In Extremadura’s town they can be seen often in the evening sitting at a public place, eating a piece of cheese and a baguette and watching playing children or the sunset. In Merida they are often lying at the riverside of Guadiana and sleeping or snoozing with their backs leant against a tree. Pilgrims are also those who stop walking to watch buskers playing at the Plaza Mayor. However, all in all pilgrims of the Via de la Plata look happier than the shop owners, waiters and small families at ice cream stalls. Looking at them, one will realise that they have willingly chosen to slow their life down for a few weeks and they are satisfied with their decision.
The two Canadians Ros and her daughter Laura Chrisholm enjoyed every day of their pilgrimage, even if Laura has been afflicted with blisters on her feet for some days. Why are they here? According to Ros it is due to a dinner with friends, who have already been in Extremadura and recommended them this way. They followed their recommendation.
Laura and Ros represent two of 5,104 pilgrims who made a pilgrimage on the Via de la Plata to Santiago in 2008; which was 1,500 pilgrims more than two years ago. The huge influx of pilgrims into the southern Camino de Santiago trail is due especially to the overcrowding of the northern Camino de Santiago, where one cannot be sure anymore of finding a place in the Albergue or accommodation in a hotel. Extremadura is rediscovering the original value of the pilgrimage. There may be less pilgrim hostels in Extremadura than on the Camino de Santiago trail in the north, but according to Cordula Rabe’s award-winning guide book for hiking “that is exactly what makes hiking compared to relatively elaborate and commercialised Camino frances a very strong and unique experience, during which special emphasis is placed on contact to nature in mostly sparsely inhabited areas, to centuries-old vestiges of past times and not least on contemplation.”
During the pilgrimage you always have company. Whoever you meet on the Via de la Plata will tell you that they never feel alone. They will tell you about day-long hiking with people they did not know before, but who they have become friends with, about chance acquaintanceship with people who have become companions over hundreds of kilometres and share the simple life with you.
Because the route was over the centuries the most important north-south connection in the west of the Iberian Peninsula, nearly all medium-sized localities of Extremadura are located on the Via de la Plata. The first town on the Via de la Plata in the south is Zafra. It is an ideal place for pilgrimage, for each pilgrim can find there a palm tree under which he can rest in one of the green spaces of the inner city. In Merida, Extremadura’s capital, he has the opportunity to enjoy again the pleasures of luxury: going to the movies, sending pictures and e-mails and writing down in his pilgrimage diary while drinking an exquisite vino tinto: “I’ve already managed a quarter and more.” He will continue his way via Caceres, the most urban city of Extremadura with its great number of public houses, student pubs, book shops and cafés, northwards until Baños de Montemayor in the northern outskirts of Extremadura. This town is one of the oldest health spas of Spain and was made for pilgrimage. In fact, anyone who has reached Baños has already covered a distance of 525 kilometres since he started from Sevilla, and has successfully completed the 13 of Extremadura’s stages. He can here cure his maltreated feet and take a bath, for it could be the last one for long time.
There are two signs that orient pilgrims on the Via de la Plata. The first is the scallop as a milestone. Wherever he sees it, a pilgrim feels confident of being on the right way. It is sometimes replaced by a yellow mark or arrow at house walls or wooden posts. The second sign is called “Albergue”. It raises hopes and wishes to pilgrims, above all when they arrive very exhausted. If he discovers it somewhere, he will confidently follow it up to the hostel where he will be welcomed. In fact, he has to show his pilgrim card and the hostel owner will put the stamp of his Albergue on it. Then he will give him a place to sleep and introduce him to other guests. For pilgrims who are travelling alone until then it is the best moment to make acquaintances and to get from other fellow pilgrims a plaster for blisters and fresh confidence for the rest of the pilgrimage. Bed time begins early and also ends very early. Pilgrims become gradually accustomed to following the natural rhythm. It is the custom to sign the visitors’ book before leaving. And anyone who has the opportunity to have a look at this book should do it. He will find hundreds of signatures and notices, sometimes emblazed with drawings by people from all over the world who have transformed the small Extremadura’s Albergues into meeting places of the big, wide world.
Pilgrimage hostels are also worth visiting, even if one is not making a pilgrimage. Pilgrims from all over the world enjoy telling about their experiences and about the reason that induced them to give up for weeks almost everything that makes life easier. And who knows, maybe you can be convinced too to undertake a pilgrimage to Santiago after one of these discussions.
A maybe sixty-year-old Dutchman has been travelling by bicycle from Seville to Santiago for weeks. He told during a short break in Monfragüe that he felt like having to go away. That is why he has begun with the northern and now the southern St. James Way to Santiago. The lovely scallop at his handlebar bag identifies him as a pilgrim on his way to the Basilica in Galicia.
Martin Schweikl, from Burghausen, is sitting in a hostel at Torremejia, a village located about 15 kilometres south of Merida. This friendly man from Upper Bavaria is making the pilgrimage because he has time and wants to spend it rationally. He is travelling alone today. But before then he journeyed together with an Australian who he had to leave behind because of foot pains. The pilgrimage hostel of Torremejia hosts not only pilgrims but also a small café downstairs called the Palacio de Lastra.
Laura and Ros Cisholm, from Vancouver, Canada, wanted a one-off experience together as mother and daughter and therefore followed the recommendation of a friend. They spend the night in the Albergue of Aljucen, located a day’s hike northwards from Merida. They have a dinner in the wonderfully furnished country house La Boveda, which is run by two sisters and where the garden contains plenty of artworks of all kinds. Both of them will be on their way the next day, influenced by the scallop on the silver road.