From afar, the medieval hilltop town of Trujillo is a stirring sight. Its church towers and castle walls rise out of the deserted plain. We arrive at dusk and it's irresistible to imagine ourselves as travellers from another age.
Halfway up the hill, around tight corners and closed-off streets, we reach the town's Plaza Mayor, one of Spain’s most picturesque squares. Night is falling and local children are playing beneath the floodlit statue of the conquistador Francisco Pizarro on horseback. When we approach for a photograph, they instinctively move away, not realising we want to capture them, not him.
It was Pizarro who made Trujillo famous, spreading the name of this small market town across Latin America. He was born in a modest house at the top of the town, now a modest museum. In 1532 he conquered the Incan civilisation, claiming Peru for Spain with an army of just 180 men, abetted by deception and brutality.
Across Plaza Mayor, the Palacio de la Conquista stands as a monument to that controversial episode. It was built for Pizarro’s brother Hernando and his wife Francisca Pizarro Yupanqui in the 1560s. He was the only one of four Pizarro brothers to make it back to Spain alive. She was also his niece, daughter of Francisco and his lover, the Incan emperor’s sister. The carvings that festoon the palace’s corner balcony convey all that complexity and excess. Sadly, the building itself stands empty.
Climbing the hill towards the castle, we’re struck by the perfectly preserved historic buildings at every turn. Yet Trujillo doesn’t feel like an exhibit set in stone; it’s a real, living town. On the weekend we visit, the colossal Iglesia de San Martín, where emperor Carlos V stopped to pray on his way to marry Isabel of Portugal in 1526, hosted both a wedding and a funeral.
Occasional tour buses swing into Plaza Mayor and offload Spanish visitors to eat and chat in its canopied restaurants, heated by burners in winter and cooled by sprayed mist in summer. At lunchtime a hubbub fills the square. But tourism here is low key. We were able to book a room with views across Plaza Mayor, high above the Mesón LaTroya restaurant, for 40 euros a night. Dinner at LaTroya, its white walls covered with photographs and decorative plates, is friendly and huge. We struggle to finish our simple, delicious dishes of prueba de cerdo (garlic rich pork stew) and huevos rotos (eggs, fried potatoes and local ibérico ham). The wine slips down more easily.
In every restaurant and bar we visit, the same red wine is offered with local pride. It is called Habla del Silencio, and it is neither old nor traditional. Founded in 2000 on the difficult, slatey vineyards five miles south of Trujillo, Habla set out to revolutionise winemaking by ignoring the industry’s traditional baggage. And it worked. This intensely purple organic blend has been named Spain’s best wine several years in succession. The wine tour and tasting is as slickly minimalist as the labels on its bottles.
Maria José, who runs the Pastelería Basilio bakery founded by her grandfather in 1932, glories in the ways of the past. Visitors come to her shop on Calle Herreros to taste the cakes they remember from their childhood, such as yemas: dense, sticky balls of egg yolk, sugar and almond. Her regional specialities are displayed in cabinets like exhibits in a museum. As we set up to take her picture, we are interrupted every few seconds by the jangling front door as regulars drop in for their weekend supplies.
It is the history and beauty, but also its matter of factness, that make Trujillo such an appealing place. As we leave, we turn to see its historic churches and palaces peering out from behind a grain silo and the town’s modernist bus station, magnificent in their own way. We had asked the playing children what they like most about their town, perhaps expecting them to say there's not much to do around here. “The castle”, they replied.
Alojamientos Plaza Mayor, Plaza Mayor, 6, 10200 Trujillo, tel +34 927 32 23 13. Double rooms from €35. Available on booking.com
Mesón La Troya, Plaza Mayor, 10, 10200 Trujillo, www.mesonlatroya.es tel +34 927 32 13 64. Main dishes from €7.50
Pastelería Basilio, Calle Herreros, 1, 10200 Trujillo, www.facebook.com/pasteleriabasilio/ tel +34 927 32 01 63
Bodegas Habla, 10200 Trujillo, www.bodegashabla.com tel +34 927 65 91 80. Wine tour with tasting of 4 wines, €14, online booking only.