48 hours in vigo

12Aug08

According to the Cadogan Guide to Spain, the city of Vigo – up there in the Celtic north west on the wild and rocky coast of Galicia – has, throughout its history, received many unexpected visits from Englishmen. And, loath as I always am to mention myself in the same breath as Sir Francis Drake (who went there in 1585), I can’t deny having recently helped maintain this tradition (I went there last Thursday).

I’ve never had too much sympathy for those who complain about Ryanair; the lack of frills is, after all, why it’s cheap. With its check-in charges and almost colonial disdain for national boundaries, you obviously need to keep your wits about you – if you don’t, they’ll make you check them in and charge you – but essentially you don’t get what you don’t pay for. However: whilst accepting that in-flight food, entertainment and leg-room might be sacrificed to reduce costs, it wasn’t until I’d spent three hours gazing out at the empty tarmac beside Gate 10 at Santiago de Compostela airport last Thursday afternoon that it began to occur to me that Ryanair might actually regard “an aeroplane” as a frill, a frippery, an outrageous luxury that could easily be dispensed with if only everyone would flap their arms vigorously in unison whilst strapped to a plank.

Here’s the story. Because of heavy rain, the incoming plane that morning – the one that was supposed to do a handbrake turn on the tarmac, ditch its load, and then head back to Stansted with us on board before the engines went cold – had been diverted to Porto. I’ve got no problems with this; when we’d arrived at the airport shortly after breakfast, we’d barely been able to make out the terminal building through the bus windows, and had briefly assumed we were simply stopping outside a random phone box in order to pick up a pot-bellied middle-aged man wearing a beret and carrying what looked suspiciously like a small pig in a hold-all (after two weeks, we were used to Galician buses) – I certainly wouldn’t have fancied trying to spot a murky runway from 30,000 feet. By mid-morning, though, planes not belonging to Ryanair were happily landing and taking off in hazy sunshine, so the repeated assurances from Ryanair’s Representatives on Earth that the pilot would be returning “soon” from Porto seemed perfectly believable, if unnervingly vague – believable enough for us not to let the empty rows of comfy chairs tempt us from our place in the queue. (Ryanair’s belief that allocating seat numbers is but one small step removed from issuing each passenger with a free magnum of Krug and a magic kitten means the only way to get a decent seat is to queue.)

Hours passed. People arrived from Barcelona, and departed for Madrid. People arrived from Madrid, and departed for Barcelona. And then, in the first official announcement we’d had all day, the tannoy informed us that the London flight was cancelled.

Unfortunately, it informed us in Galician. We knew something was up, as a third of the queue immediately packed up its bagpipes and ran off down the hall towards the word SALIDA, exit, but we had no idea what: maybe they’d just announced an impromptu folk festival, or found a small pig in a hold-all. So all we could do was watch, with some puzzlement, as, having reached the SALIDA sign, our former fellow captives all turned as one, like a shoal of fish or a wheeling flagellation of starlings, and dashed back the way they’d just come. The reason for this odd behaviour did eventually become clear – the SALIDA sign pointed at a blank wall –  but only once the announcement had been repeated in English; an intermediate Spanish version simply compounded our confusion, as half of our already-reduced numbers duly performed the same mad double-dash, with some of the more prompt Castilian-speakers on the outward leg colliding with some of the more tardy returning Galicians. This just left the Anglophone contingent – I speak a little Spanish, but the Tannoy dialect is beyond me – us, a group of Irish lads, a nice middle-aged couple from Aldershot, and what seemed to be a family of thirty-nine from Liverpool, whom I was determined to keep my distance from, as they’d earlier infuriated me by being lengthily affronted when the check-in girl had told them that what appeared, beneath its bubblewrap and gaffer tape, to be miniature trampoline, didn’t qualify as hand luggage.

