In praise of Vigo

Vigo, my unexpected destination

I didn’t plan to go to Vigo, Spain, this month. I’d not given the place a moment’s thought since reading Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning for my school O level exams in 1980. The Gloucestershire writer began his walk through Spain at Vigo in 1935.

But fate brought me to this friendly city in Galicia. Fate and my father. Bob Skinner had been so looking forward to his first holiday for three years. He and my late mother loved taking cruises, and Bob was thrilled to book a week’s voyage to Spain and Portugal on P&O Cruises’s MV Ventura.

My cousin Brenda and her husband Ivor helped him get the compulsory Covid test and he was ready to set sail. But disaster struck within an hour of the liner leaving Southampton Water. Dad fell as he was getting out of a lift and he broke his right hip. The ship’s doctor called me the following day and explained that Bob would be taken to hospital at the first port of call, Vigo. I would soon me on my way to a city I’d not thought about for 42 years.

Destination Vigo

Vigo is not an easy place to get to from Britain. I flew to Porto in Portugal and planned to get a train to Vigo, taking around two hours from Porto.

I was relieved to see the train on the departure board at Porto’s Campanhã station. I joined a huddle of others – mainly Canadian – and waited on platform 13. New departure times kept being shown. Then, alarmingly, the train disappeared from the board. I realised to my horror that it had been cancelled. The only other train was that night! Another realisation – I’d seen just one train. Just as in Britain, the Portuguese rail workers were on strike. That would explain the TV cameras I’d seen. But unlike at home not a single poster or announcement warned travellers. 

Plan B was called for. I walked back to my hotel and was told there was a coach leaving Porto for Vigo at 10.25am. I set off again for the coach station, dragging my uncomplaining wheelie bag behind me. Suddenly, a light drizzle became a downpour that even South Wales would be proud of. Seeing everyone else wielding umbrellas, I popped into a pharmacy asking if they sold them. Nope. I’d just have to get wet.

But there’s wet and there’s drowned in a Portuguese city. As I was sheltering under a modest porch, my phone rang. A Spanish number: I must answer this. It was Dad’s hospital. I spoke to him briefly after a word with Susana, a kindly administrator at his hospital. He didn’t hear a word. But he often doesn’t if I’m sitting opposite him nursing a beer. I said I was on my way to Vigo, sounding more confident than I was feeling.

I arrived at a bus station that made Cardiff’s grotty, long-demolished 1970s terminus look classy. No ticket office – thank goodness for the internet. Seeing the shiny Flixbuses, I looked up their website and in seconds was booked on the 10am. Phew! I went for this departure not the 10.25am mentioned by the hotel on the assumption that if the 10am didn’t turn up I had a second option. But wait! Google told me to set off now as the departure point was a 15 minute drive! I’d chosen the wrong departure point. I was relieved to find changing the booking to the 10.25 was a click away.

I was soon departing Porto, admiring the spectacular bridges over the Douro, including a disused railway bridge designed by Gustav Eiffel. I was relieved when we passed the airport as that confirmed I was going in the right direction. Crossing the Spanish border was another reassuring moment during a morning that had been short of reassurance.

After a couple of hours, I saw the city of Vigo sprawling below me on its great bay, Ría de Vigo, and relaxed – I was in the same city as Dad. I walked to my hotel to drop off my bag, and enjoyed rays of sunshine as a contrast to my soaking earlier in Porto. I walked to the hotel on a route that would become so familiar over the next week.

An oasis in a crisis

I was staying at the NH Collection hotel in Vigo. It has proved the perfect choice, giving me an oasis of calm and kindness amidst the stress of Dad’s health crisis. I was impressed when Marcos contacted me before I arrived to offer every assistance. After a stressful day at Dad’s bedside and chasing his elusive travel insurance company, it has been a relief and a pleasure to sample the local beer and food. One evening I was tempted by the hotel’s tapas selection, even if I did feel a little greedy having the feast to myself! The hotel gladly extended my original two night stay to five and then nine nights as it became clear that Dad would be here much longer than we’d expected. And yesterday Marcos kindly printed and scanned documents for me to secure Dad’s air ambulance repatriation.

Galician wedding

Friday was a public holiday in Galicia, and as I was walking back to the hotel I heard cheers of joy. I wondered whether this was a Galician festival, but as I turned the corner I saw a wedding party spilling onto the pavement outside Santiago de Vigo church. The cheers were for the bride and groom, who were just departing in a stylish old American car.

(Not quite) running up that hill

I’ve become so familiar with the hill in the background above. It leads to a large new shopping centre called Vialia Vigo, built over the Vigo-Erzáiz railway station. Each morning I walk up the hill and then through the mall, getting the lift to the plaza on Rúa Via Norte, the street leading to the Vithas hospital, where Dad has been treated for 10 days.

By day, the plaza in front of the mall is a pleasing scene, with children playing and people going about their daily life. By night it takes on an even calmer personality, as I found when I walked back late at night on Monday to tell Dad the bad news that we would not be flown home the following day. (Three days on, we’re still here…) Workers hosed down the city streets ready for another day, while the locals chatted as they enjoyed late night glasses of Estrella Galicia, the local beer.

Thank you, Vithas hospital

We are so grateful to the staff at the Vithas hospital for all they have done for Dad. They have been so kind to him, and to me – two people from Wales who unexpectedly found themselves in Vigo with a Spanish vocabulary that barely stretched beyond hola, muchas gracias and buenos días. The corridor above has become a second home as I walk through that open door to room 325, Dad’s suite. It has a large, sunny bedroom with sofa, armchair and table, and an elegant hall in which I have spoken by phone with Bob’s member of parliament, Stephen Doughty, the British consulate in Madrid, P&O’s Care team and so many others who have supported us in our campaign to get Bob home to Wales. We are very grateful to them. See my post In praise of Stephen Doughty MP.

In the footsteps of Laurie Lee

I’ve stayed in Vigo a lot longer than Laurie Lee. I’ve been rereading As I Walked Out One Midsummer’s Morning (the extracts above are on my Kindle) as I’ve sat by Dad’s hospital bed. It brought back vivid memories of that O level exam year. Lee described the scorching heat of a Spanish summer so well that back in 1980 I found the book oppressive – and even seeing the name Valladolid 42 years gives me a little shudder.

Lee was experiencing the extreme poverty of early 20th century Spain just before the country was torn apart by a brutal civil war that led to Franco’s fascist dictatorship. I first visited Spain on a family holiday in 1975, just months before the end of Franco’s rule.

Laurie Lee described stayed the night with a local family in their barn-like home in a village near Zamora. As the evening ended, the great doors were shut and the family and Lee bedded down alongside the donkey, the pig, the hen, the harvest mouse and even the nesting swallow. Laurie noted that it was like life in England two centuries before.

When I leave Vigo, it will I hope be by air ambulance bringing my father home to Wales, not on foot like Laurie Lee almost 90 years earlier.

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