Once outside Zafra, the route climbed steadily to a ridge overlooking Los Santos de Maimona. From the summit, one could see the plain stretching to distant mountains. Mérida lies 65 km to the north of Zafra and takes three days of walking, spending the nights in Villafranca de Los Barros and Torremejía. Once again, between the overnight villages, there was nothing but occasional farmland and bush.
The land was parched. It looked as if it had not seen rain for a long time. At one time, after Santos de Maimona, we came across of a flock of sheep. The shepherd walked ahead, seemingly oblivious of what was following him. Four sheep dogs raced around, rounding up the stragglers and keeping the flock moving in the general direction of their master. It was not the first time that I have witnessed the shepherd-to-dog relationship, and I have never ceased to be impressed.
From Villafranca de los Barros to Torremejía the path was straight, following the old Roman road. There is absolutely no shade, just grape vines and occasional olive groves as far as the eye can see. In one part, the road was being resurfaced, and for several kilometres we had to trudge through a thick layer of uncompressed dust.
On a long straight path, with no bordering trees or bushes, one’s progress across the landscape is barely perceptible. The goal is there on the horizon, but on the horizon is where it seems to remain.
But eventually one arrives.
The next day was relatively easy and, in the early afternoon, we arrived at the Puente Romano, that leads across the river Guadiana to Mérida.
At 790 m, it is the longest surviving Roman bridge.
The path north from Guillena to Zafra covers 125 km and passes through five villages – Castilblanco, Almadén de la Plata, El Real de la Jara, Monestario and Fuente de Cantos. The villages are between 15 km and 27km apart, a distance that a hiker, carrying a backpack, can comfortably cover in a day. Originally it would have been the distance that a heavily armed Roman soldier would have been expected to march. Apart from some farmland adjacent to the villages, the countryside was empty of habitation.
For the first three days, the path wound through the rugged Parque Natural de la Sierra Norte to El Real de la Jara, shortly before passing from Andalusia into Extremadura. There was a long climb to Monestario, after which the landscape transcended onto the plains that surround Mérida.
Apart from Zafra, which is a large town with a rail and bus station and several hotels, the villages that we passed through were small, each with its church and a small central plaza, an hotel or rural hostel with a few rooms, an albergue with dormitory accommodation, a bar, and little else. And the houses and buildings were universally painted white, with red tiled roofs.
In the first three days, where the landscape was more rugged, the path led through many huge paddocks, where herds of cattle, pigs, goats, sheep and horses ranged free.
After Monestario, the land flattened, and the farming changed from mainly animals to crops, with occasional olive groves and grape vines. The path was dusty and the land parched; it seemed as if it had been since the last sustained fall of rain.
In the seven days that we walked from Sevilla to Zafra, the only other hikers that we saw were the strange couple pulling the cart; we had seen them arriving in the bar in Guillena and pulling their cart up the stairs to their room. We passed them a couple of times on the path, when they were sitting in the shade, resting or having something to eat and drink. They seemed to be quite shy, or perhaps they just wanted to be alone. I can well sympathize with the latter.
We always knew when they were ahead of us, when we spotted the tracks that the wagon tyres left in the dust. And each night we usually saw them arrive in a village, sometime after we did. On a couple of occasions we saw them enter the same hostel where we were staying, but they were quite reclusive and stayed in their room. I thought that they might have been on their honeymoon.
When we were on our way out of Zafra, we stopped at the bar of a comfortable hotel to have a coffee and a croissant, and who walked out of the restaurant and up the stairs but the strange couple with the cart.
Little did we know that we were to see them every day until Cáceres.
We set out early, before dawn, and took the metro to close by the cathedral. From there our camino began. We walked along the river and when we reached the Puente de Triana, the sun was rising; the buildings to the east were in silhouette and those on the west were bathed in rose light.
The route took us through typical industrial suburbs and abandoned lots, rather depressing, but typical of large cities anywhere in the world.
About 10km from the centre of Sevilla, we passed through the small town of Santiponce, largely built on the former Roman city of Italica, founded in 206 BC. One can visit the amphitheatre that once held 25,000 spectators.
Two of the best known of the ‘good’ Roman emperors – Trajan and Hadrian, were born in Italica. Trajan was known for his public works and his expanding Rome to its maximum territorial extent. Hadrian followed Trajan and is best known for the wall he had built across northern England to keep out the Scots. Ironically these days, many Scots would like to have the wall rebuilt to keep out the English.
When we finally reached the end of the industrial zone, at a large roundabout, we were confronted by two attractive women, bent over and baring their bottoms to passing cars and trucks. Until I greeted them with ‘Buenos días señoritas‘, they were not aware of our passing presence. Sevilla has its unique way of welcoming visitors to its city.
