Covering everything from the major news of the week and burning social issues, to expat living and la vida local, EL PAÍS’ team of English-language bloggers offers its opinions, observations and analysis on Spain and beyond.


Photo by José Palazón

Behind three towering fences, over razor wire, beyond the 10 foot-deep trench and past the police watchtowers lies Europe. Some attempt to scale the fence, risking serious injury, a beating or even death. Others protest. Recently, desperate Syrians have started to come here and shout at the border guards who they say work with local gangs to extort migrants and limit access to the other side, and with it the opportunity to request asylum. This is not Greece, Macedonia or Hungary, but Spain - and here the experience of a decade of tough border control has made clear the harsh reality the rest of the continent could be heading for as Europe tries to close its borders.

Migrants have been coming to Melilla - a 4.7-square-mile Spanish enclave in North Africa - for years with the hope of making it to Europe. Over the last decade, Spain has poured millions into ramping up border security in Melilla, which, along with the similarly tiny Ceuta, are the only two land borders between the European Union and Africa. Despite the investment, however, illegal attempts to cross the border remain frequent, as do deaths and claims of human rights abuses at the hands of police.

With Slovenia and Austria the latest countries to announce plans to build fences, learning the lessons of the successes and many failures of the Ceuta and Melilla fences - the “symbols of Fortress Europe,” according to Amnesty International - has never been more important.

Syrians only began coming here fairly recently, and in relatively small numbers compared to those traveling along the Eastern Mediterranean route, but African migrants have been coming to the northern tip of the continent for years and show no sign of stopping despite crossing the border becoming increasingly difficult and, seemingly, more dangerous. A steady stream of young men and boys - meeting someone over 30 is rare - make the perilous pilgrimage from across sub-Saharan Africa to the tip of the continent where they try their luck being smuggled inside car engines, navigating the coast in flimsy dinghies or, if they cannot afford these options, braving the razor wire and jumping the fence.

According to the Amnesty International report published this week “Fear and Fences: Europe’s Approach to Keeping Refugees at Bay,” the best way to deal with the refugee crisis and improve border security is to create formal, regulated avenues for applying for asylum. The current model, they say, is unnecessarily endangering the lives of hundreds of thousands and fueling the people smuggling economy.

October recorded more attempts than any other month so far this year, according to the Spanish Red Cross. In Ceuta, Spanish forces rescued 165 persons in 14 instances of migrants braving the challenging currents of the Strait of Gibraltar with the hope of reaching Spanish territory undetected. Two died and another is missing. In February 2014, Spanish police fired rubber bullets and smoke bombs as dozens of men attempted to swim the short distance around the breakaway that demarks the start of Ceuta. At least 14 drowned in the shallow waters mere feet from the shore. In October, a judge closed the case, ruling that there was insufficient evidence of police wrongdoing to justify a trial.

In Tangier I met a Cameroonian man who had been in Morocco for several years trying to reach Spain. He had tried jumping the fence, swimming and going by boat, but never made it.

Despite having seen several friends die along the way, he told me he would keep trying.

“We don’t want to take these risks,” he said. “We go because there is nothing here.”

Responding to the growing numbers of Syrians arriving at its gates Spain opened immigration offices at border crossings to process requests for asylum in early 2015. The centers were to facilitate the process and provide a safe alternative to the often fatal alternative routes to Europe.

Those who make it into Melilla, often after long periods on the other side, are housed only a few hundred feet from the fence that kept them out at the refugee processing center, known by its Spanish acronym CETI. The short distance between the border and the refugee center is dominated by an immaculately maintained golf course, its verdant dark lawn stretching to the very frontier of Spanish territory before promptly giving up as it meets the fence. The stillness of the green is occasionally disrupted by the sounds of sirens signaling an attempt on the fence, or a passing army patrol on maneuvers.

Outside the center (journalists are not allowed in, I was told), I spoke to Asan, an 18-year-old Kurdish Syrian from Damascus. One of around 1,500 people staying in a facility built for less than 500, Asan (not his real name) tells me of the long journey he and a minority of Syrians have taken to this lesser known gate to Europe, a route that avoids dangerous sea crossings but often means paying considerable sums to people smugglers for safe passage.

“Getting to Europe is very expensive. Lots of people can’t afford to do it and end up trapped sleeping on the street [in Morocco],” he said. “I haven’t seen my family in two years. I’m here alone.”

