The Extraordinary Ordinary

I’ve just returned from two weeks in Spain, the Spain of Madrid, Córdoba, Granada, Seville, Barcelona and Bilbao. I’ve learned a lot on this trip. For example, I’ve learned that Antoni Gaudí, the architect of La Sagrada Familia, La Casa Batlló and the Parc Guell, is a consummate genius right up their with Imhotep (the Pyramids) and Jørn Utzon (the Sydney Opera House). In Bilbao I’ve learned that Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum is its own best work of art. I’ve learned that Charles V was right when he said to the architects who placed a cathedral in the center of the mosque in Córdoba, “You have destroyed something unique to make something commonplace.” I’ve learned that the Alcázar in Seville, the summer palace built by Pedro the Cruel, is lovelier than the Alhambra, even though the latter is the real McCoy and the former a fake.

But there is something else I’ve learned, something of the right-under-your-nose variety. What is extraordinary about it is that it is so ordinary. I’m talking about public transportation; the buses, the metros, the high-speed railways, the not-so-high speed railways. All of these made getting around in Spain easy and, best of all, fun.

We took the high-speed train called the AVE from Madrid to Cordoba. The first thing that struck me was how presentable everything was. The cars were graffiti free. The seats were comfortable and, whether we rode in preferred or ordinary class, each bank of seats came with its own audio plug-in with stations for music or news. And just in case you didn’t happen to have your own pair of auriculares ‘headphones’ an attendant came along with a free pair in a neat little black bag with a drawstring. On our trips I collected so many I started giving them out to people I’d meet along the way. We took the slower trains from Córdoba to Granada and from Granada to Seville. Same reaction. Clean equipment, comfortable seats, absolutely on-time service. And that’s just the trains.

The subways were equally clean, on time and convenient. In fact, the electronic displays telling you how long you had to wait for the next train were displayed not only in minutes, but in seconds. Buses were frequent, sometimes only five minutes apart, always on time, always a pleasure to ride and the route charts always completely transparent. It helps if you can speak a bit of Spanish. But the systems are so user-friendly that you don’t need to.

All the cities we visited had cars, but nowhere near in the road-choking numbers you see in the United States. And no wonder. Who needs a car in Spain? If I lived there, I certainly wouldn’t have one. Nancy and I bought a portable GPS system to use when we rented a car in Spain, our first intention. We found public transportation so amenable, we dropped that idea. Instead we put the GPS to work planning walking tours.

I don’t think I ever realized how much a good public transportation system contributed to the mental health of a nation. Boy, could we use one. I doubt it will ever happen here. The entrenched interests of the car companies and the oil companies have determined that every family have a huge piece of plastic and metal to move more often than not a single person from one place to another, traffic jams, road rage and high fuel prices be damned.

I would rank Spain’s public transportation system right up there with Velázquez, Gaudí, Goya and Picasso when it comes to bringing pleasure to the people.