It is wonderful to walk a camino again in springtime. It is even wonderfuller to be home again, and writing it all up into a guidebook other people can use to walk it themselves.
|morning outside A Rúa|
|River Sil, road, railroad, road|
|Kitties of Raigada|
|Huge church in tiny Montefurado|
As most of you know, I walked four days of the Camino de Invierno this week, in company with five intrepid hikers from the Netherlands. I covered only about 80 km. of the actual 220 km. camino – four tough days through slate-mining country that I missed-out on last year. The remote stretch from O Barco de Valdeorras to Monforte de Lemos, to be exact.
It is a beautiful, difficult, and very Galician camino. It is not for beginners or skinflints or people with weak knees. It is a lovely walk in spring or summer, but its name means "Winter Camino." A misnomer. This would be a miserable, muddy slog in wintertime. This should be "The Vineyard Way," or the "Honey In the Rocks" Camino, or maybe "Path of the Roman Mines." Something should be done, but I fear it is too late.
So, why did I go back up there, seeing as I did chunks of the Invierno two times last year?
After finishing The Way last year, I wrote an English-language Invierno Guide for the Confraternity of St. James of London. I relied on other pilgrims to provide the on-the-ground information for those miles I missed. They are reliable people. They did their best. I still was not happy with it.
My name is on the front of that book, and I felt I had left a big hole in the middle of it, not having written it all from first-foot experience. And that is why, the first chance I got, I went back. This time with company. Company who spoke some English. and carried a top-of-the-line Global Positioning Satellite navigation unit! And this time I had a proper guidebook, one much more comprehensive than the one I wrote. It is written in Spanish, by José Rúa Pérez, a guy who lives along the Invierno path. It is full of glossy photos and mileage charts and even some maps! It is rather heavy to carry along in a backpack, and it is rather pricy: 26 Euros. And like every trail guide in the world, it has a few wrong things in it.
But it was a boon to us all, nevertheless. The Dutch used that guide, together with mine, to travel successfully from Ponferrada to O Barco in the two days before I joined the party. They are opinionated people, and had plenty to say about both guides. They will draw all kinds of information from both, no doubt, for their upcoming production. Their book will launch hundreds of pilgrims along this difficult and comparatively costly camino... pilgrims from the Netherlands and Belgium or maybe South Africa. People who read and speak Dutch or Flemish or Afrikaans.
The rest of you English-speaking lot, for now, will have to make due with mine. The updated CSJ guide. The one I am sinking my teeth into writing right now.
Much as I love the walking, the writing afterward is even better. It is here I boil off all the dreary, impatient, frustrating, grubby, prickly parts, and distill the remainder to rosy Prose. Here I can remember the rainbow-colored bee-boxes, slate roofs glittering through the morning haze, a gnarled tree heavy with blossoms, buzzing with bees. Abandoned bread ovens crouching in broken buildings, their mouths smeared black Os. And long, deep, green valleys with roads, rails, and river all tracing the same letter S, S, S.
Plum jam. Plummy Mencia-Godello tinto from Valdeorras. The wide, placid water of the Rio Sil, a shady, cold footbath in the little Rio Lar, and a babbling brook called Saa.
And Casimiro, an 85-year-old farmer who lives in a crook of the river and railroad, who grows his own food and makes his own wine and cheese, baskets and barrels -- And homemade liquor. He gave us all a shot, even though it was only 11 a.m., even though we still had a long way to walk that day. He filled the empty spaces of my backpack with walnuts from the tree overhead, and he talked... He lives in the house where he was born, where his grandfather and father were born, where his own son was born... (The son lives now in Madrid. He does not visit often.) Casimiro and the wife are happy here. They hoe the garden, they plow between the vines in the vineyards up top, following behind the white donkey. They watch the trains pass by, heading east, heading west.
“We will be on the train east on Sunday afternoon,” Mariann from Rotterdam told him. “We will wave to you when we go by!” Casimiro laughed. “My son used to wave at the people on the trains, when he was little. Anyone who did not wave back he said they were crazy,” he said. “It is important to notice people. Even the ones you don´t know.”
Not many people pass by his house. When he was a boy, farmers from all around came to have their grain ground at his family´s gristmill. The battered cart-track we had followed down the mountain to his door was once the main highway through these parts, he said. And before that it was the Roman road. It carried the minerals mined in these mountains down along the river and on to Lugo, the regional capitol.
Now it brings only the odd hiker or biker, or a forestry crew. A gang of friendly foreigners must have been a nice break for him. I hope it was.
Casimiro was a high point of this camino. Casimiro and the bees.
The Camino Invierno is populated with bees, and beehives – honey and wax are the glue of the local economy, along with wine and stone and minerals. Hollow trees are full of bees. On hillsides all along the way are stone circles built centuries ago, with beehives set up inside, where the wild boars could not enter and overturn them.
I don´t know any bees personally, but I admire them greatly. If I was not allergic to bee venom maybe I would try to keep a community of them myself. There is something upright and righteous about these creatures – they pollinate flowers and crops, they care for one another, they work hard to make useful things. If you mess them around they will kick your ass, but they want most to just mind their own business. They sing so beautifully together.
Out on the Invierno trail are many many hillsides – farmers keep bees on crags where nothing else can grow. When the breeze is blowing right, you can hear the hum of bees, even when their homes are hidden from sight.
But back to the path: I am very happy to say the waymarking along this formerly-mystifying stretch of camino is brand-new and not at all bad. Anyone who wants to make a run at the Invierno should go for it, without undue fear of losing himself on top a mountain. But he should take a guidebook with him. A guide written in his native language.
He should be careful of his footing and careful of his knees. He should stop at Casimiro´s house. He should try to continue on and finish the Invierno at Santiago de Compostela, where all the Caminos de Santiago end up.
And he should remember when he is on his way back east at the end to watch carefully when the train goes past Montefurado, past the bend in the river, where the arroyo empties in and El Molino stands against the mountain. Out in the driveway on Sunday afternoon you may see, like me and Marianne saw, the old man and old lady, standing in the driveway, waving at the strangers on the train.
Marianne whooped with joy. We flew past at 100 kilometers per hour, but we waved out that window like a couple of maniacs. We´d have been crazy not to.