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If you consider Spain a hot, arid country, a visit to Vigo (the main port of its Galicia region) may change your mind. Set between the Atlantic Ocean and snowcapped mountains, with Portugal to its south and the bulk of mainland Spain to the east, Galicia's cooler, damper climate has earned it the nickname of "The Green Spain" and made it a popular retreat for Spaniards keen to evade the searing summer heat, enjoy lush country scenery and tuck into some of the world's freshest and finest seafood.
For cruisers, this means Vigo is the place to be if you want to experience the "real" Spain, meet the locals and explore an area largely unadulterated by mass tourism. The adventure begins right at the waterfront, whence Old Vigo rises, tiered, to the citadel of El Castro -- one of three, which originally guarded the Spanish city.
They were all necessary; Galicia has played unwilling host to successive hordes of invaders including the Celts, the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors, the French and the British, who made a habit of invading Galicia between the 14th and 19th centuries, with Sir Francis Drake famously taking the city (for a while, at least) in 1589.
If you have a strong sense of history, you'll find they've all left their ghosts behind in Vigo's gray walls and steep streets. The old Ribera del Berbes fishing quarter -- right at the bottom of the hill opposite the port -- dates from the reign of Philip IV in the mid-17th century and is particularly atmospheric.
Though there is plenty to see further afield -- like the charming 15th-century fishing village of Bayona La Real, the stylish Galician spa resort of La Toja Island or the Samil Sands beach -- my tip for first-time visitors to Vigo would be to save the day for exploring the old city's cobbled streets and squares. After all, this fine old city has been proclaimed a Spanish National Monument! Visit its fine neo-classical Cathedral of Santa Maria (just behind the fish market) and simply lap up its atmosphere.
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Spanish, obviously -- and in this remarkably un-touristy part of Spain you will need a good phrase book. In some areas even that won't be enough, as some rural villagers speak both Galego (the local dialect) and Castilian, or a confusing mix of the two! Your best bet is to smile a lot and remember the basics you need to mind your manners: hola and adios (hello and goodbye); por favor and gracias (please and thank you); cuanto cuesta? (how much?); and, possibly the most useful of all, habla usted Ingles? (do you speak English?).
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the euro (see www.oanda.com or www.xe.com for latest conversion rates).
If you've run out of cash and don't want to change money on your ship, there are banks and ATM's in Vigo. But since its streets are steep and winding, and although the town is very close to the port, you may not want to schlep -- so think ahead and get cash in advance of your call if possible.
Pick up a bottle of Ribiero: a delicious sparkling local wine the Galicians usually serve very chilled in porcelain cups.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock at the Muelle de Transatlanticos, which is right on the doorstep of this fortress city. Just cross the palm tree-lined Avenida del Castillo waterfront promenade and you're there.
Don't waste any time at the port itself -- it's just a collection of car parks. Cruise stays in Vigo tend to be fairly brief, so get going and make the most of it.
By Cab: Taxis gather at a rank just outside the port gates and all are metered (look for the green light which signals they're free to pick up a fare).
By Rail: The main railway station, Plaza de la Estacion, is around a five-minute taxi ride (about 8 euros) away, and there is a Europcar outlet at the station -- though as a cruise visitor you'll never have time to use it.
Watch Out For
Heavy traffic as you cross the Avenida from the port as well as pungent stands, which can make the going queasy in the fish market!
Calle de la Pescaderia, otherwise known as the fish market, is worth strolling through (unless you really can't bear the smell) as it's very atmospheric and colorful, one of the best stocked in Europe and the area for seafood lovers in search of a fine fresh lunch.
Take a stroll along one of Vigo's most historic streets, the Calle (or Rua) Real, which was the main thoroughfare of the old city. It is lined with traditional Galician houses and lies at the heart of the National Monument area.
At the end of the street is Alameda Square, home to the Casa des Arines, a fine example of the highly ornate Galician style of architecture; Calle de los Cesteros (the Street of the Basketmakers) features -- as its name suggests -- many little shops selling local basketwork. You'll find it behind the fish market, a few steps away from the Santa Maria Cathedral, which is also worth a peek as it features some beautiful 16th-century mosaics.
Climb up La Guia Hill for a fabulous view of the city and the Rande Straits. And while you're there, don't miss the sanctuary of the Vergin de las Nieves (Our Lady of the Snows) and the Castrelos Palace Museum, which features artifacts from prehistory to the Middle Ages.
