I did it! For the first time, I bought a cheap flight to a random destination. I was planning a trip to a different location when a special offer popped up. I clicked “buy” even before I knew where Vigo, Spain, was or if it worth the visit.
After some research, my first impression is not as good as I expected. Vigo appears to be an industrial town by the sea, nothing more. «In the worst case scenario», I say to myself «it’s a good base for excursions to other cities in Galicia». Vigo has two train stations; it’s close to Pontevedra, Santiago de Compostela and I can get to A Coruña in a few hours. And there are bus connections to some scenic villages like A Guarda or Valença, in Portugal.
But as soon as I land, it’s evident that Vigo has much more to offer than an industrial port, even it’s tourism is not its primary resource.
Day one. Vigo: a town, many souls.
Vigo is a town with many souls: the one of the bourgeois district of the Ensanche, the maritime one of the port, the Casco Vello or the neighborhoods along the Ria, the working-class soul of the streets that climb to the Castro or near the Gran Via.
Historic buildings in the French neo-Baroque, modernist or art nouveau style coexist with contemporary sculptures distributed throughout the city center.
El Sireno at Porta do Sol, opposite to the Edificio El Moderno; the fall and the swimmer, a few steps away from the Real Club Nautico and the “egg” on the roof of the modernist Edificio Mulder.
The artistic flair of this town is also evident in the presence of the MARCO: the most significant contemporary art museum in Galicia, which hosts many temporary exhibitions.
In the port area, a large shopping mall is located next to the old Maritime Station, not without reason. In the past, Spanish emigrants left from Vigo looking for a better luck overseas. Today, this is the most important port in the north-east of Spain for Atlantic tourist cruises with more than 250,000 passengers per year.
Wine and Tapas.
After a long walk, I’m hungry. Thanks to its geographic position, partly perched on the hillside and laying on the coast, in Vigo the gastronomic heritage of Galician inland and that of the seaside meet. In restaurants and taverns along Praça de Compostela or the Casco Vello, you can taste empanadas, hams and, above all, fish.
The scents and the tinkling of cutlery guide me, along with voices of students who drink and eat tapas. I end up at Taberna A Pedra, in Rua dos Cesteiros, where I have an excellent Pulpo a la Gallega, Pimientos Padron and a glass of wine from Rias Baixas.
Back at the hotel. I hear voices on the street. I look out the window and see a couple of workers getting off a small vehicle. They open utility holes and connect a large pipe to underground hydrants. Then they spray water to clean the streets, now deserted. With this rustle and the yellow flashing light of their vehicle reflecting on my room’s walls, I fall asleep.
I wake up and go for breakfast at Porta do Sol after visiting Santiago El Mayor, a neo-Gothic church on Rua Gracia Barbon, not far from my hotel.
I feel perfect today, and I’m ready to face the hill that climbs to the Castro, an ancient fortress, now transformed into a very popular park where I enjoy an almost 360° view of the city. On the horizon, the Cies Islands: one of the most enchanting places in Galicia.
The Castro hill is home to the archeological excavations of a Celtic village. Entrance is free, and I take this opportunity for a quick visit and it’s fun to enter reconstructed Celtic houses.
Coming back to the center, I am amazed by the vast variety of camellias along the streets winding around the fortress.
Mariscada and other seafood
It’s noon. I should choose a restaurant. In the meantime, I visit the Concatedral of Santa Maria.
Leaving the church, I enter Baixada Vella, a narrow street offering glimpses of the sea. I turn left in Rua Da Pescaderia crowded with people, oyster vendors and restaurants displaying big plastic panels with pictures of dishes in a fast food menu fashion. There are no burgers but crabs, mussels, clams, oysters, and percebes.
I often feel a sense of distrust towards these kinds of outlets and regard them as tourist traps. But when the waiter at Casa Vella proposes something to eat, I am tired and starving. I give up and enter the restaurant.
As soon as I’m inside, I have to revise my first impression. The staff is friendly; the place is informal and welcoming. There are lots of people, but no one waits for too long. Waiters are attentive but unobtrusive. They chat with new clients as if they were familiar with them. I’d like to start with oysters.
«We don’t serve oysters», the waiter says. I look around. Many people have them on their plates. He perceives my concern and repeats «We don’t serve oysters because we give you a plate and a slice of lemon, and you go buy oysters from fishermen at the market. It’s a tradition». He hands me the plate and asks: «Do you wish something else?»
I order white wine, percebes, and a mariscada. I grab my plate and go getting my oysters.
I don’t regret my choice. Quality is excellent, the price is fair, but I have overeaten. I need to go for a walk. On the seafront, I come across a symbol of this town.
The bay of Vigo
Vigo is the largest town in Galicia, although it’s not the capital city. Its rivalry with Pontevedra is legendary. While the capital was inland, Vigo had to deal with continuous raids.
Walking the seafront, I dream of Viking Drakkars appearing on the horizon, galleons in entering the bay from the Ocean at sunset. But when in 1589, Francis Drake partially burnt the town, I guess it wasn’t that exciting.
Today pirates are only a reminiscence of a past that survives in the names of pubs, cafes, and boats carrying tourist to the Cies Islands.
But the Batalla de Rande is still carved in the memory of this town. On October 23rd, 1702. Spanish galleons carrying treasures from South America, escorted by French ships-of-the-line, sought shelter and moored near the Rande Straight. Anglo-Dutch vessels entered the bay and sunk some Spanish treasure galleons. Although most likely the ships had already unloaded their cargo before joining the battle, many people, over the years, searched for it without success and the treasure of Vigo became legendary.
Jules Verne, in the chapter “The Bay of Vigo” of his “Twenty thousand leagues under the sea“, refers that Captain Nemo funds the activities of his Nautilus drawing treasures from the wreckage sunk during the battle.
Today in Vigo, a statue depicts Jules Verne sitting on a giant octopus.
It is a sunny afternoon. I am enjoying tea in a café on the waterfront. My departure is approaching. I feel a sense of nostalgia.
I walk by an old travel agency with a door in the art nouveau style that still bears the flags of former shipping companies. In Rua Rosalia de Castro I pass by the Salinae, a Roman saltworks turned into an underground museum. It looks interesting, but it’s too late for a visit.
I stop in Rua Policarpo Sanz and wait for the bus that brings me back to the airport.
This is Vigo. It is not the ultimate touristic destination, it hasn’t famous sights, but in these two days I’ve strolled, stopped at cafes, visited churches, and read the Faro de Vigo, the oldest Spanish daily newspaper still printed.
I’ve felt at home and I would have loved to have more than 48 hours to get lost in its streets.