It could be the Serengeti, or perhaps the Kruger. Across a vast expanse of deserted grassland speckled with trees, the sun is exiting centre stage, staining the horizon with blood, ochre and gold. All that’s missing are migrating wildebeest and stampeding buffalo.
But while African in its widescreen drama, the scene is European in location, three hours’ drive south-west of Madrid. The trees are Spanish oak, the wildlife is boar, deer and Iberian Eagle, and a distant pinprick of light, the only evidence of civilisation in the now ink-black night, is medieval Cáceres.
It was across this pristine landscape, recently nominated for Unesco World Heritage status, that Francisco Pizarro and his fellow conquistadors rode out to unearth the New World. I’m at the perfect vantage point to contemplate both its beauty and historical importance. From Trujillo’s hilltop battlements, I can see the glut of Renaissance palaces built by the colonialists on their triumphant return: an urban design bankrolled with South American loot.
But while the glorious buildings and vast sun-baked plains are familiar to wealthy Madrileños – many own gentrified Trujillo mansions or private estates in the surrounding Extremaduran countryside – the city has largely slipped under the radar of international visitors. That’s about to change. Some stylishly renovated new rental properties in the heart of the old town, combining imperious views with serious comfort, promise to widen its appeal.
Step outside their muscular walls and you’re instantly immersed in ancient history. Trujillo’s majestic granite hill is crowned by a 10th-century Moorish castle, albeit with several subsequent facelifts, built on Roman foundations. Conveniently the oldest property is also the highest, a starting point for a downhill walk that plummets though several ages of remarkable architecture.
The Moors were expelled in 1232. But Trujillo, one of Spain’s most authentic cities, still wears its historical heart on its Christian sleeve with an annual victory celebration. Each September, the Virgen de la Victoria is removed from her castle shrine and borne triumphantly to the Plaza Mayor for a communal knees-up.
Reminders of the liberated medieval settlement still litter the walled old quarter. After standing transfixed by Romanesque Santa María la Mayor, with its exquisite golden altarpiece and vaulted ceiling, I meander to the gothic Alfiler tower before losing myself in a web of steep dark streets that spawned the discoverers of the New World. It’s hard not to smile when you find the home of Francisco de Orellana, the first European to see the Amazon, sits alongside Trujillo’s aged water source.
Nearby, the property where Pizarro, conqueror of the Incas, played as a child, is now a quirky museum. Its optimistic spin on his Peruvian adventure – smiley peasants handing over corn, pineapples and potatoes – might raise eyebrows but the armour on display is pockmarked with evil dents.
It’s Trujillo’s 16th-century architecture, however, that steals the show. The conquistadors flaunted their new wealth like oligarchs with super yachts, bestowing their birthplace with magnificent Renaissance mansions. Palacio del Marqués del Conquista, built by Pizarro’s brother, Hernando, boasts striking statuary and carvings of indigenous South Americans, while the imposing Palacio de los Duques de San Carlos, site of al fresco summer opera, has extraordinary chimneys modelled on Inca and Mayan temples. The arched entrance of elegant Palacio de Juan Pizarro de Orellana, home to Cuzco’s first chief magistrate, was more functional, welcoming fortune seekers enrolling for a Peruvian adventure.
Many mansions overlook one of Spain’s finest squares. The Plaza Mayor is dominated by a green-tinged bronze statue of Francisco Pizarro astride a formidable stallion. A replica of the conquistador also rides a plinth in Lima.
Huddled around the Renaissance campanile of Santa María, and with rows of cypresses, hilltop Trujillo carries unmistakable echoes of Tuscany. But the more I walk, the more I realise its climbs are steeper, the sunlight more punishing. The burden of history feels altogether heavier. This is a city built by survivors – Extremadura’s 40C summers are not for the faint-hearted – rather than sensuous hedonists.
Perhaps Spain’s Catholicism plays a part. Trujillo has 17 churches and chapels, several religious orders and five convents, including the most retail-savvy nun on the planet. At the San Pedro cloister, where the faithful are heard but not seen, Sister Bernadette sells cakes from behind a rotating metal drum.
I order pastelitos, shocked at the €8 price tag on a bag of small coconut-frosted buns.
“What about magdalenas de almendras as well?” Sister Bernadette suggests.
“No thank you,” I reply
“Pastas de coco? They’re very good.”
Wide-eyed at the invisible nun’s persistence, I change my order to magdalenas.
“They’re €8. You’ll also want the soft-centred sweets. That’s €12.”
“Stop sister, please, just magdalenas.”
“Are you sure?”
The drums rotate. Twelve over-priced almond macaroons arrive. It spins again. My €8 vanishes. As does Sister Bernadette. I imagine she has returned to the convent trading floor where nuns sell derivatives from behind banks of flickering screens.
