Spain: Cradle of conquistadors

The Extremadura regions is old-style Spain at its best, writes Lydia Bell.

The steps of Santa Maria la Mayor are grooved with a thousand centuries-old sword sharpenings. In a corner of the church, an ornate litter from Semana Santa rests, shrink-wrapped. I climb the bell tower to gaze at the plains of Extremadura, across hundreds of kilometres of undulating steppe sandwiched between Portugal, Andalucia, Castile and Leon, and Castilla-La Mancha.

In summer, it is as arid as a desert, but I'm here in late spring and the land is still carpeted in softest green. You can see why this town, Trujillo, was built on a granite outcrop - you would see the enemy approach from far away, tiny puffs of dust rising from the surface of the earth, armour glinting in the sun.

The landscape has changed little in centuries. This is still one of Spain's most unspoilt, poorest pockets. At the time of the Reconquista - the Moors were expelled in 1232 - it was dangerous border country between the Spanish and the Portuguese, Christians and Moors. The king promised land there from the 13th century onwards and the history of the towns began. Today, this Netherlands-sized swath has a population of only 1 million, against the Netherlands' 19 million.

International visitors mainly are confined to twitchers, and 90 per cent of tourists are Spanish.

The region is hot in summer and cold in winter, a three-hour drive from Madrid (although European Union-funded motorways have cut the driving time from seven hours), and landlocked, so it is not the place for barflies and beach bums.

For everyone else, there are wooded sierras, rolling tablelands, verdant valleys, virgin rivers and a craggy national park - the Monfrague.

It is also rich in history. Extremadura had a period of wealth at the height of Spain's colonial might in the 16th century, falling into obscurity afterwards.

That obscurity meant that Trujillo was never altered, and it remains one of the most complete 16th-century towns in Spain. Traditions have been preserved, too. The people still celebrate the expulsion of the Moors in 1232 by bringing the effigy of the Virgen de la Victoria from the castle to the main square.

Finally, there is princely food for gourmands - gooey Torta del Casar sheep's cheese, soft-smoked paprika, fiery honeys and the pata negra ham produced from the pigs that feed on the acorns of the ancient oaks.

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Trujillo Villas Espana was the magnet that drew me here.

The houses, scattered about the town, have been labour-of-love reconstruction projects that returned, in some cases, piles of rubble to their former glory.

They range from a 16th-century palace, a conquistador's home, a private estate with garden cottages and gardens designed by a Chelsea medallist, and a contemporary artist's studio.

It is hoped that Trujillo Villas will put Trujillo on the map as a top-end destination, a necessity in a region even more blighted with unemployment than the rest of Spain. Filled with antiques, the houses meld English and Iberian influences in a style befitting the likeable Anglo-Spanish owners. Rates are affordable (the Artist's Studio rents for €500 ($820) a week), and their homely character goes against the fashionable contemporary grain with a winning, old-fashioned charm.

My favourite is Villa Piedras Albas, a 1530 mansion overlooking Plaza Mayor, with an arched loggia and original timber ceilings. The furnishings are faded beautiful.

A walled garden provides privacy, the shade of lemon trees and a refreshing pool. From the vast loggia, built by a nobleman to cheer up his homesick wife, you can peer haughtily over your domain - the whole of Plaza Mayor.

More grandiose, with mesmerising views of the plains, Villa Martires is hung with vast oil paintings and tapestries, and has magical, manicured gardens of fruit and olive trees and ball-shaped bays. We eat there one night by candlelight, while the owners' Peru-born grandmother gazes from a portrait on the wall.

Extremadura produced an astonishing number of conquistadors, which shaped the fabric of these streets. Around the corner from the artist's studio where I am staying (past Moorish city walls, near the 10-century Moorish castle built on Roman foundations), is the house of Francisco Pizarro's father, Gonzalez, the Casa Museo Pizarro.

It was from here that Pizarro left in November 1509, sailing to the New World on an expedition to Urabi. After two attempts to conquer the Incan Empire, he captured the emperor, Atahualpa, in November 1532 and founded the city of Lima in January 1535.

A statue of Pizarro riding a horse dominates the main square.

The Casa Museo Pizarro depicts what 16th-century homes were like, and tells the story of the conquistadors.

