Madrid – Segovia – Ávila – Salamanca – Cáceres – Mérida – Zafra – Río Tinto – Huelva – Seville (Spain)
The Ruta, Camino or Via de la Plata has been on our to-do list for ages. An ancient trade route connecting tin mines in the North of Spain with the old Roman centre of Merida, and later Seville in the south, promised a lot of historical places just short rides apart like pearls on a string.
Madrid offered itself as a starting point for a few very good reasons. With Win and Quique, we had friends there that we had wanted to visit for a while. It would also add another few pearls to the string en route to Salamanca.
Win grew up in the same village as Darina, and she gave Darina a ticket to Barcelona many moons ago. In doing so, she changed Darina’s personal biography dramatically and, for sure, not for the worse. Win has since settled down in Spain herself with hubby Quique… and who could blame her!
Madrid itself is a city worth more than the few days we spent there. One of them was spent with Victoria, another well-travelled friend of Darina’s from Barcelona times, who gave us a very enjoyable and informative tour of the city.
Pennys, the Irish budget fashion retailer, has opened a mega store in prime real estate downtown Madrid. It’s absolutely enormous with no less than 131 cash registers and 91 fitting rooms. Judging by the crowds we witnessed on each floor, it’s safe to say that business is booming!
After 3 days of first-class hospitality, we cycled out of town with a dramatic change in weather conditions. It transpired, that we were far too optimistic with our meteorological expectations.
Our first stop was San Lorenzo de El Escorial. Home to an important renaissance-style monastery, which is a UNESCO world heritage site. Actually, most of the towns on this trip are on the UNESCO list, for one reason or another, so we won’t mention it again!
Stage 2 started with an overcast but dry morning and brought us over our first pass. The Puerto de Navacerrada stands at 1858 masl and is also a ski station. Luckily, we were too early for snow, but riding down on the other side left us in a semi-frozen state.
In San Ildefonso we found a tree that sheltered us from a half-hour downpour before rolling into Segovia. The main attraction there is a Roman aqueduct with a height of 28m that sent drinking water over 160 arches of granite blocks into the city.
Then there’s the Alcázar. The castle, built and rebuilt over 2 millennia, was the residence of King Alfonso VIII around 1200. Destroyed badly in a fire in 1862, restorations took 14 years and, on completion, it served as a military college.
The 3rd reason to visit Segovia is their famous cochinillo (suckling pig) that’s served in a number of local restaurants. Quality control ranks highly in the farming and cooking of this delicacy. You know, you’re on to a good thing if it’s so tender that they can carve it with a plate!
After a long day in drizzle along the N110 we reached Ávila. This town has a very photogenic city wall, built between the 11 and 14 centuries, enclosing 31 hectares of city. The sun came out just in time for a city-wall walk.
Ávila was the birthplace of St. Teresa, renowned for her role in the Counter Reformation.
As it happened, we arrived on the eve of her feast day to witness a procession in her honour. Crowds followed her statue, adorned with flowers and candles, as it was carried through town and into the cathedral. The sombre affair was livened up with sudden sporadic cheers from the crowd: Viva!
The gastronomic highlight in Ávila is their chuletón – a seriously big steak fit for any cyclist’s appetite!
Quiet country roads led to Salamanca since most of the traffic is on a parallel motorway.
The next day being the feast day of St Teresa (Oct 15th), we saw a number of processions in neighbouring towns. This time they were complete with local music, traditional costumes and dance. It’s clear that there is great devotion to her in these parts.
In Salamanca, we booked in into a nice little place directly at the entrance to the famous Plaza Major. After a lot of walking and sightseeing, we settled for some exquisite tapas (we did that often!) and then had the freshly-washed plaza all to ourselves!
Here we crossed our first Roman bridge on this trip. After all, we were now on the official Ruta de la Plata.
Salamanca showed great promise with its bicycle lanes, until we ended up face to face with a wall!
This historic trading route also doubled as a drovers’ route (Cañada Real de la Plata) for farmers driving their livestock south.
We did pass a few farms raising black pigs for the pata negra jamon serrano ham. These pigs feast on acorns giving their meat its characteristic flavour. So they stroll leisurely through oak forests until the farmer thinks that they are ready to be killed and cured.
Béjar was our next stop. A small walled place guarding the Puerto de Bejar on the north side (our second pass). The upper adobe walls of the houses are protected here from the prevailing south westerly winds with ceramic tiles, more often used in roofing.
Just above Baños de Montemayor we found a short stretch of original Roman road (or so we like to think).
A little detour brought us to the historic town of Hervás. A stroll through the old Jewish neighbourhood is well worth it.
