Guadalupe, home to the patron saint of the Spanish-speaking world

In a sleepy village, tucked away in the rolling hills of eastern Extremadura, inside an enormous building, lies an extraordinary object with profound meaning across the Spanish-speaking world. Leaving the flat plains of Trujillo behind, we wound our way up into the hills on narrow roads. Turning one final sharp corner, ahead of us, towering over the red-tiled roofs of the village of Guadalupe, was the Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Guadalupe. Dating from the early 14th Century, the size and grandeur of the building, even in a country where you get used to seeing over-sized churches in tiny villages, is astounding.

Guadalupe, Extremadura, Spain

Guadalupe, Extremadura, Spain

The reason for its existence is equally astounding: this building was constructed to house a wooden effigy of the Virgen de Guadalupe, a tiny cedar wood statue that stands little more than 60 cm in height. That may not mean much to non-Catholics, but this is one of the most revered Virgins in the Catholic world. So much so, that the Virgen de Guadalupe was made the patron saint of the Spanish-speaking world. Inside the main church the effigy takes centre stage in the magnificent altarpiece – illuminated by spotlights for added effect.

In the late 13th century a local shepherd claimed he saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary in a field. He dug down at the very same spot only to discover the statue of the Virgen de Guadalupe, assumed to have been buried by Christians fleeing the Moorish invasion of Sevilla in 714. A chapel was built to house the statue, which became a church, before being enlarged in 1337 by Alfonso XI. Alfonso called upon the Virgen de Guadalupe for protection before the Battle of Salado in 1340, a battle in which he won a crushing victory over the Moors. Believing the Virgin responsible for inspiring the victory, he declared the church a royal sanctuary.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is a Black Madonna, of which there are many around the world. Unsurprisingly, knowledge of the Virgin was carried to the Americas by the Conquistadors who came from Extremadura. Today the Black Madonna is wildly popular in Latin America, particularly in Mexico where she is alleged to have appeared to a native Mexican in 1531. I suspect that, if your country has just been ransacked by a mob of marauding Spanish Conquistadors, and your entire culture destroyed, you might start seeing things as well.

The Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Guadalupe has witnessed many momentous historical events. It was here, in 1492, that Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella met with Columbus and gave him their blessing to set sail for the New World. The beginning of the end for the many civilisations that covered the continent, the tiny village of Guadalupe is ground zero for the conquest of the Americas. Returning home, Columbus brought with him two Native Americans as a gift for the King and Queen.

Monastery of Santa Maria de Guadalupe, Extremadura, Spain

Monastery of Santa Maria de Guadalupe, Extremadura, Spain

Presumably confused, these unfortunate individuals were baptised in Guadalupe using the stone font that, today, forms part of a fountain standing in the middle of the road in front of the monastery. There is a large painting depicting the scene on the back wall of the church.

We mistimed our arrival, the monastery had just closed for lunch. This being Spain, lunch is a good couple of hours. The church remains open so you can simultaneously see the Virgin and take advantage of the cool interior. We had a walk around the town and waited for the monastery to reopen. If you find yourself with time to spare in Guadalupe, beware the extremely aggressive waiters who lurk outside the restaurants across the square – behaviour like this is rare in Spain, physically grabbing us and following us down the road. They didn’t get our trade.

Finally reopened, we discovered you can only visit the monastery with a group of ten or more people. We were told the tour would take two hours, and that we’d have to join a party of 30 ‘older’ Spanish pilgrims who had recently disgorged from a tour bus. After hanging around for so long another two hours were out of the question. We had to be in Madrid so, curses flying, we skipped the tour and headed north again.

A walk through Trujillo’s medieval streets

There is a saying in these parts, that twenty Latin American countries were born in Trujillo. The reference is to the hundreds of Conquistadors who came from the town and surrounding villages, and travelled to the Americas seeking their fortune. Or at least better fortune than backward and poverty stricken 16th Century Extremadura could offer them. Men like Francisco Pizarro who conquered the Inca Empire in Peru, Francisco de las Casas who rode alongside Hernán Cortés when he conquered Mexico, and Nuño de Chaves who founded Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia, all stamped their mark on the Americas.

Castle, Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

Castle, Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

The vast wealth they accumulated as they rampaged through ancient civilisations from Argentina to Mexico has stamped its mark on Trujillo. The old town, safely inside the city walls, is filled with beautiful 16th and 17th Century mansions, all constructed with looted silver and gold; their ill-gotten gains built and endowed numerous sumptuous churches; and the narrow medieval streets hold a powerful fascination, every turn bringing you into contact with reminders of the extraordinary historical events in which Trujillo had a central role.