From close to that roundabout a long straight undulating dirt road led to Guillena. From the top of each incline one could see the town in the far distance, but after each hour of walking, we scarcely seemed to be any closer.
We passed the hollow, where two years previously the road had been waist deep in flood water, and where I had slipped and got very muddy and wet. It was bone-dry, with no hint that a stream had ever existed.
Later, when we had checked into the only hostel in the village, and were having a beer in the bar downstairs, we witnessed a strange couple enter and inquire about a room. He was tall and very thin and she was short and quite plump, and neither of them spoke Spanish. They were both heavily dressed, considering that it was a warm day, and he was strapped around the waist to the handles of a cart, which was piled with bags and camping gear. It was almost comical to witness the two of them hauling the cart up the stairs to their room. I would have loved to have captured the incredulous looks on the faces of the locals in the bar.
We were not long back from our four months in Chamonix, when I started to plan our next long hike along one of the pilgrimage paths that eventually arrive in Santiago de Compostela. My mind was set on walking across France, from Geneva to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, via Puy-en-Velay. I booked flights from Stockholm for 28 September and started to plan the stages of the walk.
But I had nor progressed very far in my planning, before I realised my potential mistake; we would be crossing the Massif Central, the mountainous south-central part of France, in late October, when the weather could be quite cold. And as I don’t ‘do’ cold, I switched my attention to the Vía de la Plata, that starts from a much more temperate Sevilla. And conveniently there was a low-cost morning flight from Geneva to Sevilla on 29 September.
The Vía de la Plata is the longest of the pilgrimage routes in Spain, heading north from Sevilla to Zamora, then north-west to Santiago, a total distance of about 1000 km. Much of the route is on ancient Roman roads. The route was also known as the Camino Mozárabe, originally followed by the Christians of North Africa.
I was no stranger to the route from Sevilla. In mid-February of 2015, I had set out to walk from Sevilla. The temperature was perfect for hiking, but my start was delayed for nearly a week by torrential rain. When I eventually got going, I found low-lying areas to be flooded, streams with stepping stones to be deep under water, and mountain paths washed out. Twice I slipped and fell in the water, and when I reached Villafranca de los Arroyos, the heavy rains started again. The forecast was for rain, rain and even more rain for the week ahead and extensive flooding. I decided to abandon the walk and return another time.
My second attempt was in late September of the same year, but this time it was in soaring temperatures and with little or no shade. When I walked into Mérida the temperature was 42 °c. The heatwave showed no sign of abating, so I once more stopped.
But ‘Stubborn’ is my middle name and back to Sevilla I went once more, this time with Lotta. It was her first time in Sevilla, so we spent the first day seeing some of the sights.
The central core of Sevilla is a labyrinth of narrow streets branching out from the massive cathedral. Some of the lanes are so narrow that one can stretch out ones’ arms and almost touch the walls on each side. The lanes twist and turn, and despite being close to the cathedral, one cannot see it until one exits the maze.
The cathedral is the third-largest church in the world and is the burial site of the alleged bones of Christopher Columbus. It has fifteen doors on its four facades. It is so extensive that it can only be seen in its totality from the air.
Sevilla is a popular tourist destination, for it is an interesting scenic and historic city. But one of the downsides of exploring the tourist area is being the constant target of touts trying to entice one into restaurants, sell tickets to flamenco shows, rides in a carriage etc.
One of the largest buildings ever constructed in Europe was the Royal Tobacco Factory. It measures 250 m by 180 m and was built in the mid-eighteenth century. It was the first tobacco factory in Europe. Since the 1950s, it has housed part of the University of Seville.
The magnificent Plaza de España was built in 1929 and was the central feature of the Ibero-American Exposition, held to strengthen the ties between Spain, Portugal and their former colonies. The building is semi-circular and features a canal crossed by several ornate bridges.
The building has 58 pairs of benches, each one representing a province of Spain, with a typical scene from the province and a map, all surfaced in painted ceramic tiles.
And at the end of the day, a timely reminder of why we were in Sevilla…
It was in the very early 1970s that I read ‘Papillon’, the alleged memoirs of Henri Charrière, the French convict, who escaped from Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guinea, and who ended up, years later, in Caracas. I once went to his restaurant in Baruta, just outside Caracas, but by then he had died.
In his memoirs, he wrote of his experiences in escaping from the notorious prison on a raft built of coconut shells, eventually landing on the Guajira Peninsula on the coast of Colombia. There, for some time, he lived with two Indian women. Whether factual or not, the account had no small part in my desire to travel and to experience something of Central and South America.
