It feels like a hundred years since I blogged, many miles and many days and nights. I write this from Monforte de Lemos, on the Camino Invierno in Galicia. It´s 100 km. to Santiago!
(If you´d like a smile, here is the film version of the Homecoming photos from the last post. Kim continues to work her magic.)
The weather is kind, sun and cool breezes all morning, and enough heat in the afternoon to give me a sunburn if I am not careful. Last week there were still few pilgrims out there, and the innkeepers and hospitaleros are wondering if perhaps something is amiss... only four of us at Casa Jesus, back when I last posted. Only ten of us at Refugio Gaucelmo in Rabanal del Camino.
Still, the trail from there on was crowded with knuckleheads -- big groups of 50-something men leaving great trails of litter behind them. Beautiful youngsters lying on their backs along the path, their backpacks cast aside, yammering into mobile phones. And the crowning touch: a couple outside the Yoga Refuge in Foncebadon, walking into the spotless morning sharing an IPod. And via speakers mounted on the shoulder-straps of their packs, sharing their screeching "Ya Ya RoMaMa!" pop music with all the world round. (This, if nothing else, is the best argument for gun control. If I´d had a weapon, the IPod would have been only the first casualty that day...)
But I got to El Acebo, and I got to Jaime, another twinkly Camino Sensei, this one at Hostal La Trucha. He chilled me out and calmed me down and we put some potatoes into the ground on the final day of the moon cycle for such things. And he showed me a map of where to go next, to escape the "real Camino." Because frankly, this girl is FED UP with the Camino Frances... or at least the loud, crass, trash-tossing lowlife that seem to populate the place now.
It´s not exactly a shortcut, Jaime said, but it takes you over the mountain to Peñalba de Santiago, (Peñalba means "white mountain,") a beloved shrine for everyone in Ponferrada and El Bierzo. And the day after, a long walk through a place known as (get this) The Valley of Silence. It would join me up to the Camino Invierno, and cut out the racket of Ponferrada city. It would be "inolvidable," unforgettable.
And so I did it. And so it was. It was breathtakingly beautiful. Completely solitary. Perfectly ancient -- I walked paths set by Roman engineers and Visigoth hermits, and people who´ve lived medieval lives right up to last week. Altitudes stayed very high, waymarks were, well... not great. But the sky was full of birds great and small, and birdsongs I´ve never heard before. (only later did I learn I was walking through a massive bird sanctuary), the sky was bright blue, the villages home to abandoned monasteries and yowling cats and fuzzy white donkeys, and ancient chestnut trees twisted into Wizard of Oz Enchanted Forest shapes. Matter of fact, my inner soundtrack for these couple of days was "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," which I sang in several arrangements and a few keys nature never intended.
After the first 20 km of mountain I stayed at Peñalba, a touristy mountain hamlet restored to movie-set perfection. In the center stands a jewel of a Mozarabic church, once the heart of a monastery, now a historic site. By some miracle the every-two-weeks Mass was set to start in an hour. I nailed down a garret room in a Casa Rural, and was at the church in time for the ExpressMass for Six. Peñalba is a lovely little place (I had my first really excellent dinner there in many weeks -- real wild salmon, with real homemade Hollandaise), but any strange monastic energy was sucked out of the town eons ago.
The next day was monumental. It followed three mountain-faces down the Valley O Silence, then crossed over into the next range, where Romans used water power to blast away several mountains to uncover tons of gold -- and thus create the surreal natural sculpture/environmental nightmare now called Las Médulas. (A miniature sort of South Dakota Badlands.) It´s a good 30 kilometers´ walk, all of it uphill. It was beautiful. It was a too much for me. Or to put it most plainly, it kicked my ass.
So I got the rare and coveted Peñalba stamp on my credential. And I learned how, at the bottom of it all, stamps and credentials and all those things are utterly meaningless on a Sunday night when you can´t find dinner and a bed. (I did, no worries. But it was minimal. I needed a bit more.)
Amazing what 12 hours of perfect sleep will do for you. I am amazed at what my 48-year-old carcass is capable of. It is doing much better this time around, nine years after my first full-scale Camino. But I started out with a lot less weight this time -- in my pack, on my physical frame, and in my head.
And so I was on the Camino Invierno, finally. I rose early Monday and left Las Medulas behind me, seeing as there simply is no breakfast to be had there on Mondays. Puente de Domingo Florez is a mere 9 km. on, down a country lane.
And ah, what a country lane it is! Birdsong, vineyards, pine woods, misty valleys, wildflowers (even some poppies!) all abloom, sheep and baby goats, and a story idea to roll around in my mind... silence. Visigoths. A mobile phone call from home, and finally a decent signal!
I think those first couple of hours on the Invierno may stay with me for a very long time. They were as close to perfect as Camino-ing has ever been for me, even though I´d had no caffeine.
And then came Puente de Domingo Florez, and a great pain in my gut...
A day lost to the medical center, medicines, sleep, fever, Hostal La Torre, where a wonderful riverside garden offsets the seedy rooms. (There´s an emu in the garden. Honest. I thought I was hallucinating.)
And today a mere 14 km. to O Barco de Valdeorras: I met Rafa, my first and only fellow Invierno pilgrim, a nice man from Ronda who helped me past a tough bit of trail --- proving that sometimes you really DO want a hiking stick!) I stopped in an abandoned village, where an owl flickered out of a hole in a wall like a sheet of newspaper on a breeze. Up the road an old couple gave me a big stream of water from a red clay jug. They´d never met an Americana before. In a ragged little slate town half a building had been demolished, and left the other half intact, open to the air, with just one of the four walls missing. A bedroom with the bed, a kitchen with the cooker and dishes, an attic with the garlic braids drying in the rafters -- all of it exposed like a stage set, or a doll´s house -- open to the weather. Nobody home.
This is the Spain I saw when I first arrived on the Camino, in 1993. I am afraid to write this, but I will. The Invierno is the Galicia I met then, the Spain I fell in love with, back before the Camino Frances was paved and pimped by the Xunta de Galicia and Xacobeo and private-interest money-mongers, before it became the moving tourist trap it´s become today.
Almost no albergues at all: Just pensions and sports halls and hotels. Nobody has a sello, nobody knows where the marked trail is, and those nice wooden posts with trail markers on them may disappear into some farmer´s fenceline over the winter. Tourists don´t expect special favors, and few are offered.
Even though a few pilgs have passed here each winter for a thousand years of so, this is
not a "traditional" Camino de Santiago, so it does not have that peculiar "pilgrim vibe."
It also does not have special pilgrim knuckleheads blasting Lady Gaga into the mountain fastness. You can sleep late in the morning if you like. The food is better. The wine is fabulous. People offer you a space on the pew at Mass. They look you in the eye and say hello. Their eyes are not hard and cold, measuring up how much money you might mean for them.
The Lord is with me. The Invierno is very long and tough and Spanish. It is beautiful, and silent.
I am SO ready to get to Santiago.