Pizarro is not Trujillo's only conquistador son. Last year, I visited an Amazonian oil town in Ecuador, Puerto Francisco de Orellana. Orellana, a friend of Pizarro, founded Guayaquil and completed the first navigation of the Amazon. In Trujillo, I chance upon his house, now a hotel.

These conquering heroes were poor and landless, second, third or fourth sons. Many were illiterate, illegitimate, jobless and hungry. They returned with gold in spades and built ostentatious mansions and flaunted their wealth.

The locals are nonchalant about their heritage, less than interested in visiting the New World cities whose gold built these streets.

But my greatest enjoyment in Trujillo is wandering, exploring these cobbled, leafy, labyrinthine streets, the many convents, churches and mansions.

The Palacio del Marques del Conquista in Plaza Mayor was build by Hernando Pizarro, the only Pizarro brother not to suffer a violent end. He married his niece, Francisca Pizarro Yupanqui, daughter of Francisco Pizarro and Incan princess Ines Yupanqui, sister of Atahualpa, and covered the facade of his new home with figures of Incas in chains.

We chance upon El Museo de la Coria, a 15th-century convent with a romantic cloister. It is home to the Xavier de Salas Foundation, which traces connections between Extremadura and Latin America.

The foundation has been heavily supportive of Trujillo Villas, and the conservation projects to restore Trujillo's architectural heritage.

We venture to the towns of southern Extremadura - first, Merida, the most complete Roman city in Spain and once the biggest on the Iberian peninsula. Founded in 25BC for veterans of Rome's Cantabria campaigns, it has a classical museum and a perfect aqueduct, but its surroundings are contemporary ugly.

Nearby, Caceres consists of a walled town, ringed by a new town of contemporary vibrancy with a large student population.

The locals are celebrating the descent of their patron saint and icon, El Virgen de la Montana, from her mountain sanctuary to Santa Maria Church, and crowds of locals are queuing to see her.

A tiny rastrillo (market) is being held in a courtyard next door, where matrons with lacquered big hair are selling antiques for charity. We settle in Plaza Mayor for tapas and watch the Friday crowds parading their children in wedding-standard outfits.

We drive to Guadalupe, through meadows with wildflowers and cows. The sierra town and its great Monasterio de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe have attracted money and pilgrims since 1340, when a shepherd uncovered an image of the Virgin carved by St Luke.

Returning conquistadors lavished Guadalupe with money and promoted their Virgin in Latin America. She became Mexico's patron saint and a Caribbean island was named after her.

Jovial Spanish pilgrims fill the cafes and bars here.

In the north, we wander in the Parque Nacional de Monfrague, where eagles and vultures glide silently above our heads and the heady scent of orange blossom fills the air.

To get there, we pass through the dehesas, plains covered with oak trees, the acorns of which are eaten by the black pigs that produce Iberian ham.

On our final day, the National Cheese Festival begins in Trujillo. Tents fill the square and hundreds of stands sell cheese to weekend visitors from Madrid.

The local Torta del Casar cheese has a hard exterior and liquid-gooey interior. It is famously decadent, requiring the milk of 20 sheep to make a one-kilogram wheel.

By the day's end, the locals have imbibed more than cheese. The square is clustered with revellers blowing horns, discarded paper plates stuck to their feet.

Chirruping swallows duck and dive above the sunlit fountain and storks hang-glide gracefully to their nests, oblivious to this unadulterated expression of authentic rural Spain.

The writer was a guest of Trujillo Villas Espana.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Thai Airways has a fare to Madrid for about $2150 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax. Fly to Bangkok (14 hours) and then to Madrid (6 hours 35 minutes); see thaiairways.com.

STAYING THERE

For reservations, see trujillovillasespana.com. Self-catering accommodation includes Artist's Studio, at $820 a week (sleeps two plus a sofa bed); Villa Moritos, from $3200 a week (sleeps eight); The Garden Cottage, from $3200 a week (sleeps six); Villa Piedras Albas, from $4263 a week (based on eight sharing); Villa Martires, from $7375 a week (sleeps four adults).

MORE INFORMATION

visitextremadura.co.uk.

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