Been There, Done That
Visit the Vigo Zoo on Vigo's third hill, Madroa. It's set in lovely countryside and makes for a good afternoon out, offering not only the chance to meet 400 animals of 1,250 different species, but also a cafe, a craft shop and fine views across the Vigo Estuary. It's open 11 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. November 1 through March 31, and from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m. April 1 through October 31.
Get out of town! The world-famous shrine of Santiago de Compostela -- which was, in medieval times, Christianity's third most important place of pilgrimage after Jerusalem and Rome -- lies nearly 60 miles north of Vigo, while closer to hand (at 12.43 miles) is the pretty fishing village of Bayona La Real, famed for its 12th-century church and a 16th-century castle (now a hotel).
Play nine-hole golf, enjoy medicinal spring waters, stroll through dense forests or wallow on golden beaches at La Toja, a gorgeous island resort about 40 miles north of Vigo, which is famed for its thermal springs and sea-mineral based spa treatments.
Love seafood? You'll be spoilt for choice in Vigo; the Galicians love their food plucked straight from the ocean -- and serve it up in style.
Close to the Port: You'll find exquisite oysters at Meson Los Arcos, Bajada a la Fuente and Bar Cocadero Le Piedra, all of which are to be found on Calle de Pescaderia -- look just behind the open air stalls where oyster sellers lay out their wares on granite slabs.
At Plaza de Compostela: This square is worth putting in your little black food book as it features many fine restaurants and food bars, including the Meson Jamoneria (famed for its tapas), La Yuca and La Cata. If you should fancy Chinese food, you'll find it at the Shanghai Restaurant, also on Plaza de Compostela.
Editor's note: Like most Vigoan restaurants, these are open lunch times (noon until 3 p.m.) and the best way to pick the right one for you is to stroll along the Calle or around the square, read the menu boards and follow your favorite aroma. Even if you're heading back to your ship for lunch, it's worth splitting a plate of freshly harvested oysters with crusty local bread as a starter -- they're too good to miss.
For a Real Blowout: Head for El Mosquito on Plaza Villavicencio, where a typical local meal of oysters, arroz de vieiras (rice with shellfish) and sweet eggy tart (tarta de yema) is to be had for around $80.
For Strollers: A 3.5-hour trip to the pretty 15th-century fishing village of Bayona La Real allows time to explore its old quarter on foot, before enjoying a glass of wine and some traditional tapas -- with a fine view across the bay -- at the 16th-century fortress, now a parador (Spanish character hotel).
Best for Shoppers: Take a 4.5-hour scenic coach drive to the thermal spa resort of La Toja Island, which is connected to the mainland by a bridge. After a scenic coastal drive, the tour visits La Toja's Hotel Balneario for a snack, wine and tapas, plus the chance to shop for mineral spa products or local crafts at a small market (just a 10-minute walk from the hotel).
Best for Pilgrims: A tour to Galicia's "jewel in the crown," the beautiful medieval city of Santiago de Compostela, includes a call at Santiago (St. James') Cathedral. The cathedral was built on the spot where the apostle's remains were discovered in the 9th-century and is now a focal point for more than half a million pilgrims a year. 5 hours.
Best for Wine Buffs: A 4-hour tour of Galicia's Agro de Bazan winery and Paze de Carrasquiera vineyard is offered; participants have the opportunity to taste a wide range of local wines.
Best for Families: Kids and adults will enjoy a 3.5-hour trip to Samil Sands, a golden sand beach just south of Vigo; there's safe swimming with plenty of cafes and ice cream bars at hand for refreshments.
Staying in Touch
There are two Internet cafes within easy reach of the port: Ciber Station (at 3 Plaza de la Princesa) and Locutorio y Internet (at 22 Canovas del Castillo). Expect to pay around 50 cents for 15 minutes or 2 euros for an hour online (much cheaper than ship rates!).
For More Information
Call The Spanish National Tourist Office at 44-207-486-8077.
Visit www.tourspain.co.uk or www.spain.info
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--by Maria Harding, Cruise Critic's England-based correspondent, also writes for The Times of London and The Daily Telegraph.
Image of Alameda Square appears courtesy of www.vigoenfotos.com. Image of La Toja appears courtesy of www.jpmoser.com/granhotellatoja.html.