We arrived in the late afternoon under a blue sky and hot sun. After checking into our hotel, housed in the former 16th Century Santa Clara monastery, we headed to the Plaza Mayor to take the pulse of the town. The plaza is a beautiful place, the wonderful atmosphere only undone by the number of cars passing through it. After a quick visit to the cathedral, we plonked ourselves down at one of the cafes and did some people watching while relaxing with local tapas and Extremadura wine.

Fully refreshed we hit the streets. It was mid-week and the town was pretty quiet, walking the steep and winding lanes is incredibly atmospheric, history seems to seep out of the walls. This is good because you’ll get a closer view of the walls than expected as you fling yourself against them, or into a stranger’s doorway, to avoid being run over by speeding locals who drive up and down the narrow streets with abandon. Cars are a blight on Trujillo, nowhere seems to be pedestrian friendly.

We found ourselves at the top of the town outside the imposing walls of the castle. Originally Moorish, it was captured in 1232 by the Reconquista, and expanded under Christian rule. Presumably benefitting from Inca and Maya gold. From up here, and under a low Spring sun, the town looks spectacular.

Winding our way back through the town we passed more extraordinary medieval mansions, taking in a couple of churches as we went, and explored wonderful streets that feel like walking through history – at least when you’re not dodging cars. Given the history of some of the buildings, it’s bizarre to discover many seemed abandoned and in a state of neglect verging on disrepair. This included the Palacio de Conquista, the grand house on a corner of the main square built by Hernando Pizarro, the only one of the four brothers to die in Spain.

The town isn’t big and we soon found ourselves back in the Plaza Mayor. It was definitely time to sample a few local dishes – this region is famed for good food – and to expand our knowledge of Exremadura wines. I’d read somewhere that the wine of this region was gaining a reputation internationally, in a good way, so it seemed like a wise investment to get ahead of the curve. The night air was still a bit chilly, and on a Tuesday night the town quiet, but this is Spain and we found our way to a busy restaurant for a fun evening sampling the local produce.

Trujillo, a journey into Spain’s history in the Americas

Trujillo is an incredible place with an extraordinary history. This town in the centre of Extremadura played a far more significant role in world history than its size indicates. It’s grand historic buildings seem inappropriate for a town of this size; and even the glorious medieval mansions, vast castle and elaborate churches don’t really do justice to the influence Trujillo had on the history of the medieval western world. A visitor from another planet would have difficulty working out why such grandeur exists in such an unlikely place.

Walk around the beautiful (although plagued by cars) Plaza de Santa Maria, and you’ll come to a building that begins to explain what happened in Trujillo. On a corner of the square stands the Palacio de la Conquista; if the name isn’t enough the building is decorated with sculptures of former leaders of the Inca Empire, in chains. This is the house Hernando Pizarro built.

Statue of Francisco Pizarro, Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

Statue of Francisco Pizarro, Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

Hernando was one of the famed Pizarro brothers, Conquistadors who travelled to the New World in search of vast wealth. The Conquistadors were little more than mercenaries, and the Pizarro brothers exemplified the violent world into which they were born. Led by the illiterate Francisco, all four brothers played a major role in the conquest of Peru and the brutally efficient destruction of the Inca Empire. The vast wealth they stole or extorted from Inca nobility went to build Trujillo’s beautiful and well fortified medieval mansions.

It is hard to imagine that a powerful and sophisticated civilisation, numbering millions of people, could be destroyed by a handful of soldiers in just a few months. Yet this is what Francisco Pizarro, 168 Spanish Conquistadors and 27 horses achieved in Peru. I read William H. Prescott’s classic history of the conquest of Peru when we travelled there in 2012/13, it reads almost like fiction. The Inca civilisation simply collapsed, doomed because they lacked steel, horses and immune systems capable of surviving European diseases.

Prescott makes clear the peril Pizarro’s men found themselves in, and the bravery they displayed, but he also recounts their ruthlessness, painting a picture of vicious killers who would have stopped at nothing. They ruled the former Inca Empire with an iron fist, simultaneously marrying Inca royalty to give themselves legitimacy. Their ambition led to conflict with their fellow Spaniards, and it’s little surprise that three of the four met violent deaths in Peru. Hernando was the only one to die in Spain, in Trujillo, in the Palacio de la Conquista in 1578, but only after he’d spent 20 years in a Spanish prison.

I’d wanted to see Trujillo ever since being in Peru and it was a bitter-sweet experience. While I marvelled at the glories of Trujillo, I couldn’t help but reflect on the wonders of the Inca civilisation that were lost, destroyed or melted down. It didn’t seem a fair swap.

