We didn’t have enough time to do justice to the vibrant and historic city of Pontevedra, but in the time we did have it quickly became clear that this was not a typical city. Not because of its glorious medieval old town, or its picturesque 18th century district, not even because this was where Christopher Columbus’s flag ship, the Santa Maria, was built. The thing that sets Pontevedra apart (and which plenty of other cities could learn from), is that the heart of the city is car free.
The pleasure of strolling Pontevedra’s centre contrasts sharply with almost any other similar sized city I’ve visited in Spain (or most other countries). The air smells fresher; absent of engines and horns the historic core is unusually quiet; and the many public spaces are relaxing places for people, not for parking cars. The benefits of this forward-looking urban planning extends way beyond pleasing tourists. After years of decline, Pontevedra’s centre is thriving as people move back to live there.
We’d arrived early after driving along the coast from Cambados. The route is beautiful but the narrow roads around the peninsular were heaving with traffic. A colleague who is originally from Pontevedra tells me that in the peak summer season things regularly grind to a halt along these roads. We parked in one of the underground car parks that have replaced on-street parking, and set off to explore, popping up in a park next to a monument commemorating the resistance to Napoleonic France.
We wandered into Pontevedra’s old town, where several attractive medieval squares are linked up by narrow streets blissfully free of traffic. There are numerous churches dating from the medieval period, including the lovely Basílica de Santa María a Maior, which was built by the donations of fishermen and shellfish collectors to protect them from the perils of the ocean. Many of the other churches were built by medieval guilds, including ironworkers and shoemakers.
So much for the devout though, Pontevedra was also home to pirates, most famously, Benito de Soto. It’s hard to take this feared pirate seriously given that his ship was called Burla Negra, or the Black Joke. That name belies the ruthless and bloodthirsty reputation of De Soto, even to his contemporaries. Most notoriously, he captured the English ship Morning Star and, to cover his tracks, murdered its crew and locked others in the hold to drown as the ship sank.
Luckily, some of the survivors managed to escape, repair the Morning Star and make it to safety. This would come back to haunt De Soto when his ship ran aground and he was captured entering Gibraltar. Aged 25, he hung from the gallows in Cadiz. Legend, or at least the tourist board, would have it that his former home in Pontevedra was a hiding place for treasure. As we walked around, the legends of the city seemed to still be alive as we passed old palaces and historic town houses.
When we’d first arrived, the streets were very quiet, but as it approached lunchtime the town started to get busier. Small squares were converted for al fresco dining and there was a buzz in the air. We were driving to Leon the same day, a journey of over four hours. We found a table under an umbrella in a small square and ate a leisurely lunch before one final stroll through the ancient city. Like everywhere else in Galicia, Pontevedra was a place we decided we’d need to visit again.