By Tim McGrath
“Hey, don’t be stupid. Experience life; go out and have some fun, Curtis….” Freshman Hop scene from American Graffiti
The Big, Beautiful world…
Spain was on my short list of places to travel. Flamenco, olive oil, paella, intriguing art and architecture, cycling in and through beautiful countryside, the chance to hone my Spanish speaking chops; what’s not to get excited about? So, when we put our dinero down on the trip to first visit Sevilla, then bicycle the Andalusian region, and end our trip visiting Barcelona, I conjured images of being completely immersed in the culture and geography of this faraway place. And, as the trip unfolded I was not disappointed.
Our group of nineteen wandered, explored, and visited the beautiful city of Seville at the outset of our little adventure. As we picked our way through winding narrow streets and lanes, we enjoyed the life and rhythms of this ancient European city, sat at outdoor cafes eating rich paella while sipping icy cold cerveza and Sangria. We marveled at the architecture of places in the city, asking: “How’d they do that?” when visiting the Cathedral of Seville and the adjoining Alcazar. Buildings that were begun in the fifteenth century, still considered engineering marvels all this time later. I’ll tell you, that’s something to experience, my friends.
Grinding our way up the endlessly winding hills, then swooping down the backside for kilometer after kilometer through ancient and beautifully tended vineyards, and olive and orange groves on bicycles became the next leg of nuestra aventura. Cycling through small towns and villages, trying to find a servicio in a place where the town is silent as the locals enjoy a mid-day siesta during the heat of the day. Visiting unique places in towns that trace their history to the Romans. All of this, and more, became our lives for a week. Warm, cobalt-blue sky days, olive oil and wine tasting, mixed in with the discovery of a castle just around the next twist in the ever changing landscape was at the heart of each day’s riding. Then, at the end of a long day cycling, winding up in a richly unique hotel. It was a “pinch-me-is-this-for-real?” experience.
But, alas, those idyllic days came to an end, and we said our goodbyes to the bikes, our estimable guides, JC and Alex, and eleven of our compadres who elected to skip the post-cycling trip to Barcelona. So, Thursday came, and on to Barcelona we went.
Friday: a no-good, very bad, but interesting day
They warned us every time we stepped out of the Hotel Olivia in the heart of Barcelona. “Senoras, you must carry your bags in front, never behind you. Senors, you too, must not carry valuables in back pockets.” Ah, Barcelona, the pickpocket capital of Spain. And, as we’d soon find out, it lived up to its reputation.
The Metro, Barcelona’s subway, was more packed than usual this Friday morning due to a general strike in the region, giving the phrase “cheek-to-cheek” a new and somewhat awkward meaning. But, since we only had a couple of days to explore the city, we got tickets and headed through the turnstile, ready to face the crush. An older woman stepped in front of our group, once again warning the senoras to keep bags in front, even demonstrating the correct positioning of said bag. We stood out like sore thumbs.
As the door closed on the mass of humanity crammed in the train, we huddled together, bags in front, nothing in back pockets. That’s when I saw the young guy slide up behind one of our group, getting very close, weirdly close. I looked down and noticed our companion had taken his zippered money pouch, tied the lanyard to his belt loop, then jammed the pouch into his front pocket, heeding the warning about back pockets. I glanced away for a moment, then looked back. The pouch was out of his pocket.
“Gary, your wallet!” I yelled grabbing the pouch, which dangled pathetically from its lanyard. “I think that kid got you!” And, just like that the kid disappeared; a zephyr vanishing into the crowd.
The doors opened, the crush of people spilled out onto the platform, and as we all stood there, it was painfully evident: our little friend had disappeared with mucho dinero from the money pouch. In seconds he had taken the pouch out of the pocket, unzipped both pockets on it, got the money and disappeared out the door. Thankfully, no credit cards were gone, but we all stood slack jawed in disbelief at what had happened. A couple wide-eyed young Barcelonan kids came up to us: “Are you OK?” one of the kids asked. “We saw him come up to you, and worried he would steal from you. We are sorry this has happened; this is not who we are. But, there are very many pickpockets in Barcelona.” Right on.
As maddeningly frustrating as it was, though, it was only a bit of cash. And, no one had got a knife in the back.
