Benavente: on the Via de la Plata - Vuelta a Iberia - CycleBlaze

October 4, 2019

Benavente: on the Via de la Plata

It’s partly overcast today and a bit chilly as we walk the few blocks from our hotel to the cathedral.  It’s not hard to locate - just look up, from anywhere in or within miles of town.  We arrive right at ten, the declared opening hour, and find visitors sitting or milling in front of its imposing facade, staring up or chatting in small groups.  Some have audio guides clamped to their ears.  Almost everyone looks like a wanderer of one form or another - walkers with poles mostly, a few bikers.

Entrance to the cathedral is a ticketed event, and the ticket office is open now; but not the cathedral itself, which we’re told doesn’t actually open until roughly 10:30.  For five euros each (we get the Camino discount), we’re given our tickets and an audio guide apiece, and told we can follow it to view the cathedral from the outside and then visit the museum, which is open now, until 10:30 rolls around.

The museum is fascinating, and an easy place to pass a half hour.  More would be better, but we don’t have it today - we have to be back at the hotel in time to break camp before the check out time of noon.  When the door opens at 10:30, I’m the first to enter the cathedral, and I’m overwhelmed.

We’re here in a quiet season, it appears.  The hotels, the restaurants, the cathedral, they all are but lightly visited.  We don’t exactly have the cathedral to ourselves, but it feels a bit like it.  We’re both in awe as we make our way past one incredibly rich work of art after another as we view the alters that line its walls and gaze upwards at its soaring German gothic arches.  

We regret that we have to rush our visit a bit more than we would have liked.  It would have been easy to linger longer, take more photos (to be posted separately), zoom in on more details; but we have a room to evacuate and a date with the road to keep.  We should have allowed more time.

Gaudi’s Episcopal Palace is very impressive, and well worth your attention. Note the towering structure on its left though.
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But if you’ve got time for only one attraction in Astorga, you should spend it here. Or perhaps the chocolate museum, I suppose.
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There are many paths to Santiago, though the French way that begins in Saint Jean de Pied a Port just across the western Pyrenees in France is undoubtedly the best known.   Santiago is a bit like the Mississippi River delta, the end point of waters that spill there from across half a continent. 

Astorga is an important convergence node on this great pilgrimage system, with the French Camino bringing a stream of peregrinos in from the east, and the Silver Way bringing others up from the south.  We first heard of the Silver Way, the Via de la Plata, six years ago in Zafra on our way south to Andalucia.  We stopped to chat with a bicycle traveler in the plaza on our way out of town.  He was biking north following the Silver Way when we met him hunting for a cup of coffee.

We’d never heard of the Silver Way before this, although we had been unknowingly following it south from Caceres and through Merida for the last few days.  It’s an ancient route with Roman origins, spanning the full extent of western Spain from Seville to Giron, built to help manage the sprawling empire and to facilitate the flow of materials.  It was only centuries later that it gained its newer identity as one of the many ways to Santiago.

Between that tour and this one, we’re unintentionally stitching together nearly a full tour of the Silver Way.  First, six years ago, from Caceres to Andalucia; and this year, from Astorga we’re biking south to Caceres before turning west into Portugal.

Via de la Plata, the Silver Way
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Today’s stage, from Astorga to Benavente, is an easy one: a bit over forty miles, and largely level.  We don’t leave our hotel room until noon, but we feel no anxiety about reaching our destination in plenty of time to find tonight’s room, look around a bit, and find a meal.  Days are still long now - it’s light until nearly 8:30, so we have plenty of time.

The first fifteen miles go quickly.  After five miles on a quiet lane south of town we intersect with the National Road, N-1 - a four lane highway with a lane-wide shoulder.  It’s a major highway but is fine to bike on because it’s virtually empty.  All of the traffic has been sucked from it to the newer controlled access highway that parallels it, the A-6.  If you’re just intent on making miles, you can have a fast ride south by staying with the N-1 all the way to at least Zafra.  But it’s not particularly interesting or scenic, and we’re ready to branch off onto a quiet department road when we reach La Baneza nine miles later.

