In the Plaza Mayor of Trujillo, a town of birdsong and violence, some teenagers had spotted a swift with a broken wing. One of them walked across and picked it up. He lifted the wing and people examined it. There was some laughter and the nine-year-old daughter of some friends of mine got upset. It was after dark in a Spanish town that had sent some of the most famous conquistadores to the Americas, and there was no sign of sympathy for the weak.
On this trip, I’d been reading William T Vollmann’s Rising Up and Rising Down, a seven-volume treatise on violence. It had seemed appropriate reading matter en route to one of Europe’s most remarkable but little-known towns.
Birthplace to Francisco Pizarro, the conquistador of Peru, and Francisco de Orellana, the first European to lead an expedition down the Amazon, Trujillo still consists of 15th- and 16th-century houses whose roofs are home to straggly nests of storks. The narrow-woven streets smell of the violent past: this is a place with a street called La Cuesta de la Sangre – the Hill of Blood – and a church named after the blood of Christ.
Trujillo is one of the best-preserved medieval towns anywhere in Europe. Even minor houses on minor streets are adorned with fading coats of arms, offering nesting berths for the armies of swifts that wheel around the town at dusk. The Plaza Mayor is a riot of ancient yellow stone and pavement cafés where kids run around unsupervised until well after midnight. But even the noise of the children can’t outdo the cries of the swifts.
Trujillo perches on a small hill above the desiccated plains of Extremadura, a region of south-west Spain that was home to many of the most violent conquistadors. Less than 50 miles to the south is Medellín, birthplace of Cortés. A little further is Valdivia, home to Pedro de Valdivia, conquistador of Chile.
The land between the towns is empty, roamed by flocks of hardy sheep, storks nesting in water towers and cattle the colour of dust. The towns themselves are isolated redoubts. In their meandering, stone-walled streets, you sense something of the feuding energy that the men of Extremadura took to the New World. This is one of the hottest places in Spain – indeed in Europe: as you retreat from the inferno in the afternoons, it seems that the hot climates of Africa and America wouldn’t be such novelties after all.
On my first morning in Trujillo, I met a Moroccan over coffee in the plaza. Across the square from us stood the Palacio Marqueses de la Conquista, built by the Pizarro family on the proceeds of the silver they had taken from Peru. The windows were sealed by iron bars, and the shields at the rooftop were flanked by crosses – arms ever the companion to religion.
The heat was stupefying. By 11am most of the day-trippers from Madrid were looking pink and ready to retreat for a long lunch. I was content to roam the cobbled streets and absorb the history. The Cuesta de la Sangre led up to the 13th-century church of Santiago and the church of Santa María la Mayor, also 13th-century. About a dozen paces further on, there was a small plaque marking the house where Orellana was born. It was adorned with a simple shield – in most towns it would have been a showpiece but in Trujillo it wasn’t even marked on the tourist office map.
Outside Santa María la Mayor, where Orellana prayed in his childhood, stood a bust of the descubridor de Amazonas. Trujillo had not sought to disguise the violence of his exploits: he was depicted with a severe, angular face and a patch over one eye. I’d noticed that the statue of Pizarro, too, had been given a savage expression and vicious spurs digging into a terrified, rearing horse. Pizarro’s house is now a small museum, its silent rooms a jarring contrast with what Pizarro himself achieved.
From there the narrow Calleja de los Martires led to the castle. Beyond that lay fields of grazing cattle, stretching 100 miles north towards the Gredos mountains near Madrid. From the castle you could see it all.
I returned at dusk. The colours of the sunset were as intense as the heat had been. I sat as the colours faded and the plain darkened. Dozens of cars had brought guests up to a wedding party inside the castle walls and laughter echoed around its usually silent ramparts. Life was joyous in there, far away from this town’s past of violence and a historical sweep of the vast plains that these silent stone walls were built, so long ago, to defend.
Toby Green is the author of ‘Inquisition: The Reign of Fear’ (Pan/Thomas Dunne)
Trujillo is on the motorway between Madrid and Lisbon, about three hours from Madrid. The nearest airport is Madrid-Barajas. Fiestas include a cheese festival in April/May and festivals of music and dance in honour of the Virgen de la Victoria in August/September