A report I wrote for a Swiss newspaper about my experiences on the Via de la Plata – one of the most beautiful Caminos de Santiago ever!

“I will survive!” Gloria Gaynor’s hit rattles through a suburban café on the outskirts of Santiago de Compostela, Spain. “I will survive:” the lyrics fit. We have walked 1000 kilometers across the Iberian Peninsula. A blistering grind. It’s only a few ridiculous kilometers to go, but instead of being happy, we’re sad. The last five weeks have been too good; it could go on like this. We sweeten the melancholy of farewell with chocolate con churros, hot chocolate with greasy fried dough. Soul food.

The Via de la Plata – An Alternative to the Camino Francés

We are on the Via de la Plata, the Silver Way, one of many pilgrimage ways to Santiago. The Via de la Plata goes from Seville in Andalusia to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, the most important pilgrimage destination for Christians after Jerusalem and Rome. In 1985, Unesco awarded the city with 100,000 inhabitants the title of World Heritage Site. The bones of James the Greater, one of Jesus› twelve apostles, are said to be buried here. From a historical point of view, this is questionable, but it does not detract from the 1200-year tradition. Pilgrims have long hoped for miraculous healing and forgiveness of sins. The latter still exist – provided you are of Catholic faith. (See my texts about the history of the pilgrimage here)

Everything you need fits into a backpack. Pure freedom!

Today pilgrims, meaning-seekers, and gap-year kids cavort along the Way of St. James. In 2014, over 230,000 people sought salvation by walking to Santiago. But while 70 percent drag themselves here via the 800-kilometer-long popular Camino Francés from the French Pyrenees, variants of the Way of St. James such as the Via de la Plata are hardly known. Only 8,000 die-hards sought authentic pilgrimage experiences on the Silver Way last year.

Walking 1000 kilometers – A Backbreaking Job

The Via de la Plata is not for the faint-hearted: 1000 kilometers, 40 degrees in the shade, 32 days. We have the same routine every day for almost five weeks: get up, hike, breakfast, hike, lunch, siesta, hike, look for a place to stay, have dinner, sleep. What sounds boring to many is pure relaxation to others. You don’t make many decisions, don’t check emails, just keep walking. Work and career stress dissolve into nothingness. And happiness is sometimes just a shady tree or a pot of pasta. Everything you need fits into a backpack. Pure freedom!

While it can be full of romance and definitely gives you a deep soul massage, the Via de la Plata is also hard backbreaking work, especially when you walk in midsummer. In Andalusia and Extremadura, the land withers in the scorching heat. The black Pata Negra pigs doze in large herds in the shade of the holm oaks, and the fighting bulls, which eye us suspiciously, also suffer.

Having to lug additional liters of water in an already heavy backpack is really tough. Some days we walk more than 35 kilometers to the next hostel. Sometimes we sleep in a former school or a room with the local priest, sometimes a state-of-the-art facility that was financed with EU money. If you would like to beam yourself back to the Middle Ages, knock on the door of a monastery.

A pilgrimage? What good does that do at a time when hardly anyone believes in miracles and divine signs? For us, pilgrimage means: biting through, expanding one’s own limits. It also means asking yourself the question: what is the higher meaning in life? This question is inevitable on the Way of St. James.

Nevertheless, life on the pilgrimage unfolds a special kind of happiness that goes beyond physical exertion. This can be addicting – just like chocolate con churros. We order another portion.

No, we don’t want to arrive at Santiago Cathedral. Because after that regular burnout-prone life returns. But the little Jesus figurine that I received as a gift from a monk in Oseira Monastery grins at me every day as if to say: «You will survive!»

Santiago de Compostela

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