With two relatively short days behind me, each of which led to uniquely comfortable lodgings – the Parador in Monforte de Lemos and the Casa dos Muros in Panton – life on the Camino Invierno was bound to become more challenging again. It’s known as a difficult route, but the last two days didn’t live up to that reputation. It was good that they were shorter and easier since, midway along the Invierno, they served as a nice respite, a chance to recharge. From here onward the days would be longer again and the climbs more difficult.
I plan to leave the Casa dos Muros by 8:30am. Sounds simple enough, except in rural Spain where 8am is clearly seen as an ungodly hour for breakfast. After a moment of grumbling when I make my request the night before, Bernie accommodates me, serving fresh ”Zumo de Naranja,” hot coffee and toast to get me started for the day. Both of us are rewarded for being up early with a magnificent sunrise. Then I’m out the door as planned.
It starts as it ended the previous day, a pleasant walk through rolling farmland dotted with remote but very substantial homes and outbuildings. For days now I’ve been encountering guards dogs, large and loud, either tethered by a chain or behind a fence. Reports from previous pilgrims on the Invierno have included stories of unpleasant encounters, but I’ve had none of those. Not far into my morning I’m greeted by a trio that did their jobs but seemed more friendly than threatening. Still, I was glad there was a wall and fence between us.
Soon I’m on a tree-lined asphalt road that meanders through the countryside. After a sharp turn the vista opens up and on my left is a magnificent country manor set approx. 80 meters off the road, guarded by a two-meter high wall and accessible only through an iron gate leading to a driveway that leads to another, more formidable, red wooden gate. I learn it’s the “Pazo de Reguengo,” and though – or because – there’s little description of what exactly it is, I imagine it to be a royal country home. The full scope of the Pazo and its surrounding land only becomes more evident as I walk on several hundred meters and, after climbing on a boulder outside the wall, I can peer over it.
I walk on through various types of terrain, relishing the quiet of nature and the beauty of the land. I’m aware that I’m extremely fortunate to see and experience all of this as intimately as I’m doing at this very moment.
I’m also reminded again of how solitary this experience has been and will likely continue to be. This occurs as I take a short break sitting on a wall by the side of the road. I take off my pack, pull out a banana that Bernie had given me that morning and proceed to enjoy my snack. Then I notice a man sitting directly across from me, probably the owner of the house, and perhaps the farmer whose land abuts the road. I call out “Hola” and receive no form of reply, not a greeting or a wave. He simply sits there and stares at me. His wife comes from the back a few moments later, carrying a bunch of onions and sits in another chair, trimming the greens off the huge bulbs. She also ignores me. I don’t make a big deal of the incident except to make the mental note that this has been my situation for days now. With very few exceptions, people simply ignore me. It’s like I’m the man who wasn’t there.
But I am there, and I still have a long stretch of Camino to go. The way now starts to climb more aggressively and eventually leads to a way-marker noted in my Invierno guide. It’s the “Iglesia de Sao Paio de Diomondi” that sits on a remote hillside. The Romanesque-style main structure dates to the year 1170, and at one time was part of a remote monastery on this site. Besides being a way-marker, it distinguishes itself in my memory as it’s the one place along this terribly lonesome Camino that I actually encounter three fellow pilgrims. They’re Spaniards none of whom speak English, but I learn that they’re friends from Seville, in southern Spain. I’m having a late lunch near the church when they arrive from the same direction where I had been, so presumably they were a short distance behind me. They don’t seem interested in the church, or me, so they soon move on while I enjoy the bread I had brought from the morning.
Soon after leaving this area, the trail descends at a steadily increasing steeper slope, but the trail surface is unforgivingly rough Roman road. The rounded granite stones are like anvils upon which each step of my feet is a hammer blow as gravity pulls on my backpack-burdened body, 13% heavier than my true weight. The pain shudders from my feet up through my body. On this surface the use of hiking poles is essential. They brake my downward acceleration and they stabilize the precariousness of setting each footstep on an uneven hard surface. It continues like this for an excruciatingly long distance through a dense forest. Eventually it opens up to the first glimpse of what lies ahead: the continuing steep descent to the Rio Mino, the village of Belesar that spans both banks, and the equally steep ascent through vineyards that still awaits before this day is over.
I reconnect briefly with my three fellow pilgrims in the village, before the bridge, where each of us replenishes our water supply at the public fountain. As I still have a good distance to go, and it’s now mid-afternoon, I don’t linger, but cross the narrow bridge and start another climb. There are two options: follow the road and use the switchbacks or climb straight up on the direct, steep path toward the top. I start out on the direct path which, indeed, is extremely steep, so much so that I stop every 20-30 meters to catch my breath while leaning forward on my poles to avoid toppling backwards downhill. The climb is directly through the vineyards that cover the entire hillside, giving off a sweet aroma of totally-ripened grapes. I wonder when the harvest will occur. It must be any day now, so I I try to imagine what it will look and sound like when these vineyards are full of pickers. About two-thirds of the way up the hill, the path ends, and now the markers direct me to follow the road. There’s no sign of the three others.
At the top of the hill I have one more look behind me and see the forested other side, the river and the village far down below. Then my path flattens out again through fields, eventually leading to the town of Chantada.
I had booked myself in what I thought was a simple B&B on the outskirts of town. Around 6pm, I see a message on my phone, in Spanish, asking when I’m arriving at the Pazo do Pineiro. After consulting my map, I estimate it’ll be another hour or so and respond accordingly. A minute later I receive another message that this will be too late; I need to arrive earlier. I write that I’m arriving on foot, I can’t go faster (In Spanish, mind you. Thank God for Google Translate.). Now my correspondent says she’ll pick me up… where am I? Thankfully I’m at a landmark, a church, and I tell her I’ll wait there. It’s against my purist instinct – I want to walk, not ride – and while I sit there I wonder why a 7 or 7:30 arrival is considered “too late” in Spain, of all places, where that’s considered early. The answer comes after my arrival – by Mercedes – a short while later. I’m the only guest, once again, in a small palace-like B&B and my hostess has other plans for the evening. She does bring me a plate of bread, cheese and ham, plus an apple, but then I’m totally alone in this spacious room in grey stone palace. WiFi signals don’t penetrate those walls, so I’m cut off from the world, leaving me no choice but to fall into bed. It’s a good thing the difficulty of the day had taken its toll. Sleep comes easily.