Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Hitting the pilgrim trail in Andalusia

Having conquered the historic route once trodden by medieval pilgrims across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, Jonathan headed south to explore Andalusia's Vía de la Plata.

It was not our first pilgrimage in Spain. Four years previously, three of us had walked the historic route once trodden by medieval pilgrims across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela. This time, however, we intended to explore the Vía de la Plata or Road of Silver which wends its way through Andalusia.

The silver in its title reflects the tonnes of precious metals which flooded into the region from the New World. It was the bounty of the returning conquistadores who landed in Cádiz and deposited their new-found wealth in their home villages before continuing northwards to the shrine of St James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostella.

After collecting our pilgrims "passports" from the cathedral rectory in Seville, we left the winding streets and heavily fruit laden orange trees of the charming southern town behind us. Our walk started in earnest at Buillena, just outside the city. We soon found ourselves on a cart track which wound gently uphill and passed the first of many deserted castles.

The countryside was a pastel patchwork of wild flowers. Carpeting the ground between groves of olive trees and holm oaks were wild lavender, Jerusalem sage and fragrant rosemary, while above our heads the etiolated silhouettes of black and white storks rode the thermals high above us in relentless circles.

Our first stop was Castel Blanco, no longer a castle as such, but a check-in point where our passports were officially stamped as proof of travel. Here we met up with our motorised support team -of long-suffering partners.

From there we progressed on towards Almadén and the "wasp inside the shorts" incident, which resulted in much flapping of clothing and unpilgrimlike language. Undeterred, we continued on to the El Real de la Plata which runs through the cork woods of Extremadura.

Until then the trail had been clearly marked every few hundred metres or so by yellow arrows daubed on walls, stones or trees along the side of the path. As we traversed a large private housing estate these arrows disappeared, however. After much furrowing of brows, consultation of maps and unsuccessful aligning of compasses, we were finally forced to consult our GPS gismo. This immediately locked onto several satellites and gave a mind-bogglingly detailed map reference.

The trouble, it seemed, was that harvesting the bark off the cork trees had also resulted in the removal of several arrows, but we were soon back on a track and wending our way through the wood. When we finally spotted the first fresh arrow in several kilometres, we fell upon it with the relish of botanists discovering a rare plant.

The following morning the weather was cloudless but cool as we emerged from a holm-oak forest inhabited by snuffling black pigs to be greeted by another ruined castle. This time the Castillo de Torres, spectacularly silhouetted in a field of poppies on the other side of a stream. Beneath our feet the track continued, dazzlingly white in the sunshine, towards the Monastery.

A day later we were in Fuente de Cantos and the centre of a seriously chilly cold snap. For days the weathermen had been forecasting a fall of late snow. But we had remained singularly unconvinced. With our breath crystallising in the air in front of us, fleeces and anoraks were hastily donned to ward off the bitter north wind as we set off once more to Zafra.

There we picked up a new team-member - a dachshund from the railway sidings in to town, who attached himself to our party and despite efforts to dislodge him, even trailed us round the local supermarket. Eventually we shook him off, but Zafra had so much to offer that we decided to avail ourselves of the free tour offered by the Tourist Office. Under a cold, mizzling rain we traipsed around plazas, chapels, a fortress and the family chapel of the Dukes of Feria, followed by much hot coffee to combat the chill.

Leaving Zafra sleeping in Mayday sunshine we entered the Barros region a land of vines, olive groves and almond or peach trees. An evening side trip took us to Villa Alba, then Feria, where we watched a cross being decorated in preparation for a local fiesta before heading up to catch a stunning sunset from a ruined castle perched high above the village.

From Villafranca we followed a stretch of Roman road, which cut, straight as a die, through the geometrically planted vines to the town of Almendralejo. We'd been under the misapprehension that this was some sort of Spanish Shangri La, but sadly this was not the case. The heavily industrialized center of wines and olive oil did provide us with our first paella of the journey, however, and that was to be the group's the best memory of our rain-drenched visit.

Our next destination, Mérida, could not have been more different. It is hard to believe that the Romans have been so long gone. The remains of their low, multi-spanned bridge over the river and predictably impressive amphitheater and forum seem to have been abandoned by them only yesterday. Still resident, as they probably were a 1,000 years ago, are the storks which nest precariously on the remaining pillars of the ancient aqueduct.

Outside Caceres the weather improved dramatically and we approached the town in warm sunshine. On the outskirts, our way was blocked by 450 bleating sheep. I didn't count them, that information was provided by their friendly shepherd whose face was as gnarled as the hand I shook on leaving.

From beautiful Cáceres, we crossed a high plain in evaporating morning mist, as vultures, bee-eaters and storks circled above. In a field of corn beside the track a great bustard rose majestically like a startled swan.

That evening we made a memorable side trip to Trujillo - birthplace of of the conquistador Pizarro, whose equestrian statue towers over the main square, and home to silver screen hero Maximus in the Ridley Scott epic Gladiator.

Our path took us next to Cañaveral, then on past a series of large reservoirs to Galisteo. On the final 28-kilometre stretch we could see snow-capped mountains in the distance to the north. Near midday as we followed a fence, we noticed cows on the other side, plus a large, black bull which stood square across our path. The bull roared and pawed the ground with a forefoot - an attitude worryingly reminiscent of those seen in bullfights - before lowering his head and practising a few matador-tossing movements with his head. We beat a tactical retreat, one of our group vainly clutching two walking sticks a la bandillero, and battle was avoided by a wide flanking movement.

At Galisteo our 275-kilometre pilgrimage came to an end for the time being, with the remaining 600 kilometres to Santiago to be finished at later date...

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