All entries for July 2011

July 18, 2011

A 'classic' and 'classist' novel on an odd corner of Tuscany

Title:
Rating:
4 out of 5 stars

It hurts me when I hear Piombino defined as the ugliest corner of Tuscany – even if being the ugliest corner of Tuscany might well be compatible with being quite a beautiful place for other countries’ or regions’ standards. But indeed it is the contrast with the immediate surroundings that harms Piombino. Right in front, just 10 minutes of ferry away, is the splendid Elba Island, with its beaches, its picturesque villages, its mountain and Napoleonic residence. At the back, the calendar Tuscan hills, with the Sasiccaia wine, the woods and the wild boars. To the North, just behind the hill, the idyllic Baratti beach with its Etruscan ruins. When you arrive by train from the North, you see in rapid succession the beaches, the pine forest, the hills... and then suddenly, unexpected, completely ill-suited, Piombino. With its gigantic steelworks, its four blast furnaces (only one still active), its noise and pollution, its blocks of flats for workers. The Welsh know the same contrast between the Gower peninsula and its spectacular beaches and Port Talbot – but Piombino and Baratti are just one behind the other, separated by only a green promontory of 4km, instead of a 15km gulf.

It makes me particularly angry when I hear tourists, who cross the city as fast as possible to get to the port and escape to the Elba, make the most stupid of comments on the factories: ‘but why did they build that here?’. It’s like the American tourists asking why the queen built Windsor castle so close to the airport. Because metal production in Piombino is two thousand year older than tourism, thanks to the local iron mine. The steelworks themselves are one hundred year old. Indeed, they were destroyed, together with the whole town, by the withdrawing German army at the end of the war. But the local population, immediately, spontaneously, rebuilt them, and took control of them. Piombino became then one of the main sites of Italian state industry, until it was privatised to Lucchini in 1992, not before a tough two-month strike that marked the town.

I spent a few pleasant weeks in Piombino in 1998, mostly in the Fiom (metalworker union) offices, for my doctoral research comparing the Lucchini steelworks in Piombino with those in Warsaw – the local union officer started to call me ‘the Pole’, something exotic for the local community. Few years later, Lucchini was taken over by the Russian Severstal.

It is with mixed feelings, then, that I have read this successful Italian novel dedicated to this most unsung of Tuscan towns and its 35,000 inhabitants. There is some tradition of Italian novels on the working class, but this stands out. It is about the provincial, peripheral working class, not the classic one of Turin, Milan or Naples. And it is written from a different gender and generation perspective. Silvia Avallone is only 26.

The novel tells the story of the families of two steelworkers, neighbours in the ugly council blocks of Via Stalingrado, in front of the local, dirty and crowded beach. However, the heroes are not the steelworkers, but their fourteen-year old daughters, who spend the summer on the beach, despite their fathers controlling behaviour and monitoring from the balcony. Anna and Francesca are classmates; one is doing well at school, the other is not, but they are best mates and share, among others, a strong resentment against their fathers. Anna’s is dismissed by Lucchini for stealing, while her mother is politically militant and her older brother, equally steelworker, is the most popular bloke among local girls. Francesca’s one is semi-illiterate and violent, her mother is a completely submissive Southern immigrant. In the summer of 2001, they dream to get a scooter and escape, swearing loyalty to each other.

But there comes September 2001. Not so much 9/11, which the local youth watches on a bar TV wondering if it is a movie and getting bored very soon when they realise it is just the news on a far away place. But the fact that Anna and Francesca will go to different secondary schools, given their different academic results, and will grow apart because of diverging interests, loves and sexual orientations. Although their parallel personal wars with their respective fathers continue...

