Mérida to Alcuéscar
Monday September Twenty-One, 2020
With a two day break behind me I set off from Mérida with feet that felt fresh and comfortable in their shoes once more. That’s not to say they hadn’t done their fair share of walking throughout the weekend. Oh no, I’d put them through their paces traipsing about from one ancient Roman ruin to the next, but I’d done most of that traipsing in rubber flip-flops, giving my feet ample time to breathe and refresh. My blisters had dried themselves out for the better part, and some healthy callouses had formed where I needed them most, so I began my Monday morning in high spirits – ready to take on the world, and another near 40km day.
I set off a little later than I had in days past, as I wanted to properly see the Roman aqueduct that entered the city on my departure from it – the Acueducto de los Milagros. It would have been a shame to have missed such an impressive structure after a weekend exploring the Puente Romano, the Amphitheatre, and Circus Maximus, not to mention the Temple of Diana and the Arch of Trajan. The aqueduct would complete the set, so to speak, not to say that my weekend had been a box-ticking exercise. Far from it.
Mérida was already beginning to wake up as I set off at 8am and made my way towards the edge of the city. The sun was just beginning to make its way above the horizon as I arrived at the ancient structure, casting a warm glow over the ageless granite. I got shutter happy with my camera and snapped away gladly, in awe of such an impressive undertaking of ancient infrastructure. Not only the undertaking itself, but the fact that the fruits of such labour were still so clearly intact and visible nearly two thousand years later. And all the time that I snapped away commuters, joggers and dog walkers passed me by, seemingly oblivious to the structural wonder they were passing beneath. What a joy, I thought, to have such history on your doorstep. New Zealand was still a thousand years away from habitation when the Romans coordinated such an engineering feat, and so the scale of time impressed itself upon me even more so.
I finally pulled myself away from the aqueduct and began my journey away from the city. The route took me out alongside a tarmac road towards open country and morning commuter traffic. I got excited when I saw two figures ahead of me labouring under heavy backpacks and looked forward to discovering fellow pilgrims, but alas, they weren’t heading in the same direction as me and soon disappeared from sight. The road eventually brought me to Embalse de Proserpina, the body of water that once fed the aqueduct and supplied Mérida 5km away with its water for so many centuries. I paused again, for the second time that morning, to take it all, in and tried to imagine an age so different to our own. My imagination failed me though, and I couldn’t even begin to imagine what life might have been like when the aqueduct was still of vital importance to the city. The water was so calm and still, behaving as a mirror and reflecting the morning cloud perfectly off of its surface. Suffice to say, the tranquillity of the water inspired a dose of tranquillity in my head and so I continued on my journey feeling blessed to be a part of such a glorious morning.
From the embalse the path took me onto a little used country road. I say little used because I managed to successfully walk down the centre of it for over half an hour without needing to move aside for any traffic. Eventually I exited from the tarmac and onto a hard packed sand track that glistened in the morning sun, so full as it was of silica. It was almost white in colouring, and produced a glare that even my sunglasses were hard pressed to dissipate. Despite the obvious difference in colour I couldn’t help but think of the Yellow Brick Road leading Dorothy through the Land of Oz. The White Sand Road in my case, but equally picturesque. And oh so firm beneath my feet. There was a true joy to experience firm footing again after my sloppy trek into Mérida.
The path meandered gently through a wonderfully contrasting landscaping, – the white of the sand against the golden glow of the long grass beside me in the fields, against the deep blue of the sky, against the deep green of the oak trees. To subdue the richness in colour were endless stone walls of muted grey, neatly dividing the landscape into tidy portions. It felt like an ageless landscape, as if it might have looked like this a hundred years beforehand, and exactly like this five hundred years before that, and another six hundred years before that. Only my Gore-Tex shoes, my synthetic attire, my sunglasses, and mobile phone gave any hint that the year was 2020 and not 1020.
Large boulders eventually took over the landscape and the path gently curved between one and then another. I found one that I could climb with little effort and sat myself on top of it to further appreciate the terrain I found myself in. The stone walls had disappeared some way back and so there was no longer anything attaching me to a human timeframe, other than my own presence. The view before me might have been mediaeval, or it might have been prehistoric, but it could just as easily have been the view from an alien planet. My other sentiment was that the landscape had a certain Biblical sense to it, although I couldn’t pinpoint exactly how I came to that conclusion.
