Trujillo – The Old Town

Fiery, oversized, hanging in the sky, the sun was low and ready to drop
I drove towards Trujillo a little faster, to see the town before the evening light was lost
The summer’s day a forgotten memory; dusk and a squall were arriving at speed, subduing colours and leaving greyish hues to the town, the fields burnt by the summer’s sun, and the sky, that earlier in the day had been an unbroken expanse of blue

Approaching from the west there is no light industry or heavy agriculture
The town sits on an escarpment of grey granite that rises abruptly from the farmland below; the Cerro Cabeza de Zorro
The fox’s head; though I had never noticed the similarity before

Everything is hewn from the granite
It’s melancholic, sturdy and steadfast
The crows on their lofty perch, in the ruins of the Convento de la Coria, caw in a peremptory way
Mocking the day-trippers lack of knowledge as they weave their way through the narrow streets with guidebook, compact digital camera or mobile phone
Heads angled towards the rising towers of the towns citadels and churches

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Below the countryside continually changes with the seasons: kaliedoscopic Spring meadow flowers, the burnt grasses of Summer, verdant Autumn fields exploding after the arid months of July, August and September, and the intense activity of Winter, harvesting the olives and oranges
A view unchanged since the Conquistadors left for the Americas, centuries ago

And on top of the Cerro Cabeza de Zorro Trujillo sits as it always has, with no surrounding industry, silos or urbanaziciones
In the Old Town, there are no traffic lights, road signs, road markings or street furniture
Protected from urban expansion there are neither large housing estates, polígonos or industrial complexes
It’s a little more worn by time but nothing more intrusive

It’s one of three extremeños World Heritage Sites
It doesn’t have the magnificent grandiosity of Cáceres or the depth of history of Mérida but it’s strange and otherworldly with a wealth of historical, plazas, palacios, churches, houses and statues

Yet the history of Trujillo is as uncompromising as the grey granite
If the Piazza San Marco in Venice is the drawing-room of Europe, as Napoleon is reputed to have said, then Trujillo’s Plaza Mayor is almost certainly its war room



Trujillo has had its fair share of warriors, and not only conquistadors: Diego García de Paredes, a colonel who fought across Europe and North Africa, Francisco de las Casas who protected Christopher Colombus during his voyage to America, Gonzalo de Ocampo who quelled an uprising in the Dominican Republic, Francisco Hernández de Chaves an interim Governor and General in Venezuela and Juan de Silva military commander and eventually Governor of the Phillipines

But the list of Trujillanos conquistadors is even more impressive: Francisco Pizarro, Hernando Pizarro, Gonzalo PizarroJuan Pizarro, Francisco Martín de Alcántara, Francisco de Chaves, Pedro de HinojosaDiego García de Paredes, Lucas Martínez Vegaso, Francisco Martínez Vegaso, Francisco de Orellana, Gaspar de Rodas, Gabriel de Ávila and Alonso de Sotomayor y Valmediano

Many left from the old granite town to alleviate their poverty, hardship and to conquer the world if necessary
Unyielding, tough and resolute as the Trujillo stone, they cut swathes through the USA, Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Venezuela as well as charting the Amazon river

They benefited from a meritocracy that allowed them, in the military, the same opportunities as the Spanish nobility
The clergy instructed them in Latin, Greek, mathematics, writing, history, theology and helped them with the aspects of life that required a higher level of erudition
A young, poor Trujillano could become a military leader with ability and the support of his compatriots


Francisco Pizarro González had an unfortunate childhood yet with Hernán Cortés is the quintessential conquistador
He was the illegitimate, un-educated and illiterate son of Francisca González a poor woman, yet his father was Coronel Gonzalo Pizarro so fighting was in his blood
He returned to Spain an extremely wealthy man

There are many who argue, who was the greatest conquistador; the consensus seems to favour Pizarro, as Cortés had a larger army, more resources, faced less opponents and was closer to the Spanish garrisons in the Caribbean
A feather in Trujillo’s cap

When Pizarro, Cortés and their fellow conquistadors returned, their captured wealth funded Spain’s future wars throughout Europe
Whilst their newly built sandstone palaces in and around the Plaza Mayor were intricately and inventively carved into the soft imported sandstone

Their means were more than sufficient to pay for the stone’s transportation costs from far flung quarries
And their architects were no longer constrained by the coarse and steely granite that built the Old Town
The palaces were built on fresh land outside the city walls; they’d left their pre-conquest pasts behind
They were the nouveau riche of Habsburg Spain

Yet, naturally, opinion is divided about Spain’s conquest of Pre-Columbian America

Christianity, co-ordination, culture and a common language might have brought benefits
Yet the Toltec, Zapotec, Teotihuacan, Olmec, Chibcha, Maya, Aztecs, Inca, Moche, Tairona, and Tiwanaku peoples already had sophisticated civilizations or cultures
Those who now appreciate the Pre-Columbian civilisations, view the conquistador as a destroyer of indigenous culture and its people


The nationalists would question the hegemony of Catholicism against the ancient pagan religions of the Americas
Indeed Pizarro, who conquered Peru, has been shifted around the capitol city of Lima according to the groundswell of public opinion

