A pilgrim is a wayfarer, a seeker, a traveller on a road of self discovery. As we come to understand everything in life is interconnected and we are not separate from the world we inhabit, a journey physically or metaphorically or both offers an opportunity to encounter a deeper truth. A pilgrimage doesn’t have to be spiritual in the truly religious sense simply a yearning for self-development, a growth toward awareness.
Witnessing the agonizing antics of Buddhist pilgrims prostrating their way to Lhasa or the Muslim millions flocking to Mecca on the “Haj” in Saudi Arabia, clearly pilgrimages are ancient and universal. The “Via” is historically a Christian road, named the silver road and originally a Roman trading route. The Romans are thought to have transported silver from Asturias mines to Cadiz, but “plata” derives from the Arabic word “al–balat” meaning ‘broad surfaced road’. Early Mozarabic (Christian) pilgrims trod the path during the Muslim reign together with travellers from North Africa and it became the major artery from southern Spain to the north.
The Via de la Plata starts in Seville and is an alluring andalucian city with much to offer besides the bitter oranges. A magnificent gothic cathedral squats at the heart surrounded by a heady mix of medieval streets, baroque churches and palaces. Around a 1000 kms north Santiago de Compostela is the final pit-stop, the capital of Galicia and a city steeped in pilgrimage. A city of a thousand years of journeying where 300,000 pilgrims arrive each year and wearily lay their heads, a journey over.
Santiago Apóstol (St James the Apostle, one of Christ’s closest disciples) is believed to have preached in Galicia and after execution in Palestine, his headless body was brought back by stone boat and buried here. King Alfonso II built a church above the holy remains and pilgrims began descending from all over Europe. A more impressive church was erected in the 890s and by the 11th century the pilgrimages along the “Camino de Santiago” and the “Via” became infamous. Over the centuries legends proliferated and at one stage the relics were lost and found, the fortunes of the caminos ebbed and flowed with those of the city and not much was heard about it until a recent renaissance in the 1980s.
Usually trodden in the Spring and Autumn to avoid the searing southern heat the Via offers more of a solitary sojourn and is reputed to be a more authentic camino experience. Those who venture on the silver road tend to be robust and self-reliant. Be prepared for an undulating route with long distances between towns and villages with occasional steep climbs.
Follow the yellow arrow or scallop shell; a potent camino symbol said to have evolved from the story of St James miraculously saving a drowning knight who emerged from the sea covered in shells.
The scallop shell is said to be a metaphor, its lines representing the different routes pilgrims travel from all over the world, all walking trails leading to one point: the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela. Medieval monks wore them and on the journey the shells fulfilled a practical purpose as scoops and bowls for holding food and water. These days painted on rocks, trees, walls and tiles they can be easy to miss, wondrous sights and experiences await so stay alert pilgrims, those shells will help you find your way. Buen Camino.
Gerald Kelly’s Walking guide to the Via de la Plata