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Food Hotels: Villas Martires and Moritos, Trujillo, Extremadura

Trujillo, Extremadura
Cuisine: Spanish
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Rob Train: The modern-day conquest of Spain’s coasts and islands has yet to influence much of the interior, and in particular Extremadura remains what could be described as the “real” Spain.
When the Roman legions stumbled upon Turgalium, they knew they were on to a good thing. A prime location on a hill commanding panoramic views of the country for perhaps a hundred miles in every direction, it was also within easy distance of the Lusitanian capital Emerita Augusta -- modern-day regional capital Mérida -- and Cáceres, which is easily visible from the walled Medieval historical centre of what is now Trujillo.
Trujillo has changed hands over the centuries more often than blame for the Spanish economic crisis over the past five years: the Visigoths, the Moors, Spanish Christians, the Portuguese and the armies of the Peninsular war all controlled the town but mercifully, when industrialized warfare in the shape of Franco’s Nationalist forces swept through Extremadura towards Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, Trujillo was bypassed. The final conquest visible from Trujillo’s walls spared the seat of many of the conquistadores of the Americas, one of the most famous of which, Francisco Pizarro, called home.
Today, Trujillo retains much of the architecture of the age of discovery, and a little nod to Ridley Scott’s epic 1492: Conquest of Paradise. The grand entrance of the Catholic Kings, Fernando and Isabella, into Granada at the climax of the reconquista was filmed at Trujillo’s Puerta del Triunfo, where in 1232 the real thing took place after Castilian knights stormed the city. The reason for filming the scene in Trujillo was that the Puerta, unlike similar ones in Granada, remains unaltered today.
Trujillo has many charms but being unspoiled, in every sense of the word, is the chief one. The marriage of local interests with foreign tourism in Spain has rarely been a happy one: Benidorm, Torremolinos and Magaluf are prime examples. But the modern-day conquest of Spain’s coasts and islands has yet to influence much of the interior, and in particular Extremadura remains what could be described as the “real” Spain.
In Trujillo there is a happy medium. Trujillo Villas España’s approach was literally to build from the floor up. The company, owned by a British family with deep roots in the town, has restored several historical buildings to above and beyond their former glory. At the top of the casco historico, the old town, overlooking the vast Iberian plain towards Portugal, Villa Martíres, its adjacent Garden Cottage and Villa Moritos have the sort of views a photo really can’t do justice and interiors that only years of careful collecting and an extraordinary eye for detail can attain. These are no standard Spanish holiday villas: it’s urbane regeneration, conquistador-style.
This cultured approach to tourism sits well with the offer in Trujillo, and suits both parties: Extremadura is one of Spain’s poorest regions and largely overlooked by international visitors, which is their loss but also that of local business. Although the town receives plenty of Spanish visitors many are day-trippers and those that do stay overnight are more likely to lean towards either the state-financed Parador or the reassuringly Spanish NH chain, both of which have properties in town. Self-catering in Spain hasn’t really taken off but second homes abound, especially in regions where much of the workforce has migrated to the cities over the past few decades but family ties remain. Tourism in Extremadura is fledgling but also refreshingly unwilling to plough the sangria and sun furrow. It’s a twitcher’s paradise for starters, and the plato fuerte is the region’s gastronomy.
Self-catering tends to conjure visions of juggling on a two-hob in a two-by-two metre kitchenette but although guests are by no means obliged to eat at any of Trujillo Villas establishments, it’s easy enough to do so if you wish. There is an array of breakfast-making materials on hand in fully fitted kitchens, including a fresh home-made fruit salad, and if the cobbles, or the Iberian summer, defeat you there is a villa menu available with a bit of advance warning. Traditional dishes made from local produce (regional sausages, roasted pepper salad, green beans with jamón iberico and empanadas crisped to perfection, plus a cheese board of regional varieties including the award-winning torta featured on ours) can be rustled up on request and enjoyed on the patio outside Villa Martíres, which has an interesting visual effect; a mirrored wall affords a dual view of the spectacular sunsets that have captivated generations of writers and painters.
Martíres sleeps four, the Garden Cottage six and Moritos eight, but despite the incredible flourishes indoors – one of the rooms in the cottage has a fully stocked library – it’s hard to tear yourself away from the sunset and subsequent blanket of night. Both the main properties have pools and al fresco dining areas and in Moritos’ extensive grounds there are attractive seating areas secluded among abundant foliage. Remnants of the original 12th century city ramparts can be found within the grounds and the 9th to 11th century Moorish castle, one of the best preserved of its type in Spain, is a stone’s throw away.
The company also rents a two-person apartment called the Artist’s Studio, which features a mezzanine double bedroom and a light, airy open-plan living area and patio, with a sofa bed. The 14th century Piedras Albas palacio on the plaza mayor, the largest of the properties, can accommodate 14 in a through-the-looking-glass maze of corridors, regal dining and living areas and seven bedrooms, and also has a large pool area and a grand terrace overlooking the Plaza Mayor. To the front and left is the Pizarro family’s own palacio, which is still in the family apparently but largely unused today, other than by the local constabulary.  
Trujillo can be seen quite comfortably in an afternoon (and Trujillo Villas’ trusted local expert Marco is an excellent guide) but the wider area also has plenty to offer and the company offers a range of guided tours, with transport included.  