As of November, he has been in Melilla for three months awaiting permission to travel to the mainland, but before he could get here, he had to pay 1400 euros to local mafias for access to the Spanish border and the opportunity to claim asylum.

José Palazón, spokesman and president of local migrant rights group Prodein, has been documenting abuse at the border for years. In September, Prodein released footage apparently showing how Syrians are charged large sums for access to the border. Palazón said the same system functions to limit the numbers able to request asylum each day according to an unofficial “quota.”

“Around 20 or 30 are allowed to the border each day. This is the limit established by Spain and enforced by the Moroccans,” he told me.  

There are no exceptions to the fees, no clemency for those fleeing war.

“Everyone pays,” he said. “There are many people stuck [on the Moroccan side of the border]. Many run out of money and can’t get through. There are families separated with half on this side and half there.”

In September, Spanish news reported the story of a 38-year-old Syrian man who after unsuccessfully attempting to negotiate access to the border, took a canister of petrol and threatened to set himself and his infant son ablaze. According to the article, he eventually backed down and was arrested by police.

Others have already noted Spain’s strategy on border control, though, seemingly, not the failures of the model.

When Hungary weathered criticism for its treatment of migrants earlier this year, its ambassador to Madrid said the construction of a 109-mile barbed wire fence along the country’s southern border with Serbia - a bitter irony in light of Hungary’s historic dismantling of its border with Austria in 1989 - was no different from the fences Spain had built more than a decade earlier in Ceuta and Melilla.

“The fact that no one apart from Hungary and Spain wants to defend Europe’s borders is quite depressing,” Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán wrote in September. But Hungary and Spain are far from alone. Back in 2012, Greece built a fence along part of its border with Turkey to control migration. Bulgaria responded to the influx of migrants from Greece by constructing its own fence.  

Amnesty International argue these borders have done nothing to stem the flow of people into Europe - estimated by the United Nations to be 700,000 so far this year - it has only forced them to take ever greater risks.

“EU countries’ attempts to prevent irregular arrivals simply force refugees to more clandestine - and as a result mostly more dangerous - routes,” the report reads. “The comparably easier routes being closed off forces refugees to take more difficult and dangerous journeys to reach safety in Europe; either over wide, fast-flowing rivers, or longer sea journeys.”

Hungary’s fence diverted migrants, but appears to have done little to dissuade them from coming to Europe. In the last month, Austria and Slovenia have announced plans for their own fences. Ceuta and Melilla are just the latest of countless examples to show that fences alone will not stop desperate people from risking everything for the promise of a different life, however remote the chances of making it.

Europe’s leaders know this, and in some cases are effectively employing other countries as gatekeepers, most obviously Morocco and Turkey. There hired hands may temper migration through border checks and cooperation with Europe, but Ceuta and Melilla show us that these alone will not stop the problem. The work of journalists and NGOs suggests that transit countries are systematically using fear to supplement the fences and dissuade migrants from attempting the crossing.

Contracting this job out to countries with no free press and a scant regard for human rights makes the West complicit in the beatings, intimidation, extortion, corruption and killings that frequently follow.

Now is the time for Europe to ask itself whether it has the stomach to become a true fortress.

By Sam Edwards


Bearded vultures, also known as lammergeiers, could once again become a familiar sight in Andalucia.

“Of all the great birds of prey there is none which appeals more to the popular imagination than does the bearded vulture or, to give it the imposing title which it still bears in mid-Europe, the lammergeyer.”

Those are the words of Willoughby Verner, a British colonel who served in the Boer War and spent several years posted in Gibraltar. It was during his time in the British enclave that the keen naturalist had the opportunity to indulge his passion for wildlife, in the sierras of Andalucia. Verner’s subsequent adventures are documented in his book, My Life Among The Wild Birds in Spain, which was published in 1909.

Besides writing, the author enjoyed the unusual distinction of having a compass named after him after being credited with its design. He was also recognised for his role in the discovery of ancient rock art at Cueva de la Pileta, near Ronda. But it was his detailed observations of the bearded vulture’s nesting locations that could arguably become his most enduring legacy.

More than 100 years after Verner first laid eyes on them, a Spanish researcher has used the Englishman’s sketches to trace the exact location of the nest sites. The findings could provide valuable information that leads to the reintroduction of the species to one of its old territories.

