I can’t believe I’ve been home for two weeks! “Real life” still doesn’t feel very real….
I’ve scattered impressions of and information about the route throughout my Vía de la Plata posts, but I thought it would be helpful to bring them together. This covers the Vía de la Plata from Sevilla to Granja de Moruela, and the Camino Sanabrés variant from Granja de Moruela to Santiago, which I walked from April to May, 2011.
I spent 44 days walking, and took five rest days, plus a week in Santiago. Much to my surprise, I could have done the walk in fewer days, but it was nice to be able to take my time—some days, anyway.
The longest stages I had no choice but to do were the 29/30 kilometres on Day 3 from Castilblanco de los Arroyos to Almadén de la Plata, and the 33 kilometers from Casar de Cáceres to Cañaveral. It’s usually possible to break up that last section, though—I was limited because the albergue at the Embalse de Alcántara was closed due to a water shortage.
My few other 30 kilometre-plus stages could have been broken up into shorter stages. However, there are definitely longer gaps between accommodation than on the Camino Francés, and sometimes you have to choose between quite a short day’s walk and a very long one.
Day 1: Sevilla to Guillena (23 km)
Day 2: Guillena to Castilblanco de los Arroyos (18 km)
Day 3: Castilblanco de los Arroyos to Almadén de la Plata (30-ish km)
Day 4: Almadén de la Plata to El Real de la Jara (15 km)
Day 5: El Real de la Jara to Monesterio (22 km)
Day 6: Monesterio to Fuente de Cantos (22 km)
Day 7: Fuente de Cantos to Puebla de Sancho Pérez (21 km)
Day 8: Puebla de Sancho Pérez to La Almazara (17 km)
Day 9: La Almazara to Torremegía (34 km)
Day 10: Torremegía to Mérida (16-plus km)
Day 11: Mérida (0 km)
Day 12: Mérida to Aljucén (17 km)
Day 13: Aljucén to Alcuéscar (21 km)
Day 14: Alcuéscar to Aldea de Cano (16 km)
Day 15: Aldea de Cano to Cáceres (22 km)
Day 16: Cáceres to Casar de Cáceres (11 km)
Day 17: Casar de Cáceres to Cañaveral (33 km)
Day 18: Cañaveral to Galisteo (28-ish km)
Day 19: Galisteo to Oliva de Plasencia (26 km, including 6 off-route)
Day 20: Oliva de Plasencia to Aldeanueva del Camino (I think about 28 km, including 6 off-route)
Day 21: Aldeanueva del Camino to La Calzada de Béjar (22 km)
Day 22: La Calzada de Béjar to Fuenterroble de Salvatierra (20 km)
Day 23: Fuenterroble de Salvatierra to San Pedro de Rozados (28 km)
Day 24: San Pedro de Rozados to Salamanca (24 km)
Days 25 and 26: Salamanca (0 km)
Day 27: Salamanca to El Cubo del Vino (36 km)
Day 28: El Cubo del Vino to Zamora (32 km)
Day 29: Zamora to Montamarta (20 km)
Day 30: Montamarta to Granja de Moruela (23 km)
Day 31: Granja de Moruela to Tábara (25 km)
Day 32: Tábara to Santa Croya de Tera (22 km)
Day 33: Santa Croya de Tera to Ríonegro del Puente (28 km)
Day 34: Ríonegro del Puente to Asturianos (26 km)
Day 35: Asturianos to Requejo de Sanabria (27 km)
Day 36: Requejo de Sanabria to Lubián (18 km)
Day 37: Lubián to A Gudiña (24 km)
Day 38: A Gudiña to Campobecerros (19 km)
Day 39: Campobecerros to Laza (16 km)
Day 40: Laza to Alberguería (13 km)
Day 41: Alberguería to Xunqueira de Ambía (20 km)
Day 42: Xunqueira de Ambía to Ourense (22 km)
Days 43 and 44: Ourense (0 km)
Day 45: Ourense to Cea (22 km)
Day 46: Cea to Castro Dozón (technically 14 km)
Day 47: Castro Dozón to Silleda (28 km)
Day 48: Silleda to Outeiro (24 km)
Day 49: Outeiro to Santiago de Compostela! (16 km)
Pilgrims: Very Rough Statistics
Out of the walking pilgrims I met or heard of, the vast majority were Europeans—German, French, Dutch, Spanish, Danish, Italian, English, Belgian, Irish, Swiss, Hungarian, in more or less numerical order (there were a lot of Germans, and I only met one each from the last four countries). If I included bicigrinos, the number of Spaniards would jump drastically. There were also Americans, Canadians and Australians (also in more or less numerical order), one Japanese man, and a large organized group of Koreans.