With so much history on display, there can be a risk of overload, but Villa Piedras Albas, dating from 1530 with a glorious arched loggia overlooking Plaza Mayor, is different. You can rent the eight-person property from Trujillo Villas (from £2,750 per week), taking temporary ownership of two stone towers with spiral staircases, wood-beamed ceilings and rooms dripping with aristocratic portraits. Its walled garden has lemon trees and a small pool.
The company also offers part of a conquistador’s mansion with a vast marble-floored living room. Both heritage properties are extraordinary, if frayed around the edges, but the company has now upped the ante with three luxurious, freshly renovated holiday homes.
Villa Martires, with a massive panorama towards Portugal and the Gredos mountains, and gloriously sited swimming pool and tennis court, sits in tiered gardens of citrus and olive trees, succulents and immaculate topiary, designed by Chelsea Flower Show gold medallist, George Carter. Built by Romans and extended into a military garrison in the 12th century, it offers a country house vibe with fireplaces, a wood-panelled sitting room, antiques, tapestries and oil paintings, including a vast canvas, “The Death of Murillo”.
The expansive grounds also contain the more eclectic six-person Garden Cottage. Its walls are hung with Oxbridge rowing oars and Eton Society Rules, the book-lined main bedroom has a roll-top bath, and a cool Moroccan loggia is full of silk cushions, rugs and lanterns. For smaller parties, there’s the light-filled Artist’s Studio.
The new rentals have state-of-the-art kitchens but the in-villa catering is sensational. Septuagenarian cook María Mateos arrives with a promise that everything is Extremaduran: creamy tortilla, roasted red peppers, sausages in sherry and manchego with honey and quince.
Sated with the Romanesque and Renaissance design, I explore two other local destinations, both Unesco-listed. After the brilliant, disturbing art of Guadalupe Monastery – beheadings, massacres, deathbed prayers – I travel 45 miles and 15 centuries to Mérida, capital of the Roman province of Lusitania, one of the empire’s most important cities.
Its theatre and amphitheatre are marvellously atmospheric, while its aqueduct is a mesmerising web of perfect arches. But the most compelling attraction dates from 1986. Rafael Moneo’s National Museum of Roman Art has the proportions of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall with five-storey walls and arches of slim flat brick. Statues, busts, chunks of column and mosaics are exhibited against this towering backdrop – one of the most brilliantly curated displays of classical artefacts on earth: a thrilling climax to Extremadura’s vivid history lesson in old and new worlds.
Ian Belcher was a guest of Trujillo Villas Espana (www.trujillovillasespana.com) and British Airways (www.ba.com). Trujillo Villas Espana offers the five-person Villa Martires from £4,500 per week, the six-person Garden Cottage from £1,950, and two-person Artist’s Studio from £495. BA offers return flights from London to Madrid, and a week’s car hire with Avis, from £179. In Madrid, Ian Belcher stayed at the Hospes Madrid (www.hospes.com; doubles from €204)
More European escapes
Porto Portugal’s second city has an enviable position, set on the banks of the Douro river and with the Atlantic lapping at its western fringe. Spend the weekend strolling its steep, winding, streets, and visiting the magnificent cathedral and the Rem Koolhaas-designed Casa da Música. Eat barbecued sardines in the harbour district, then visit the port houses where the city’s most famous product is aged and blended. Stay at the Yeatman (www.the-yeatman-hotel.com; doubles from €154), which has a Michelin-starred restaurant, a decanter-shaped swimming pool with views over the city, and is owned by the producers of Taylor’s, Croft and Fonseca ports.
Palermo Rome may have the blockbuster sites but it also has the tourists. Palermo offers a thrilling alternative – grand cathedrals, beaches and mountains nearby, fabulous, Arab-influenced food. Above all there is the sense of being surrounded by history in every ancient crumbling street. Stay at BB22 (www.bb22.it; doubles from €110), a chic bed and breakfast close to the Convento di San Domenico.
Metz The 2010 opening of the Centre Pompidou-Metz, the first regional offshoot of the celebrated Parisian gallery, kick-started Metz’s reinvention as a city break destination, but it has many other attractions. In the far east of France (though just 85 minutes from Paris by TGV), the city is one of the best preserved in the country, with a pedestrianised old town and more than 100 designated monuments historiques. Stay at the Citadelle (www.citadelle-metz.com; doubles from €205), a converted military building that dates from 1559.
Stockholm A capital city but one that feels calm and clean, not least because it is spread over 14 islands, so you are always close to the waterfront. Visit the royal palace and 700-year-old cathedral before exploring the fashionable cafés and bars. Design lovers should stay at the Nobis Hotel (www.nobishotel.se; doubles from £186), which opened in 2010 and blends modern and traditional architecture.