The bearded vulture is one of Europe’s rarest birds of prey and, with a wingspan of up to 2.8m, it’s also among the biggest. So named for the distinctive black bristles on its chin, it is famed for its habit of breaking bones by dropping them from a great height before eating the marrow. The vultures are typically found in remote, mountainous areas and it was in such a region - the sierras of Cadiz - that Verner observed them.

Verner photo
The amateur ornithologist was so enraptured by his subject that he dedicated two chapters of his book to his encounters with the huge birds. The descriptions focus mainly on the logistics of accessing the nests. This seems to have involved spending an unhealthy amount of time dangling on the end of a rope, hundreds of feet above the ground.

The explorer even takes time to lament the lack of nerve and skill of his ‘rope man’, who was stationed at the top of the cliff.

Willoughby Verner was a keen naturalist who dedicated his free time to studying
Andalucia's wildlife.
PHOTO: Wiki Commons

While also revealing his habit of stuffing heather branches in his hat to protect against falling rocks.

But it’s his description of the nests themselves that give the most fascinating insight into the life of these enigmatic creatures. “The nest was a huge affair, built of big boughs, filling up the whole cavern, with a cup-shaped depression 24 inches across, lined with great lumps of black sheepswool, brown goat’s hair and fresh green mosses,” Verner says.

But despite the detailed descriptions of the nest itself and skilled sketches of the surrounding rock face, clues as to the general location of the site are scarce. There is a brief mention of “the gleaming waters of the Atlantic near Cape Trafalgar over 50 miles distant.” And Verner also alludes to “a small Moorish village” somewhere below the valley, but there is little else to go on.

His elusiveness may have been a deliberate ploy to conceal the exact location in an effort to stop rival egg collectors from raiding the nests. Now, Verner has finally met his match in Jose Manuel Amarillo Vargas, a natural history enthusiast who has successfully identified the anonymous valley.

After considering several possible locations, the breakthrough came when the researcher recognised a distinctive rock formation in one of Verner’s sketches. After cross-referencing the drawing against the clues given in the written description, Amarillo concluded that the valley lay above the village of Benaocaz, in Cadiz’s Sierra de Grazalema. The next step was to attempt to identify the limestone escarpment upon which the nests had been built using the sketches and grainy photographs in the book.

The results were as conclusive as Amarillo could have hoped for, even down to the two holm oak trees, the only living witnesses to Verner’s visits. The ecstatic Spaniard promptly dubbed the valley ‘El Tajo de Verner’ in place of its official name, Sierra del Caillo. “When we reached 1,150m we stopped to look up and after a few seconds of silence we all said, ‘This is the place!’”, Amarillo explained at a recent event in Seville. “We walked back down the mountain feeling happy and excited with our 'discovery'.”

El tajo de Verner photo and recent photo
One of the nest sites in 'El Tajo de Verner' photographed in 1906 and 2015.
PHOTO MONTAGE: Jose Manuel Amarillo Vargas

At the time of Verner’s exploits lammergeier - to use the species’ alternative name - were a common sight in the mountains of southern Spain. But the impact of hunting and poison had such a dramatic impact on the population that the species had been wiped out in Cadiz by the mid-20th century. In 1986, it was declared extinct in Andalucia.

However, in recent years an EU-funded reintroduction programme has seen the magnificent creatures return to parts of the region. The initiative centres around two former strongholds of the lammergeyer, the Sierra de Cazorla and the Sierra Nevada. Coordinated by the Junta de Andalucia and conservation group Fundacion Gypaetus (FG) the project began in 1996, followed by the first birds being released into the wild in 2006.

Since then 36 bearded vultures have been released as part of the programme, 22 of which are still alive, according to the FG. Only a small number of the fatalities have been from natural causes, with poisoning, poaching and collisions with electric power lines among the biggest killers. But the discovery of the nest sites in the Sierra de Grazalema is a significant step towards giving the species a new opportunity to thrive.

Besides providing evidence that the bearded vulture once lived in the area, the find gives some key indicators as to the region’s viability to support a restored population. By examining historical nest sites it is possible to gain clues as to the birds’ diet, the presence of contaminants and estimates of how long the nests were used for.

It also provides a clearer picture of what type of sites are favoured by the vulture, which in turn allows researchers to make informed decisions about the choice of new release points. They may have lived a century apart but Verner and Amarillo’s shared love of one of Spain’s most emblematic species could finally lead to the return of the bone breaker.

