Spain – ‘Travelling the Silver Way’, Great Journeys Ruta de la Plata
From the Andalusian warmth of Seville to the cold waters of the Cantabrian Sea, the ‘Ruta de la Plata’ is one of Spain’s great journeys
Looking out there is nothing but the silvery grey sea, stretching to a distant horizon; whilst above me, casting a huge shadow is a colossal yet elegantly curved structure of concrete some eight metres above my head. Immense in size and weight, yet somehow it is just suspended there, framing a view of ever changing light.
I’m standing beneath Eduardo Chillida’s modern sculpture ‘Elogio del Horizonte’ (Eulogy to the Horizon) on Spain’s Cantabrian Coast. It’s a modern landmark in the historic port of Gijón and this moment of tranquillity, whilst admiring the view and this striking sculpture, marks the end of my trip. A journey that took me through some of Spain’s most beautiful scenery and remarkable UNESCO World Heritage sites that punctuate the ancient ‘Ruta de la Plata’.
South to North
It started in Andalucía, as I began to follow in the footsteps of the Romans that established a road that connected the south of the peninsula at Seville through valleys, between mountains and across plains to the Spanish northern coast here at Gijón. The ‘Silver Route’ is one of Europe’s early trading and pilgrimage ways, linking the Bay of Biscay in the north with the mighty Guadalquivir river in the south. This historic way threads together some of Europe’s most beautiful cities, pearls in the architectural and cultural history of the Iberian peninsula.
Spain’s ‘Silver Route’ provides a wonderful structure for a holiday of discovery; usually as a self drive or fly/drive. Within a week to ten days one can see a great deal, although many people revisit the route, discovering different portions in greater detail. There are some iconic Parador Hotels along the route, most in historically significant buildings, together with both hip and quaint boutique hotels, making it easy to plan a flexible itinerary.
Developed over thousands of years, it is not exactly clear how the route got its name. At first it was thought to be referring to the silver mined in both Andalucía in the south, and also in Asturias in the north, but now historians believe the name ‘plata’ evolved from a corruption of the Arab name for paved or wide road.
The journey from Andalucía’s capital Seville, through Zafra to the former Roman Iberian capital city of Mérida is a pleasure by car; the motorway is new and the scenery is of rolling countryside and oak forests.
Almost like an open-air Roman museum Mérida, the capital city of Extremadura, offers surprises at every turn. I don’t think any other city in Spain can boast so many Roman monuments. Walk out of a small café and suddenly you will be confronted by a Roman temple, and then a Roman Triumphal Arch. Then tucked around a corner from a shabby apartment block you discover one of Europe’s finest Roman Circus’. Yet, in my mind, the most impressive place is the Roman Theatre that remains a remarkable centre piece to the city’s contemporary arts and live music scene.
The next World Heritage City in the route is Cáceres, a little further north. Here you find a fairytale style walled city with fortified towers. The old town combines Roman and Arab architecture with romantic Renaissance churches and palaces; all remarkably intact.
Depending on your schedule and available time, Trujillo is also worth a visit; a stunning medieval town of aged sandstone buildings, cobbled streets and a main square that’s a perfect place to enjoy a glass of wine and soak up the atmosphere.
Having arrived in the region of Castile & León, one is in the heart of medieval Spain; a land of knights and conquerors. A modest extension to the silver route will easily take you through some of the most striking cities of the Iberian Peninsula. For example, Segovia is a seductive mix of fantasy castle architecture, medieval streets and of course that world famous Roman aqueduct.
Ávila is built on a huge rock outcrop. It dominates the landscape like a story book citadel. Some 88 towers punctuate the ancient walls protecting a huge number of palaces and churches, as well as narrow streets and the huge gothic, 800 year old cathedral. Considered to be the first gothic cathedral in Spain, the building looks more like a fortress than a church, with its battlements and sturdy towers.
Yet most don’t come here for the architecture, but instead for the region’s gourmet delicacy, ‘cochinillo asado’ or roast suckling pig. The waiter brings it to your table on a huge platter and theatrically divides and serves it with merely the edge of a plate, as a demonstration of its tenderness.
Heading on I reached Salamanca, one of Europe’s finest university cities; a rich extravagant mix of Roman, Arab, Gothic, Baroque and ornate Renaissance buildings and impressive squares that resonate with the energy and vibrancy of a university city.
As you reach the end of the route, hopefully also having had time to explore the Romanesque cities of Zamora & Astorga; the splendour of Léon and the culture of Oviedo, one is truly intoxicated by all the architecture and history of this great journey.
Yet this extraordinary trip is more than just an architectural history lesson; it’s a fascinating and inspiring insight into the diverse cultures of Spain. From the passion of Andalucía to the kingdoms and castles of medieval Iberia. Each region boasts a strong gastronomic identity, from the tapas of Seville, the hearty stews and roast game from the heart of Spain, to the seafood and fish of the north; all complemented by distinct wines that reflect the regions.
Now standing looking out at the Bay of Biscay and the Cantabrian Sea, reflecting on this great journey, it’s hard to believe that in such a short time I’ve not only travelled the length of the Iberian Peninsula, but I have also travelled through time, through the rich historical landscape of Spain’s ancient cities and kingdoms.
©COPYRIGHT ANDREW FORBES