Via de la Plata: Pilgrims’ Walk from Seville to Leon
Another pilgrimage route in Spain leading to Santiago de Compostela is the Via de la Plata. This route goes south to north, from the Andalusian capital of Seville to Leon, where it merges with the well-known and well-trodden Camino Frances.
Via de la Plata’s name translates to “the Silver Way” but it has nothing to do with the extraction or trade of this precious metal. The plata in its name most likely originates from the Latin platea (“wide road”) or the Arabic ballatta (“road”).
It is an ancient Roman causeway which has been used by Roman legions, the Islamic forces advancing into northern Spain, and by the Spanish themselves during the Reconquista to recapture territory. Following Spanish victory, the route was used once again by Christian devotees making their way to St. James’ shrine.
Although not as famous as the Camino Frances, the Via de la Plata has its own tranquil charm. The path, which goes through the scenic rural countryside, has fewer villages and may make it attractive to travellers who wish to walk a quieter, less-trodden route.
It is also undoubtedly rich in heritage as three of the seven towns on the Silver Way are included in the list of UNESCO Heritage sites—Mérida (listed in 1993), Caceres (1986), and Salamanca (1988). Seville, on its own, has three UNESCO Heritage sites listed in 1987.
Travellers can’t ask for a better starting point for their journey. Founded as the Roman city Hispalis and now the capital of the Andalusia region, the lively and disarming city of Seville is itself a popular tourist destination. Forming a monumental complex in the heart of Seville are the three UNESCO Heritage sites: the Seville Cathedral with the Giralda minaret, the Alcázar (fortress), and the Archivo de Indias.
The Seville Cathedral is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world with its Giralda tower standing at 96 meters. Once an Almohad mosque, it was turned into a Catholic Cathedral following the Reconquista in 1248 and now holds the remains of Juan of Aragon, son of Ferdinand and Isabella, and Christopher Columbus. The Alcázar (fortress) of Seville, imbued with Moorish influences, is the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe. The Lonja, which became the Archivo de Indias (General Archive of the Indies), contains valuable documents illustrating the reach of the Spanish Empire in the Americas and in Asia.
Crossing the bridge over Guandalquivir River, the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula, travellers entering Santiponce can view the 14th century San Isidoro del Campo Monastery, listed by Spain as a Historic Artistic Site of National Interest (Bien de Interés Cultural) in 1872. Built on the site of a Mozarab hermitage, it was said to be where San Isidoro was buried until he was moved to Leon in 1063.
Just 10 kilometres (or 6 miles) outside Seville, directly on the route of the Via de la Plata, lies the ruins of the ancient Roman settlement of Italica, with beautiful mosaic floors and an impressive and well-preserved Roman theatre. Founded in 206 BC, Italica was the birthplace of two Roman emperors, Trajan (born 53 AD) and his nephew Hadrian (76 AD).
Travellers will continue on to Zafra, sitting at the foot of the mountains of the Sierra de Castellar. Zafra is dominated by two interconnected squares, the Plazas Grande and Chica, and its 15th century Alcázar, once used by the Dukes of Feria and now restored and converted into a hotel (the Parador de Turismo). Zafra shares architectural similarities with Seville, and is often referred to as “La Sevilla Chica” or “little Seville”.
To enter Mérida, travellers will take the Puente Romano, an important Roman bridge built in the first century over the Guadiana River. The granite bridge stretches nearly a kilometre (or half a mile) and is supported by 60 arches. Mérida, the capital of the Extremadura region, was established by the Romans on the banks of the river at an important junction linking Salamanca with Italica. Its modern name is derived from its Roman title “Emerita Augusta”, after the Emperor Augustus. The strong Roman influences are very apparent in the city, from the bronze sculpture of Remus and Romulus suckling a wolf at the far end of the Puente Romano, to the Roman theatre built for an audience of 6,000 still standing in this modern city.
Connected to the theatre through a tunnel is the Amphitheatre, which once witnessed gladiatorial combat and chariot races during the city’s days as a Roman territory. Another well-preserved Roman monument to visit is the Roman Circus of Merida, which used to house 30,000 spectators. Near the river is the archaeological area of Moreria, which gives travellers an idea of the evolution of the city from Roman to modern times.
Travellers can walk from Merida to Proserpina along the aqueduct called Los Milagros (“the miracles”) because of its impressive construction.
The 10-km aqueduct was used to transport water from the Proserpina dam, an earth dam built by the Romans in the 1st century, to Merida. The earth dam was so exquisitely built that it still stands today.
From Mérida, travellers move on to Caceres, with a rich history reflected in the blend of Roman, Islamic, Gothic, and Italian Renaissance styles in its architecture.
Originally a Celtic settlement, it was occupied by the Romans and named “Castra Caeclii” after one of its commanders. Its name is derived from the Arabic “Al Qazris”, the title bestowed by the Moorish forces who took over the city after the Romans.
Travellers can view the vast collections inside Museo de Caceres. The museum is housed inside Casa de las Veletas (House of the Weather Vanes), a 16th century palace built on the site of a Moorish fortification, of which only the cistern (underground freshwater reservoir) remains.
The city’s religious centre is the Caceres Church Cathedral of Santa Maria, which has a 16th century altarpiece made of cedar and pine wood and dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. It houses the chapel of the crucified Cristo Negro (Black Christ), the highlight of the Catholic procession in Caceres during Holy Week.
Salamanca offers its own, albeit smaller, Puente Romano to visitors entering its city, but despite being less imposing than its Méridan counterpart, Salamanca’s bridge offers an exceptional skyline showcasing the Romanesque towers of its cathedral—a sight for sore eyes (and sore feet). It is home to the oldest university in Spain, the University of Salamanca, founded in 1134, and numerous museums and palatial buildings.
Zamora, formerly the Roman town of Ocellum Duri, has several Romanesque churches and buildings that retained their original features. The Zamora Cathedral is hailed as one of the most important examples of Romanesque architecture in Spain, with its distinctive dome based upon Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia serving as a symbol of the city.
Astorga was established by the Romans in 14 BC as Asturica Augusta. Astorga houses many architectural marvels, one of which is the late 19th century Episcopal Palace designed by the Modernist architect Antoni Gaudi, famous for his design of the Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona. Another is the Astorga Cathedral (Catedral de Santa María de Astorga). Construction of this Gothic cathedral began in the 14th century on top of a Romanesque church, and was not finished until the 18th century, leading to the assimilation of Renaissance and Baroque styles in the cathedral’s architecture, particularly in its west façade and towers.
The Silver Way ends in Leon. Its rich history is mirrored in its wealth of historic buildings. Leon’s Cathedral, the Catedral de Santa María de Regla de Leon, is a masterpiece of French Gothic architecture, and the Romanesque Basílica de San Isidoro is the site of the royal burial chapel and houses the relics of St. Isidore of Seville. Another site to visit is the fortress-like Casa Botines, designed by Gaudi.
Right next to Casa Botines is the the Palace of the Guzamanes, the seat of the provincial government of Leon. We will also visit the Leon Museum, the colourful Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, covered in sheets of glass, and the old convent of San Marcos that is now a stunning luxury hotel, considered to be one of the most important Spanish Renaissance buildings in Spain.
While feasting their eyes on the visual wonders of the route, travellers walking the Via de la Plata can also partake of the unique cuisine the region has to offer. Try fresh food at the marketplaces and get your fill of tapas, jamón ibérico, paella, churros, and wine while you rest your feet during this long journey.