Tajo de Verner - sketch and recent photo
Researchers located the nest site using a detailed sketch of a limestone escarpment in Verner's book. 
PHOTO: Jose Manuel Amarillo Vargas


The bull is killed at this year's Toro de la Vega tournament. Capture via PACMA

This month I took the intercity train from Barcelona to the rural town of Tordesillas to report on the residents’ annual tradition — stabbing a bull to death with 8-foot-long steel-tipped spears.

I tried hard not to pass judgement on the Toro de la Vega tournament straight away. Coming from the Cotswolds — home to the World Shin-kicking Championships — I understand how a centuries-old tradition that seems entirely bizarre to an outsider can bring a community together.

It’s hard to make further comparisons of course — one is an endearing sport in which farmers kick seven shades out of one another’s shins, the other involves the mutilation of a creature that feels pain.

On this point, I’ve heard supporters of bullfighting — or “aficionados” — make the case that these bulls live better lives than animals subjected to the horrors of industrial farms. That they spend years frolicking happily through sunny Spanish paddocks, before enduring a comparatively brief period of confusion and agony. The difference, I would posit, is that a dairy cow doesn’t draw spectators who will on her ill-treatment.

Silvia Barquero, president of Spain’s animal welfare party PACMA, puts it more strongly: “It’s evil to think just because someone lives a happy life that they should die like that.”

That morning, I stood on the south bank of the River Duero and watched several men stretch and sprint down the bridge, preparing for the running of the bull. Thousands had now gathered to witness the spectacle, as well as hundreds of screaming protesters. For the last decade, animal rights activists have come to Tordesillas to condemn Toro de la Vega. This year heavy security including police helicopters were in force, charged with preventing a repeat of the violence in 2014 that saw several protesters and journalists hospitalized.

A local pensioner, Alejandro, told me he was bewildered when the activists first started turning up.

“We have been doing this for centuries,” he told me. “And now they want to stop this. They kill bulls in the arena, so why can’t we have our fun?” 

Photo by Sam Edwards
Photo by Sam Edwards

Horsemen armed with spears filed across the bridge and passed the protesters, now in a frenzy, yelling “murderer” and “national disgrace.” Taunting locals brandished Spanish flags and told them to go home — one man simulated the sounds of a dying bull and two more wandered through the crowd dressed in novelty cow costumes.

The sound of a fire cracker signalled the bull’s release. Its name Rompesuelas or “Sole-breaker” made reference to the pounding footwear took as residents chased it through the streets, some daring to run just yards in front of its horns. Rompesuelas thundered across the bridge and into the “Field of Honor,” where armed men on foot and horseback thrust spear into its flanks.

Protesters clamored around one activist who had bolted himself by the neck to a sign post with a U-lock, just yards from where the bull had cut its path. A horseman returned from the field and aggressively cleared a path through the crowd as firemen freed the protester with bolt cutters.

Despite a lack of support from the majority of the nation’s public, annual campaigning by animal rights activists — and derision from within the wider bullfighting community — the 500-year-old Toro de la Vega tournament refuses to die. Perhaps banning Toro de la Vega on animal welfare grounds would set a dangerous precedent in a country where bullfighting is inextricably linked to national cultural identity.

As with the proportion of Americans who believe there should be stricter gun laws in the United States, the number of Spaniards who do not support bullfighting hold the majority. When it comes to legislating against tauromachia, Spanish politicians find themselves treading on similarly sacred ground.

"It’s unthinkable,” Carlos Nuñez, President of Spain’s bull breeding union, said of a ban on bullfighting. “The symbol of Spain both at home and abroad is the bull and without bullfights, it would not exist."

Bullfighting has endured condemnation from powerful sources. By pain of excommunication, Pope Pius V prohibited the practice with a 1567 papal bull entitled “Super prohibitione agitationis Taurorum & Ferarum (An injunction forbidding bullfights and similar sports with wild animals).”

Known for the burning of heretics and the excommunication of Queen Elizabeth I, Pope Pius V was not an early animal rights advocate — the bull was created for the “welfare of the Lord’s flock.”

According to Raffael Nicolas Fasel, a PhD in Law candidate at the University of Cambridge who studied the document while attending Yale Law School, the papal bull may still be valid, as sources indicate that later popes removed the excommunication sanction.

“Regardless of whether or not the bull is still legally valid today, I think that invoking the bull can be quite powerful — at least morally and rhetorically,” he told me. “It shows that already in the Middle Ages, bullfighting and similar events with wild animals were considered to be brutal and ignoble.”