Statue of Francisco de Orellana, Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

Statue of Francisco de Orellana, Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

I didn’t expect it, but there seems little remorse for the town’s role in the destruction of another civilisation. An impression reinforced by the giant statue of Pizarro dominating the main plaza. My guidebook revealed the bizarre story that the statue was made by an American and donated to Trujillo in 1927; but not before he tried to give it to the Mexican Government as a statue of Hernán Cortés. Unsurprisingly, the Mexicans weren’t in the mood to honour the destructor of Mexico’s Aztec and Mayan civilisations. It was ‘renamed’ and given to Trujillo.

The Pizarro brothers weren’t the only conquerors of the New World to come from Trujillo. Ñuflo de Chaves was born in a village just outside Trujillo. He founded the Bolivian town of Santa Cruz, a fact I didn’t know when living in Bolivia. Other Trujillo luminaries include Francisco de Orellana, who accompanied Pizarro in the conquest of Peru, and was the first European to navigate the full length of the Amazon; and Diego García Paredes, known as the ‘Samson of Extremadura’, who founded Trujillo in Venezuela. Their ill-gotten gains are also on display in Trujillo.

Extremadura, recruiting ground of the Conquistadors

Spain is a country that wears its history on its sleeve. A visit to just about anywhere in this extraordinary country will bring you into contact with its long and frequently brutal history. Nowhere is that more true than the parched and often desolate landscapes of Extremadura. Historically it was one of the poorest regions of Spain, its inhabitants forced to scrape a living from poor soils. Only now is it starting to shake off a dusty exterior that has kept it off the tourist trail: the historic glories of Extremadura have begun to attract a steady flow of visitors.

A Spanish bull sign, Extremadura, Spain

A Spanish bull sign, Extremadura, Spain

Life was so hard here that it proved a fertile recruiting ground for the Conquistadors, men like Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro, who would conquer the Americas with a mixture of savage brutality and European diseases. It is Pizarro that most fascinates me. We’d visited Peru twice when living in Bolivia and I’d seen the results of Pizarro’s work at first hand. I was eager to see the town where the conqueror of the Incan Empire grew up.

Heading north past Cordoba, we called at tiny Belmez, our final stop in Andalusia before crossing into Extremadura. We hadn’t planned to visit Belmez, but it seemed as good a place as any to grab a coffee and a snack; plus we could see the town’s castle perched on top of a ridiculously steep hill from miles away, and I can’t resist a good castle. We finally found our way through the narrow streets to the base of the hill and started the ascent upwards. Needless to say the castle started life as a Moorish fort, but what remains today dates from after the Reconquista.

The climb was worth it. Clambering up to the very top of the tower provided a 360̊ panorama over the surrounding countryside, with only a few birds and a strong breeze for company. Back at ground level we went for a stroll around town, ten minutes later we were seated in the local bar with a coffee. This tiny place looks like it has seen better times, at least judging by the number of ‘For Sale’ signs dotted around the town.

There was time when Romans lived here and mined iron ore, but it was the discovery of coal deposits that turned this into a mining region, and saw an influx into the area at the start of the 20th Century. On the outskirts of town the remains of long abandoned coal mines litter the landscape; this area has suffered more than most from economic decline, with industry gone there is little to offset the hardship and younger people are voting with their feet.

Extremadura, Spain

Extremadura, Spain

Back on the road we decided to take smaller roads through the countryside. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves passing through breathtaking rural landscapes and entering Extremadura. In the distance we saw what looked like a massive hilltop fortress. Naturally we headed in that direction and after navigating our way through a tiny village and up a steep hill found ourselves, alone and on top of another hill, standing amongst the ruins of the Alcazaba Arabe de Reina, close to the small town of Reina.

Situated at a vital junction on the route between Cordoba and Merida, the Alcazaba Arabe de Reina dates back to Roman times, and the ruins of the Roman town, Regina Turdulorum, are nearby on the plain below. It grew into a massive fortress during Moorish times – being situated not that far from the boundary between the Christian north and Moorish south. It may be dramatically situated but there is little that remains of the original citadel other than some of the massive walls.

There is a hermitage and shrine in the middle of the fort dedicated to Nuestra Señora de las Nieves, our Lady of the Snows. After wandering around for 20 minutes and drinking in the views, it was time to start the last part of our journey to Trujillo. We skipped visiting the nearby Roman ruins, because some in our party (of two) felt that visiting two castles in one day was already an overindulgence, but this region of Extremadura is definitely one to return to.