Spain has changed much since a Roman Catholic bishop penned a set of rules for women in the first decade of rule by Generalissimo Francisco Franco.
The dictator died Nov. 20, 1975, after lingering near death for weeks, amid regular news reports on his condition — prompting a Saturday Night Live catch phrase. “This breaking news just in,” Chevy Chase would intone in the “Weekend Update” segment. “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead!”
And the power of the Catholic Church has much diminished in the 35 years since Franco’s death.
All that is ancient history to Elsa, who was my twentysomething guide last month on a three-hour night bicycle ride through the boulevards and lanes of Barcelona. And I’m sure she would have considered a stricture on women riding bicycles downright silly.
Since March 22, 2007, in fact, thousands of women — and men — have been tooling around Barcelona on bicycles made available by municipal authorities under a bike-sharing program, Bicing, which serves as a much-used supplement to mass transit.
To return a bike, the user places it in a spare slot at a Bicing station near the rider’s destination. The bike is recognized automatically and is locked into place for the next customer. (See video below.)
In the three years since the Bicing system was launched, it has signed up about 190,000 Barcelonans and records more than 35,000 bike journeys every day.
As a visitor to Barcelona, I couldn’t use the more than 6,000 red-and-white Bicing bikes. So I did the next best thing: I took a Sunday night tour of the Mediterranean city that covered 20 to 25 miles (the clunky, black city bikes had no odometers) and included a stop for adult beverages at a waterfront cafe.
After adjusting seats and getting used to the somewhat unwieldy machines, we set off down the heavily trafficked Las Ramblas, which runs from Plaza Catalunya to the waterfront, with a wide pedestrian thoroughfare in the middle and a lane of motorized traffic on each side.
Pedestrians were at risk, I fear, as I tried to control that beast of a bike. I couldn’t get the seat adjusted properly; it was either too high for my feet to reach the pavement during stops or too low to pedal efficiently.
About halfway down Las Ramblas, we ducked through a narrow lane into the Gothic Quarter of the city, which in turn had been built on the still-visible ruins of a Roman city, called Barcino. From the teeming Las Ramblas, we glided through serene plazas walled off from city noise such as that of Sant Felip Neri, which Elsa said was “a place you can find only if you get lost.”
Barcelona has about 80 miles of bike lanes and we made good use of them as we rode along the waterfront promenade to a cafe for liquid refreshment; through Citadel Park (Parc de la Ciutadella), which was the site of the city’s Universal Exhibition in 1888; to a busy roundabout featuring a column with a statue of Christopher Columbus perched on top and then to the Magic Fountain of Montjuic, a spectacular display of water and light like the Fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas. (See YouTube video below.)
Other European cities — Paris, Copenhagen, Stockholm and London, for example — have bike-sharing programs. And a few U.S. cities are catching up — notably Denver, which launched its program in April, and Washington, D.C., whose launch is expected next month.
It’s a capital idea whose time has come — maybe one day even to Fort Worth!