Daniel is traveling tonight on a plane…I can see the red tail lights heading for Spain. Jane says, “I’m going away to Spain when I get some money saved.” I’ve never been to Spain, but I kinda like the music.
You now know pretty much all ArchivistPhil knew of Spain prior to a week-long trip I just took to that nation. Yup, three little pop songs referring to a country with roots going back as far as 35,000 years. Who says archivists can’t be uncultured boors?
The roots of my visit only go back about 11 months. You see, in addition to archiving, I do a lot of cycling. This has led quite naturally to my doing lots of cycling advocacy, and in 2017, I was invited to attend the annual conference of a national organization called People for Bikes. During that conference I was made aware of two study tours being planned for 2018: one in June (in The Netherlands) and the other in April (in Spain). Unlike the conference, which featured a lot of sitting around and talking about bikes, the study tours would involve a lot of riding the streets and experiencing the transit systems first hand. When attendees were asked for any interest, I felt a lightning-quick jolt as something whizzed past my ear. I looked up and recognized my arm, waving frantically over my head.
That was last June. When I hadn’t heard any news by February, I made a few inquiries and found that all spots (limited to about 30 persons per location) had rapidly filled on both tours. Was I bummed? Yes, I was. But since I have a buddy in The Netherlands who’d extended an invite, and was free around the same time of the June study tour, my wife and I made our own vacation plans. Hey, why not? It had already been almost two years since my last vacation.
The ink had barely dried on our plane tickets (okay, I made that part up for dramatic effect; we really had electronic boarding passes) when the phone rang and I was offered a surprise slot on one of the study tours. *Gulp* Please don’t tell me I just bought round-trip plane tickets to Amsterdam for nothing, I prayed. My prayers were answered when I learned it was Spain; I’d be going to both study sites after all. We uncultured boors have all the luck!
Speaking of uncultured, when offered the slot, I was asked “How’s your Spanish?” With as little consultation as my arm had given before volunteering the rest of me to participate, I quickly heard my mouth replying “Oh…great! Yeah, um, well, I mean, you know, pretty good.” Meanwhile, all I really could think of was this. Muy terrifico, Señor Archivoso. I tried to remind myself how lots of people around the world speak English and are kind to visiting boors, and started planning and packing for the trip.
The Spain tour was to consist of half a week in Seville, followed by another half in Barcelona. These two cities were chosen because they have been universally recognized for tremendous changes in their transit systems in the past decade, particularly in the increase of cycling infrastructure. Along with a few colleagues from NYC, delegates from Denver, Los Angeles, and Portland, OR were attending to soak up innovations and brainstorm for our home cities in the USA.
Of course, it simply would not be an ArchivistPhil trip without some small amount of hysteria. Firstly, let me just say it’s not a bad idea to get a medical checkup before a big trip…unless it is a bad idea. Which it most definitely is, if your last-minute test results indicate the very possible flare-up of a non-life threatening but potentially excruciating condition during your trip. The idea of being in supreme pain while abroad was bad enough; my biggest fear was having an episode during my 7-hour flight. I considered scrapping the trip for about a day and then realized there was no way I wanted to miss it. Armed with the best pharmaceuticals I could afford (and could find on two days’ notice before taking off), I brushed up on my TM and hoped for the best. Whilst I did not appreciate the moving-map on my seat back screen featuring the Titanic and other historic disasters along the no-land zone, our red-eye arrived unscathed in Lisbon, followed by a fun propeller-driven jaunt over the border, down to Andalusia.
Although well aware of my linguistic shortcomings prior to the trip, I figured the worst possible scenario would consist of me somehow separated off the back of my cycling group with a flat tire, followed by hours of my best pantomime proffered to shrugging, non-English speaking locals passing by. What I had NOT anticipated was getting hopelessly lost in the hotel. It all began when I arrived from the airport with my three NYC associates. We checked in at the lobby and when a porter appeared, he gestured for one of our party to wait while he showed the other two and myself to our rooms. That should have been a clue of what was to follow.
Thus began a very long and convoluted journey for 75% of our entourage through some very stately hallways, at times entering lovely courtyards with fountains, then suddenly descending into subterranean tunnels lined with ancient looking rocks. These rustic passages eventually gave way to underground museum exhibits of exquisite Sevillian artifacts behind glass, and finally a modern, full-service spa for guests, before reemerging into daylight at a semblance of the hotel we’d checked into some considerable time earlier. I breathed a small sigh of relief as we finally stopped before an elevator, but tensed up a bit again when our guide announced the other two had rooms nearby and were to wait at the elevator while he delivered me to my room, which was…elsewhere.
