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.
Once we had dumped our bags, we headed straight for Santiago’s famous cathedral, the supposed burial site of St James, Spain’s patron saint, as well as the finishing point of the pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago, 750km in total.
Bagpipes welcomed us as we entered the arch leading to the cathedral square, piping an eerie, ceremonial tune. The province has Gaelic ties, evident in its name. As we lingered near the arch, the music enchanting us, we heard the stampede of feet. We turned to see a group of fifteen or so young pilgrims running through the arch, all arm in arm, their backpacks jangling the attached tin cups and plates. They reached the cathedral’s square, some ten metres ahead of us, jumping and whooping and hugging each other, ecstatic. Motives for pilgrimage aside, it was truly inspiring to witness.
We walked past them, toward the cathedral. Most were removing their shoes, some sitting on backpacks, intermittently posing for group photographs, cheering as the pictures were taken. Their sense of communal achievement was unlike anything I have ever seen, or related to. It seemed that most of the onlookers, like me, envied their euphoria.
Above and beyond them, stood the cathedral, huge and magnificent in the sunlight. Its Romanesque detail was refreshingly different to the countless Gothic cathedrals we had encountered on the trip so far. I was relieved to recognise and appreciate its beauty, never a given in my reception of churches.
We entered the cathedral and were immediately dazzled by the gold and glitz adorning its interior. Inch after inch of wealth engulfed us. As eye catching as the central altar looked, in all its glittering splendour, we did not share the urge of the 100 plus people that lined up around the altar to kiss the statue of St James, which is kept there, encased in gold.
The ancient centre of the city is attractively laid out and well kept, with the winding, narrow streets and pretty squares that Europe had accustomed us to. After wandering around for a while, we went back to our room to enjoy a bottle of Spain’s delicious Navarra region wine, which I bought from a London supermarket for three times the price a year before. A jar of pitted green olives and some pistachios, washed down with the wine, and we realised we had fallen for poor man’s Spain.
A dingy dark wooden pub, Irish seeming, in the small central region, was the most bustling option that evening. We sat down at a table outside, with some cold Estrella Galicias. A young guy, fair hair and skin, introduced himself as Charlie in a strong North England accent, apologising for his boldness, as he’d “had a few beers”. He was eighteen, from Sheffield, and had found his way to Santiago on a holiday with his Spanish girlfriend, who lived there. They had met a few months earlier in Sheffield, where she was an exchange student, learning English. She was dressed in emerald green, from head to toe, and smiling, introduced herself as Lorena. We hung around for another drink, and left, to find supper.
We filled up on bread and patatas fritas and recommenced our search for a busy bar. We circled the central area, in vain, until we arrived back at the Irish pub, which was still the busiest in the vicinity.
The pub is divided into a ground and a basement level, as well as the outside area, where it was a bit cold to sit in the mild Galician climate. We climbed down the stairs, beneath ground level, where the muted light revealed wall side tables and chairs, filled with the moths of Santiago.
We took the only two seats left, sipping our drinks quietly in the way that couples often find themselves doing. Across from us we noticed Charlie and Lorena. A few minutes went by, Iain and I awkwardly trying to decide whether we wanted to be spotted. Just as I was trying to catch their eye, Charlie glanced over, and I waved, feigning surprise. He gestured for us to join them, and our Santiago night began.
Lorena quickly introduced us to her mother, a woman of 35, who was thoroughly enjoying the company of her seventeen year old daughter and Charlie. They hadn’t left the pub since we first met them, and the Estrella Galicias were still flowing at pace. Shouting above the music, we attempted conversation, Lorena translating her mother’s Spanish into English for Charlie, Iain and I.
I had noticed a few differences between the Spanish words I’d seen in Galicia and elsewhere. “H”, for example, was often replaced by “X”. What I assumed to be the Galician dialect seemed almost to merge with Portuguese. I chatted to Lorena about language, talking about my observations. She described Galician as virtually another language and I later realised that the Spanish government has, in fact, classified it as such. It has been shaped by the province’s proximity to Portugal. Did she speak “ordinary Spanish” too, I asked, intrigued. “Ow yass”, she slurred, “an now Eenglish…an a liddle Fraanch”. She tussled her hair casually.
Lorena’s mother was in the midst of a sketchy interaction with a girl of my own age, sitting next to her on the bench beside our table. The girl got up suddenly and walked away. Lorena looked at her mother, awaiting some response. She nodded, grinning, and flashed a small cube of dark brown hashish in Lorena’s direction. Satisfied, Lorena took it, rolled it with tobacco, and lit up at the table, her olive green eyes hazy beneath the smoke.
