PONTEVEDRA

                                                                                                                                                                    1 August 2005

ORIGINS, CHARACTER AND CULTURE

 

The city’s name is said to derive from ‘Pontem Veteram/Pontis Veteris’ (Old Bridge) but could equally well come from ‘Ponte de Piedra’ (Bridge of Stone). The earliest records of its existence as a focus for commercial activities go back to the 12th century. It is rumoured that even then the main activity was smuggling.

According to local myth, Pontevedra was founded somewhat earlier by Teucrus, the son of Telamon and Hermione and half-brother of Ajax. Teucrus is said to have wandered west – for some reason or other – when he was at a loose end after the Trojan War. His name is commemorated now in the handsome Praza Teucro, in the old quarter.

This Teucran tall tale is probably as accurate as the local belief that Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón) was born in the town but it has, nonetheless, served its purpose over the years in elevating the status of both Pontevedra and its patrician residents.

The Columbus myth almost certainly arises from the fact that one of his ships – the ‘Santa Maria’ – was built in the town’s yards and launched there as ‘La Gallega’. But then, this is quite likely to be a myth as well.

Widely (and justifiably) regarded as the quintessential Gallego town, Pontevedra lies at the end of the magnificent ria which bears its name, where the river Lérez widens as it enters the sea. Built in a large loop in the river, the town is surrounded by water on three sides and nestles between steep, verdant hillsides of pine and eucalyptus. Ironically, the approach which makes most of its position is that via the motorway from Vigo as it flies over the ria and curves along the river west of the town, en route to Santiago.

Despite being appreciably smaller and considerably less commercial than Vigo, Pontevedra is the administrative capital of the province of Pontevedra. It's a prosperous and well-heeled town, which gives the impression of being rather pleased with itself. And, in its wonderful gem of an old quarter, it certainly does have something to be proud of. This was pedestrianised in the late 90s and, more recently, extensive sections of the adjacent modern commercial quarter have also been given the treatment. As a result, Pontevedra is now a very easy town to walk round. But a nightmare to navigate in a car. Like Oxford in England, it is now an avowedly car-unfriendly city. This is bad luck for the city-centre-loving residents but good news for tourists. If you feel you must enter it in a car, the best thing to do is to go down into the first underground car park you come across and leave it there. Whichever place you happen upon, you won’t be very far from the sights you’ll want to see. And you'll save yourself a lot of frustration. This is particularly  true in early-mid August, when several main roads are closed to accommodate the visiting fairground and market.

As well as being a place of considerable interest in itself, Pontevedra is an ideal base for either longish excursions into both Galicia and North Portugal or shorter trips to the local beaches and holiday resorts, such as Sanxenxo. And the incomparable Santiago de Compostela is only half an hour or so away on the motorway.

Pontevedra’s patron saint is San Sebastián but the town’s real patron is the Virgin Mary, more specifically La Virgen de la O. More often, she is referred to as the Virxen Peregrina. You can translate this as either The Virgin of Pilgrimage or as The Wandering Virgin. The former seems more respectful to me. Statues of her adorn the town, and the gift shops, and larger versions are carried in the several religious processions which take place during the year. If you are desperate for a statuette of Sant Iago [St. James/Jacques], rather than the Virgin Mary, you're better off looking in Santiago, where you will certainly not be disappointed. Not in terms of quantity, at least.

Pontevedra is built on and in granite. Or at least the older buildings are, as well as most of the houses in the hills. This makes for a truly imposing old quarter in the town itself but the countryside, it has to be said, is very much a mixed bag. There are some outstandingly beautiful houses built with weathered, high-quality granite but there are also many garish monstrosities built in new, lighter, cheaper granite. The latter tend to be put up by workers who have returned from a lifetime of overseas employment and whose objective is clearly to show that they have considerably more money than taste. At its best (worst?), this will include a castellated feature or two on the roof. As if this wasn’t bad enough, some wrinkle of the tax regulations motivates a fair proportion of home-builders to suspend or abandon activities part way into construction. The result is a plague of carcasses. One can only hope that the rumours of new laws to eliminate this blight are true.

Pontevedra is certainly ‘Spanish’ but not as Spanish as, say, Andalucia. It doesn’t, for example, have anything like a gypsy-flamenco tradition and some would say that this is one of its main attractions. But it does have its own strong folkloric tradition and you should't find it difficult to come across dancers in ‘national’ dress, especially during the (non-religious) festivals. These will always be accompanied by bagpipe (gaita) and drum players. Significantly, these events are for the locals and not for tourists. Not yet, at least. It has to be said though that, to the uninitiated, Galicia’s folk songs come across as rather mournful. This may well reflect the impact on life here of the dangerous nature of fishing in the wild Atlantic. On the other hand, compared with Portuguese fado songs, they are bouncy and joyful.

Seeing itself as Celtic, Galicia has strong affiliations with Ireland and Brittany, for example, and the sound of bagpipes is relatively commonplace, especially if you take a day trip to Santiago. In fact, there you are lucky if you can get away from it.

For those with a deep interest in these things, the Galician bagpipes differ from their Scottish counterparts in having fewer drones. I think. And much of the music is even more doleful. But full of character.

Galicia is a place of superstition and myths. Witches – bruxas and meigas – feature large in local folklore. You'll most commonly meet them as statuettes in the numerous gift shops and as tarot-card fortune tellers on the local TV, if you're ever bored enough to switch this on.

In welcome contrast to the Costa del Sol, there are no English, German, Dutch or Russian radio stations. And the BBC is often hard to get even on short wave radio. The best wavelengths for the BBC are 6195 and 9410 but my own experience is that reception is poor except between 7 and 9 in the morning and late at night. The local medium wave channels are too numerous to detail but Appendix 2 contains a list of all the FM channels I can get. My daughters scoff at my use of ‘Pop’ to cover the vast range of garage, techno, hothouse, etc., etc., but what do I care.