Our very first ride is a wee 15-kilometre tour of Seville on locally rented bikes. They are too small, and a bit clunky, but have seats and the brakes work, so we’re off to explore the architecturally delightful, orange-tree-lined capital of Andalucía, founded by Hercules 2,200 years ago!
Never mind that we have a cycle tour guide who does not strike us as being overly concerned as to whether or not any of us make it back alive or in pieces.
Actually, mind that. I’m a little surprised that our plan is to cycle around Seville, which — while blessedly flat — is tricky to navigate, given high building walls that intentionally create as much shade as possible on street level, and a somewhat laissez-faire attitude toward posting street names. Also, the Old Town’s narrow, twisting lanes are cheek-to-jowl with sweaty, confused, annoying tourists.
I realize the irony in me saying so, but it doesn’t make it any less true — and a real issue for Spain, which is now the second most popular tourist destination in Europe (the first is London).
Don’t expect a friendly disposition from the locals in any of the big cities; as much as they need turista money, they’re tired of our crap.
Seville is spectacular. The travel writer in me desperately wants to unpack that statement, to tell you about the incredible sights, like the Giralda, Torre del Orro, Plaza de España, and the Alcázar. But I can’t without the help of Google, and that feels like cheating.
This is because at no time did our tour guide actually provide a tour, à la helpful and informative commentary on the wealth of history, architecture and culture on display.
We rode around Seville’s Old Town with our mouths agape, zipping past ancient monuments, shouting questions to Genci, who responded with vague shrugs or complicated explosive noises.
What I can tell you about Seville is this: there are many good reasons why Game of Thrones is filmed there.
Our first day riding out of town is on the Vía Verde de la Sierra, a 38-kilometre-long section of one of Spain’s many Vías Verdes (literally, “greenways”). It’s a very gentle start to our tour outside Seville, a nice way to get to know the physical and emotional rhythms of the rest of the group away from the crowds of tourists.
The greenways are found all over the country, a network of old railway lines turned into non-motorized routes for hikers and cyclists. Yes, exactly like the Galloping Goose and Lochside Trail, only without the giant banana slugs and blackberry thorns and MOTORIZED VEHICLES. What is it with scooter riders on CRD trails?!? I digress.
Nearly 2,500 km of Spain’s disused railway lines have been converted into 120 separate greenways. They don’t connect to each other, but they are a cyclist-adventurer’s dream ride because of their varied locations around the country, and because of the nature of non-existent trains.
That is to say, railway lines are built to accommodate huge, iron locomotives hauling heavy loads. Never mind that this particular railway never got around to actually running trains. The important point, at least from a middle-aged cyclist’s perspective, is that railways are always built as flat as possible.
One way to do that is to tunnel into the hills, and Vía Verde de la Sierra has 30 of them. The tunnels are kitted out with motion-detectors that activate subterranean lighting, which comes in handy (one tunnel is a kilometre long and would otherwise be as dark as the inside of one of the famous jamón ibéricos munching acorns on the hills above us).
It’s cool and slightly damp in the tunnels, which sounds terrible on the West Coast, but comes as blessed relief in the south of Spain: a cold flash of anti-menopause.
It’s not in the travel books, but these tunnels also have terrific acoustics. In one, we sing the national anthem of New Zealand — both English and Maori versions — with our new Kiwi friends. In the next, we sing the Canadian national anthem — both English and English versions — with our new Canuck friends. By mutual silent agreement, the lawyer from Chicago is on her own.
I have come to believe that cycle touring is best done in a group, especially a group of people from different countries and cultures. A “we’re in this together” camaraderie naturally develops over miles shared in the saddle, an international esprit du corps that proves the lie to the world’s petty tribalism. There’s nothing like travel to broaden the mind, and nothing like cycle touring to stave off broadening of the backside as well.
Here’s Mark Twain again on the subject (or Shania Twain, Gene Simmons, Don Cherry, whomever): “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all of one’s lifetime.”
Aside from the bonhomie, its physically safer to travel in a group. When I turned 50 I stopped believing the lie my 20-year-old self told — that I could use my fists to get out of any trouble. At 50 I know that it was never true, and I know that it sounds completely exhausting. The corollary application of this truth is that in a group somebody is always in the rear, and it’s not always me; I don’t have to be the fastest on the cycle tour, just the not very slowest.
Bully for Bugs
I can tell you a little about the magnificent donut-shaped building across from the Canal de Alfonso XIII, [on the south side of the Old Town] thanks to my wife’s super power: she is acutely aware of the day of the week, no matter the number of time zones crossed to get here. Es el domingo? No, es el sabado, which means that tonight — Saturday night — this two-storey white and yellow building is going to be packed to the rafters with tourists and locals alike. We are at the Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla, one of the oldest and most popular bullfighting rings in Spain. It opened in 1761, making this grand building a century older than my country.
We’re lucky. My wife scoops up the last two nosebleed seats in the 12,000 capacity bullring. The advantage of the furthest row of seats (not actual seats; you sit on a smooth concrete bench with painted lines to delineate where your fat tourist ass must stop) is that you can lean back against the cool plaster wall. The overhanging circular roof provides a little shade from the blisteringly hot sun, and is a convenient place for thick clouds of cigarette smoke to gather. Did I mention they smoke a lot here?
Traditional Spanish bullfighting is called corrida de toros ( “running of the bulls”), a highly ritualized event with three distinct stages, each of which is announced by a miniature mariachi band. You can look up the details if you want, but the gist is this: over the course of the evening, three strutting matadors in fancy pants each face two enormous, extremely angry bulls. The matadors demonstrate their prowess, bravery, and willingness to wear sequins, first by swishing a cape, and then by stabbing 600 kg of furious, testosterone-soaked toro.
You may have strong opinions on the morality of bullfighting. While I admit to a certain fondness for rabo del toro (Spanish bull tail stew), I’ve never given much thought to bullfighting itself. Honestly, I was thinking about the fanfare and the architecture (reminiscent of a Roman amphitheatre), and about Bugs Bunny — specifically the 1953 Warner Brothe’s cartoon “Bully for Bugs,” in which the heroic rabbit takes on a mean bull in a plaza de toros exactly like this one. What I was definitely not thinking about was the fact that (SPOILER ALERT) the bulls die at the end.
And so, I was taken unawares as dark blood poured onto golden sand after the killing estocada sword thrust. “Oh… The bull dies,” I said — out loud at a bullfighting arena. Like an idiot. But no one noticed. I’ve never seen crowds more emotionally engaged, shouting themselves raw and waiving little white hankies, as a team of burros dragged the bull carcass across the sand and out of the arena.
This is not the Calgary Stampede. The dark violence and risk of death gives bullfighting at least part of its meaning, and whether or not I can understand that meaning is irrelevant. This is not my country, not my culture, not my history. I am a guest here, so I keep my thoughts to myself and try to enjoy the spectacle of proud men with swords, strutting about the sand in sequinned fancy pants.
I realize it may seem callous to think of Bugs Bunny in the face of slaughter. But I think about Bugs Bunny every day, regardless of what’s going on around me. Looking at life through the lens of a cartoon anti-bully is not the worst approach. Also: you cope your way; I’ll cope mine.
So we quietly adopted a “when in Spain…” attitude, and promised not to tell anybody back home about bullfighting.
Next week: The author does not die.