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).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little