I had no idea that Ferrol even existed until the day the cruise ship I was working on docked here. (Surprise!!) Situated in the North West of Spain on the country’s Galician coast, this isn’t a city that people tend to head to for a beach or city break, despite the fact that the surrounding countryside is beautiful. All of my experience of Spain until that point had been of the country’s South coast, Catalunya or the Canary Islands. Ferrol is a massive contrast to these sun-drenched Mediterranean spots: rugged, industrial, and some would say (I would disagree), ugly. I suppose beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Streets are quiet and sometimes run-down, and in a couple of hours wandering you’ll likely come across only a few people. An old man smoking on a street corner, a lady pushing a pram to the park, or a waitress popping outside to grab a delivery of food. I’ll be honest, it took me a few visits to the city to warm to it, but the unique architecture, intriguing history and delicious food all combined to make me see it in a whole new light. It may not be a tourist hotspot, but if you’re a fan of wandering and photographing like I am then I strongly believe Ferrol to be a gem. Let’s face it- the main reason most tourists arrive here is because they’re on a cruise ship happening to stop here before going somewhere considered to be far more interesting– but allow me to introduce you to this fascinating little city regardless, and you can make up your own mind.
Ships and sails and sealing wax
The geographical location of Ferrol makes it one of the best natural ports in Europe, sheltering it from the choppy old Atlantic waters- which can be rather on the savage side- and providing a safe haven for the ships nestling within it. During the glory days of the Spanish Armada, enemy troops had no safe way of getting onto the shore from the rocky coastline, and as long as the tide and the winds were right, the Spanish could deploy a whole fleet of ships quickly and efficiently before the enemy could do anything about it.
By the 18th century Ferrol had become an important ship-building city, home to ship yards and a Royal Naval base, and this remains the case right up to the present day. They are all about that ship-building, ship-sailing life, and there’s evidence of this all across the city. A short walk from the Ferrol cruise terminal is the Museo Naval, home to a whole collection of ships old and new…you can’t miss it because of the massive collection of anchors outside.
If you fancy looking out across the old Royal Naval Arsenal, you can head up to Herrera Gardens. Whilst the view is definitely not a classically pretty one- in fact it’s pretty much the exact opposite- there’s something about the atmosphere up here that I appreciate every time I visit the city. There’s barely another soul to be seen, and there’s something about the deserted-ness of the area and the slightly scuffed buildings that all make me feel as if I’m in a slightly ominous parallel universe. (‘Come to Ferrol!! For an ominous step into a parallel universe!!’ isn’t the greatest tag line, but I am a true genuine fan of the city for its quiet refusal to gloss-up for the cruise passengers it welcomes)
Entry price for Museo Naval Ferrol: free for the outdoor part, €2 for the indoor part. The museum is closed on Mondays.
The Franco Connection
When I first arrived and googled ‘what is Ferrol famous for?’ the top search result was that Ferrol is famous for being the birthplace of Franco. AWKWARD. The house he was born in is located within the city, and the men in his family were all part of the navy that Ferrol is known for.
For those not clued up on Spain’s recent history, with the help of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, Franco brutally executed as many as 200,000 of his opponents and won the Spanish Civil War. He rose to power as a result, assuming a dictatorship over the country with a regime of fear, oppression and violence, which lasted until he died in 1975. During his rule, the city was temporarily renamed ‘El Ferrol de Caudillo’ which translates as ‘The Leader’s Ferrol,’ and until just over a decade ago, there was still a statue of the dictator in Ferrol, although finally after years of being attacked with paint and explosives, the statue was removed.
Although it’s essentially a fairytale (albeit an extremely dark, twisted one), the movie Pan’s Labyrinth is a great introduction to Francoist Spain, and if you fancy watching an incredible film mixed in with a bit of background info on the era, I STRONGLY RECOMMEND IT.
Architectural gems galore
My absolute favourite thing about the city of Ferrol is its amazing architecture. The tiny Magdalena neighbourhood, again located within walking distance of the port, was built at a time when the shipbuilding business was booming and more housing was desperately called for. However, they didn’t just slap these houses up without a thought for their aesthetic in the way that they do nowadays. Known locally as ‘the chocolate bar’ due to its grid layout, Magdalena is crammed full of stunning glass-fronted balconies, with each house uniquely designed from the next. The glass balconies are called ‘galerías,’ and actually originated on the ships that were being built in Ferrol during the 17th and 18th centuries. A glass front on a ship meant that visibility in stormy weather would be massively improved, and some bright spark decided that it would be a brilliant idea to whack one of these on the front of the houses they were building. Genius I tell you!
It’s clear when wandering around these pretty streets that not all of the buildings have been well-maintained, and there are a few empty fallen-down shells being overtaken with plant life and possibly a person or two. Still as sad as it is to see a building crumbling away, it all adds to the beautiful but eery atmosphere, especially when the streets are so silent.
The all important question…what should you eat in Ferrol?
The one type of food that you have to eat in Ferrol (and in fact, within the entire region of Galícia), is basically any type of seafood. For a city that relies heavily on its nautical roots, it goes without saying that fishing is also an important industry, meaning that you can get some full on DA BOMB fresh fish dishes in just about any restaurant. Octopus a feira is a local dish made with octopus (duh), boiled potatoes and paprika. And any kind of shellfish, be it mussels, scallops or even a barnacle or two, are hugely popular. And also absolutely delicious. The best place I’ve eaten so far in the city is at A Pousada das Animas, a beaut little family-run restaurant which seemed to be mostly full of locals; and we all know that if somewhere is full of locals, it’s a good sign. For coffee, pastries and sleek decor (plus good WiFi), head to Bla Bla Cafe.
So pals, it’s probs clear that Ferrol is a love-or-hate kind of a location. Whilst it might not be the kind of city you could easily spend more than a few days as a visitor, mainly as it’s just not geared towards tourists, it sits in an area of Spain which is absolutely stunningly beautiful. (I only know this because a local showed me the pictures and suggested renting a car to see more of it, which prompted a thorough googling) Although I’ve only been back to the city a total of three or four times over the last few years, it’s filled me with intrigue around what the rest of Galicia has to offer, and I’d love to go back and explore Ferrol and it’s surroundings at my own pace one day.
What you should know before you visit Ferrol
- The city is easily accessible from the cruise terminal, although some ships offer shuttle buses. (Which tend to completely bypass the Magdalena area)
- The closest airport is at the nearby city of A Coruña.
- A good day trip from the port of Ferrol is to the city of Santiago de Compostela (just over an hour by road, approximately an hour and a half by train).
- Ferrol is part of the ‘Camino Inglés,’ a pathway which English Christian pilgrims followed from either Ferrol or A Coruña to Santiago de Compostela; and these days people are still up for doing it!
- Although Summers in Ferrol are warm, this is not the same climate as the South of Spain where most holidaymakers head! Conditions can be cold and wet in winter, spring and autumn.
- Partly because of the lack of tourists, and partly because it’s in Spain and that’s the way they do things round here, food and drink is relatively cheap. Praise the Lord!!
- FYI- it’s pronounced ‘Ga-LITH-eeyah.’ Because in Spain, ‘c’ can sometimes be ‘th.’