The first step to beginning the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is obtaining a passport or credential from the Cathedral of Seville. The pilgrim’s credential or accreditation was the document given to pilgrims in the Middle Ages as a safeguard for safe passage. Today, you need this credential to prove that you walked the Camino. It is very important you have your credential stamped each day where you have spent the night or at the village cafe.
The pilgrim’s credential is only for the use of those who will journey the Camino on foot, horseback, or by bike and have a desire to make the pilgrimage with a Christian motivation or in the spirit of searching. It is intended for identification purposes. The issuing organization must be a parish, a confraternity… etc. It has two practical purposes. The first, is admission to hostels which offer Christian hospitality along the way and the second is to obtain the Compostela at the Cathedral of Santiago which certifies that the pilgrimage has been completed.
Day one of my walk began outside the main door of the cathedral. Walking out of Sevilla the first day I was immediately immersed in Roman history. I stopped for a short break at Santiponce which contains the ruins of the ancient city of Italica, the first Roman city in Spain. It was founded in 206 B.C. and was the birthplace of Roman Emperors Trajan and Hadrian, who is best known as the builder of the Hadrian Wall in Britain.
I walked along the old streets of Italica exploring the ruins of the houses and public buildings. I explored the amphitheatre that had a seating capacity of 25,000 and was the third-largest in the Roman Empire. I walked through the tunnels where the gladiators would have walked and stood in the den that housed the lions. This was my first day on the Camino and I was already in awe of the majesty of the past!
After a while I continued back on the trail making my way through the plains and fields of olive trees, orange groves and vineyards to the lovely whitewashed village of Guillena, where I spent my first night on the Camino. The first week on the Camino began by walking through the big open countryside of Andalucia, my first of many Provence’s of Spain.
The first few weeks of my journey to Santiago de Compostela was extremely challenging because of weather. The first seven days walking out of Seville I encountered rain and very cold wind while walking through the Sierra Norte mountains. Rain made the mostly rocky trails very slick and treacherous. The second week I encountered more rain, cold, and a snow storm. As a result, I became sick from hours of being wet, cold and walking all day for two weeks.
Shortly after walking up the very steep Cerro del Calvario in a heavy rain storm at Sierra Norte Natural Park, at a thousand feet I stopped under a tree for a break from the heavy rain storm. I was confronted with how unforgiving the VDLP can be at times. Just 15 feet away from me was a memorial for a pilgrim who died on Cerro del Calvario two years ago. There have been four deaths on the VDLP in just the past few years.
The stages of the VDLP are longer compared to the other Caminos. Some days there will be no food or water available other than what you can carry. Between villages it’s just wide open spaces. There’s really nothing for miles with no resupply of water and food. You must carry more and be prepared for anything. Being out here alone and no one for miles in all directions you do feel some uneasiness.
There were days when I did not see any people till the end of the day when I reached the last village. However, I always felt confident as long as I prepared, starting out in the morning with plenty of water, fruit and a small sandwich. I was aware that if I did need help because of health reasons, or simply forgot to pack enough water, help could come much too late. You don’t want to become distracted or forget something essential. It’s important to focus on getting to the next village safely.
There are many long stretches where you will walk over 18 miles in extreme heat or rain, which requires more planning. The VDLP is a long distance walk and is not for the faint of heart. The pilgrim not already accustomed to doing so, must learn early on to travel light. As such, I continue to evaluate the contents of my pack to determine that what I have is essential. The water and fruit is a must and I have enough medical supplies to keep me alive for 2 months.
On the shorter stages where it won’t be very hot, I take less water which helps reduce the weight of my pack. I don’t think too much about the hundreds of miles ahead of me. Instead, I focus and plan for the day ahead of me to the next village. It’s important to be flexible if it’s getting really hot. Then I stop at a village a few miles from my intended goal for that day, if it’s available. I always plan for the long game. With every mile I become Camino-wise.
On the Camino there is a great deal of history and architecture to be admired which are both Roman and Islamic. There are many UNESCO World Heritage sites on the VDLP that I have explored in just the first few weeks, including the ancient cities of Merida, Careers, Banos de Montemayor, Salamanca and many other ancient villages. Experiencing the Camino is like walking through the Middle Ages every day. There are many of the old churches and large cathedrals still in use each day, more than 800 years later.
Located on the north bank of the Guadiana River, Mérida has been populated since prehistoric times as demonstrated by a prestigious hoard of gold jewelry that was excavated from a girl’s grave. The town was founded in 25 B.C. with the name of Emerita Augusta (meaning the veterans — discharged soldiers — of the army of Augustus, who founded the city).
Mérida is home to the most impressive and extensive Roman ruins in all of Spain. The ruins are scattered all over the city. It is a beautiful town and I felt at home here. It was easy to imagine myself as a Roman walking through the streets, crossing over the long Roman bridge, going to the Roman amphitheater watching the gladiators, and attending the chariot races at the Roman Circus along with 30,000 other romans.
Leaving Mérida on the Camino I was still walking past Roman ruins. There was the Proserpina aqueduct and 1400 foot Proserpina dam which is still in use since the beginning of the first century A.D. These are just a few of the ancient world heritage sites that I visited in my first few weeks. There are many stretches of ancient Roman roads and bridges to be seen as you walk on out in the countryside all along the VDLP. It’s an amazing journey into history.
It’s incredible that it’s still possible to see the medieval walled city of Caceres founded by the Romans in 25 B.C. The remains of the first city walls built by the Romans in the 3rd and 4th centuries still exist. I walked all over the historic quarter of Caceres with its cobbled streets which are marked by medieval fortified homes and Renaissance palaces. Many members of families from here participated in voyages to the Americas where they made their fortunes.
Romans built baths in the middle of Vía de la Plata at Banos de Montemayor. I relaxed in the Roman thermal baths that give the town its name. Roman remains are preserved in the current spa that I used, together with remains of medieval baths.
Salamanca has many churches including the great Cathedral of Salamanca. The cathedral towers are one of the most representative emblems in Salamanca. I could see the 328 foot profile rising up from the horizon as I was approaching the old city. It was humbling and awe inspiring to view its 900 year old art and history. Just a few of the many churches I saw included Iglesia de San Cristobal — Saint Christopher’s Church — erected by the Knights of the Order of the Hospital of Jerusalem in 1145. Iglesia de San Benito (Saint Benedict’s Church) which was established in 1104 was also there and many more.
When I approached the city I walked across a Roman bridge which dated from the 1st century. It was a part of the Via de la Plata road. Along the Camino of Saint James there was scarcely a bridge or a town without a tale to tell.
As of this writing I am 31 days and 390 miles from Sevilla on the VDLP with much more to go. It still amazes me each day on the VDLP how close you can get to your dreams. It seems I’m on a quest for my own holy grail and as part of that quest my journey continues to be in search of adventure, and enlightenment. I continue to journey onward. In the meantime, buen Camino!
John Larimer is 60 years old from Camden Point and is currently walking on his third pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela on the Via de la Plata.