Having reclaimed our baggage, we joined the queue at the Ryanair enquiry desk. Here, two – yes, TWO – young women were trying to find alternative flights for the several hundred disgruntled people standing in front of them – a somewhat hopeless task, as Ryanair operate just one flight a day from Santiago, and have no spare planes (it seems pretty obvious the pilot of our plane had made no more attempts to land, but simply flown empty back to Stansted, in order to maintain later schedules). The composition of the queue reflected the linguistic ordering of the cancellation announcement: at the front, much loud and heavily gesticulated debate was taking place in various Iberian dialects, embellished by the odd bagpipe blast when required. At the English-speaking rear, meanwhile, the couple from Aldershot were quietly suggesting we take it in turns to “go and have a listen” to what was happening at the front.

Two hours later, word from the front line was that people were being offered flights four days hence. By then, we’d moved forward barely five yards, and there was clearly no way we’d reach the desk before nightfall. The time had come for action. Behind me, seemingly abandoned, was the small trampoline. I climbed on board, and coughed. “People,” I said, as loudly as I could, “would bold Sir Francis Drake, that red-blooded Englishman, have meekly queued, waiting for some Spaniard to tell him where to go? No, he damn well wooogh…”

Yes, stamping my foot for emphasis was a bad idea, and my impromptu forward-roll dismount scarcely Olympic standard, but no matter: my point had been made, and made well. The great (and bold) Sir Francis Drake wouldn’t have stood for this; he would have taken one look at the queue and then, pausing only to sharpen his beard, organised the despatch of two dozen fire-ships into Dublin harbour, or wherever Ryanair are based. But after that, I like to think, he would have done precisely what we did: catch a train 50 miles south to Vigo, where rumour had it that an Iberian Airlines flight to Gatwick was due to depart in 2 days’ time, and was still looking for passengers. As we pulled out of the station, we gestured triumphantly at the bright, chubby words on the sign beside the autopista: Santiago! they said, you’ll find it hard to leave… 

I feel inclined to clarify something here. Although Santiago de Compostela is, of course, the end-point of one of Europe’s most infamous medieval pilgrimage routes, running 500 miles from the French border, we were just there for the architecture. I’d assumed that all the mad pilgrim nonsense had died out by the Enlightenment, when people got Enlightened, and it was actually a bit of a shock to find the roads lined with knobbly-kneed Catholics brandishing utterly unnecessary designer knobbly staffs, and Santiago full of healthy young Christians in shorts sublimating forbidden sexuality into vigorous mass hugging, or simply stomping around self-righteously with ostentatious rucksacks, getting in everyone’s way. Obviously – what with me being Enlightened an’ all – this isn’t really my area of expertise, but I can’t help feeling that any worthwhile god would be rather more impressed if these folk had spent their summer working in Oxfam, and maybe donating the price of a knobbly staff to charity, rather than going on a hiking holiday. Especially a hiking holiday to glorify a saint nicknamed Matamoros, slayer of Moors. I just feel it’s something we should, you know, play down a bit. The Muslim-killing stuff.

A shame, really, as Santiago is really rather beautiful, full of quiet arcaded squares and towering granite buildings softened with moss and lichen – a cross between Venice without the canals and Oxford without the public schoolboys. It also looks gorgeous in the rain, though I’d happily have settled for not knowing that.

Vigo is good too. The Cadogan says there’s nothing actually there, which there isn’t, other than a slightly scary Old Town which still seems inclined to cater mostly for the needs of frustrated sailors, but I think it knows that, and is all the better for it. Much like Stoke-on-Trent knows it’s not Birmingham or Manchester, so doesn’t bother competing. That said, Vigo has clearly decided to make a go of selling itself, and the Tourist Information Office offers several free guides. The one I have in front of me is divided into three sections: feel the call of history; feel the call of the city; feel the call of nature.

No, it really does say that. I’m not just scoring cheap xenophobic points. I did that earlier.

Vigo also has an excellent bus service. The 9A takes you to the airport.

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