Thursday, 20 February 2014

In praise of the Via de la Plata

The Via de la Plata was my first Camino when I set out from Seville on 2 January 2007. I had done a lot of research and some practice walks. I bought all of my equipment and I had even stood under the shower with my rain gear on. I was totally prepared. At least I thought so.
On 9 January this year I yet again left from the cathedral with the first arrow embedded in the pavement just outside. I reflected on the thousands of Camino kilometres I have walked since 2007 and the fact that my rucksack weighting 5.9 kgs was less than half the 12 kgs of “essential equipment” I set off with first time round.
That weight, despite the training I had done led to blisters, tendonitis and a soft tissue injury on my foot which took many months to heal. The first blister appeared quite quickly. This was the effect of road walking which I had not done very much of during my training. I’ve decided blisters don’t like to be lonely and the first was soon joined by others. That was a painful Camino.
However despite the pain I found the experience so rewarding and inspiring it led to more walking, writing guidebooks, helping in the Pilgrims’ Office, starting this blog and eventually moving to Santiago!
Despite the difficulties, something about that first Camino touched my heart and my soul. Of course it was the scenery and the kindness of the people, the food and the sense of peace. But looking back I now realise that the most powerful sensation was the absence of fear and anxiety. I have spoken to many other pilgrims about this. On Camino we prove to ourselves that if all of our worst anxieties and fears came to pass – if we lost all of our money, and the house, and the job and the family, and the car then we would survive. The Camino demonstrates we can live very happily with very little. The momentum of walking a stage each day from bed to bed shows us we can live one day a time. The physical effort reassures both young and especially older that we still have it in us. The sense of peace and deep reflection opens our minds and hearts to forgiveness of past wrongs and pray hope for the future. I knew from the moment I stepped into the Cathedral of Santiago at the end of my journey my life would change.
Because of the impact the Via de la Plata had on me I had a great sense of anticipation setting out from Seville once again. The Big Man was also very excited because although he had walked from Salamanca to Santiago he would now be completing the full 1000 km route.
We were not disappointed. Whilst the rain cascaded down flooding much of southern England it also rained continuously day after day in Santiago. In Seville the sun shone and the forecast predicted sun and temperatures in the mid teens for most of our pilgrimage. Fortunately I had plenty of Factor 50  with me.
We set off and as we passed the wonderful Roman ruins at Metalica I realised how much of this route remembers the days of the Roman Empire. We would pass Milarios (Roman mileage markers), cross Roman bridges, walk beside Roman aqueducts and of course walk under the magnificent Roman Arch at Caparra. The Via de la Plata is bursting with history.
 I was looking forward to visiting some of the towns again. Zafra with its palm trees called the Little Seville, Merida with its entrance over a fine Roman bridge and exit past the remains of the aqueduct, Cacares where the pretty hill top medieval city looks down on the new town.  Seeing these places again was wonderful. We went to Mass in the Pro Cathedral of Merida and in the stately church of Santiago in Cacares where we were hugged and congratulated by priest and people alike.
Throughout the 22 days we slept in municipal and private albergues, a private home, hostals, and an hotel. In Aljucen the albergue was closed because there were so few pilgrims but we slept in the hospitaleras house for the same 10 euro price. There we met José from Barcelona who fast became a new friend.
Overall the accommodation was excellent and very, very reasonably priced. There is much more available than when I walked 7 years ago. This both makes the route accessible to pilgrims who cannot walk distances of over 30 kms and has also obviously lowered prices. I’ll write more about this in another post but noticeably some municipal and parochial albergues like in Guillena and Monasterio now charge 10 euros to sleep in a dormitory, similarly private albergues charge 12 or 13 euros. In competition hostals throughout the route offered beds with sheets, blankets, towels, heating and hot water for 15 euros for a shared room. In the Hostal Malaga in Galisteo a shared room for three cost 12 euros each.  Walking with a companion or like José team up with another pilgrim to share accommodation costs makes using hostals economically very reasonable.
In Alcuescar we stayed in the albergue which is part of the Monastery of a religious order called The Slaves of Mary and Poor.  The facilities were excellent including a communal meal with other pilgrims and the hosptalero. All donativo.  At night my room was colder than a refrigerator but I was toasting hot in my sleeping bag with extra blankets supplied by the hospitalero.
A more serious aspect to my experience there was passing through the “care home” which the Order runs on the way to the chapel for Mass.  The Order the Slaves of Mary and Poor was founded in 1939 and no doubt well motivated they provide residential care for older people often with dementia or brain damage who have no one else to care for them.  But their approach to care is stuck in 1939. Old people sat facing the wall, locked into chairs. Others sat silently in a circle, eyes glazed and staring into space, still others wandered aimlessly up and down the corridors. Cuts in funding mean few staff and less therapy and activity for the residents. The place smelled of urine and highly concentrated desperation. Pray for them. It is all we can do.      
On a lighter note when I walked into San Pedro de Rozados in 2007 all accommodation was closed. I went to the local bar to enquire if they knew of anything available. “There is nothing open, sir.” The barman said, “but you can stay with my granny.” And so I did. Whilst in the bar the barman’s mother showed me drawings for a new albergue she planned to open. This time round I stayed there. And I met the granny again!
This time there were no blisters. No pain. The weather was excellent. We had two days of drizzle and only one day of wind, rain, sleet and hail which made the ascent to the Pico del  Dueña all the more satisfying at the top. At 1200 metres above sea level it is the highest point in the entire route. The iron cross can be seen for many kilometres in the descent and beyond.

Above all, with no feet distractions, this time I was able to fully appreciate the beauty and serenity of many of the stages. We walked through huge estates and natural parks, past giant reservoirs and rivers. We saw hundred of black pigs munching on acorns. Future Jamon Serrano.  At times it was so still, so peaceful, so silent I felt very privileged to have been able to return.
And I will also return to more stories of this Camino soon. Next time read...In Praise of Cobblers! 



  1. Esclavas de Maria y los Pobres in religious terms translates as "Handmaids" of Our lady and the Poor". I went to school with the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart "Esclavas del Sagrado Corazon".
    Thank you for your envigorating blogs.

  2. Lovely hearing your thoughts on the VdlP John. It certainly has changed since 2006 when we first walked from Salamanca to SdC in 2006. Much more infrastructure now and more pilgrims. Love your notes on the 'simplicity' of camino and what it teaches us....