Dear Friends: A week or so ago we were in Cuenca, Spain, where I looked for a trace of the Spanish conquistadores who in 1557 gave Cuenca, Ecuador its name. According to legend, those guys were marching north after conquering the Incas in Peru when they got the order to establish a city. They came to a place that reminded them of home (which most would never see again) and called it Cuenca. But here in Spain, in this gorgeous UNESCO city, I find nothing that connects the dots other than dramatic landscape and converging rivers (and the unrelated fact that the very modern archive is in the medieval inquisition building, with torture cells in the basement. That’s the archive in the photo above. It is an entirely different matter in the small hill town of Trujillo, a few hours to the southwest and variously described in the guidebooks – without a trace of irony – as: “where twenty American nations were conceived,” and “the cradle of the conquistadors.” A little over 500 years ago, a young man called Francisco Pizarro left Trujillo on his first trip to the New World. He was somewhere in his 20’s, the illegitimate son of an infantry colonel and a “woman of poor means,” but acknowledged by his father. After several expeditions around Panama with Francisco de Orellano, another homeboy, Pizarro landed on the coast of Peru in 1528 and began the terrible business of conquering the Inca Empire. He died in Cuzco in 1541, but Trujillo has never forgotten their local “heroes.” The town is choc-a-bloc with statues (there’s Pizarro on the left), and plaques on enormous stone buildings that say “Palacio of Francisco de Orellano, discoverer of the Amazon,” and the “Museo de Francisco Pizarro, discoverer of Peru.”
I was particularly interested in visiting Trujillo because Orellano and all four Pizarro brothers were born here. All left for the riches of the New World and one of them, Gonzalo, ended up “owning” our land in Cañar for his services in helping conquer the Incas. His older half-brother Francisco made him governor of Quito and gave him extensive land grants, among them “the territory of the Cañaris and all the natives within it.” I’ve actually seen a facsimile of the document (not it below, but maybe one like it?)
Gonzalo’s putative job was to convert these “natives” to Catholicism, of course, but according to history he was one of the most corrupt, brutal and ruthless conquistadors. And like all the Pizarro brothers but one – he died a violent death, beheaded in 1548 by the Spanish king’s forces in Quito when he refused to support new laws to protect the indigenous peoples. Meanwhile, Francisco lost his head in Cuzco, the result of infighting with another conquistador, Diego de Almagro (not from Trujillo, apparently.)
Today, this small city of less than 10,000 is a lovely tourist destination largely because of the conquistadors’ grand palaces (now museums, municipal buildings, and hotels), and churches still gilded with gold beyond belief. All built on the fabulous riches plundered in 16-17th century South America. (I should also mention that Trujillo has amazing cheeses and chorizos and wines, located as it is on the dry hot plain of Extremadura.)
Here we had a wonderful 3-night stay in the small Hotel Baciyelmo owned by a delightful Dutch and Brazilian couple, Herman and Carla. It took a few discussions and additional reading to figure out that “baci-yelmo” is a compound word referring to a debate in the book Don Quijote where the beloved main character insists that a basin (baci) is a helmet (yelmo) to keep out the rain, while other characters insist it is nothing by a basin. Don Quijote’s sidekick Sancho Panza tries to settle the argument, and thus the word, baciyelmo, has come to be “a symbol of a courageous … attitude to unite two opposing worlds: fiction and reality.”
There it is! I’ve had a really hard time writing this blog, working off and on and giving up, but this quote perfectly captures my dilemma: I’m trying to write about the long-past reality of the violent invasion and subjugation of entire New World cultures – the effects still very much felt today – while we are enjoying the lovely reality, generosity and gastronomy of present-day Spain (and now Portugal, where I’ve finally had a free day to struggle to the end with this blog).
It was Carla and Herman who told us about O Facho, a hotel in a tiny coastal corner of Portugal where we are the only guests in a 40-room hotel built in 1910. O Facho (or lighthouse back when it was actually a fire built on the cliff that served as a light beacon for ships) owned by Jorge and Elsa, a taciturn couple who mysteriously glide along the hallways turning on a wall sconce at exactly the right time, adjusting the classical music in the dining room or appearing by the fire in the bar to offer a beer or wine. Jorge – many years in Canada as immigrant Portuguese family before coming back 38 years ago and buying “this ruin” and restoring it while keeping its old-world charm. And Elsa – who reveals nothing but is younger and serves breakfast without a word. Pure peace – no credits cards, no TV, no shampoo, no body lotion, no website… (But I will happily reveal the email address for anyone who asks…)
In between Trujillo and here we have been to Evora, Portugal, a gem of a small city with loads of Roman ruins, where we had a wonderful meet-up with my sister Char and husband Fred. And then Lisbon, where we coincidently and briefly met up with good friends Andrew and Claire from London. But in Lisbon, what I think of as the “Seville Syndrome” happened: we just never got our bearings. Wrong hotel in a shabby neighborhood, confusion on the Metro that left us on opposite sides of the turnstile (“one person, one ticket” the guard kept saying as I gestured desperately), train tickets out of a diabolical machine that took too long to get and took us too far, a closed museum after a long bus ride on the evening of “International Night of Museums,” and missteps in finding good food. Oh well, this happens once or twice every trip and we are accepting (which is not to say that Michael doesn’t complain…)
Now we ready for the last stage of our month’s travel on our way back to Madrid for our flight home to Portland on May 31. Two nights in Viseu (“one of Portugal’s best-kept secrets”), and in Spain a stop in Salamanca (“most magnificent main square in Spain”). Then we will be will back to Madrid and at our beloved Hostal Dulcinea on Calle Cervantes, down the street from the house where Miguel Cervantes died in 1616, and around the corner at the where he was interred at the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians, with morning coffee downstairs at the cafe owned by Alfredo from Peru who will greet us with a kiss on each cheek. It all comes together in wonderful ways.