capital Mérida, or Emerita Augusta, was the western outpost of the Roman empire, and Portugal's Estremadura contains Cabo da Roca, continental Europe's most westerly point.

So, "land beyond the Duero" or "the farthest edge"? Both explanations are probably correct, and who's to say there isn't a bit of "extreme and hard" in there too? Language evolves to reflect real life. And so do borders. The boundaries of the autonomous community of Extremadura as we know it today weren't defined until, wait for it, 1983.

Photo of Cabo da Roca by Paul Ames


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