The youngest pilgrim I met was 24, and those of us under 50 were definitely in the minority. The vast majority of walkers were retired. (Again the statistics would change if I factored in bicigrinos, who tended to be younger.) I met the greatest number of young pilgrims in the last week. They all seemed to be doing 40-ish kilometre stages.
There were a lot of couples and some other people who’d come with walking partners—in a number of cases they’d met on the Camino Francés years before. But there were also a lot of solo walkers.
More pilgrims seemed interested in solitude than on other routes—even some of the couples had come to spend time alone together. For future reference, spring on the Vía de la Plata isn’t the best time/place for solitude, although if you don’t want to bump into a constant stream of pilgrims, leaving a little late can really help.
A number of people occasionally took taxis, trains and/or buses, either because of injuries, to get to off-route accommodation, because they were running behind schedule, or to skip stretches of the route that ran along the highway.
Several hospitaleros and other people along the way told me there were more pilgrims on the Vía de la Plata than any other year—one specifically said there were a lot more even than last year, which was a Holy Year.
The Pilgrim Office statistics suggest there were actually more pilgrims on the route last year, but I wonder if a much larger number of pilgrims just did the last hundred kilometres or so.
The relatively vast numbers of pilgrims was a problem in terms of albergue beds. It came up as a potential difficulty for me quite near the beginning, and the bed squeeze lasted until somewhere on the Camino Sanabrés. Some people told me the problem was tied to the Semana Santa (Holy Week, when apparently a lot of Spaniards and some other Europeans go on holiday), but there were full albergues after that, too, so I don’t know about the cause and effect there.
I was expecting the competition for beds to become more intense after Ourense—after all, it’s the logical starting place to walk the last hundred or so kilometres. However, it actually seemed quieter after Ourense, possibly because there were variants, like the detour to Oseira.
There was some walking through ugly parts of cities and a few small industrial areas (though nothing as bad as Burgos and León on the Camino Francés). There were gorgeous walks through countryside and along huge reservoirs and in forests (the types of trees changed along the way). And there was everything in between: run-down villages and pretty villages; heavily cultivated land with tractors everywhere and pastureland with crumbling stone walls and the occasional herd of cows or flock of sheep.
I guess the landscape is repetitive, with similar scenery for days at a time, but I enjoyed it.
Of course, this being spring, there were flowers everywhere. I can see how, without them, the landscape would be a lot bleaker.
At the beginning, there were long stretches with no towns or villages. By the end, on the Camino Sanabrés, some of the villages ran into each other, and there was often (but not always) somewhere to stop for coffee every five kilometres or even less.
During the first several days out of Sevilla, I met some other people who had the same English guidebook that I did. We were all surprised to find that there were some serious hills along the route, as our guidebook had led us to believe there were no serious climbs from Sevilla to Astorga.
So for the record: there are some serious climbs on the route. They’re not frequent—it’s nowhere near as difficult as, say, the Le Puy route. But the terrain is often undulating, and some of the climbs and descents are seriously steep. They’re not usually incredibly long, but they can be difficult.
The Camino Sanabrés goes through the mountains, so of course is more difficult, with longer, often steeper ascents and descents.
This was generally at least okay, though it varied quite a bit. Sometimes there were yellow arrows and other signs everywhere. At other times there was little to go on.
Sometimes I really had to look around for the way marks, which might be down low on curbs or up high on houses.
I found that if there was no sign of an arrow, it was generally safe to keep going straight ahead. Also, in Extremadura, I followed the cubical way marks. These didn’t technically show the pilgrimage route, but the yellow ones generally coincided it. The line on top of these shows where the route goes (though it’s not directional like the arrows).
Considering my lack of a sense of direction, I actually didn’t get lost all that often. And when I was lost, or about to become so, there was often someone around to ask.
At the beginning and end of my trip the temperature was in the low 30s Celsius, which when walking in the sun felt incredibly hot. From what I heard, this was warmer (and, at least in Galicia, drier) than usual, although not completely out of the ordinary. Other days started out quite cold: in the mountains on the Camino Sanabrés there was sometimes frost in the mornings.
Rain-wise I was lucky. I had a few awful days with downpours, and several days after that with intermittent downpours or drizzle. But after that, the storms came in the late afternoon or evening after I’d finished walking—making for muddy paths, but at least I didn’t get drenched.
Apart from that, there were some seriously overcast days that were great for walking, and sunny spring-like days that were a bit warmer and prettier.
Although weather can be radically different from year to year, from what I’ve read, the spring still seems the best bet weather-wise, at least if you don’t like insane heat.
I got so much help from local people, who would point me in the direction of albergues, bars, grocery stores, or even the Vía de la Plata itself. Some even escorted me all or at least part of the way to my destination.
In some sections especially, lots of people in cars honked and/or waved when passing, and tons of people wished me “buenos días” or “buen viaje.”
