You're about to walk the Via de la Plata. Good choice! I loved it. What you say is true that when people talk about the "Camino" they usually mean the Camino Francés. Of course that route is popular because of the infrastructure built up and the frequency of stopping places. But there are many other routes and I chose to walk the Via de la Plata first. It was very rewarding. I loved walking alone and meeting local people in rural Spain. When I came to walk the Camino Francés it was rather a culture shock meeting so many other pilgrims!
The route starts in Seville. One of my favourite cities. It has a huge Cathedral and networks of narrow streets particularly in the Barrio Santa Cruz right in the centre. It is also just a few kilometers from Jerez home of the world's finest sherry producers. Therefore the Southern region boasts a huge number of sherries both dry and sweet - I love them both. My favourite dry white is Manzanilla served ice cold (available here!) and my favourite sweet sherry (una crema) is Canasta. You will love the richness of Andalucian cooking and that richness continues as you trace the border with Portugal on the way up the first half. You'll be reaching up and picking oranges and lemons off of the trees as you walk along the streets of Sevilla and Zafra as you make progress North.
The route has none of the man made rituals like the Cruz de Ferro but it has many secrets which you will discover. It is more demanding physically but you are now an experienced walker and you will cope very well.
The guide book says that for the first etapa an option is to get the bus back to Sevilla and the out again the next day. Thereafter it takes over. You might visit the Roman ruins at Italica and after that you will look back on the steep ascent just before you cross over the mountain to Castilblanco de los Arroyos and wonder at the distance you have travelled.
Reach the peak of the hill outside of Monesterio, and on to Zafra and understanding why it is called the other Seville - visit the Parador for coffee or stay the night! It is a converted Castillo in the centre of town.
You will see the Roman town of Merida from along way off then you cross the most wonderful Roman bridge into town and as you leave Roman ruins mark the way. Stay with Ana and Elena in Aljucen or go on and stay with the Monks at Alcuescar. Then Cacares, a hill top medieval town, romantic, beautiful - I wish I had taken a day off there.
Then on to some of my most favourite places - the scenery is fabulous – like walking on top of the world…man made lakes, sunken villages, really demanding walking, Carnaveral, Galisteo... Carcaboso - call in at the bar Via de La Plata - walk under the lonely but huge single roman arch not far from there at Cáparra...and keep on until you are ascending and ascending to Banos de Montemayor - if someone told you it was Switzerland you would believe them. Stay at the albergue at La Calzada de Bejar and look back in wonder.
Then on to Fuenterroble - try to meet Padre Blas the priest who is a huge supporter of the Camino. When I stumbled in there last January he was working on his own digging the foundations of an extension to the albergue. He's a fabulous guy and close friends with Domingo and Anita of the Casa Anita you will meet later in the journey. Then climb the Pico de la Deuna - count the wooden crosses on the way up and wonder how they got them there!
Then to the university town of Salamanca - visit the Plaza Mayor and weep. The most beautiful Plaza in all of Spain. See the medieval graffiti the students used to write in blood and the modern versions in paint. Cubo del Vino...Zamora...foward you will go. They are all beautiful Gorgeous scenery, lakes, ruins...and at Puente Quintos I sat on the river bank and had lunch...alone...gazing all around...the wild flowers. Heaven. You'll see.
At Santa Marta de Tera meet Domingo and Anita and taste the free wine (it is horrid, but smile). And then on to do some of the finest and most memorable walking ever. A couple of the stretches are really quite tough going, much more so than the Camino Francés, but of course by then you will be as fit as a butcher's dog, to use a quaint English saying, and you'll be running up the hills.
Then to Ourense. I really liked Ourense. I was bone weary when we got there and my friend had developed bad blisters. We decided to stay a day or so before the final push into Santiago. We found a really nice little hostal and when the very helpful woman realised we were pilgrims and one was injured she made sure we had a bath in the room - such luxury.
The next day my friend hobbled down to breakfast and afterwards I asked the woman what we could do in Ourense just to relax. She did that thing which many smokers are able to do: talk and exhale smoke at the same time. Her explanation came through the cloud. "Ah..." she said knowingly..." you two need to take the Camino Cholesterol"...she went on to explain that there was a route they stroll down by the river when we had a choice to either jump into the river for free or pay a little money to jump in. She must have seen the look of astonishment on our faces because she quickly went on to explain that there are thermal pools at the river side. Off we went with our hiking shorts and sandals - to jump in the river.
At the end of the Camino Cholesterol were several rock lined pools in the river full of people and just beside it with an entrance fee of a few Euros the most beautiful Japanese Zen Garden. We paid. There were three pools - hot, hotter and sleep inducing...plus a sauna and steam room, cold pool ...showers. This is a pilgrim’s paradise. No talking is allowed and all you can hear is tinkle of soft music.
Check it out: http://www.termaschavasqueira.com/ I think it cost 3 Euros.
At this point I had walked 900 kms so when I saw a sign advertising a leg massage for 8 Euros - did I resist?
With thanks to Howard Nelson who took these photographs for sharing his experience of the Via de la Plata with me before I departed