I reluctantly followed as we began a new trek through an ever-narrowing labyrinth of corridors. At first, having no breadcrumbs to leave a trail with, I attempted to take note of the odd Roman statue here, or the quaint Moorish saddle refashioned into a bench there. But after crossing several hundred landings and climbing a few dozen staircases I realized I was done for. I was also confused since the hotel certainly had looked much smaller from the street. Finally, as I wondered if I would ever find my way out in time for our connecting flight two days later, we reached a dark dead end, with a single door between a broom closet and a staircase. Was this remote banishing a punishment for lying about my fluency?
The room was nice enough, but following a quick catnap, I made sure to leave in plenty of time when meeting the group for dinner in the lobby. Even so, once I was officially declared MIA sometime later, I required rescuing from the catacombs by one of the organizers, who wisely had scouted out the floor plan a few days in advance. After dinner (btw, the seafood in Seville is incredibly fresh, beautifully prepared and some of the best I’ve ever tasted) I sheepishly asked the night shift staff in the hotel lobby to help me find my room. As they gave me the clerk smirk reserved for boors, I was briskly led up two short walkways and one small flight of stairs to my room, which actually was located only 50 meters and a minute’s walk from the desk. Yo no se…
To call Seville a beautiful city would be muy insuficiente. Richly historic and visually striking, it was impossible to escape its charms, even though our itinerary was bursting at the seams. Aside from hours reserved for sleep (and I mean far fewer than 8 hours per night) we had virtually no free time to run off and sight-see. This was truly a business trip, albeit a very fun one that often rolled along on two wheels. So we needed to indulge any tourists’ whims on the go. I brought no camera with me, relying only upon my recently upgraded smartphone, typically grabbing quick snapshots whenever we stopped at a red light. But with Moorish architecture dating back a thousand years, winding narrow cobblestone streets, Mediterranean palm trees and huge wisterias everywhere one looked, it wasn’t too hard to capture a few nice souvenir shots.
The transit system did not disappoint, either. As a long time cyclist in NYC, I started out riding here years ago, with no bike lanes at all, then watched as first a few and then many lanes have been added to the city’s streets. But many issues remain problematic; chief among these is the way even the best bike lanes can terminate abruptly, leaving riders virtually stranded. Even continuous lanes can seem precarious in NYC when one enters an intersection, where cyclists can truly feel as though they have been suddenly abandoned by infrastructure and thrown to the wolves. In Seville, this was not the case; bike lane markings extended clearly across intersections and motorists displayed admirable patience in complying with laws giving cyclists and pedestrians the right of way. The feeling of riding safely through the busiest streets of a city, even one small in comparison to New York, left a lasting impression on me.
Ironically, back home in NYC I ordinarily ride a much more modern, flashy bike, which happens to be made by a former firearms company from the Basque country. While seldom seen in the USA, I soon found these Orbeas are as ubiquitous in Spain as a Schwinn or Trek is in America.
Seville’s impressive recent changes extended to areas beyond the main roads. The city’s many historic town squares and plazas had sadly been relegated to parking lots in the latter half of the twentieth century. Today, they have been liberated for use by people; on our trip we saw tourists and locals alike enjoying the rejuvenated, historically fascinating and aesthetically breathtaking spaces. Automobiles are not necessarily barred from passing through these locations, but speed limits are very low, and pedestrians and cyclists are given priority. I felt completely safe while craning my neck up at a glorious old church and its awe-inspiring tower in one of these areas, and was told by our local guide that people congregate safely here through the day and night.
The rain stayed mainly on the plains through most of our bike ride in Seville – but we got this view (from a bike lane on Puente de Triana) as compensation immediately afterward. Not too shabby! But we were glad to get back indoors for a hot shower and dry clothes.
As I say, the hotel in Seville was very charming although to be completely honest the ornate furniture, gilt trim and overall decor oozing duende was a bit much for my tastes. I won’t go so far as to say I was creeped out by it, but I do admit, as a boorish traveler, I was a little confused by various unfamiliar contraptions and whatnot in the restroom. Let’s just say I only used about 50% of what was in there and managed to not flood the hotel and leave it at that. I also can vouch that there is a difference between high quality, UL-approved Type A/110V-to-Type F/220V AC adapters that cost $10 and the flimsy, unmarked ones at the 99-cent store in Queens, but no matter how red hot the cheap one would get, I also didn’t burn down the hotel.
But just when you think you have troubles…
Turns out, the Denver contingent missed the entire first day in Seville due to – wait for it – an in-flight medical emergency which required an unplanned early detour landing. Yikes. They made it to us by day two, but their luggage did not arrive in Seville until we were about to depart for our midweek plane to Barcelona. Would bad luck follow this part of our troupe onto the next leg of the tour? I took some extra deep calming breaths at the airport gate, did several rechecks of my medications before boarding and hoped any bad aviation vibes had been exhausted. Barcelona, here we come!
All photos © 2018 ArchivistPhil, unless specified otherwise.