In 1976, I travelled across the Pacific on a Greek passenger ship, from Sydney to Panamá, via Auckland and Paapete (Tahiti), and eventually on bus, country by country, through the plethora of Central American countries, to the US, eventually ending up living by the beach at Marina del Rey in Los Angeles. There I was able to rebuild my savings by working at odd jobs, mostly dirty tasks that were uninteresting to the local unemployed.
But the great consumer society held little attraction for me, and a few months later I headed back south, intent on going as far as my meagre savings would allow. In those days, local bus travel was relatively inexpensive and basic accommodation was easy to find.
When I reached Panamá, I was unaware that the roads ended there, and that there were none south through the Darien Peninsula; there was, and still is, a 160 km gap in the 48,000 km Pan-American highway, that runs from northern Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina. The only way of crossing from Panamá to Colombia was by plane, or by boat, east along the Caribbean coast, or south along the Pacific. I flew to Medellín and from there continued on by local buses, hopping from place to place through Colombia and Ecuador to Perú. Early Christmas day found me on a bus heading south from Lima.
With its colonial walls built from white volcanic stone, I found Arequipa to be a most impressive city, especially in the Convent of Santa Catalina. And in Puno and Lake Titicaca, at 3827 m, with its floating islands and colourful Indian culture, I felt as if I was in a completely different world. But sadly, my funds were running low, and as much as I wanted to continue into Bolivia, I had to turn back north.
Unfortunately, the next morning my funds became more depleted. As I was boarding the train to Cuzco, I became involved in a scuffle between some men trying to leave the train and as others trying to board. It was eventually resolved, but fifteen minutes later, I realized that the money that I had had in my pocket was no longer there. I had been robbed. Fortunately, I had money in a dirty sock in my bag and some more in the sole of my shoes, about enough to get me back to California.
I loved Cuzco and I would have stayed there much longer if I could. The Inca history, with the Spanish culture imposed upon it, I found most fascinating. During my first morning there, I went to a bookshop to thumb through a local history book – I could not afford to buy it. I overheard an elder American tourist asking if they had any postcards of sexy women. I was all ears, for the man looked as if he would have had apoplexy if an attractive woman passed within 100 m of him. It turned out that he was referring to the ruins of Sacsahuaman, a fortress just outside Cuzco.
The next day I went there and what an impressive monument it turned out to be, with its massive walls built with huge multi-sided stones, all fitting together as in a jig-saw puzzle, so tightly fitting that a thin knife could not be inserted between them.
Few people go to Cuzco without also taking the day-trip to Machu Picchu, and I was no exception. The train was heavily fortified, with many armed soldiers. Once there, I ignored the buses that traveled the zig-zag road to the ridge, but climbed up the old Inca trail. After wandering the impressive ruins, I tried to climb up to the peak that overlooks Machu Picchu, but a heavy thunderstorm cut it short, otherwise I could have easily slipped and slipped on the greasy stones and ended up in the Urubamba River a long way below.
With regret, I left Cuzco on a ramshackle old bus, destination Lima. I was the only ‘gringo’ on the bus, but I had the consolation of a seat beside a beautiful young Indian girl. Unfortunately, she spoke little Spanish and I spoke even less. All day we seemed to be descending into a valley with a steep ascent on the other side. The bus coughed and wheezed and seemed to be on its last legs. It was dark when progress ground to a halt. For a while we all sat and waited, while the driver fiddled with the engine. Eventually, one by one, we all descended to stretch our legs and empty our bladders. The sky was clear and the stars were crystal clear, but it was very cold.
I was wearing only shorts and shirt and I was not prepared for cold. But the lovely little Indian girl offered to share her blanket with me, and I gratefully accepted. I eventually understood that she was a maid in a house near Lima and that she was returning from a short holiday with her family in Cuzco.
As the night wore on and the bus remained stationary, the occupants slept, and the driver and his assistant continued to fiddle with the engine. It was more comfortable if I put my arm around the girl, and she soon slept with my other arm around her waist. Eventually at some time in the night, the engine roared into life and we jolted and jerked our way closer to Lima. And we kissed in the dense night light.
The morning came too soon; I felt as if I could have spent the rest of my life with my arms wrapped around that little Indian girl, but it was not to be. Her destination arrived, she descended, we kissed a long time and she walked away. She never looked back. As she turned a corner, I wanted to run after her, but my courage failed me. I climbed back on board the bus.
I have often wondered if Henri Charrière ever had the same regret when he left the Indian sisters on the Colombian coast.