It was just before midnight and darkness masked the contours of the city. Street lights were sparsely spread and provided no more than a dim glow. I approached a taxi driver outside Pontevedra’s station exit, asking how much he’d charge to the Hotel Peregrino. He looked at me, disbelieving, and pointed diagonally away from the station. “Es alli”, he said, his voice hesitant, perhaps regretting his honesty. I thanked him, and we walked the two minutes down the road to what was our third ‘station hotel’, complete with locals drinking outside the bar, plastic chairs, and the familiar contrast of grot and appeal.
A bearded man of around fifty spotted us, glanced at our backpacks, and enquired as to whether we had a reservation. His English was nonexistent, but after a week in Spain
I relished the satisfaction of basic communication, and hotel dialogues were my most practised exercise in Spanish.
Once he had gone through the admin of checking us in, I attempted to find out about Pontevedra’s annual fiesta, Vikinga Romeria, which had been our deciding factor in travelling to Northern Spain. The vocabulary needed was beyond me, and the hotel owner repeated the fiesta’s name with only vague familiarity, so I reckoned we’d just go into town the next evening, when the fiesta was supposedly scheduled, and follow the notorious noise of the Spanish in celebration.
Pontevedra’s only known lure had been the fiesta, and so with no preconceptions we walked into the city the next day, to find breakfast. It is by far the least touristy place I have ever travelled to, and apart from the tourist information kiosk, perpetually closed, there was no sign that it existed for anyone but the locals. We strolled through the smatterings of people that, at 11 ’o clock that Thursday morning, seemed to be slowly going nowhere. Breakfast was at a simple but ingenious café, with a menu of at least 50 enormous sandwiches, all served with a tasty, trying salsa picante (spicy sauce). It set the standard for our spicy sauce addiction in Spain, and remains the winning contender.
Well fuelled, we began the day, Iain’s usual impulse taking us toward the water source of the city. The river sprawled out, navy blue, wide and enduring before us, as we followed it’s course, out of the city.
As we passed the last traffic intersection, the river became lined with suburban houses, their clean coats of paint and small front gardens almost familiar. We walked along the river bank, following its curves, as noise dissipated and green spread. A faintly tread path lead us to the rivers edge, where a wrinkled Spanish man sat, propped against a tree, dozing in the sun. The sacred siesta. We passed him quietly and made our way to the water, where we could cool our tired feet.
Later that evening, we ventured into town to join the festivities that we imagined would be gracing the streets. But no sign. It was a typically quiet Thursday night, and we joined the few people at the only bar with any atmosphere at all. I approached the bar lady, who met my attempts at Spanish with simple English. “The fiesta,” she gestured, pointing over a small imaginary obstacle, “is Saturday and Sunday”. We had not planned to stay till then, but to visit Santiago de Compostela, also in Galicia, Spain’s most north western province. I told her this, disappointed, and she gasped, “You must come”, her excitement for the weekend obvious.
The next morning, sipping coffee at the bar, backpack at my feet, I started chatting to an elderly local at the hotel’s bar counter. The topic of the fiesta came up, and I explained how we had mixed the dates up, were leaving that morning to spend a night in Santiago, but would return to Pontevedra that weekend, in time for the renowned festival. Once he had established that I was from South Africa, the conversation flowed a little more easily. More foreigners than I had imagined know of Afrikaans, and its links to Dutch. My rudimentary Spanish complemented his rudimentary English, and my undeveloped Afrikaans added to the basic Dutch that he used.
We left for Santiago, as planned, promising the hotel owner that we’d be back on Saturday. He sounded pleased, and agreed to keep us a room. The journey to Santiago only took a couple of hours by train, and we emerged at the city’s outer perimeter, a 20 minute walk from the historical centre where our small hotel was situated.