Following the withdrawal of public funds for events involving bulls in some municipalities in Spain earlier this year, some international media questioned if the slow death of bullfighting had begun. However, both history and the continued existence of Toro de la Vega show us how resilient this national tradition is. In the face of an overwhelming lack of support from most Spaniards — and disdain from activists and “aficionados” alike — a doomed bull is likely to run the gauntlet in Tordesillas next September.

Spain needs to listen to Catalonia if it is to avoid political crisis

Por: | 29 de septiembre de 2015

Together for Yes leaders celebrate winning a majority of seats in September regional elections billed as a de-facto referendum on independence / DAVID RAMOS (GETTY)

Only 48 hours before Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum, and facing the strong possibility of a victory for separatists that would have ended more than 300 years of political union, the leaders of the United Kingdom’s three main political parties pledged to devolve extensive powers to Scotland if it stayed. On Sept. 18, the Scottish people narrowly voted against independence, and the United Kingdom remained intact.

In Spain, Catalonia’s growing push for greater autonomy has often resembled a person shouting into a void. Through a combination of ingrained unionist political thinking, cynical calculation ahead of general elections in December and political pigheadedness, the Spanish government has doggedly refused to offer any real alternative, instead trusting that a barrage of threats would help swing the vote their way. They were wrong.

Catalans turned out in record numbers in Sunday elections that will usher an openly secessionist government into power in the region with 16 percent of the population and the highest gross domestic product in Spain — accounting for almost a fifth of national GDP.

As a result of their miscalculation and failure to engage the problem over five years, Spain now faces a serious political crisis that could threaten its tentative economic recovery.

On Sunday evening, pro-independence parties heralded their absolute majority in seats — but not votes — as a mandate for proceeding with their 18-month roadmap toward a break with Spain.

“We have done this in the context of a hostile, negative campaign racked with lies. But despite all of this people have voted without fear because this was a historic opportunity,” said Raül Romeva, leader of the Together for Yes pro-independence bloc, in front of a euphoric crowd as the results trickled in on Sunday night. “No we will all build this country together. The dam has broken and there is no alternative.”

There are important differences between the UK and Spain: Catalonia’s vote is a regional election that became a quasi-referendum after pro-independence parties put aside differences to focus on the question of secession. Any break up of Spain is also considered illegal under the country’s 1978 constitution. But there is little getting away from the fact that Spain has not only sat back and watched as more than half of the Catalan electorate turned against it, it has, from the outset, actively exacerbated tensions.

Perhaps the best example of the Spanish government’s remorselessly negative, bullish stance was the final few days of the campaign leading up to this historic vote. With polls almost unanimous in predicting a victory for separatists, unionists forwent any last minute olive branch as in the U.K., preferring instead to unleash a volley of warnings for the Catalan people.

Spain’s central bank governor and ECB board member Luis Linde suggested that an independent Catalonia would be left outside of the eurozone and that it might even suffer a Greece-style run on banks as a result — only to clarify that a banking crisis was “highly improbable” two days later.

Primer Minister Mariano Rajoy, speaking in a radio interview on Onda Cero, warned Catalans that they would lose their Spanish and European citizenship if the region were to become independent — he was promptly corrected by the presenter citing an article of the Spanish constitution ensuring no Spaniard could be deprived of their citizenship should they wish to maintain it. Earlier in the campaign, he referred indirectly to the independence movement as a “virus.”

There are reasons for the national parties’ intransigence. Catalan independence is unpopular in Spain — 73 percent said it would be bad for the country in a July poll — and general elections are due by the end of the year. National unity has long obsessed Spain’s political elite, and any capitulation to the Catalan cause risks opening the door to other independence movements.

On the day of the Catalan elections, president of the Basque regional parliament Iñigo Urkullu said Spain should follow the United Kingdom’s example of allowing an mutually agreed and legal consultation on sovereignty. “Spain has a problem in Catalonia,” he told supporters in Vitoria. “And it has a problem in the Basque Country.”

Despite the resounding separatist parliamentary victory, the new Catalan government has many hurdles to jump before it’s aspirations for secession cease to be a mere hypothetical. Its efforts to establish state apparatus and hold an official referendum will certainly be deemed illegal by Spain’s constitutional court, and unionists will continue to challenge the legitimacy of the separatists’ mandate.