If on one level this seems just another teenager story, with the usual ingredients of generational conflict, sexual discovery, drugs experimentation and irresponsible behaviour, there is more to this book. It is a sharp portrayal of a disappearing world, the compact steel working class of Piombino, once united by a 70% union membership and 70% vote for the communists, immortalised by Gramsci monuments. Anna’s brother Alessio at the 2001 elections voted for Berlusconi, because 'at least he is not a loser like the Fiom unionists', and finds individual ways to find the necessary money for Saturday night and for a new car. The moral conservatism of their parents is contrasted with the sexual liberation of teen-agers – which however, in this isolated setting, takes the form of miming TV showgirls and the appeal of the strippers clubs in the hinterland. Avallone manages to provide an intimate portrait of both generations, with respect but without any sentimentalism and glorification of either the young or the old. In particular, there is no discount for the traditional machismo and for domestic violence. I imagine the Fiom comrades to be a bit angry about the book, but in fact I remember that when twenty years ago the experiment was made to appoint a few dozen women as manual workers in the steelworks, they all quickly resigned, not so much because of the working conditions, but because of the intolerable sexist culture.

In fact both old and new suffer from social isolation. The council houses, the pollution, the separation from the nearby touristic spots are physical, symbolic and cultural. One wonders why the youth spend the time on the dirty Piombino’s beach with the view of chimneys, instead of moving just 4km North to Baratti beach (one of the most beautiful in Italy), or take the ferry to the Elba – where most of them have never been. But then one of the boys suggests to go to Baratti – to nick valuables from posh tourists. Even more, one wonders why the internet is never mentioned – in 2001-02!. But while mobile phones’ use has become widespread in Italy sooner than elsewhere, internet access has long remained limited to certain social groups. Overall, Piombino’s working class experiences are made of social rejection on one side, and of political or media paternalism – as symbolised by the impossible relationship between Alessio and Elena, the middle-class girl becoming factory’s human resource manager. A rejection that in Italy may be less violent then the one lived by the English working class described by Own Jones in ‘Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class’ or by Shaw's Tile Hill paintings– but that it is true nonetheless.

There is a good deal of exaggeration in all this, and, in a way, of additional, unnecessary demonisation. Avallone is not from Piombino and has never lived there. Via Stalingrado in Piombino does not exist (although there are still a few Vie Stalingrado in Italy), nor a beach like that. While there is deprivation in Piombino, I can say from experience that it still is much better than, say, Port Talbot; that it is clean and not that smelly; that Fiom members are not that losers; and that steelworkers' pay is not that bad nor employment prospects so restricted to steel. In the novel there is basically no positive figure, except maybe Anna’s mother, but most people I met in Piombino were actually positive. No mention in the book of the 'heroic defeat' of the 1992 2-month strike. Accidents in the huge plant do occur a lot (I remember the day a worker died in the steelworks during my research and the immediate strike and demonstration that were called), but the one told in Acciaio sounds implausible.

These may be forgivable licences in a novel. The descriptions, whether of the plant, of the desolated country roads around it, of the council houses and the humble city centre are spot on. The dialogue is very fresh, without indulging in artificial slang as many young Italian authors do, although the author also avoids any Tuscan speak, whether for her ignorance or for a clear choice of depicting the Italian province rather than simply an Italian province. The social crisis in the background of two girls’ crisis is vividly accounted within an orderly, 'classic' novel: industrial restructuring is painful, just like growing up for two girls in a very sexist environment. In a way, Italy has found, with this book on generations, class identity and gender identity, its sourer sort of Billy Elliott – and a female one to it. In 2010 it achieved the second place in the main Italian contest, the Premio Strega, and it is already translated into German and French – a healthy balance to all the various disgustingly soppy ‘Houses in the Tuscan sun’.


July 10, 2011

The changing nature of Spanish markets and cuisine

I am strongly pro-market. Not in the political sense, of course: I mean food street markets. I grew up above the largest (bi-weekly) market in Milan, Viale Papiniano, at the shouting soundtrack of ‘belle le pere mille lire, signora, le pere!’. Despite the obvious downsides in terms of noise, traffic and occasionally smell (the fish stalls were at the other end of the street, fortunately), the market institution became something very familiar to me. I also learnt from my father’s advice, although it wasn't always logics-proof: ‘before buying from a vendor, you must become familiar with him’ – but how on earth can I socialise with a vendor without buying from him... Later on, Milanese street markets became for me the ‘battlefield’ of political campaigning. Their replacement through private shopping malls and supermarkets, where campaigning as well as begging are forbidden, is not just a defeat for good food: it is a defeat for democracy and the social texture of urban places.