Leaving Astorga
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Southbound on the N-1 for a few miles, because the alternatives here range too far off route. Safe and efficient, but not so interesting - you don’t see that much riding such a wide ribbon of concrete.
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Safety is good of course, but we’re not so into efficiency. We’re happy to leave the N-1 at La Baneza and soon find ourselves up close to the cows and the corn rows.
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We spend the rest of the way to Benevente on roads nearly as quiet as those we rode yesterday, passing through one tranquil farm village after another.  It’s not quite as quiet as yesterday though, because we’re in the agricultural plain and there are more signs of activity.  All afternoon we’re biking past agricultural expanses, mostly vast corn fields with the occasional leafy vegetable, sunflower or even hop field thrown in.  

It’s all very relaxed, pleasant riding, with the occasional real surprise thrown in to add color.  And, as the last few days have been, the fall weather continues to be glorious.  We’re here at the perfect time.  We stop for lunch at a small village at the midpoint of our ride again, once more sitting on a rickety wooden bench in the shade of a building, the bench looking so aged and frail that I’m anxious that our combined weight will buckle it.

Progress is fairly slow, because the boat anchor of the team keeps stopping to pull out the camera.  Finally though, enough is enough and we cruise in the final ten miles at a good clip, reaching our apartment by about 4.

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In Alija del Infantado, our lunch spot for the day.
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The castle at Alija del Infantado
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The castle at Alija del Infantado, with the obligatory empty stork’s nest.
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In Villabrazaro
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In Villabrazaro
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Video sound track: Flamenco, by Anat Cohen and Trio Brasileiro

Puenta de la Varana, the bridge over the Orbigo River
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Puenta de la Varana
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The Orbigo River, the first significant waterway we’ve seen in the province. En route to the Esla, the Douro, and the Atlantic Ocean.
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Sunflowers! I knew this was feeling like southern France.
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Not so sunny any more though. Sad!
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We’ve been seeing these strange underground structures here and there, some of which are presumably homes because of the chimneys sticking up through the earth.
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Benavente

Benavente isn’t like some of the other stops on the tour, with no really unmissable monuments other than the rump tower of a sprawling castle that was otherwise eliminated in the last century.  What it does have though is a lot of life, much of it congregated this evening in the long park that lies where the missing castle once stood.  It’s a beautiful spot, perched above the plain with an expansive view to the west.  The south end consists of a rose garden and long rows of pollarded plane trees, and is quite peaceful.  

The north end though is something else - a large, sprawling playground playground that is dense with children climbing on its structures, running, racing, biking, sparring, swinging, leaping, everything!  What is all this madness, we wonder?  Why aren’t these kids home on their couches curled up with a device?  Strange, but it’s a completely endearing scene.  After a quick tour through the center of town we return to the park and fill the remaining half hour until dinner watching the buzz of ceaseless activity swirl around us.

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The south tower of Benavente Castle, all that remains since it was razed.
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Benavente Castle, prior to its destruction. This photo, from the wall of our B&B, is dated 1890. The leftmost tower is all that remains today.
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The church of Santa Maria la Mayor.
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Jen GrumbyIf only all kids did something like this every day instead of shutting themselves indoors for an overdose of screen time.

What a great way for you two to wrap up yet another AFD!
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2 months ago
Scott AndersonTo Jen GrumbyIt was a pretty special way to end the day, alright. And four straight! Now if the last of thes3 colds would move on, we’d be en la novena nube.
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2 months ago
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Stewed vegetables, our new discovery tonight. A very nice plate, in a very nice plate.
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Ride stats today: 43 miles, 900’; for the tour: 342 miles, 18,000’

Today's ride: 43 miles (69 km)
Total: 342 miles (550 km)

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