Madrid must act prudently if it is to avoid escalating tensions with Catalonia. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s right-wing government is currently rushing through legislation that will give the constitutional court the power to sanction elected officials with fines of up to 33,000 US dollars and suspension. For the time being, the government has ruled out an option floated over the summer of using the constitution to wrest control from the Catalan parliament.

But the government’s unwillingness to talk will only send the message that any change to the status quo is impossible while Catalonia remains within Spain and further polarize the debate.

The Together for Yes pro-independence bloc won 62 seats, six short of an absolute majority in parliament. This means the leftist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) party will be able to play kingmaker. The first casualty of which may be acting president of the Catalan regional parliament and international face of the Catalan movement, Artur Mas. The CUP have suggested they will oppose Mas’ investiture as premier on the grounds of their opposition to his center-right party’s pro-austerity politics.

According to Nick Greenwood, political analyst at Madrid-based Financial consultancy AFI, even if Mas is able to remain president he would likely be a “prisoner to the hard left” and be restricted in his ability to negotiate a compromise with the government. A hypothetical forced exit is a huge risk for all involved — indeed, Mas went so far as to say it would amount to a “joint suicide” in the runup to elections. If, in this scenario, a hostile Spanish government made good on its threats, Catalonia would be left isolated internationally and stymied economically, while an acrimonious breakup could see the region forego its share of the national debt — estimated at one third of the total — and leave Spain struggling to pay its creditors.

There is next to no chance of meaningful dialogue before the elections. Despite what Rajoy seems to believe, reconciliation will not and never can begin with bringing charges against those responsible for holding last year’s ultimately symbolic referendum.

As the dust settles on these historic elections, unionist parties have been unanimous in calling the pro-independence faction’s attempt at an unofficial referendum on independence a failure for falling just shy of 50 percent of the vote. But this is selective reading of results and follows in the footsteps of years of ignoring the problem in Catalonia and hoping it will go away, when the opposite is happening.

The most revealing statistic of these watershed elections is not that the “Yes” vote failed to win 50 percent, it’s that 60 percent of the electorate wants a referendum, at the very least — and it’s time for the Spanish government to pay attention.

As the Together for Yes candidates left the stage on Sunday, euphoric independence supporters waved flags, danced, sang and celebrated what they considered a historic step towards leaving Spain. There is still a long way to go, but separatists have the initiative for the moment and, if the campaign’s choice of walk-off music is anything to go by — Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” — Madrid will be forced to listen soon.

Bike-celona and the cycle tour jam

Por: | 10 de septiembre de 2015


As I write this it is approaching 12pm and I can see an annoyingly bright light out of the corner of my eye. 

It comes not from divine inspiration - more’s the pity - but from the street outside, where a cycle hire shop has recently opened, peddling fixed gear bikes and longboards to Barcelona’s more fashion conscious tourists.

There’s nothing so remarkable about that, you might think. And yet this shop, its sign ever aflame like an understated oil rig, is one of four cycle hire shops within a 200m radius of our house to have opened in the last three months.

Such radical inflation in cycle hire is unlikely to last in the long term, however much the four shops may work their respective niches. But as anyone who has been forced to run fleeing from a line of wobbly, weaving tourist bikes down one of Barcelona’s tiny side streets will tell you, the last few years have seen these bike tours bounce from minority concern to holiday staple.

It looks like fun, tootling on a bike around the gentle streets of the Catalan capital. But, as their numbers visibly grow, tourists on bikes have become one of the chief points of complaints among Barcelona residents, who are generally piqued by the ever-increasing number of tourists visiting the city. 

Much of this has to do with the cyclists’ visibility. It’s pretty hard to miss a line of 20 gigantic Americans thundering down the street on oversized orange bikes. That makes them an obvious point for local ire. More generally, a lot of people - for whatever frustrated reasons - simple don’t like cyclists.

Then there are a number of specific complaints I’ve heard angled at cycle tourists: it’s not safe; they ride on the streets; they take up too much space etc etc etc.

In many ways, the complainers have a point: I’ve lived in Barcelona for four years and still feel pretty anxious cycling round the streets, even with abundance of cycle lanes and personal practice. For someone with no experience, the combination of angry Catalan motorists, frantic motorbike riders and - for British and Australian - riding on the “wrong” side of the road could be perilous indeed.

As for the streets, this seems to be something of an area of confusion. As far as I know, cyclists are allowed to ride on the Barcelona pavement, as long as it is five metres or wider (something that rather surprised me, as a cycling Brit). 