My interest in markets, however, increases proportionally to the distance from Milan. Far away, it is, unlike supermarkets, a way to practice language (I learnt to count in Mandarin in Xi’an and Beijing night markets), learn about new food and its preparation (the fish market in Sandakan, Borneo, beats any maritime life museum), and experience local customs, such as bartering in Morocco. Generally the quality, choice, price and freshness (especially for fish) are better than in supermarkets – even in a rather ugly and impoverished Coventry, the retail market is excellent.

San MiguelSpanish markets are particularly interesting, but also undergoing deep changes that are at least ambiguous. In Madrid, the historical central San Miguel market, round the corner from the flat were I was staying, has been elegantly restructured and turned into a ‘market + tapas bar + gastronomic fancy boutiques’. The opening time (10am-2am) reveal that the ‘market’ component is just ornamental and reduced basically to one fruits and veggies stall. The gastronomic stalls are very touristy, and the variegated tapas bars a place for tourists during the day and a ‘place to be seen in’ for Madrid’s middle-class youth at night. All pretty and enjoyable, but not what a market is supposed to be.

San AntonThe same fate has been followed by the San Anton market in Chueca, the gay village. This is not a heritage building and it has just been reopened in a stylish setting, with excellent, if pricy, food stalls on the ground floor, a supermarket in the basement, tapas bars on the first floor, and a restaurant/bar with terrasse, open all night, at the top. In the restaurant you can ask them to cook what you bought in the market, for just a 4 Euros extra per person – an excellent custom I had first enjoyed in Morocco. It may be because of the novelty, but the place is packed with people at all hours. It might be an effective recipe for ‘reborn’ markets.

The same cannot be said for markets turned into posh shopping malls. This has happened to the Puerta de Toledo market, now a cold and deserted agglomerate of soulless posh shops. The same is going to happen to the Barceló market, subject to a current expensive rebuilding project.

La CebadaFortunately, there are ‘real markets’ that survive as such. In the posh Salamanca district, there is the excellent Mercado de la Paz, the only XIX Century surviving one, apart from the San Miguel. But I prefer the more popular ones, of which in the centre survive Anton Martin and especially the largest, La Cebada. The great thing of Spanish markets, compared to the rest of western Europe, is the amount of spectacular ‘real’ food you can see on display. Not for the fainthearted: entire tunas and swordfish being chopped, live shellfish and crabs, whole suckling pigs and quarters of muttons and beefs. And a special place is reserved to offal: brains, livers, hearts, oxtail, bull’s testicles, tripe... Rabo de toro, criadillas and callos a la madrileña have all important roles on Madrid’s tables. Offal is the most socialist food I can think of: cheap, nutritious, good, and achieves great value through labour. In some western countries it is strangely despised, although it is routinely eaten, unawarely, in the shape of hamburgers and sausages. The fish stalls are also great. Unfortunately, in the huge Cebada restaurant half of the stalls are shut: crisis is looming and I dread it might be turned into a shopping mall too (too big for a tapa bar). In Spain, as already in the UK, popular markets are largely kept alive by immigrants. For a broader appeal, I can only think of two developments: a major increase in fuel prices that might discourage trips to retail parks and hypermarkets, or proper culinary education – not through TV chefs, but through visits to the market.

Last mention in Madrid, even though it is not technically a market but one large, 100-year old pavilion, is the Pescaderias Coruñesas, the best, if pricy, place to buy fish in a city that despite its distance from the sea is considered as ‘the best port of Spain’. Their website includes interesting information on any sort of seafood, and an exceptional variety of cooking suggestions: a few ways of cooking octopus that I did not know of, for instance.

