Here I go...

Finding magic under the stars of the Camino Santiago de Compostela

Thursday, November 03, 2011

8 Days on the Via de la Plata - DAY 4 - Forestal to Almadén

August 26 Wednesday

The familiar yellow arrows can be seen all along the Via de la Plata,
but other more permanent waymarks are also found. 
Above is one we passed while walking in the cork oak forest.  

The morning walking was comfortably cool, on a nice dirt road. 
The trees were loaded with acorns, 
just waiting to drop and be eaten by those wild pigs!

See the acorns?
We passed what appeared to be a memorial
- there was a cairn and a cross - 
a fallen pilgrim?

We passed ruins of old farms as the terrain became more gently rolling.

Soon after, we entered an area that was being reforested with pine trees.

Then began the slog up the hill.
 Then down into the village of Almadén.
As you walk into town, you pass the ever present pigs.

That last climb into Almadén in the blazing heat was difficult. 
My feet and legs were getting better 
but the incredible heat was still sapping our energy. 

Why in the world did we think we could walk this road in AUGUST???  
My advice to anyone considering it is to think twice, 
then think twice more. 
The weight of the water you have to carry is enough to put me off trying it again. 
To be safe, a person should probably carry at least (at LEAST!) 2 liters of water. 
That's over FOUR POUNDS!  
That's like carrying around a sack of potatoes in your pack. 
And believe me, 
you'll drink that much water to stay hydrated if you're trekking in this heat.

A bit of history about Almadén from web:

The name Almadén is from the Arabic word المعدن al-ma‘din, meaning 'the mine'.

Originally a Roman (then Moorish) settlement, the town was captured in 1151 by Alfonso VII and given to the Knights of the Order of Calatrava.

The mercury deposits of Almadén account for the largest quantity of liquid mercury metal produced in the world. Approximately 250,000 metric tons of mercury have been produced there in the past 2,000 years.


Almadén is home to the world's greatest reserves of cinnabar, a mineral from which mercury is extracted. Cinnabar was first used for pigment by the Romans. Later, the mineral was used mostly in medicine and alchemy during the Arab domination of Spain.

The Fuggers of Augsburg, two German bankers, administered the mines during the 16th and 17th centuries in return for loans to the Spanish government. Mercury became very valuable in the Americas in the mid 16th century due to the introduction of amalgamation, a process that uses mercury to extract the metals from gold and silver ore. The demand for mercury grew, and so did the town's importance as a center of mining and industry. Most of the mercury produced at this time was sent to Seville, then to the Americas.

The dangerous working conditions of the mines made it difficult for the Fuggers to find willing laborers. As the demand for mercury grew, the idea of convict labor was introduced.

Introduction of convict labor in mine

After the Fuggers failed to meet production quotas in 1566, the King of Spain agreed to send 30 prisoners to serve their sentences as laborers at Almadén. The number was increased to 40 in 1583. The prisoners, known as forzados, were selected out of criminals waiting for transport to the galleys in the jail of Toledo. Those selected usually had limited sentences and good physical abilities. Murderers and capital criminals were rarely selected, as the galleys were considered a far harsher punishment than the mines of Almadén.

The first group of forzados arrived at Almadén at the end of February 1566.

Daily life at Almadén

A steady run of complaints to the king in the 1580s led to an investigation of convict living conditions at Almadén in 1593. The investigation was conducted by royal commissioner and famous author Mateo Alemán, and was based largely on convict interviews.

The mine at Almadén provided forzados with acceptable living conditions. Each convict received daily rations of meat, bread, and wine. Each year, a forzado was issued a doublet, one pair of breeches, stockings, two shirts, one pairs of shoes, and a hood. Medical care was available at the infirmary, and the mine even housed its own apothecary.

Despite these good offerings, the danger of death or sickness from mercury poisoning was always present. 24% of convicts at Almadén between 1566 and 1593 died before their release dates, most often because of mercury poisoning. Nearly all prisoners experienced discomfort due to mercury exposure. Common symptoms included severe pains in any part of the body, trembling limbs, and loss of sanity. Most of the men at the furnaces died from poisoning.

Forzados were also forced to bail water out of the mines. These men escaped the dangers of mercury exposure, but suffered exhaustion on a daily basis. A group of four men had to bail out 300 buckets of water without rest. Those that could not meet this quota were whipped. Sick prisoners were not exempt from this practice.

Death was common, and the convicts wished to provide a proper burial for each of the men that died at the mine. A religious confraternity was formed, conducted by a prior who was administrator of the mine for the Fuggers. The prior also chose devout convicts to serve as officials. Mass was held on Sundays and feast days, and non-attendance was punishable by fine.

Slave labor

North African slaves were purchased directly from slaveholders to work alongside the convicts. These slaves were often much cheaper than others on the market at the time, and by 1613, slaves outnumbered forzados by a two-to-one ratio.

1645 to present

In 1645, the Fugger concession was cancelled and the mines were taken over by the state, to be managed by the royal government. All capital criminals were to be sent to Almadén by court order in 1749, but the mine simply couldn't accommodate all of them. The act was cancelled in 1751.

Two disastrous fires occurred in 1775 that were blamed on the forzados.