But, frankly, who measures the width of the pavement? More importantly, within Ciutat Vella, Barcelona’s old city centre, it can sometimes be hard to tell exactly what is pavement and what is road, the two fading into each other like chewing gum melting in the summer sun. When you add into the mix some pretty narrow streets, this creates confusion and often ill feeling, as pedestrians and cyclists face off over who has priority.

Despite all this, Barcelona remains a very pleasant city to cycle in and you can see the logic behind the sudden expansion in cycle tours. Not only is Barcelona flat - the dual hills of Tibidabo and Montjuic can wait for another day -  it is relatively small and sunny. (There’s a reason cycle tours aren’t very popular in London). Then there’s the 200-odd kilometres of bike lanes, which prove very useful indeed, if a little prone to cutting suddenly off in a petulant dead end.

So why do I think that Barcelona cycle tours may be heading for a crash? There’s the simple economics, for a start: no city can sustain such an extreme oversupply of cycle shops as is evident in my neighbourhood. A lot of these bike shops are set to crash and burn, with the cost of hiring a bike for the day, or going out on a two-wheel guided tour, likely to fall in the meanwhile, harming even the more established operators.

I can’t help feeling, too, that the more cyclists head out on Barcelona cycle tours, the more these tours risk becoming hopelessly unfashionable. Some of the appeal, surely, of a cycle tour - as opposed to being whipped around by bus - lies in tackling the city like a local. And if tourists on bikes only see other tourists on bikes then the sheen of local knowledge evaporates.

More seriously, there is the backlash from locals to contend with. As the recent documentary Bye Bye Barcelona so eloquently demonstrated, Barcelona residents are getting pretty sick of the booming tourist trade, which has seen the number of visitors to the city more than quadruple, from 1.7m in 1990 to 7.5m in 2013. Cycle tours are a very visible symptom of this and it would be little surprise to see some local action taken against the two-wheeled hordes.

This could fall to new Barcelona mayor Ada Colau, who has set out her intention to do something about mass tourism in the city. Admittedly, it is hard to see how she could legislate against bike tours without targeting cyclists in general. But legislation of this kind could prove a cheap political win.

In a way it would be a shame: I’ve grown quite fond of the grinning cyclists that hover around my local streets. But if it stops that bloody light from shining all night long, then it might not be too bad.


Authors (Bloggers)

Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan

Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist, translator and teacher, now resident in Barcelona after growing up gracefully in Scotland via Norwich. He writes for The Guardian, the NME and The Quietus, among others, on everything from music to digital media. You can find him on Twitter @bencardew

Fiona Flores Watson is a freelance journalist, guide and translator who has lived in Seville since 2003, and has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She writes for the Guardian, Telegraph and Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Originally from Essex, Fiona is also Consulting Editor of and has her own blog, Scribbler in Seville. She has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2014 and tweets at @Seville_Writer

Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist and blogger enjoying a life of near-eternal sunshine in Alicante. She writes for publications in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, focusing on stories exploring smart and positive approaches to social issues. She hangs out on Twitter at @KorenHelbig and keeps a selection of her favourite stories at

Jessica Jones. Hailing from the north east of England, Stockton-on-Tees native Jessica has had a passion for all things Hispanic from an early age. She has lived in and written about France, Chile, Spain and Germany and has been contributing to the Trans-Iberian blog since 2012, when she moved to Madrid after graduating from Durham University. @jessicajones590

Paul Louis Archer is a freelance photographer, multimedia storyteller and artist educator. A cross-disciplinary worker, who endeavors to encompass the mediums of photography, audio design and writing. Born in Hertfordshire of an English father and Spanish mother. Based in the United Kingdom. @PaulLouisArcher

Vicki McLeod is a freelance writer and photographer. She has lived in Mallorca since 2004. Vicki writes about her beloved island for The Majorca Daily Bulletin, the only daily English language paper in Spain; produces regular columns for the Euro Weekly News, and articles for Vicki runs PR strategies for several businesses in Mallorca and London as well as working on her own blogs and projects. She and her husband, Oliver Neilson, supply photo and text content for private clients via @phoenixmediamlr. She tweets at @mcleod_vicki.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne and based in Barcelona, Alx Phillips writes about contemporary art, dance and theatre in a way that human beings can understand. For more previews, reviews, interviews and extras, check:

El País

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