Conquerors and Quesos: Tourism in Trujillo

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The church of San Martin of Tours sits at the corner of Trujillo’s Plaza Major

The month of May offers a few public holidays here in Spain (for the San Isidro Festival, check out this article). I planned a short break to Extremadura in western Spain with a few friends and of course, we visited the classical historical towns of Mérida and Cáceres. It was my first time enjoying this land steeped in history with breathtaking Roman ruins, Arabic walls, and Renaissance palaces.

It also just so happens that the first week in May is the Trujillo National Cheese Festival, a showcase for the finest of Spain’s dairy produce. Honestly, this was the main reason my friends and I decided to go, although I just about love history more than I love cheese…

The festival has been held since 1986 in the small town of Trujillo, which has another claim to fame as the birthplace of Francisco Pizarro, the conquistador whose actions ended Inca rule in Peru.

The Pizarro Problem

Pizarro was born in the 1470s to army officer Gonzalo Pizarro and Francisca González, a poor local woman. In fact, Gonzalo had numerous legitimate and illegitimate children with a few Trujillo women, including four half-brothers who would all end up grabbing money and power in Peru. Three of them died in violent ways, not uncommon in the back-stabbing world of international politics: Juan was hit by a rock during a siege, Gonzalo Jr. was executed by decapitation, and Francisco was assassinated. Only Hernando got to shuffle off quietly in his Spanish hometown.

During the cheese festival, Pizzaro looms over a sea of stalls. The feathers on his helmet make him look slightly demonic. Make of that what you will.

But it’s Francisco whose fame has lasted the longest and who gets a statue in Trujillo’s picturesque Plaza Mayor. He’s shown in the usual way: suited up in full armour on a mighty steed and wielding a sword of Toledo steel. However, this statue was not produced by a proud Spanish craftsperson, but was cast by American sculptor Charles Cary Rumsey (1879-1922). He was also a polo player, so it’s no wonder he’s most famous for his well-executed equestrian works.

This statue was, in fact, one of three similar pieces made at the same time. As statues usually reflect a contemporary political situation, rather than saying much about the subject themselves, one of them has had its own colourful history. As Rumsey was born in Buffalo, New York, the local art gallery has installed one version outside, which (at the time of publishing) is still there. The other is in Lima, the capital of Peru, a city founded by Francisco himself and where he met his bloody end. In 2007, it was moved out of the main Pizarro Plaza (now called the Peru Plaza) after years of protest and was replaced by the Peruvian flag. It now sits in a more out-of-town location, its long-term fate yet to be decided. Legend has it that the statue wasn’t even Pizarro anyway, but was originally supposed to represent another infamous conquistador, Hernan Cortes. However, even back in the 1920s, the Mexicans didn’t want it.

Trujillo has kept its statue and markets itself as the birthplace of Pizarro, with one of its attractions a house-museum (which I didn’t visit) purported to be the family home, extolling the ‘adventures’ of their native son and showing collections of contemporary objects.

There is speculation over whether the Pizzaro family even lived here, and it seems unlikely the space was shared by the wife, mistresses and ALL those kids…

The Cradle of Conquistadors

However, Francisco Pizarro isn’t the only one still getting an honorable mention in the region. Extremadura is legendary for being the homeland from where many fellow so-called ’explorers’ of Spain’s colonial history set out. Several distant relatives of the Pizarros were born here, including Francisco de Orellana, who mapped and named the Amazon River, Hernan Cortes, whose bloody exploits ended the Aztec empire in Mexico, and Vasco Núñez de Balboa, whose crossing of the isthmus of Panama possibly made him the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. These are just some of the ‘Conquistadores extremeños’ who all hail from this area, which begs the question: why?

There are numerous theories, with most linked to the fact that it has been one of Spain’s poorest regions for centuries. Many feel Extremadura peaked during the Roman era when the silver mines created jobs and generated enough wealth to build the spectacular buildings in Mérida, now on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

But outside the main cities, the region itself remained on the margins of Spanish prosperity. Its clay soils were bone dry in summer and saturated in winter, making the agricultural life back-breakingly hard with little reward. This accompanied a strong tradition of military expertise, with families having plenty of fighting practice forwarding the ‘Reconquista’ against Muslim rule and pushing back the Portuguese who hoped to make their nearby kingdom that little bit bigger.

With few opportunities at home to make a good living, it’s no wonder the state-sponsored expeditions and the chance for glory (and gold) in the New World were so appealing to ambitious young men.

Selling Extremadura

Extremadura in more recent times hasn’t fared much better. One of the biggest but least populated regions to this day, the economic statistics make for a depressing read. Extremadura is the only region of Spain officially categorized as “less developed” with a 44% unemployment rate for young people. Despite a high-speed train from Madrid to Badajoz currently under construction, transport links remain poor (a local joke goes: ‘Trains in Extremadura go at three different speeds: slow, very slow, or not at all’). Combine this with mass youth emigration and swathes of unmanaged forest leading to frequent wildfires, and it’s no wonder the tourist companies have turned to other ways of attracting visitors and their money.

Hence the ‘Land of the Conquistadors’ branding I found when doing my pre-visit research. The tourist literature is littered with words such as “illustrious,” “magnificent,” “daring,” and “proudly remembered” in describing the ‘conquest’ of South America. I can only assume they are marketing this at visitors who like their history covered with a thick layer of whitewash; they are certainly not going to attract the Latinx market. A quick look into how many modern Peruvians view Francisco Pizarro can be summed up as a ‘bastard, illiterate pig farmer who shamefully tricked and brutally murdered Inca ruler Atahualpa and thousands of others, before getting what he deserved at the point of a knife.’

A Whey Forward…

So, it’s probably a safer bet to promote gastro-tourism, and in a region where 50% of the land is still given over to agricultural production, selling the region’s food culture seems a more palatable option. In recent years, the tourist authorities have created the Ruta del Queso (the Cheese Route) that works with 140 different local businesses including farms, dairies, restaurants, and hotels to boost rural economies by offering tasting experiences and promoting these dairy delights.

Just a few of the cheesy tapas on offer..

This leads us back to where we started: the Trujillo Cheese Festival. With visitor numbers of over 100,000 expected over the five days, we opted to visit on the opening Wednesday. It was fairly packed, but we were still able to savor plenty of the 300 cheeses on offer from all across the country. I ended up buying a blue sheep cheese from Galicia but was very tempted by the Torta del Casar, the area’s most famous cheese, made from raw sheep’s milk infused with thistle whey. You enjoy the tangy flavor by spooning its gooey contents straight out of the wheel, and it is one of four local kinds of cheese honored with the ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ (DOP) mark.

If Extremadura aims to ride towards a future where its agricultural and culinary offerings take centre stage, providing sustainable economic opportunities and celebrating a heritage that everyone can enjoy, that’s a new world that would definitely leave a more pleasant taste in the mouth.

Eating a whole Torta del Casar would be a glorious adventure!

  1. Felicity

    A wild read! Now Extremadura will be forever linked in my mind to conquistadors and cheese!

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