Safer mining technology was introduced in the last quarter of the 18th century, and free laborers began to take interest in the mine again. By the end of the century, free workers had replaced most of the slave labor.

The penal establishment at Almadén was closed in 1801. In 1916, a special council was created to operate the mines, introducing new technology and safety improvements. A record production of 82,000 mercury flasks was reached in 1941, just after the Spanish Civil War.

The price for mercury decreased from a peak of 571 US$ in 1965 to 121 US$ in 1976 making economic planning difficult.

In 1981, the Spanish government created the company Minas de Almadén y Arrayanes to operate the mine.

Here in Almadén was where we had one of the
very few BAD experiences on the Camino. 

We were so hot and thirsty coming into town, 
we stopped at the first bar we saw. 

The name of the place was Bar Los Macias.  
It looked like a pretty nice place. 
We sat at the bar and ordered a couple of beers and paid for them up front.  
As we sat there, 
I noticed these big ripe tomatoes on the bar and took a photo:
The cold beers tasted so good after our long hot trudge up the hill!  
Not knowing if we'd find other food in this village, 
we decided we should probably eat something, 
so we ordered a plate of ham and cheese.  

When it came time to pay, the bill seemed unusually high.
As I added it up, 
I realized the barkeep was charging us again for those first two beers. 
Granted, it was only a few euros, but we had already paid. 
I explained in my broken Spanish 
that we had already paid her for those first beers, 
but she insisted we had not!  
She got very vocal and angry.
The more she insisted, 
the more that 5 euros grew in my mind to a kazillion euros
and just the thought that she was cheating two weary, hot pilgrims 
out of 5 euros made me mad as an old wet hen!
 In the end, we just let her have the money, 
but it sure put a bad taste in my mouth for Almadén! 
I had been reminded there were devils among the Camino angels
and recalled reading of instances where pilgrims of older times
were cheated and robbed by innkeepers and barkeepers 
and highwaymen.  
I guess it just comes with the pilgrimage territory... 
human greed.

What I learned was this:
Do not pay as you go.
Wait until you're completely finished, then pay.
That way, there's no confusion.
It was a valuable lesson.

Maybe the lady cheated us on purpose.
Maybe she just forgot we'd paid.
I'll never know.
All I do know is that it didn't feel very good,
and in the end, I just had to let it go and move on.

On our way to the albergue, we found an open tienda.
We bought groceries for dinner and tomorrow's breakfast and lunch. 
We spent 12 Euro for the following groceries:
A bag of pasta

A tin of mussels
A loaf of bread
garlic, onion, tomatoes
A bag of olives
Maria cookies - these are GREAT for breakfast!

The albergue was toward the middle of town. 
When we arrived, there was a note on the door telling us 
to walk to a certain house and ring the bell, which we did. 
A woman answered, walked us back to the albergue and opened the door. 
This albergue was a lovely place with clean beds and a nice big kitchen.
And best of all... it was COOL!

Out a door of the kitchen and you were in a courtyard 
with a washtub and clotheslines. 
We took showers, did our wash, and hung our laundry.
It didn't take long to dry in the blazing heat.
The walled courtyard for clothes washing and drying
Later, when cooking dinner, 
I found I didn't have any olive oil to fry my onions and garlic, 
nor did I have flour to thicken my sauce. 
So.. I punted!  

I found a tiny bag of mayo left by another pilgrim. 
I opened it and put it in my pan and used it to fry my onions and garlic.
It worked great! Mayo is mostly oil, after all.  
I added a handful of chopped olives. 
Once the onions and garlic were soft (but not brown),
I put in the tin of mussels, sauce and all.
I stirred that until it began to simmer.  

To thicken the sauce, 
 I softened some bread in a half cup of milk I found in the fridge.
Bread is made of flour, right?
I poured that into my pan of mussels and brought it to another simmer. 
It thickened the sauce nicely.  

So as not to dirty an extra pan,
I poured the dry pasta directly into the sauce and stirred it well.
Then I just let it simmer until the pasta was soft.

It was delicious! 
With bread, a salad made from lettuce left in the fridge, 
and our inexpensive box of Spanish wine, 
we sat alone in the big, beautiful dinning room and ate our fill of 
pasta with mussel sauce. YUM!

We ate alone in this big, lovely dining room
While we were eating, another pilgrim came into the albergue, 
but not to sleep. 
He got a bottle of ice water out of the freezer and continued his journey. 
I've always wondered who this pilgrim was 
and hope to someday meet him on the forum. 
He is one tough dude to continue walking in that afternoon heat!

Joe's always good about sharing chores.
Since I cooked, he did the washing up in the nice albergue kitchen.
Later that evening, one last pilgrim came into the albergue. 
She was a bicigrino, and had rode her bike all the way up that rough, steep trail.

We slept like logs. 
I prayed for cooler weather for the next day's walking.

As I fell asleep, I thought, "I wish I'd brought my camelback water bladder..."

* * *
Walking the Via de la Plata is a totally different experience
from the Camino Frances.
The terrain is more difficult,
the stages are longer,
and you will meet fewer pilgrims.
But it is a wonderful road,
and I plan on finishing it someday,
in cooler weather!

* * *
See my AnnieWalkersCamino website at 
for more information about
Guided Walks on the Camino Santiago 
and on other Pilgrimage Trails of Europe

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