I have seen but not conquered

Landmark buildings are generally too far apart to speak to pedestrians, and nothing speaks to drivers except the traffic around them. So to whom are they pitched?

The W-Hotel and Gehry’s fish in Barcelona, are two kilometres apart. By car that’s a distance of two parking lot nightmares, 10 sets of traffic lights, a dozen wrong turns down the wrong one way streets, etc etc.. You could try a taxi, but then you would have to find one, pay for one, and endure the dude’s deadly driving and local radio. By foot it is a one hour stroll along the sand, in the knowledge that the walk back will be just as long. Walking down the middle of the beach will plummet you into the abyss of 20,000 bare Spanish breasts (rough calculation), lulling the anglo protestant beach comber into a stupor that would stop him ever reaching Gehry’s big fish and taking his photo. By bike, 2km along the wide promenade is roughly 10 minutes.

On life’s highway I don’t smell the roses, look in every shop window, or even stop all that often to pay homage to breasts. Oh what has become of me! I have become one of these Napoleonic types who must survey the four reaches of every city I visit, snapping its iconic, designer-name buildings.

If landmark buildings were trees, I would be the dog who has to urinate on every last one. Being ferried around in a coach as I have been these past couple of weeks, leading a study tour, really hasn’t been satisfying in the way touring places by bike is. I have been taken by coach to all of Gaudi’s buildings, Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion, and every lookout, but feel as though I haven’t been to any of those places at all, because I did not make the journey by my own power and my own innate sense of direction. I have seen but not conquered.

Transport machines rob you of any sense that you have travelled. Yet walking is boring. The guys in the photo below are guys like me: most likely in Barcelona for a few days with their Bromptons, surveying terrain. And by the way, there is only 17 hours remaining to support or pre-order my book on cycling and cities—although there are no topless beach shots there either I’m sorry 🙂


  1. Luke says:

    Others have had similar thoughts, though with less stress on breasts.
    “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and can coast down them…. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motorcar only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.” Ernest Hemingway
    “Ten years ago, I began to explore the country on which I was supposed to be an authority…I owed my first real inkling of this other France to a rediscovery of the miraculous machine that opened up the country to millions of people at the end of the nineteenth century. Once or twice a year, I travelled through France with the dedicatee of this book at the speed of a nineteenth century stage coach. Cycling not only makes it possible to conduct exhaustive research into local produce, it also creates an enormous appetite for information. Certain configurations of field, road weather and smell impose themselves on the cycling brain…A bicycle unrolls a 360 degree panorama of the land, allows the rider to register its gradual changes in gear ratios and muscle tension and makes it hard to miss single inch of it….Cycling also makes conversation easy and inevitable – with children, nomads, people who are lost, local amateur historians, and, of course, dogs, whose behaviour collectively characterises the outlook of certain regions as clearly as human behaviour once did….This book is the result of fourteen thousand miles in the saddle and four years in the library.”
    Graham Robb, in his foreword (which he calls an “Itinerary”) to “The Discovery of France”, a historical geography from the Revolution to the First World War.

  2. Steven says:

    Thanks Luke. You’re so much better than any research assistant. Um, you wouldn’t have a source for the Hemingway quote? Perhaps some other readers know a good quote for topless bathing in Barcelona, ke?

    • Luke says:

      Hemingway quote is apparently from White, William, ed (1967). By-Line, Ernest Hemingway: Selected Articles and Dispatches of Four Decades by Ernest Hemingway. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. p. 364.. I admit I’m relying on wikiquote (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Ernest_Hemingway). I can’t remember where I saw it.
      Trying to find that quote, I found this from “Hemingway” by Keith Shulyer Lynn:
      “Another sign of Hemingway’s obsession with bike-racing, according to Dos Passos, was that he ‘used to get himself up in a striped jumper like a contestant in the Tour de France and ride round the exterior boulevards with his knees up to his ears and his chin between the handlebars’…”
      I’ll email the link – there’s more. There’s also a bit about bike racing in “The Sun Also Rises”, so you can add EH to your list of enthusiasts or possibly cafe cyclists.
      PS try at least to feign some enthusiasm for the Graham Robb quote, as I had to type that out, not just cut and paste from Wikipedia.
      PPS, congrats on crowd funding.

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