Home of the conquistador

Once a fortress, Trujillo is now a Spanish treasure trove.

During the night a sheep had died. By mid-morning the vultures were standing a few yards from the picked-over carcass, their huge wings held like shrouds against their bodies. Only if another bird - a black kite perhaps - tried to grab a small share, would they spring into action, hissing and rushing to the dead flesh to guard the spoils.

You could almost see the morning's gory feast from the historic former fortress town of Trujillo a couple of miles away across the undulating plains of Extremadura, Spain. Here, in the Plaza Mayor, is a magisterial statue of Francisco Pizarro, conquistador of the Incas, and I couldn't help feeling that the episode with the vultures had parallels in the public garrotting by Pizarro of the Inca king Atahualpa, and the slaughter of thousands of his people.

Trujillo's links with this bloody past are all around here. The finest palaces in the square were built in the 16th century with the loot from melted down Inca gold and silver objets d'art. Some of the palaces are now convents. Others, like the Palace of the Conquest, built by Francisco's half-brother, are in need of a fair bit of attention and money if they are not to degrade further.

Another 16th-century gem, the Palace of the Dukes of San Carloz, at the opposite corner of the square, is one such convent. Its entrance hall looks off-puttingly dark and empty, but inside we discovered a chain on the wall that rang a bell. A grandmotherly nun opened a door and we were showered in light from an exquisite cloistered courtyard. This is as much as you're allowed to see. The nun talked effusively in Spanish and we picked up some snippets of information, including where you could buy the biscuits she had made.

Biscuits were on the agenda at another convent, that of San Pedro, five minutes along cobbled streets from the square. Here, the nuns remained out of sight. To order the goodies you spoke to a nun hidden behind a revolving wooden cupboard set in the wall. As the cakes or biscuits appeared, your money revolved out of sight. Not quite the original dumb waiter.

The rest of this convent lost its nuns in 1982 and it was converted into one of Spain's (currently 85) Parador hotels. It wasn't cheap, but it was impressive. The bedrooms are former nuns' cells, kitted out with every modern requirement but retaining little features such as the peep hole in the bedroom door (now fitted with a closing flap). Some rooms have canopied beds and marble baths. You eat in the former refectory, with its vaulted, terracotta-tiled ceiling. The Renaissance cloister, lined with lemon and orange trees, is a delight.

Not all of the old buildings in Trujillo were built with Inca gold. Some were old before young Pizarro had a thought of overseas travel. Take the Church of Santa Maria La Mayor - the church was built in the 13th century on the foundations of an old mosque (Trujillo has been inhabited, in turn, by Celts, Romans, Moors and Christians.)

Once the most important place of worship in the town, the church, had many of its treasures stolen during the French invasion of 1809. It was here that Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille attended mass in the mid-1400s.

If the rather dark, heavy interiors of Spanish Catholic churches are not to your liking, try the equally old Church of Santiago by the town walls. Its uncluttered, light interior, with cream sandstone pillars and white vaulted ceiling, is refreshing. The customary statues of saints abound, as do potted plants. Even the confessional houses a hi-fi system, blasting out choral music.

But it's the Plaza Mayor, built on several levels connected by wide flights of stone steps, that is Trujillo's pulse. Its physical centrepiece is a rather grubby fountain but the spiritual centrepiece is the great bronze equestrian statue of Francisco Pizarro. Both horse and rider are equipped with protective helmets, in Pizarro's case a flamboyant affair of seemingly dubious practical value. It would have left Atahualpa flabbergasted.

Pizarro's father's house, now the Pizarro Museum, recreates a 16th- century Spanish knight's living conditions. A four-poster bed, chestnut furniture and an enormous fireplace suggest more than modest comfort. In the museum's walled garden are examples of Latin American plants first brought to Europe by the conquistadors: the rubber plant, begonias and petunias.

In the attractive Convento de la Coria, a former 15th-century Franciscan convent, now a museum, is a replica of Pizarro's skull (The real thing is in Lima Cathedral.) Minus helmet and beard, his head was really quite small. But what an impact he made on this place.

TRAVEL TIPS

The best way to reach Trujillo is probably to get a cheap ticket to Madrid (eg, pounds 94 return from Gatwick, inc tax, from Iberia - 0171-830 0011), then travel by train to Caceres and onwards by bus.

The local parador in Trujillo (00 34 27 32 13 50) charges pounds 70 for a double room, Sunday to Thursday, pounds 85 at weekends. The Pension Emilia (00 34 27 32 00 83) is a great deal cheaper.

The local tourist office is on Plaza Mayor (00 34 27 32 06 53). The Spanish National Tourist Office in the UK is at 55 St James's Street, London SW1A 1LD (0171-499 0901).

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