That afternoon we ended up in Plasencia. Another walled town with a very well-preserved aqueduct. The old and a new cathedral were merged between the 15th and the 18th century and then left slightly unfinished because it had cost enough as it was!
The Ruta de la Plata forms part of the Camino de Santiago for the pilgrims coming from the southern part of Spain. Nowhere near as popular as the Camino Frances, we still saw a few hikers sporting shells on a daily basis.
Cáceres was our next port of call. One of the top 3 medieval old towns in Europe, it really is a bit underrated on a touristic level. Our restored 18th century palace accommodation on the main plaza was a real treat and bargain for just 40€. Throughout the trip, we stayed in pensiones or simple hotels and paid between 40 and 50€ for a double room.
Our 3rd pass, Puerto de las Herrerías, stands at 489 masl! It brought us over to Mérida, where we found another aqueduct, as well as a complete Roman theatre and an Amphitheatre for the gladiators. After a few wonderful Tapas, we enjoyed a fascinating evening tour through the flood-lit ruins.
Mérida‘s old town is sprinkled with Roman remains, and a castle controlling the gate to the 721m Roman bridge. Of course, this changed hands over the years from the Romans to the Moors and then to Spanish control.
We left over said bridge to head south, cutting through the Tierra de los Barros, an extensive wine growing area.
That evening we had a treat in store as we stayed in a parador, a 15th century castle converted into a hotel.
Situated in Zafra, known as the little Seville, we had another fantastic pearl for our string. It was here that we were introduced to Bellota, a liqueur made from the acorns that should feed the black pigs. It’s a pretty unusual, but pleasant concoction on the lines of amaretto, and one that even Darina likes.
Here, we left the Ruta de la Plata for a little detour. It brought us over another couple of hills to Aracena in the Huelva province. The big pull here is the Gruta de las Maravillas, full of stalactites, stalagmites, lakes and rivers. A truly wonderful place (photography prohibited).
Next stop was more of a modern history town. Río Tinto, mining copper since Roman times, has a number of fascinating stories to tell. The open cut mines required the moving of a coule of villages, and have left a few photogenic scars in the landscape. The local water retention lake has amazing cristals of sulphur salts.
We continued on an old converted railway line to where the Río Tinto turned into a tidal flat. Swifts flew low with open beaks feeding in the insect-dense air, while loads of storks foraged in the mud.
After 10 days of very mixed weather, we were very happy to finally exchange our rain gear for sunblock!
In La Rábida, Win hosted us again, this time in their holiday home. La Rábida was the starting point for Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the new world. A nice park, hero’s column and 3 replica ships underline the historical importance of this little place.
Apart from very creative and tasty tapas, we also had some fabulous parrilladas (barbeques) on this trip. From a culinary point of view, the Camino de la Plata gets top marks for variety, quality and quantity!
Our plan to cycle Doñana Natural Park on the beach from Matalascañas to Sanlúcar started well! Calculating 4 hours for the 35km stretch, we left in good time to arrive before high tide.
What we didn’t take into consideration was how soft the sand would be. About 15km down the beach, the cops advised us against it and José Luís, a local ranger, gave us a lift back. Starting time should be 1.5 hours before low tide We’ll know for the next time!
With an apartment already booked in Seville, we turned to Plan B, and reached Seville via El Rocío and Almonte.
El Rocío is like something from the wild west. Horses are the main means of transport on the dirt streets, and all the bars and houses have a horse rail out front. Not a car in sight! The huge central basilica is dedicated to la Virgin del Rocío, and it is an important pilgrimage destination especially during the annual festival, when the town turns into a mad carnival.
From Almonte to Seville we had a last pleasant ride through olive groves, vineyards, pine forests and small towns.
Seville. The secret is out. Luckily for us, we had seen the sights before, without the crowds, so we spent our time enjoying leisurely strolls through the town that Kurt likes to think of as a base camp for retirement. Incidentally, top marks to Seville for their extensive network of bicycle lanes.
Our stay coincided with the feast of the Virgin de la O. Now, this was a serious festival! The virgin was carried from her church in a magnificent procession to “visit virgins in all the surrounding churches.” The world and its granny was out for the occasion and the streets of the Triana neighbourhood were packed for hours in anticipation of her arrival.
There was also time for a flamenco concert along the river, before riding to the airport, packing our bikes and flying home.
Although October was a bit late in the season for the first part of the trip, we thoroughly enjoyed the ride. We had wonderful accommodation for reasonable prices, the food was generally excellent, and there were even a few speciality beers for Kurt. The locals were all very friendly, helpful and informative.
This was definitely a trip where the ratio between energy input and rewards were heavily in our favour. With so many options for quiet country roads or bicycle routes, it would also lend itself as a splendid introduction into bicycle touring. Go for it!