Northern Spain: Thermal Baths and the Best Octopus in the World
January 1, 1970
by Tiahli Martyn
People often spend months planning travel. They’ll research cities, read through brochures, formulate a fool-proof itinerary, book everything. However, if there’s anything I learned from my trip to the north of Spain with my friend Mareike, it’s the beauty of flexibility.
The only real planning we did in advance was meet up for a coffee the week before we left while looking at a map of Spain and creating a makeshift order of cities we wanted to visit.
We booked our first five-hour bus from Salamanca, where we lived at the time, to our first destination: Ourense!
As much as I rave about flexibility, there is something to be said for organisation — our bus was at 2am and at 1am I was still haphazardly throwing things into a little suitcase, my backpack and handbag. Laden down with these weights I half walked, half ran to the bus stop in Salamanca, freaking out that I’d miss our ride and that Mareike would have to go enjoy some fresh pulpo a feira in Ourense without me. Luckily, my down-to-the-minute timing, what some, with reason, may call undeserved luck, got me there and we were away.
I have a feeling that a lot of you have probably never heard of Ourense, or Galicia. Why go there, you might ask, when the south of Spain is so beautiful or you could go relax on a beach in Tenerife? For me, though, travelling is rarely about just relaxing on a beach. Sure, that is amazing and now that I’m living in England where the weather is sub-par at best, sitting on a plane to Berlin where the sky is also going to be varying shades of grey, part of me can’t believe I’ve just written that… but my friend Luis, from Ourense, had mentioned it was home to the best octopus in the world. The deal was done at that point — New Zealand, where I come from, has amazing seafood, but proper octopus was one thing I’d never tried. If beaches are added on top of scenery, culture and fascinating history, then that’s brilliant, but even without them I’d be sold if there was good food on offer.
Additionally, Ourense is a volcanic city, so there is a selection of thermal baths dotted all around the place. Someone had mentioned to me that Galicia and much of the north of Spain is very much like New Zealand, but it didn’t truly hit home until I actually got there and found myself surrounded by green mountains and stretches of water.
Tired and a bit unsure, when we finally arrived at 6.45am, we made our way into the bus station for a coffee, hauling all our luggage along with us. It was still pitch black outside, and we weren’t sure how to get to the thermal baths or even where exactly we were in relation to the rest of the city. All we knew was that a soak in naturally heated, volcanic water and a lunch of fresh octopus was just what we needed. Our luck kicked in quite a bit when we looked up the baths that Luis had recommended: it was a short walk away from the bus station.
This was by far the BEST way to start our trip! I’d basically had no sleep on the bus and was feeling quite drained. There were three pools, naturally heated, with three different degrees of heat. Reike and I were the only young people in the vicinity, and definitely the only non-locals, but we struck up a conversation with a nice lady who explained that she came every week, and that it had helped her joint pain and skin. I too felt instantly relaxed and revived, so much so that we got a bit rebellious. Sitting in the pools surrounded by all the steam, we realised just what a fabulous photo opportunity this would be. Although the signs everywhere clearly stipulated that absolutely no phones were allowed in the area, I snuck my phone out and we had a bit of a photo shoot (official badass over here!). I won’t lie, it was totally worth it for the memories!
Luis had mentioned that if you really wanted a local’s experience of best octopus in the world, you had to go to the market places, where the pulpeiras come bringing their fresh catches and make it there for you on the spot. The only thing was, he’d said these markets only happened on a certain Tuesday of each month, are located outside of the classic touristy areas and are therefore only known to locals. By some stroke of luck, the day we were in Ourense just happened to be a fair day, and the thermal baths that we’d chosen to visit were located right next door!
The octopus was nothing like what I’d seen or tasted before. I’d previously only ever eaten squid and calamari, but the octopus was bright red and when you bought a ration, they served it by boiling it briefly in a huge vat, sliced it up, sprinkled it with olive oil, sea salt and cayenne pepper. It was truly delicious – perhaps a bit too much oil for my liking, but totally worth it for an authentic Galician experience. In other areas of Galicia, particularly if you eat in a restaurant, the custom is to eat the octopus with potatoes.
After our thermal bath and octopus eating experience, we started walking towards the centre of the town. Our morning plans had lined up so perfectly, but then we got a bit lost, and asked several people for directions. Until that point, I’d been taking for granted the fact that I speak Spanish, but now when I stop and think about it, I’m incredibly thankful for my Salamanca experience. I reckon I could have survived with what I’d learned in school and university, but in terms of fluency, the pre-Salamanca-Tilly definitely needed some work!
I won’t say Ourense is the most beautiful city I visited, but the historical centre was charming. We walked around, went up to a mirador (viewing platform) with a gorgeous panorama out over the hills and the city below. The buildings in Galicia have a distinct look to them.
There are a host of great cafés, tapas bars and general nightlife to enjoy in Ourense. Since we were only just passing through for the day, we unfortunately didn’t get to sample much of this side of the city. However, Café Bohemio served up an amazing, orangey chocolate caliente. All over Spain, the hot chocolate is thick and delicious, nothing like what I was initially used to back home.
Walking across bridges crossing over the river below, alongside the motorway, surrounded by mountains, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of déjà vu. It was as if I were walking through Grafton, an area of Auckland! If you’re an Aucklander, that probably won’t make you want to visit Ourense, but it was honestly worth it for the experience of being a local for the day at the baths and the octopus fair!
A few things to consider
Ourense is a good day trip on the way to or from Santiago de Compostela, if you’d rather not spend a night.
Remember to look up online what day the pulpo fair is happening, before your visit, so you’re prepared to sample the best in the world!