“Gritty” was the description I used for the small town where the second day of my journey on the Camino Invierno ended. Unlike most Spanish towns I’ve been in, Puente de Domingo Florez seemed to lack any notable charm. I approached it from the North, down a very steep trail coming out of a wooded mountain range and then traversed it from East to West as I was looking for the “hostal,” attached to a bar, where I had reserved a room. Nothing struck me as noteworthy except a slight grayish tinge to all the buildings and a dustiness of the roadway. I wouldn’t know why I had these impressions until I started walking further on Day Three.
In general, days on any of the Camino stretches start early, certainly very early by Spanish standards. Except for rare sleep-in days when I knew I’d have a shorter distance to walk than most other days, my goal was to be on the road by 8am. This meant being awake and up before 7:00 since I had to repack my backpack, prepare my feet through a well-developed routine to prevent blisters, get dressed and then find something simple to eat and possibly some bread and a banana to take along for the day. Like the night before and the mornings yet to come, breakfast was at the bar. The staple is a “Cafe con Leche” with slices of toasted baguette served with either orange marmelade or a tomato spread with olive oil (tasty!).
Sitting in the bar and looking at my companions, two realities dawned on me. The first is that Camino pilgrims are not a common sight here as compared to the more heavily-traveled paths such as the highly-popular Camino Frances. Even rarer, apparently, is an American pilgrim. Over dinner and breakfast I was asked twice about my homeland. When I answered “Estados Unidos,” the response was one of surprise, and then immediately nothing. The second realization was about the town. There weren’t many patrons yet a that hour, but all were blue collar workers, highway construction crewmen and a few “Guardia Civil” officers from the nearby police station. As for the guys in work overalls, I was perplexed as I had seen nothing that looked like a factory on the previous day’s walk through town. Like the grittiness I had noticed, my question would be answered soon enough.
Shortly after 8:00 I left the bar, strapped on my pack, and began Day Three’s walk. It started with crossing the River Sil on a modern version of the “Puente” for which the town was presumably named. As mentioned before, the river also marks the boundary between “Castile y Leon” and “Galicia,” the northwestern autonomous region in which I’d be spending the rest of this journey. That part didn’t start very auspiciously as I soon encountered a Camino direction marker that pointed into two opposite directions. The way to the right looked more promising, so I took it. About 10 minutes later, having covered maybe 500 meters, two farmers signaled to me that I was on the wrong way and that I should have turned left at the marker back there. Sheepishly I turned around and restarted my walk.
The reason I had avoided this direction in the first place was that a massive dam-like structure seemed to block the way, but indeed I had to follow a path around it, and then the trail started to climb into forested mountains similar to those on the opposite side of the river that I had descended the day before. Soon I came to a viewpoint above the river with what was for me an un usual picnic table. The table and the benches were made of massive heavy slate. Hmmm!
After a very brief rest, I moved on. Suddenly a loud bang startled me. It seemed to be from a dynamite-type explosive, and it came from high up in the mountains somewhere, possibly even the other side of the river. As I walked on, everything started to reveal itself – the grit, the workers overalls, and the big explosions. I was in the heart of a slate mining region. Suddenly it was all around me. I was walking on slate rocks, the hillside next to me was slate, I could see the shine of slate piles high up in then mountains above where I had walked yesterday. Then below me, along the river banks, were a series of businesses that manufacturing slate building materials that are common in Spain and elsewhere around Europe. Like the sawmills that are scattered around my home state of Idaho, these “mills” take huge slabs of slate – rather than timber – and saw them – NOISILY – into the various end products. Watching all of this activity – and listening to it – became my distraction for the morning until my next rest stop in a small open-air chapel made entirely of slate remnants. I rested there for ten minutes, and just as I was leaving three other pilgrims approached it to take my place. We exchanged perfunctory ”Buen Camino” greetings, but I never saw these three again. They were the only other pilgrims I’d seen so far in three days.
Not long afterwards I arrived in a small river town, Sobradelo. I knew of it, and looked forward to it, as an entrepreneurial bar owner there, Manuel Mar, has a Facebook site I’d been following since I planned to walk the Invierno. His “Bar Mar” has become a must-stop place for a meal and refreshments, and he promotes it by taking photos of all pilgrims who stop there and posting these on his site. The number of these pilgrims is small, sadly, but Manuel has figured out how to capture them with his promotional skills using social media. Of course I stopped, had lunch and several cold orange sodas, and then it was back to the path.
The day ended a few hours later in the small but charming city of O Barco. The city’s most prominent feature is its “Malecon” riverfront park through which I walked on the way to my hotel, just a few meters off the park. After my usual end-of-day cleanup, I found a busy park-side restaurant where I ordered a simple “tapas” meal as it was still too early for a real dinner. It was delicious: toasted bread, with a cheese spread covered by a carmelized artichoke & onion mixture and topped with crispy Serrano ham… served on SLATE.