I sat and let the view work its magic on me, considering the notion that this same view had been seen and admired by so many other pilgrims before me. Not only the view, but the same smells and sounds also. I tried to imagine what the number of previous peregrinos might be, but couldn’t even begin to guess. It was certainly thousands. But was it tens of thousands? Or was it hundreds of thousands? I pondered us all, spread out through time as we were, but united in space – this space in particular. This magical, biblical, prehistoric, alien space that doubtlessly hadn’t altered in appearance for centuries.
I kept coming back to my Gore-Tex shoes and contemplated what a timeline of pilgrims shoes might look like, year to year, decade to decade and century to century. I contemplated too the state of pilgrims feet and wondered whether in all of the long history of the Via was there ever any pilgrim who managed to walk in the perfect shoe without enduring blisters. It seemed silly that for all of the modernity built into my not exactly cheap shoes the darned things still had the capacity to injure me as much as they did.
I continued to walk, what proved to be a very, very sedate walk for the remainder of the day. Because of the late-ish departure I was still walking well into the afternoon with the sun full in the sky above me. In my week of travelling I’d found that 1.30pm seemed to be the cut off point for a comfortable temperature, and after that the heat became smothering and thick to traipse though. Which is what I encountered while still a fair few kilometres outside of Alcuéscar. I began to grow impatient for the promise of shade, and a cold shower, but my destination eluded me for at least another hour, and when it did finally reveal itself it came with a caveat – the centre of Alcuéscar required a steep climb to get to. A steep climb into a labyrinth-like town whose twists and turns soon found me lost and a little irritated.
Alcuéscar only offered one option for accommodation, at nearly double the price of anything I’d so far paid along the way. I coughed up my cash though, happy enough that I could finally remove my pack from my back, and was shown to my nearly subterranean apartment that promised to be a welcome respite from the sun. In earlier times I imagined it had been part of a cellar complex beneath the main building, and it had wonderful vaulted ceilings, but not much else in the way of charm. The stone of the building was so thick and impenetrable that it meant access to the internet from the main building above was out of the question. To connect to the outside world required following another labyrinthine path back up to the main dining hall of the building which, while shuttered up for the Covid season, hinted at a glorious past. The space was very grand, with dining tables that could seat a platoon if necessary. Old farming and cooking implements hung about the room decoratively, connecting the space to another age. But what really caught my eye was the enormity of the fireplace that promised a blaze of warmth on even the fiercest of winter nights. Part of me was almost despondent that I couldn’t experience such a roaring fire in such a timeless space – sipping on red wine or whisky and feeling safe from a raging storm outside.
As it was there was certainly no need for a fire that afternoon and the temperature was close to thirty degrees at that late stage in the day. I considered a siesta, but convinced myself instead to return outside into the heat of the afternoon and wander another 3km to discover an old 7th Century Visigoth styled church on the outskirts of the town – Basilica de Santa Lucia del Trampal. I kept my shoes off and walked instead in flip-flops, leaving the sleeping outskirts of Alcuéscar almost immediately on a tarmac road that twisted and turned alongside the hill the town was built on. The vista offered up by the winding road was so expansive that it reminded me of my first day walking through the nothingness of Extremadura. It certainly gave me a sense of how much further I still had to travel, and it certainly wowed me enough that I didn’t feel too disappointed when I arrived at the church to find it closed. Closed as well as fenced off to the public. I considered jumping a fence and taking my own exclusive tour of the exterior, but I thought better of it and wandered slowly back towards my room instead.
My lack of a siesta caught up with me soon enough though and I felt the urge to sleep come upon me fast. I contemplated pushing through until 8pm when the local restaurants would begin to serve dinner for the evening, but I felt certain I wouldn’t last until then. Instead I took myself to a small supermarket and bought a tube of Pringles for sustenance. Don’t ask me why. It was an urge that I couldn’t supress. I also can’t deny the great satisfaction they brought to me as I chomped down on each chip individually. I balanced the naughty with the nice and brewed myself some miso from a sachet I’d been carrying with me and chowed down on some pistachio nuts also, just to triple down on the salty goodness of my evening ‘meal’.
With no wi-fi to distract me I sat with my thoughts instead and waited for the street beyond the single small window of the apartment to disappear into darkness before I took myself deeper into the cellar to my bed for the night. The absolute black of the space with the light turned off met with my tired eyes and married perfectly to ensure I was fast asleep within seconds of my head hitting the pillow.
Another day down, and another thirty-nine kilometres neatly put behind me without incident. Suffice to say, I slept contentedly.