Hola. This is Barbara, your curator of cultural Hispanic news. After the Easter break, I am back with a recollection of memories from the Via de la Plata. My husband and I took 10 days off to do a tiny stretch of the longest of all Spanish «caminos» that leads to Santiago de Compostela. Come and read what we did.
Stopover in Madrid
We started on April 8th with a late flight from Zurich to Madrid where we stayed at the Sleep’n’Atocha hotel. It is really close to the Atocha train station and close to many nice restaurants and bars. Despite its supercentral location we could sleep without getting disturbed. We met a friend from Madrid for dinner. We also chose the hotel because we really had to get up early for our AVE train to Sevilla. Otherwise, we would have stayed with friends in Alcalá de Henares.
Getting train tickets to the South had been the first challenge because it was that weekend of the year when almost all of Madrid leaves the city to visit family somewhere else. Traffic experts call it la «operación salida de Semana Santa». Most trains had been booked out before we left Switzerland, but we found seats on one that left quite early; but they were as expensive as the flight tickets.
Sightseeing in Seville
We spent the weekend sightseeing in Seville. We stayed at the cozy Nomad Hotel, just 15 minutes away from the old town. Recommendable, especially the roof terrace! We reached every location, we visited (Cathedral, Giralda, Alcázar, Barrio Santa Cruz, Puente de Triana, Plaza de España, bus and train stations) by walking. We also saw the first processions of Semana Santa passing by. So, there was no chance to hop on a bus or tram anyway.
All traffic had to adjust to the procession schedules. It was a great and strange experience watching people solemnly carrying figures of the virgin Mary and scenes from the via crucis while an excited and noisy public applauded them, chatting around and having some snacks. A majority of attendants was very well dressed as if they were going to a formal wedding. We found locals who were happy to explain to us the details of what was going on. In some cases, they complemented their explanations with a slightly embarrassed «¡Es mucha tradición!».
The atmosphere of these processions can be summarised in one sentence: ¡Ha vuelto la alegría! (Joy is back). It was very emotional to see people resume these traditions of Semana Santa after two years of pandemic. However, I will watch out and see how Covid incidents in Spain will change over the next weeks because streets were really packed.
Booster start: From Seville to Monesterio by bus
On Monday, we took a bus to Monesterio, the starting point of our hike. We stayed at the hostel El Pilar which was okay, but nothing special. Monesterio seems to be an important place for ham and pork meat, which is not that interesting to us from a culinary point of view. We met very friendly people at the local church who were decorating the images of Jesus and Mary and make them ready to be taken out to the streets.
From Monesterio to Fuente de Cantos
We started our hike after a rainy night with a cloudy sky and low temperatures. Luckily, we managed to reach our destination Fuente de Cantos in dry conditions and relaxed at a bar in the center of the small town. When we left the bar, it was raining like crazy so we had to take out our rain coats to get safely to our hotel rural La Fábrica. It’s a regional project, EU-funded, too, to bring more tourism to this region. Very nice rooms, big bathrooms. Because of the rain we decided to have dinner right at the restaurant of the hotel.
From Fuente de Cantos to Zafra
The next morning started foggy, but skies cleared up and we could enjoy the spring landscape. We reached Zafra in the late afternoon, much later than expected because the GPS tracks that we had downloaded led us to a sign saying “no trespassing”. Somehow the camino must have changed. Another pilgrim later told us that he had encountered the same problem. Therefore, we had to take the main road through the industry quarter to enter Zafra. I suffered a bit during the last hour and wished a procession would pass by and put me on one of their pasos (this is the name of the floats that are used to carry around the images and scenes), but actually it was the only day without procession.
Despite this final phase through a business park area, many stages of the Via de la Plata are really lonely. Often, there are no other villages in between the start and finish of our daily stages. Therefore, we often carried drinks and food with us.
We loved Zafra and were happy we had decided to take a day of rest there. We stayed for two nights and enjoyed the luxury of the local parador, the old alcázar of Zafra. If you go there, climb up to the merlons in the evening to get spectacular views of the town or watch the local brass band rehearsing for a procession.
We can also recommend the guided visits organised by the tourist information. Since it was Semana Santa, we also visited the chapel San José during this tour where a leading member of the organising fraternity answered our questions while his colleagues were continued to work on the pasos so they could safely be taken out for the procession in the evening. By the way, the chapel used to be the former synagogue of Zafra.
From Zafra to Villafranca de los Barros
Recharged, we continued our camino and reached Villafranca de los Barros in the late afternoon. Even though all hikes were technically easy, the lengths of the individual hikes require respect and stamina, and in my case stronger back muscles. Although I was travelling with 5 kg of luggage, my back was hurting. I'll have to strengthen these muscles for the next tour and maybe invest in a lighter backpack, too.
In Villafranca de los Barros, we stayed at the Casa Perin, almost at the end of town. It is a wonderful little hostel where you immediately recognise that the landlady is doing a good job with great attention to detail. We had dinner at the restaurant of the hotel Diana with a Czech pilgrim from Brussels who works for the EU. We talked geopolitics and finance.
Arriving in Mérida
In the morning, we took the bus to Torremejía because we had not time for another hike of 26 kms, which is the distance between Villafranca de los Barros and Torremejía. Thanks to this shortcut, we managed to reach Mérida in the afternoon. It is usually gorgeous to enter Mérida by crossing the old Roman bridge over the Guadiana river, but when you have to look for a restroom you cannot really enjoy that moment. Anyway, after a break for physical relief, we happily arrived at the Parador. Mérida is a very intriguing town, with few foreign tourists. As the former capital of the Roman province of Lusitania, it is, however, a prominent national tourist destination. We got a ticket that serves all archeological sites (ask for the «entrada conjunta») and visited the most important archeological sites. We also got back to the Roman bridge to enjoy its impressive construction with more ease. With respect to eating, I’d like to recommend the vegetarian restaurant Shangri-la just in the heart of the city. We had a delicious lunch there on Sunday afternoon. They also have vegan options.
On Monday morning, April 18th, we got back to Madrid via Puertollano, where we had to change trains. In Madrid, we did a quick visit to the Prado (Did you know that you get free entrance if you can prove that you work as a profesor?), had lunch with a friend, and hopped on the airport train 203 from Plaza de Cibeles to Terminal 2. We got home before midnight, pleased and tired from an exciting trip that was perhaps more touristic than soul searching, but is there anything more inspiring than happy people in a beautiful landscape? We feel blessed.
I also published a Twitter thread with the daily highlights of our «camino»:
If you are interested in learning more about the logistics of this trip, please, let me know.
I will be back with more stories in about two weeks.