I had some of the most rewarding experiences of my trip when I made a real effort to strike up conversations—with people walking to the next village or people working in stores or bars. I found admiring the area—which I always truly did—was a good icebreaker: “Es muy bonita aquí.” After that, even people who’d seemed abrupt or slightly surly tended to chat.
Which brings us to….
Obviously, the more Spanish you speak, the easier it is to get by. And of course it’s harder to chat—with local people or Spanish pilgrims—without a reasonable command of the language. That said, I met people who spoke very little Spanish and managed to get by.
As far as foreign pilgrims go, English would tend to be the common language, but there aren’t tons of native English speakers. French is a helpful language to know, for speaking with the large numbers of French pilgrims. And while German-speakers tend to speak some English, there would often be large groups of them (and Dutch people, who seem to generally speak some German). So a grasp of German would be helpful to understand a lot of conversations.
Of course, there’s often someone around who’ll translate for you, and a lot of big conversations are a multilingual muddle.
I’d read before I left that dogs could be a serious problem on this route. However, I suspect this information is out of date.
Of course, there’s always a chance of being bitten by a dog anywhere you go, but neither I nor anyone I met had any problems with dogs. The big dogs generally weren’t interested in people walking by. The little ones might get excited and bark, but they were usually behind a fence or on a leash.
For some reason I never understood, I got barked at constantly for two days after Ourense (by dogs behind fences), before barking levels returned to their usual low levels.
There are a lot of streams to cross (and a number of paths that pretty well turn into streams).
I managed to make it across most on stepping stones (sometimes makeshift). Once a stone tipped and I got my foot half-wet, but generally they were manageable—particularly with a stick.
The only time I really had to wade was between Cáparra and Aldeanueva. There were two places with very high water—the stepping stones had been submerged by the first stream, and I couldn’t even see any stones for the second.
Food: This got gradually more expensive as I got closer to Santiago.
I often had yogurt or something bready for breakfast, a cheese and tomato sandwich that I made myself for lunch, and assorted fruit, chocolate, ice cream, orange juice, wine and cafes con leche throughout the day. For dinner I’d generally have more sandwiches or go out.
I could often buy breakfast and lunch at a grocery store for under €5, though closer to Santiago it was often a little more than that. It also helped if I could find someone to split a four-pack of yogurt with, when I wasn’t allowed to buy part of it (usually in small stores they don’t mind if you break it up). Drinks and snacks were usually a euro or two each.
A three-course set meal was generally €8 to €9 at the beginning, and €10 to €11 by the end. A “mixed plate” (usually fries with some combination of salad, meat and eggs) was around €5 or €6. Pre-made sandwiches were anywhere from €3 to €5.
Accommodation: Albergues were sometimes free or donativo. The rest generally ranged from €5 to €12. In Extremadura, there was a stretch with only albergues turísticos, which were usually €10 or €12, often with breakfast for €2. In Galicia, the Xunta de Galicia albergues (and they’re almost all Xunta de Galicia albergues) are €5 and quite nice.
I don’t have nearly as much experience with other forms of accommodation, but towards the beginning, at least, you could generally get a cheap double room for €25 to €30, and a single for €15 to €20. It seemed to get more expensive toward the end—€35 to €40 for a double and €20 or more for a single. Of course, there were often more expensive options (I plan to stay in a parador one day … when I’m rich).
Other: I really didn’t have a lot of other expenses. Sometimes I had to replenish supplies (shampoo, dental floss, blister pads). And then of course there are souvenirs in Santiago. People who took taxis/buses/trains of course had to pay for those.
Theft and Loss
Theft doesn’t seem to be a huge problem, but it does occur. In Castilblanco de los Arroyos, I met a couple who’d had their bikes stolen. In Zamora a woman had her camera and sunglasses stolen from her pack in the albergue. And in Santiago, a man at my albergue had all his valuables stolen while in the cathedral.
As far as losing things goes, I talked a lot at the beginning about worrying about leaving things behind. I gradually stopped being so neurotic (at least in that respect) and in the end, all I lost was a pen, a few safety pins, and a thing of lip balm that someone gave me. This was a serious improvement on my last Camino, when I lost or left behind such important items as a pair of socks, a small bottle of clothes washing detergent, a pair of clip-on sunglasses, and a sweater.
I hope this covers everything. If not, please feel free to add comments or questions.
Oh, and I’ve been meaning to mention this: Wim, with whom I spent a wonderful day on the Vía de la Plata, was walking partly to raise money for Shelterbox, an organization that provides shelter for people who have lost their homes due to natural disasters or other catastrophes. For more information, you can visit his fundraising page. Wim also has posted his beautiful photos from the trip, which show the route from Salamanca.
Also, Hermione, an Englishwoman I met at the beginning of my walk, has almost finished her walk from the Canary Islands to her home in England. I’ve just been going through her blog, and it’s a wonderful read. I even pop up briefly a couple of times.