But, wait, there’s more
The general strike had been called in the region this Friday in protest of the trial and jailing of the very popular leaders of a large separatist movement in Catalonia, Barcelona being its capital. As a result, many massive demonstrations were occurring throughout the city, most of which had been peaceful and orderly. It was interesting to observe them as we moved around the city, and learn the reasons for the protests: part of the cultural experience that comes with international travel. After the pickpocketing fiasco, though, we’d have settled for calm and touristy.
Miguel and Rosa, native Barcelonans whom we’d met through some interesting circumstances as they were hiking the North Country Trail in Newaygo late in the summer, came to the hotel late in the afternoon to show us around a part of the city that had wonderful architecture and history. Later, we’d then travel to their neighborhood for a late dinner. We’d heard a large protest was set to begin at 6:00 in the city center, which also just happened to be directly across the street from our hotel.
“Yes, we’ve heard this, also”, Rosa said. “But, it will be fine; this is Barcelona. There will be loud protests, but nothing to worry about”. Michael agreed with a flourish of the hand.
“It’s all OK, not to worry”.
OK by me, then. So off we went.
As we toured the section of the city they’d taken us to, it became apparent the action was already heating up in the city center. Police helicopters, swarms of small Spanish police cars, their blue lights flashing and the peculiar HEE-HAW sirens wailing, roared around us from different directions.
“Ha, ha, not to worry, we’ll be fine!” our hosts assured us.
Dinner with Miguel, Rosa, their two kids, and a friend from the city was magnificent. Paella, assorted fish dishes, and richly sparkling Spanish wines made pickpockets and protests a dim memory.
The plan was to take taxis back to our hotel after dinner.
“The taxis do not want to take us back into the city”, Rosa calmly commented. “There are many demonstrations there, and riots are breaking out. But, I will keep trying.”
Five minutes later: “ I have found one that will take us, but you will have to walk maybe a kilometer to your hotel. The driver will not risk trying to get to your hotel, as that’s where the riots are happening. Miguel will go with you to show the way.”
When the taxi arrived, half of the group hopped in, and the friend of Rosa and Miguel’s offered to take the rest of us. So, off we went into the unknown. The last little bubbles from the wine sadly popped and disappeared….
Getting out of the car at the drop off, we immediately found ourselves in a chaotic scene. Protesters now turned rioters were running everywhere. An acrid haze hung in the air from trash fires burning in the streets. A newspaper kiosk set ablaze was crumbling into rubble just down the block. Loud bangs from riot police shooting foam bullets added to the charged atmosphere. Miguel got us all in a group.
“Stay together, and follow me. I will get you to your hotel!” Miguel said.
Up one street, then down the other our group went. We ran with the tidal wave of protesters escaping from the police. Huge sanitation trucks with plows roared through the streets shoving smoldering piles of garbage out of the way. A water cannon truck sprayed bursts of water into the crowds, the smell of tear gas permeating everything. On we went, like mice in a maze trying to find the treat at the end. In a way it was comical. A group of older American tourists running along with the rioters trying not to get caught by the cops. There was a Three Stooges quality to the whole thing.
Turning a corner we spotted it through the haze: the Hotel Olivia less than a block away. And, there was also a line of riot police in full gear waving batons and riot guns at us warning us not to come closer. Our futile gestures about getting to the hotel only agitated one of them, who started toward us ready to use the ugly looking baton. But, in the next instant, the entire line of them backed up, riot–police-style, into their cars and whizzed off in another direction leaving the way clear for us to get to the Hotel Olivia.
The hotel doorman let us in through the barricaded entrance into the calm of the lobby. We thanked Miguel for risking his safety for leading us here. The reality is, of course, if it hadn’t been for him, I’m not sure how we would’ve found our way back in all the chaos. We offered to put him up in the hotel, but he wouldn’t hear of it. Said his goodnites, see you tomorrow, and off he went into the night. Rosa and her friend connected with him several blocks away.
What a magnificent experience it was. The beauty of the country as seen from the seat of a bicycle, the history, art, architecture, food, wine, and the people. Oh, the people. So welcoming, accommodating, and helpful.
So there you have it. Taking the good with the bad, the ugly with the beautiful, the calm with the chaotic; just part of the journey.
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