If I ever commit a heinous crime and need to vanish in a hurry, I can’t think of a better place than Trujillo in which to disappear. An early flight to Madrid then three hours west by autobus and you can be here by lunchtime. Sitting outside the Corral del Rey (my favourite restaurant) on the magnificent Plaza Mayor, surveying the menu del dia over a cold cerveza, the modern world with all its worries seems a million miles away.
Of course, Spain has no shortage of historic towns where you can forget about your troubles, but after half a lifetime travelling all over the country, from the Costa del Sol to the Costa Verde, I’ve never found anywhere quite like Trujillo. When we eventually leave the EU and the Spanish finally scrap that pesky extradition treaty this is where I’ll hide away.
So what makes this town so special? Well, the location, for one thing. Toledo and Sergovia have been spoilt by daytrippers from Madrid, but that’ll never happen to Trujillo. It’s simply too far away. You need a weekend to recover from the journey and most visitors stay for longer. But the main thing that deters the tourists is that it’s nowhere near the sea. Trujillo is as far from salt water as you can be in Iberia, so most holidaymakers never venture here. If you’re looking for the unspoilt Spain, this is the real thing.
Trujillo is in Extremadura, one of the poorest parts of Spain. Remote and sparsely populated, it’s never been easy to scratch a living here and poverty has preserved its beauty. It’s an austere landscape of sunbleached scrub, bleak but intensely atmospheric, and in the middle of this windswept wilderness is one of the most spectacular citadels in Spain.
Only 10,000 people live in Trujillo and by rights it should be a one horse town, but its architectural splendour is out of all keeping with its size. How come? Because for centuries, this obscure backwater was one of Spain’s main crossroads. The Romans were here and then the Moors, and they built the imposing castle that towers over the town (you may recognise it from Game of Thrones). Trujillo was recaptured by the Castilians in 1232, but 800 years later it still feels like a Moorish town.
After the Reconquista Trujillo became a prosperous market town, but not much happened here until 1471, when Francisco Pizarro was born. His childhood home is still here, a robust building more like a farmhouse than a townhouse. This house tells you a lot about the kind of family he came from, and why he had to get away. His father was a nobleman, of sorts, but Francisco was illegitimate and grew up practically illiterate. He became a soldier of fortune, a sword for hire. He fought in Italy and then in 1502 he sailed to Espanola, and Trujillo’s fortunes were transformed.
Most Spanish adventurers found plenty to plunder in Espanola, but Pizarro wanted more. In Espanola he met a Spaniard called Vasco Nunez de Balboa, and with a few dozen men they sailed off, further west, in search of even greater spoils. They landed in Panama, crossed the isthmus in a month and became the first Europeans to set eyes upon the Pacific. They assumed Panama was just another island, until natives told them about a vast empire further south. Pizarro hooked up with another brigand called Diego de Almagro, and embarked on a series of bloodthirsty adventures which culminated in the conquest of the Incas and the foundation of Peru.
Almagro and Pizarro soon fell out, as all banditos do. Pizarro’s men killed Almagro, Almagro’s men killed Pizarro, and Pizarro’s brother Hernando returned home with the loot. He built an ornate palace in the Plaza Mayor, adorned with sculptures of slaves in chains, married his dead brother’s daughter and sired a dynasty. There are still Pizarros here today.
During the 16th and 17th Centuries, wealth flooded into Trujillo from the New World, spawning all sorts flamboyant buildings, from churches to palacios. As Spain declined, so did Trujillo, yet the modernisation of the last century completely passed it by. The citadel of the conquistadors was more or less forgotten, until a new road halved the drive time from Madrid. A few sightseers find their way here nowadays, but they’re usually independent travellers – mainly Spanish, plus a few intrepid Brits. There’s none of the ugly commercialisation that blights so many of the coastal towns. I’ve rarely found a place so unspoilt in the whole of Spain.
Even if there was nowhere nice to stay in Trujillo it’d still be worth a long weekend, but the thing that makes it worth a week or more is Trujillo Villas. A small firm run by a British family with deep roots in the region, it comprises half a dozen historic houses which date right back to 16th Century, ranging from the palatial Villa Martires to the stylish, minimalist Artist’s Studio. Each house has its own personality – no two are alike. Price range from £4950 a week in Martires (sleeps ten) to £595 in the Artist’s Studio (sleeps two, plus two more on a sofa bed). The best thing about these rental villas is that they don’t feel like rental villas. Each property is uniquely furnished – it’s like staying in someone’s home. Pick of the bunch is Villa Moritos, a conquistador’s mansion with its own pool and stunning views across the vast Extremaduran plain.
The house where Pizarro lived is now a rudimentary museum, with a quaint mural showing Incas and conquistadors exchanging fruit and veg (rather than smallpox and syphilis). Back down below, in the Plaza Mayor, Spanish children are playing football beneath a swashbuckling statue of Pizarro – El Cid meets Don Quixote. Pizarro isn’t buried here. His bones are an ocean away, in the city he founded, Cuidad de los Reyes (City of the Kings) – now better known as Lima, the capital of Peru.