The so-called Vía de la Plata connects the town of Mérida, in the province of Extremadura in the south of Spain, with the town of Astorga, in the northern province of León. It is said that it was habitually used by the animals that left their warm lands in the summer to go to the cool pastures of the north and which returned for the winter to avoid the cold. Then came the mysterious Tartessos; Phoenicians in origin, on the Vía de la Plata they transported the tin from the rich quarries of León to the south. But those to whom we owe most for the path’s high degree of preservation are the Romans.
Modern-day Mérida, the starting point of the Vía de la Plata, in Roman times was Emerita Augusta, one of the most important enclaves on their expansion throughout the Iberian peninsula. It's hardly surprising that it was in Mérida where the Romans raised one of their most fabulous civil constructions, the Mérida Theatre which is still a privileged stage for performances during the Theatre Festival that takes place in July and August. Stone by stone, Emperor by Emperor, from Mérida the Romans built the road to Astorga (León), where there were still large mineral reserves. It is easy to see who did what: one of the walker's greatest pleasures is to watch the mile posts (the equivalent of the present signals that tell us the kilometres on each route) which were erected every thousand Roman steps (approximately every 1.4 km). They also built ‘mansions’ (places for the troops to rest), one day apart (which at a Roman rate was 25 kilometres a day). We have to thank their architectural knowledge for the fact that both the road surface and the remains of the ‘mansions’ can still be enjoyed today by those visiting Castra Cecilia or Castra Servilia or the Roman spas in Baños de Montemayor (all in the province of Cáceres).
The Romans left and the Arabs and Christians arrived. The Vía de la Plata became the road along which the faithful did their pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela (A Coruña) from the south. In Astorga, the Vía de la Plata came together with the traditional French Camino de Santiago, the route coming from the north. Here a majestic Episcopal Palace was raised by the brilliant architect Antoni Gaudí, in one of the scarce works he did outside Catalonia.
The best thing about the 470 kilometres of the Vía de la Plata is that they never end: you can do them as a Phoenician trader, a Roman emperor, an Arab conqueror, a catholic pilgrim or a farmer. The true treasure, more than the precious material, will always lie in our imagination.