And so the night went on, until Lorena stood up suddenly, as if the coach would soon become a pumpkin, and invited us to follow her outdoors. She wanted to “shoa” us “someting”. Still clutching our bottles of beer, we followed her outside, down some steps where a musician sat playing Spanish guitar. We continued, until an enormous square opened up below, a set of stairs separating us from the sight beneath.
About fifty figures moved like night elves in the half light, some rhythmically swinging lengths of colourful thread or cloth, weighted at the ends, called poi. Juggling pins flung through the hands of the others, and I spotted a unicycle propped against some suitcase of tricks. Lorena waltzed down the steps, took charge of a friend’s poi, and performed a few sequences, glowing, back in her natural habitat. Drums lined the steps, violinists and guitarists sprung up spontaneously, and Lorena gyrated through the motions of Flamenco. Charlie watched, in awe, as her innate Spanish sensuality unfolded before him.
A couple of hours had passed when Iain and I eventually got up to go back to the hotel. Only about a quarter of the twilight people remained in the square, partaking in their subcultural ritual. It was four o’ clock in the morning.
The next day, we returned to Pontevedra, feeling uncanny as we headed back to Hotel Peregrino. Not once on the trip had we gone backwards. To arrive at the known, rather than the usual unknown, resembled a homecoming of sorts. Our favourite spicy sandwich joint was the obvious choice for an early supper, and it was sitting outside there, on the square, that we noticed the first signs of strange behaviour.
A group of ten or so people in their early twenties, wearing the same bright orange t-shirts, adorned with fierce looking cartoon bulls, ran through the square, shrieking, soaked in a murky coloured liquid. They clutched luminous water pistols, huge things, more like water rifles really, but seemed to be retreating, defeated. A couple of minutes later, another group appeared, all donning green t-shirts, a bull that appeared to be drunk printed on their backs. They were more or less the same age, but were mostly male, and chased the orange team with their water rifles, clasping half empty five litre bottles of maroon liquid by plastic handles.
We had noticed posters advertising two bullfights, scheduled for that weekend, all round town, and realised that the late afternoon event had obviously just finished, releasing several hundred spectators from its arena, half explaining the mania around us.
Following the general direction of the action, the number and assortment of t-shirt wearing teams grew around every corner. The streets narrowed as we entered the heart of Pontevedra’s old town, the crowds condensed, and we found ourselves amidst pure mayhem.
T-shirts teams traipsed past us, between us, from every angle. Every third person clutched a five litre bottle, modern day wine skins, swigging sangria from plastic cupfuls that they splashed out the bottles’ stout necks. Shrieks were followed by people running through the streets, drenched in the watery wine. We bumped through the hordes, stepping over the river of red stained boxed wine cartons. I tiptoed over the shards of glass in my flip flopped feet.
The occasional stereo blasted pop music into the crowds and the tunes merged with the bellowing masses. Outside one of the street bars, a man slept in his chair, oblivious, a wine glass precariously grasped in his fist, his stripy shirt untainted.
We went in search of some alcohol of our own, to ease us into the festivities, and found a bar willing to sell us a litre of surprisingly pleasant boxed wine for the take away price of a euro. Across the road, a set of steps beckoned. It was a bit calmer and cleaner there, so we planted ourselves in view of the goings on.
I heard a loud grinding noise in the distance, getting rapidly louder and louder. People’s faces paled as they looked up the street at something I could only hear. Seconds later a trolley screeched into view, racing down the sloping street before us, a terrified passenger sitting inside it, holding on for dear life. The clamour of its wheels was enough to send people running, ducking into side roads, dodging its path. We followed its path, alarmed, until it halted upon colliding with a parked car, some 50 meters later. Several supermarket trolleys had been hijacked, trophies in the ruthless game they had been volunteered to play.
The next morning, we took a walk through the streets, wondering whether the layers of filth we had waded through had already been cleaned up. Nothing remained of the piles of crushed packaging, empty bottles and rubbish of the night before, save for a few overlooked cigarette butts. The work that must have gone into such a clean up was staggering, and we couldn’t help but wonder why the fiesta, a non profit event requiring such a thorough cleanup, was tolerated.
The victory of another bullfight brought with it the flood of fiesta again that night, and so the cycle of raucousness and repair continued. Iain and I thought we had experienced some fairly debauched gatherings, but Pontevedra managed to casually stun.
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