The Ruta de la Plata or Vía de la Plata is the second most important long-distance itinerary in Spain after the Camino de Santiago, specifically, the Camino Francés, the French Way. It is an enticing route for walkers or cyclists (mountain bikes, not touring bikes), especially those who have already followed the Way of Saint James or baulk at its sometimes oppressively Catholic connotations, or who simply seek a less transited road to follow. Rather than following highways and roads as the Camino Francés and other variants of the Camino de Santiago do, much of the Vía de la Plata runs over unspoilt, open countryside where not a soul is to be seen, and you should take good note of the first words of advice always offered: carry lots of drinking water.
The Vía de la Plata is a Roman road, in fact the longest and best preserved in Spain. It was built from the second century B.C. onwards and originally connected Mérida in Estremadura with Astorga in Leon. The modern Ruta de la Plata extends northwards up to Oviedo in Asturias and southwards down to Seville (GR 100 – GR denominates a long-distance hiking route – even reaches Gijón in the north and Cádiz in the south). Like all Roman roads, its first purpose was military, though it has always had important commercial implications, and in the Middle Ages it became associated with the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, being used by the Christians of Muslim-ruled Andalusia for the northward leg up to Astorga, where it intersects with the east-west road to Santiago, or as far as Granja de Moreruela, north of Zamora, from where another route leads north-west to Orense and then Santiago de Compostela across some of the wildest scenery in Galicia. For this reason it is also called the Camino Mozárabe, after the Christians who lived in Andalusia under Muslim rule. In other words, if you travel along it by car, it is the Ruta de la Plata, if you follow the Roman road on foot or bicycle, it is the Vía de la Plata and if you are headed for Santiago, it is the Camino Mozárabe.
The Vía de la Plata follows the old Roman road faithfully, whereas the Ruta is often wrongly identified with the A-630 highway from Seville to Gijon (and you will even see the term “Ruta Via de la Plata,” particularly to refer to newly invented parts of the route). The second half of its name is uncertain only in its etymology. A few still say that it is related with “plata” meaning silver, and refers to the Conmarca de la Plata, a county in the province of Seville where this metal was mined, or the silver mined in and brought north from the province of Huelva. Others say it comes from the Latin “platea” (public highway), or that it might even derive from the Ancient Greek “platys” (broad). These days, the most extended theory, particularly among Spaniards, is that its etymology is actually Arabic and that it derives from the word “balata” (paved road). You don’t have to believe them – admittedly, it makes sense if you say it aloud to yourself two or three times successively, but Spaniards often take an odd nationalistic pride in their Moorish history (odd, when you consider how fiercely they have rejected Moorish ways at particular moments in the past).
Partly because of the confusion between the Ruta and the Vía de la Plata, and partly because its contemporary relevance is slight, if you ask locals for directions the guidance you receive may well not be reliable – to many of them, the Roman road is no more than the camino viejo, the old road. In addition, these are solitary ways, where you may well walk for hours without meeting a single soul, and if you add to that the fact that the Vía de la Plata often coincides with vías pecuarias, mediaeval sheep-driving routes, but that some of these may lead you away from the route, well – you had better take a map. Like Spanish walking routes in general, much of GR 100 is indicated by arrows and other markings of different colours, especially yellow, but take a map, anyway.
The association between the Vía de la Plataand the Camino de Santiago means that there is a tradition now being revived of hospitality to pilgrims along the route, and many towns and villages along the way have places reserved for putting them up for the night, including “sports centres, schools, council premises, courts, etc.” If you ask for the “local para peregrinos,” you will probably be told where to find the person with the key.
Towns and Cities
From south to north and considering only the Via de la Plata in its strictest sense, the most important towns and cities it passes through or skirts are:
Mérida – important Roman remains.
Cáceres – historic university town.
Plasencia – lovely city with a fabulous historic centre.
Béjar – small town which was an important trade centre in the Middle Ages. Possesses possibly the oldest bullring in Spain (1667).
Salamanca – one of the great cities of Spain.
Zamora – sleepy provincial capital .
Benavente – has one of the most emblematic castles in Spain.
Astorga – historic city with a surprising bishop’s palace, designed by Antonio Gaudí.
For all the appeal of the Roman remains, churches and other architectural attractions and quaint towns and villages, the real star of the Vía de la Plata is the scenery through which it passes and the wildlife you may see on the way. From unspoilt Estremadura up to rugged León, these are lands which seem no more than semi-inhabited, domains of birds and animals rather than people. On the negative side, some travellers complain of unfortunate encounters with packs of wild dogs, and you should also be aware that fighting bulls are bred and raised in these parts, though you are unlikely to be at any risk from them: bulls are almost always grazed together with cows, in the company of which they are surprisingly and touchingly docile.
To point out only the highlights for those with an archaeological bent, Mérida has a fabulous collection of Roman remains, including an amphitheatre, a circus and much more, and its Roman Museum is one of the most interesting and best designed in Spain. Along the route itself, you will often find yourself treading the actual bed of the Roman road, clearly identifiable though unsurprisingly worn and overgrown. What is more, a section of a little over a kilometre has been reconstructed north of Baños de Montemayor, in turn north of Caceres. Roman milliarii (I think that is the right plural for “milliarium“), 2-metre high columns (or their remains) are commonplace – they served as milestones, as well as commemorating the emperor responsible for their erection. The bridges along the roads, too, are likely to be of Roman construction, the most spectacular, though not necessarily the most appealing, being that at Merida over the River Tagus and the one at Salamanca over the Tormes. And at Cáparra in Plasencia, excavations of a Roman waystation and town are ongoing and the road actually passes underneath an intact Roman arch.
Monasteries and churches
There are any number of ecclesiastical buildings of interest along the Way, Romanesque architecture being especially well represented, and you will find something worth seeing in practically every town or village. The church at Santa Marta de Tera in the province of Zamora is noteworthy for its small 11th century figure of St James, bizarrely depicted as a pilgrim to his own tomb. Poorly signposted from the road from Cañaveral to Galisteo there is what is said to be the smallest monastery in the world, the Convento del Palancar.