Pontevedra is well worth a night’s stop if you’re travelling between Santiago de Compostela and Vigo. The main attraction for me was that traffic is banished from most of the city centre. The current mayor first came into office in 1999 and his philosophy was simple: private property – the car – should not occupy the public space. Within a month, he had pedestrianised all 300,000 square metres of the zona monumental – the medieval centre – paving the streets with granite flagstones.
Cars were stopped from crossing the city and street parking was banned – people looking for places to park cause the most congestion. All surface car parks in the centre were closed and underground ones were opened, with 1,686 free places. Traffic lights were removed in favour of roundabouts, and traffic calming measures were introduced in the outer zones to bring the speed limit down to 30 km/h.
The benefits were and continue to be many. Thirty people died in traffic accidents from 1996 to 2006, but there have been no fatalities since 2009. CO2 emissions are down seventy percent. Three-quarters of what were car journeys are now made on foot or by bicycle, and central Pontevedra has gained 12,000 new inhabitants, whereas the tendency in Galicia is for towns to be losing people.
Small businesses have managed to stay afloat because passers-by are on foot rather than in cars and so can window shop and pop into a store to make a quick purchase or buy an item to drink or eat.
I witnessed the same effect in Athens in Greece. People can be more attentive to their surroundings rather than watching out for cars and making sure they don’t bump into other people on the narrow pavement. There’s more room to breathe and the air is less full of pollutants and toxic fumes from stationary vehicles, making the atmosphere more pleasant.
Before this scheme came into effect, more cars passed through the city in a day than there were people living there. Now, most people, like me, walk everywhere. This additional exercise will benefit people’s health and I didn’t see very many overweight people during my stay.
Two adjoining squares, the Praza da Peregrina and the Praza da Ferreira, are well worth seeing. In the Praza da Peregrina stands the chapel, the Santuario de la Peregrina, for travellers on their way to Santiago de Compostela. The floor plan is in the shape of a scallop shell and the building is built in the Baroque style.
The Praza da Ferreira shows the benefits of the pedestrianisation of the city. There are arcades, cafes, fountains, and gardens that can all be admired in peace, along with the facade of the San Francisco church.
The Alameda is a promenade that takes you away from the centre towards the river. There are many splendid buildings here, starting with the town hall, the ruins of the San Domingo church, the provincial council building for Pontevedra, followed by the administrative building for the provincial council. There is also a statue of Christopher Columbus here. The flagship on his famous 1492 journey to the New World, the Santa Maria, was built in Pontevedra.
The Museo de Pontevedra is well worth visiting, even though you might have the place to yourself. Originally, the museum was in two houses in the beautiful Praza da Lena, but the collection now seems to have moved one hundred metres away to the east and is housed in a glass-sided building called the Sexto. There are rooms full of paintings by Galician artists, displays of Roman finds, and the contents of hoards including gold rings and bracelets.
The most interesting section is that devoted to the Galician writer and artist Alfonso Castelao, who was driven into exile during the Spanish Civil War and died in Argentina in 1950. He was an excellent cartoonist and his paintings depict rural Galicia and the horrors of war.