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Notes from Trujillo: An Ancient Town, Well Preserved, Faces the Future

Arrival in Trujillo by bus, the only way of getting to the town without a private car, affords the visitor a sense of discovery as you wend your way uphill from the bland, modern city, through increasingly narrowing streets, until you arrive, suddenly, at the expansive Plaza Mayor. It is a brief walk from beginning to end, no more than five or ten minutes, but the atmospheric transition is extraordinary and well worth the journey.

The Plaza Mayor is the main public space in the historic center of Trujillo, a small hill-town in Spain’s Extremadura that owes its remarkable state of preservation (as do other settlements nearby) to poverty. The Extremadura has for centuries been a poor, frequently if not consistently the poorest, region of Spain. Many buildings dating from the late-medieval and early modern periods remained largely unchanged for centuries, as there weren’t the development demands that often lead to the loss of historic structures.

Lack of significant population growth due to exodus also aided preservation. The very name of the region, Extremadura (“extrema” and “dura” mean “extreme” and “hard,” respectively), explains the nature of the place. This accounts for the inordinately high number of conquistadors who hailed from the region in comparison to elsewhere in Spain—Hernán Cortés, the Pizarro brothers, Francisco de Orellana, Hernando de Soto, and Vasco Núñez de Balboa, for example—men whose hope of fortune and fame required that they leave the Extremaduran cities of their birth. Conquistadors, if they survived, often returned to their hometowns after amassing great wealth. Many of the grander houses and churches in Trujillo, including several on the Plaza Mayor, owe their existence to the conquistadors and their exploitation of the riches of the New World.

WMF was first involved in Trujillo in the late 1970s, at the Convento de la Coria, a fifteenth-century convent established by a local aristocratic family. It is architecturally as well as historically significant, being, supposedly, the birthplace of Francisco Pizarro. WMF’s conservation and restoration work, in partnership with local, national, and international organizations, means the building is still thriving today, thirty years later, as a museum and community center.

In October 2011, the landscape around Trujillo was placed on the 2012 World Monuments Watch. This evocative country, known as the berrocal, landed on WMF’s radar because of plans to expand a solar farm in close proximity to the historic town. The solar farm and range of power lines emanating outward from it are clearly visible from Trujillo. The impact of this construction on the view of the berrocal is unmistakable, though its offensiveness to the viewer is, of course, a matter of personal preference.

The main issues at hand are whether the berrocal is the best place for a solar farm, and what would be the long-term effects on the landscape (would any by-product of the farm contaminate the soil, for instance?). WMF is not opposed to sustainable development or green energy; the purpose of including the site on the Watch is to encourage greater dialogue about balancing heritage preservation with sustainability. Heritage preservation organizations are frequently accused of being anti-development, but these types of charges often result from oversimplifications of complex issues. The goal of the Watch is to engender open discussions on these topics. Green energy is an important goal. What’s necessary is good information and communication to make sure the best location is selected that takes history, significance, and local needs into consideration, as well as development of a new resource.