Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Midway between Madrid and Lisbon, in the Spanish region of Extremadura, lies the ancient town of Trujillo. Guest contributor Laurence Mitchell invites us to join him for a day in the town's central square. The passage of the sun through the southern sky is marked by the rituals of the humans and the birds who co-exist in Trujillo.

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Thanks to Spain’s dogged adherence to Central European Time, morning comes late to Trujillo. Even at nine o’clock the main square is virtually deserted. There is hardly a soul to be seen. Tables and chairs have yet to be dragged out under sun awnings, and any potential customers are still at home indoors. The sole hint of traffic is the distant backfiring of a delivery van. The only other thing disturbing the near silence is the sound of birds — the scream of swifts harrying insects above the upper town’s narrow streets and the bill-clattering of storks. Storks have nests on almost every available roof space, and there is even a pair in residence right outside our hotel window on the roof opposite, their nest alive with the contented twittering of cohabiting sparrows.

If there is one thing that epitomises Trujillo it is storks. It is hard to find a building in the Old Town without a nest perched on top of it like a chimney sweep’s brush. True, the birds are present in many Spanish towns, as well as elsewhere in Europe, but here it is as if they reign over a hierarchy in which the role of humans is merely to serve. In early summer it is impossible to gaze skywards without seeing a stork gracefully in flight, wings extended, its long red legs hinged forwards in preparation for a precision landing.

The storks may be ubiquitous, sovereign even, but Trujillo has other claims to fame despite its present-day backwater status. The town — actually a city, albeit a small one — was the birthplace of Francisco Pizarro (1476–1541), an illiterate and illegitimate pig herder who went on to become conqueror of Peru’s Inca Empire. Pizarro was not the only sailor bound for the New World with humble beginnings in this once impoverished region: Extremadura may be well known for its acorn-fed pigs and jamón ibérico, but it is equally famous for the many conquistadores its soil gave birth to — a small, goldhungry army of men who voyaged across the Atlantic with the unshakable belief that God was on their side.

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Laurence Mitchell became a travel writer almost by default having squandered his youth travelling in North Africa and India. Following a stint teaching in Sudan, he went on to train as a geography teacher, which he pursued for a decade or so.

These days he concentrates on writing and photography and, while still drawn to transition zones and cultural frontiers like Central Asia, the Balkans and the Caucasus region, is increasingly more content to explore closer to home. He loves ancient tracks, moss-covered ruins, graveyards and allotment gardens, and believes it is possible to find the extraordinary in even the most quotidian surroundings.

Despite a slight distrust of guidebooks, he has contributed several of his own to the world's literary stockpile – Bradt travel guides to Serbia and Kyrgyzstan, ‘slow’ guides to Norfolk and Suffolk (also Bradt), and walking guides to Norfolk and Suffolk for Cicerone. His travel memoir Westering, which describes a coast to coast walk across England and Wales that connects landscape, memory and spirit of place, will be published by Saraband in April 2021. Visit Laurence's blog.

This article was published in hidden europe 52.