In Barcelona, the market story is similar. The Boquería market off the Rambla is a major tourist attraction, the food is still great (Ferran Adriá declares that he shops there, which is quite a strong endorsement), and in some bars you can eat fish straight from the counter. Also in the old town, the Santa Caterina has been completely restructured with the addition of a futuristic roof, but it is still ‘a market’. In the stylish Exaimple, the Mercat de la Concepció is quieter and excellent quality, while the huge, historical Mercat del Ninot is undergoing complete restructuring – the fact that the stalls have been moved to a temporary market make me hope that it will reopen as market. In the outskirts, the picture is more mixed and supermarkets are more aggressive. The Sant Cugat’s market is a little gem with fantastic fish, but the Vallvidrera one is shut and its future is still unknown.

Once you have bought Spanish ingredients, there is the issue of what to do with them. And here I have a theory on the evolution of Spanish gastronomy.

Spain has exceptionally good produce. It shares with only France and Morocco the privilege of access to both Atlantic and Mediterranean, with the result of a double variety of fish and seafood – for instance, percebes are one of the great discoveries of my Spanish stay. The land extension means that most agriculture, at least before the greenhouses of Almería, has been much less intensive then elsewhere, resulting in greater variety, more taste, and more care. From tomatoes to ham, from eggs to fruits, the quality is generally outstanding – they do not have anything to envy the more famous French and Italian produce.

However, such great produce combined, until recently, with delayed social progress, and notably an obscurantist aristocracy, relative isolation and extreme land poverty. Central Spain is also far from any port and from any other countries, and therefore, from the XVIII Century to Franco, less open to circulation of ideas and gastronomic fashions than most of Europe. Neither aristocracy nor bourgeoisie nor merchants engaged in status-symbol cuisine as they did in France, but to some extent also in Portugal and Italy; while the poor peasantry and emerging proletariat, given the quality of row materials, did not need to elaborate sophisticated techniques to make up for shortages in the way, for instance, the Moroccan or Chinese did.

Therefore, the traditional Spanish cuisine is, if varied in terms of ingredients, extremely basic if compared to the rest of the region, not just to France and Italy, but also Portugal and Morocco. I have learnt to cook a few Spanish dishes, and they are stonishingly simple. Nothing requires the same skills as a French sauce or Italian handmade pasta. Paella can be spectacular, but extremely straightforward to prepare in comparison to risotto, which involves more careful cooking and the tricky step of mantecatura. The cocido madrileño and the potaje de garbanzos y bacalao are tasty and nutritious, but the only skill they require is the capacity of reading a watch and check the cooking times of the various ingredients. No Spanish soup, and even less pudding, can compete with the Portuguese or French ones in terms of elaboration. The only gastronomic field on which I admit the Spanish have traditional talent is eggs, from tortillas to revueltos. For the rest, the theory goes, excellent produce combined with remoteness, oscurantism and poverty do not provide incentives for great cuisine. Pan

To test my research hypothesis, I have also tried a number of traditional Madrid and Castillan restaurants. The ones with the best reputation are the related Casa Lucio and El Landó, in the old town. And they both confirmed mSant Cugaty theory exactly. The service and the atmosphere are very old-fashion, and so is the food. Outstanding ingredients and produce, from the bread with tomato, to the cured anchovies, to the tartar steak, but the dishes are extremely simple: the roasted lamb shoulder was the best I have ever eaten, but thanks more to the animal than to the chef, who, actually, had massively overindulged with olive oil (and I love olive oil). All this for substantial bills of 70+ Euros, so that at the end I only wanted to plead the chefs to just tell me where they bought those tomatoes and that lamb – so to never need to come again.

There are of course many cheaper places to eat good Castillan food, for instance Casa Perico in c/Ballesta, or a couple of places around and within the above-mentioned Mercado de La Paz. The lunch menus tend to be excellent value, but again, good real food but little sophistication.

There is an important corollary to my theory. More recently, as in general with Spanish society (e.g. gender), as a reaction to such traditionalism, a boom of revolutionary innovation has exploded. While Italian food remains identical to itself, Spain has become the forefront of innovation, with strong spill-overs from pioneers of new techniques. Of course, normal eateries do not engage in molecular food nor cook everything sous-vide, but a lot of new trendy restaurants and tapas bars in Madrid present innovative, sophisticated dishes. For instance, the recently opened Treze in c/San Bernardino.

