Santiago de Compostela, the 'Jerusalem of the West' was Europe's first tourist destination. Ever since the 9th century, when skeletal relics supposedly belonging to St James (Santiago's namesake) were discovered, people have been flocking here on the premise that the Way of St James pilgrimage cuts in half the time to be spent in purgatory. Walking along one of the many traditional routes that lead here from all over Europe is as popular a journey today as it has ever been. The Via de la Plata is one of the least-travelled of the Ways of St James - an uplifting 1000 km (625 mi) physical and spiritual trek for anyone who would prefer to walk in contemplative solitude rather than socialize with the throngs of wayfarers along the much better known Camino Frances.
It follows the path of the old Roman Road from the orange groves of Seville to the northern market town of Astorga, where it merges with the Camino Francés east-west route. Much of the path is a reminder of how it must have been two thousand years ago, with Roman bridges and ruins, original paving and ancient milestones. You walk across open country of fields and olive groves, woods and moors, passing through some of Spain's most beautiful cities and stopping off at pilgrim refugiós.
The road runs through the hills and plains of the Extremadura taking you to Merida, one of the richest Roman sites in Spain, and Caceres, an intact medieval walled city, through the pastures and highlands of Salamanca, along the Duero River to the Romanesque city of Zamora, and into the verdant woodlands of Galicia. The final triumphant step of your pilgrimage is onto the carved scallop shell inscribed into the pavement of Santiago Cathedral, a ritual that supposedly purges you of your sins.
WHEN TO GO
April to June or September to October. Avoid July and August when the heat is unbearable.
TIME IT TAKES
Six to seven weeks
Merida - Roman ruins.
Caceres - city walls.
Zamora - Romanesque churches.
Salamanca - Plaza Mayor.
Santiago de Compostela Cathedral.
YOU SHOULD KNOW
For the most part, the path is undulating but not too taxing.
However. after you enter Galicia, there are some very steep climbs and descents that require a reasonable level of fitness. Pilgrims often wear a 'uniform' of cloak and wide-brimmed hat and carry a walking stick, a gourd (for drinking from wells) and a scallop shell (the St James pilgrim symbol).