His grand statue has passed from grand boulevards, to suburban parks, from the side of the river to  government buildings
Yet having lost none of his popularity in Trujillo, the Plaza Mayor is still home to the identical statue of Pizarro, with a thrusting sword, on a muscular bronze horse

Unfortunately, Francisco de Orellana‘s seemingly decapitated head sits on a granite plinth, someway from the plaza, near the town’s cistern tank
The passage of time hasn’t been kind to the conquistador that discovered the Amazon, originally called the Río de Orellana

But Pizarro too suffered from neglect; he wasn’t commemorated with a statue on his return; neither during Hapsburg Spain, nor the Renaissance
Trujillo’s favourite warrior waited until 1929 for an American, Carlos Rumsey, to gift his sculpture to the Plaza Mayor 

The statue completes what is said to be the most beautiful plaza in Spain
I suspect that the Trujillanos had always expected its arrival and stoically accepted its tardiness for its aesthetic indispensability
There are larger and more grandiose plazas in Spain but for composition alone the Plaza Mayor in Trujillo is exception

In truth, his temporary absence from the Plaza Mayor, was no hardship, it has enough architectural merit to have waited for the return of its most famous conquistador

The church of San Martín, staunch yet unbalanced, with a delicate tower at one corner; the Palacio de la Conquista, Palacio de Juan Pizarro de Orellana, Palacio de los Quintanilla, Palacio de los Chaves y Sotomayor, Palacio de los Duques de San Carlos, Palacio de Piedras Albas, Palacio de los Marqueses de Santa Marta, and not forgetting the Ayuntamiento Viejo, Casa Rectoral de la Parroquia de San Martin and the Casa de la Cadena or de los Chaves y Orellan

Despite his statue in the Plaza Mayor, Pizarro didn’t have a palace there, spending much of his later life in the country he conquered
However, after his death, his niece, in memorium; according to his will; built the Palacio de la Conquista; a palace that now defines the Plaza Mayor
Though strangely the will stipulated that a church should be built

Whatever, it seems on the upper floors that pigeons, more than chaplains or princes, are its current residents, whilst the Policia Nacional have taken advantage of the ground floor for their police station

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The Old Town can’t compete with the splendor, grandeur and nobility of the Plaza Mayor but has a charm and remarkable consistency, unaffected by the modern day liabilities of commercialism and bad taste

The twin towered church of Santa María, the Palacio de Escobar, one of the oldest fortified palacios in Trujillo, the Casa Chaves Cárdenas, the Museo de la Coria formerly the Convento de San Francisco el Real, the Ciudadela de los Altamiranos and the Ciudadela de los Bejaranos, with their tops removed in the fifteenth century by order of the King

It was thought that infighting between the powerful families in Trujillo would be tempered if their strongholds were reduced in height
Though I could imagine better interventions it does seem to have been effective

Pizarro‘s old house within the city walls is typically stolid but unexpectedly modest and charming, with basic ornamentation and a heroic gothic entrance
All the surfaces merge together: inconceivably large granite quoins, lintels, facing stones, simple moldings and pavers
Ground, walls, roofs, balconies, castle and city walls; it’s difficult to know where the brooding mass of the castle ends and Pizarro’s house starts


The Moor’s castle is almost lost above the town, hidden within the unimagineable number of ubiquitous granite blocks, it seems to be the natural crest of the hill such is the textural regularity and simplicity of the building materials within the Old Town and the surrounding countryside

Arriving in Trujillo without a guidebook, I preferred to discover the town myself, aware there was something of interest on the apex of Trujillo’s hill, but the Old Town below more than held my interest for a number of years

Beside the castellations, the castle has even less detail than Olivenza‘s; there are no windows, it’s bigger; the circumference measures nearly a kilometer, and it’s also lower; unlike Olivenza‘s castle there’s no towering keep
Aesthetics, more often than not, have no importance in castle design, but Trujillo’s eight towers have an effortless, elegant simplicity
So too the new works that match the heroic scale of the castle, and its stones, in size easily exceeding those of Pizarro‘s house

Two of the towers serendipitously come together to sentry the principal gate
And the perfection of its Moorish arch is quite unexpected with the lack of any other detail
The perfection reinforced by a perfectly framed olive tree some fifty meters beyond


Apart from the Ermita de la Virgen de la Victoria, within the basilica of the castle, whose figurine of the Madonna sympathetically oversees the Moorish gate, the castle is nothing more than a crenellated curtain wall and towers

From it’s pre-Roman, Roman, Arabic and medieval eras, Trujillo has had many names: Turaca, Turgalium, Torgiela, Troxiello, and Trugillo
And as each succeeding era built below the preceding one, the town tumbled from the castle at the crown of the fox’s head

Naturally, the Romans built their fort at the apex
The Moors enlarged it, on the Roman foundations
Whilst the conquistadors constructed fortified citadels beneath the castle walls, and when they’d become wealthy nobles they built their palaces beneath the Old Town’s walls
Secure in the knowledge that having conquered America they could easily repel any local trouble

Their palaces were now more open, therefore relatively more vulnerable, yet displaying a flamboyance towards the Trujillanos elite, that regaled proof of their all-conquering achievements in fabulous, far-off continents

photography and text by Tim Harris
This entry was published on April 18, 2016 at 9:30 pm. It’s filed under Extremadura, Spain, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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