Trujillo: for god, greatness, and gold

The conquerors of the New World were hard. They had to be, they came from Extremadura. Chris Moss explores their harsh homeland

Scanning the cardinal points of Trujillo's Plaza Mayor from beneath a handsome corner balcony, I see little evidence of the 21st century. A horse and carriage are parked nearby, the coachman dozing over a newspaper. There are no cars parked, no road markings on the cobbles. There are no chain stores and no garish signs.

The enormous San Martin church looms over the opposite corner, the rest of the plaza given over to bars and cafés, medieval mansions and palaces. Presiding over it all is a huge bronze equestrian statue of the city's most illustrious former resident, Francisco Pizarro, who, as his plinth tells us, was conquistador del Peru.

Outside Spain, everyone is familiar with the Christopher Columbus story. This year's 500th anniversary of the Genoese sailor's death this year has been marked by lectures, commemorations and themed tours. But the donkey work of conquest - hacking through jungles, haggling with Indian rulers, the occasional massacre - was carried out by the hard men of Extremadura. Now you can explore their birthplace on a new tour (see The Compact Guide).

For Pizarro there was only one cardinal point - west, and el Nuevo Mundo. If all Spaniards love a good conquest, the men of Extremadura were - and, the local women told me, still are - uniquely gifted in this field. Many of the families that would found towns in their name from Mexico to the River Plate hail from Extremadura, including Almagro, Solis, Cortes, Valdivia and Orellana.

"To understand the conquistador," my guide Maite tells me, "you have to make a mental leap to those times. Many of the conquistadors were hidalgos - noblemen - who weren't that rich but who could pay for the ships and afford to employ sailors. They were tempted to go to America because of the lucre and the warring."

In the Casa-Museo dedicated to the Pizarro family, you get a strong impression of a somewhat austere household. Sons chose between the priesthood and soldiering, and America was a way of combining both. "The medieval spirit of the time meant that extremeños were also very religious," explained Maite.

In Trujillo, you can spend several days wandering among gloomy churches, escutcheoned mansions and lofty towers; it is a truly beautiful town, untainted by development simply because Madrid never paid it any attention. The railways don't come here and the one-time crossroads town stands solitary above a great plain, heavy with history.

Close by are two more beauties: the grand city of Caceres, another medieval jewel and a Unesco heritage site, and far smaller Guadalupe. Both cities have several layers, as the Visigoths and Moors passed through before America was dreamt of here. Days are best spent wandering half-lost down narrow backstreets and tasting regional wines, including the vino pitarra which is manually pressed, and hearty local foods such as migas (omelette) with olives, pork and peppers. You get a solitude and magic that are no longer available in Andalucia's white villages or central Spain's ancient cities.

If religion inspired the conquistadors, it enthralled the conquered. At Guadalupe's huge monastery church I stood, completely alone, in front of the statue of the tiny candle-blackened virgin that is adored throughout the New World.

But perhaps the conquering impulse goes back much further than the 16th century. I travelled south to Merida, formerly Augusto Emerita, capital of Lusitania and one of the three great provinces of Roman Spain 15 centuries earlier. Now it is a Unesco site, valued for its vast Roman amphitheatre and theatre, aqueduct, circus and temples. The superb Museo Nacional de Arte Romano, on Calle Jose Ramon Melida, is home to one of the world's top collections of classical art.

By contrast, Zafra is a low-key affair, the last sizeable town before the roads veer off into Andalucia. At first it seemed a bit humdrum, but I began to enjoy its tranquil pace and went for strolls in the old town looking out for convents, synagogues and dusty old cafés. Staying in paradors helps: like most of these state-run hotels, the Zafra parador is a grand old building, in this case, a 15th-century palace once home to the dukes of Feria.

Hernan Cortes, the other great (or terrible, depending on your viewpoint) conquistador, rested in Zafra before heading on to the southern coast and Mexico - where he annihilated the Aztecs and looted the New World's gold. There's a small hostel bearing his name, but of course he stayed at the local parador.

I paused here to lunch at a restaurant called Barbacana on Calle Lopez Asme, where I was served a starter of delicious Iberian ham. Afterwards came solomillo (sirloin) soaked in sweet Pedro de Ximenez wine.

The more I travelled around, the more I read, the closer I looked at the map and its suggestive secrets - villages, cities, ruins, farms, hills and waterfalls - the more I became convinced that Extremadura is the great unknown. It could be the country's next big thing. It is authentic, unspoilt, historically thrilling and, as an Andalucian bar owner told me, "the cheapest place in Spain".

But what will draw me back is its ghosts. The conquest of the Americas was horrific for the indigenous peoples, but it was also dangerous for the conquistadors. It must have taken a special kind of inspiration - or ignorance - to draw the extremeños and chance it in the New World. God, gold and greatness played a part. But what about the lure of a landscape? Pizarro must have walked up Trujillo's calle de las Jeronimas to survey the land from the castillo. Even now you can imagine him galloping off towards the horizon.

THE COMPACT GUIDE

How To Get There

Chris Moss travelled as a guest of Inntravel (01653 617906; inntravel.co.uk). A week in the Land of the Conquistadors costs from £698 per person, based on two sharing, with flights, car hire, seven nights' b&b, two dinners, a guided tour, a wine tasting and walks.

Further Information

Spanish Tourist Board (020-7486 8077; spain.info).

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