For wine-lovers a visit to bodegas Habla is a must. Founded in 2000 after it was decided the high-acidity and slate-rich soil around Trujillo -- combined with baking days and cool evenings -- was perfect for ripening, the original idea was to  do what Extremadura has always done: high production, low quality wine, along the lines of the ubiquitous and liver-rearranging pitarra. It was quite by accident that what was initially produced turned out to be something quite special and since then Habla has dedicated itself to marketing some truly excellent stuff, from its table wine, Habla de la Tierra, via the mid-range Habla del Silencio to the top-end numbered limited editions, exquisitely bottled and with contents to match. These are so good – the grapes are harvested by hand and quality tested -- the one I brought back was pressed into my girlfriend’s hand with a conspiratorial “hide this somewhere.”
Much of Extremadura’s charm is equally confined to a whisper in the know but while Habla carves out its niche in the massive national wine sector, one regional product has already cornered the domestic market and gone international: bellota ham.
Montanchez is to ham what Lourdes is to the devout and it’s not hard to fall for the paradisiacal porcine, especially when at a 10.30am tasting a glass of wine is proffered to accompany. Jamones Casa Bautista is one of Montanchez’s premier ham bodegas and here the process of turning a porker into the divine takes on an almost religious quality: the beasts are given a hectare apiece to roam and forage exclusively on acorns. When the necessary but unpleasant business of slaughtering has been done, the hams are packed in salt then rinsed, fat applied to the outside to keep the meat moist and then hung in a curing room, where the traditional high-tech methods are applied to ensure the air remains at the optimum levels of temperature and humidity: opening the windows when it’s too warm and sluicing water on the floor when it’s too dry. The end result is melt-in-the-mouth and even carries a vintage like wine; on sale at the moment are hams from 2011 and 2012, with the current ‘reserva’ being the 2009.    
A short drive from Trujillo is the provincial capital Cáceres, a Unesco World Heritage site and one of the three finest-preserved medieval towns in Europe (according to Marco, I confess I haven’t been able to verify that). In any case, it is a gem. Due to being the seat of provincial power the efforts that have been slightly lacking in Trujillo on the authorities’ part to prevent the neglect of some historical buildings is entirely absent. No development is permitted in the casco historico; only 350 people reside within the Unesco site, out of a population of 100,000. There isn’t a single souvenir shop. I was surprised we were allowed to keep our shoes on. Around 600,000 people visited Cáceres in 2014 and its steep, narrow streets do evoke Spain’s golden age. However, far from being a fusty enclave making its living from the bygone days of en garde as Toledo does, Cáceres is very much avant garde.  
This is immediately apparent when walking into La Cacharrería, a tapas bar and restaurant in the old town with, well, several differences. Firstly, it’s service with a very wide smile, which is far from guaranteed in Spain the further you move away from a coast -- especially in summer. Then there is the décor. There are no bull’s heads or illustrations of demure señoritas, clasping a jug of olive oil. Instead there are historical artefacts, including rosaries, jewellery, coral, a magnificent pair of silver goblets, hand-carved snuff boxes, two full size stuffed peacocks in all their glory and a wall full of tropical butterflies, spiders, beetles and other bugs in the dining room.
And it’s all for sale.
There is a normal tapas bar decked out in simple wood furniture at the other end of the patio if that’s more to your taste, but don’t let the sight of a Phoneutria or two put you off your food. It’s safe to say regular visitors to Spain won’t find too much to surprise on a standard menu. Much like cathedrals, as the saying goes, if you’ve seen one… but this is tapas on a different plain: artichoke hearts with béchamel, panceta iberico, wild mushrooms and dried Japanese peppers; figs with a basil pesto, foam of goat’s cheese and melon; cod spring rolls with spinach, garlic and a parsley pesto and bitter orange marmalade; a gazpacho with grilled sardine, eel coulis and croutons… far from finger food, it’s fully a meal in itself, to the extent that dinner that night was pushed back an hour before we’d even left. And the little details go a long way, like slicing the edge of a cherry tomato so that it stands upright on the plate.
The fruit sushi, or frushi I suppose, I’m not sure will catch on though. It was like taking the Pepsi challenge and being given a Dandelion and Burdock instead. Wasabi chocolate truffles on the other hand should be in the Magna Carta somewhere.
Just around the corner from La Cacharrería is Atrio, an uber-swanky hotel with two Michelin stars and a cellar of international renown. The Michelin Guide says Atrio has a “particularly interesting wine list,” which for connoisseurs is like saying the Bible contains some half-decent notes on religion. The highlight is an 1806, which will cost about what you’d imagine it would; take what you might normally not mind too much paying for a bottle in a restaurant, 48 hours either side of pay day. Then times that by 100,000. There are only three left in the world after all. There are also Romanée-Conti vintages, some of which are limited to 50 bottles a year released to Spain, and a Mouton Rothschild collection with labels designed by Dalí, Miró, Kandinsky and Picasso. In all some 34,000 bottles are stored, including plenty retailing at double figures: wine may be art, but it’s preferable to do more than just drink in the canvas. A room at the hotel costs between 300 and 500 euros and there are hot and cold plunge pools on the roof. Tasting menus go for between 109 and 129 euros.
It’s not exactly cheap but then Cáceres, like Trujillo, is aiming high. And that’s great news for a down to earth, friendly region where tourism is deservedly starting to get on its feet.
Rob Train was a guest of Villas Morito and Martires
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29 June 2015
By: Rob Train
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