And as another major recent development in Spain is immigration, ethnic food is great. In the Spanish case, this means essentially Latin American food, which in turn means largely Peruvian or Mexican, the two great cuisines of the New World. Apart from a number of honest cheap Latinos places (for instance the historic Cuban Zara in Chueca), the Entre Suspiro y Suspiro is a nice arty Mexican off Plaza Isabel II, and with regard to Peru, Madrid has the only European restaurant by Astrid and Gastón. Gastón’s story has been told by none the less than Nobel prize Vargas Llosa: a Peruvian law student at Complutense who got into food at the time of the transition, learnt the newest French techniques and now recreates the most authentic Peruvian tastes (the first spoonful of cebiche sent my mind straight to Lima) with the smartest, neatest texture and presentation.

Final acknowledgment: my comments on cuisine refer to Madrid and Castilla: of course, Galicia, the Basque country and Catalunya are different stories and will deserve more research.


July 05, 2011

Museums and exhibitions, Madrid and Barcelona

As already in Berlin, an extended stay in Madrid and Barcelona allowed me the time for visiting the local museums at human pace. It matters little that I had already seen them most, and not just because fantastic works like Guernica or Bosch´s Jardín de las Delicias never tire. Museums grow, expand and change.

Some have new architectonically interesting extensions: it's the case of the Reina Sofía and the Prado in Madrid , but even more of the Museo Picasso in Barcelona. When opened in 1962 it was hidden in the narrow medieval Montcada street, as it was more than inconvenient for the regime. It kept enlarging and the last expansion has just been presented. Its crystal walls contrast well with the medieval buildings as a good example of 'old meets new', and, when inaugurated, will provide a new main entrance from Jaume Sabartés Square and possibly reduce the overcrowding. Although, as far as Picasso Museums go, I will probably keep preferring the more orderly and thorough Parisian one.Picasso Museum

Santa Maria del Taull, XIIaCThen there are the new or re-opened collections. In particular, after a long closure, the Romanesque collection of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya has just reopened. Its collections of frescoes from the Romanesque churches scattered around the mountains, from a time when Catalonia was a ‘world’ power, has been carefully readjusted, with more realistic lighting and a more respectful background paint. The videos on the ‘ripping’ technique used in 1919-1923 to remove the paintings from the Churches, to save them from traffickers and – unknowingly – from the anarchist devastation that would have exploded few years later, are also gripping. Overall, as the Museum director says, Maite Ocaña says, the collections has recovered its ‘mysticism and spirituality’ – which is the essence of Romanesque art after all.

In Madrid, instead, since the last time I was there the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum has added the international part of the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, which the former-Miss Spain baroness collected over the 1990s: it could go under the title ‘how many masterpieces you can collect in a decade if money is not an issue’.

Then there are also the temporary exhibitions, many of direct appeal to me. The ‘Polonia’ one in Madrid’s Royal Palace (until the 4th of September) presents Leonardo’s ‘Lady with an Ermine’. But that is a painting I know well from its home in the Kraków’s Czartoryskich museum, where it can be admired closely in total quiet and with the intimacy it deserves (after all the Lady, Cecilia Gallerani, was a fellow Milanese). Moreover, while exhibitions do have a point, I am not sure about ‘celebrity tours’ of first class paintings: as Botticelli’s Primavera or Leonardo’s Gioconda do not trot the globe, the Lady shouldn’t either. So I refused to queue for her in Madrid. By the way, after Madrid she will come to London, but I repeat: don’t queue in London – wait and go to Kraków.

A more intriguing exhibition was ‘Heroínas’ in the Thyssen-Burnemisza (already over, sorry). It aimed at presenting women as ‘subjects’ rather than ‘objects’ throughout art history: that is not as doing-nothing beauties and saints, but as 'empowered' heroines, athletes, readers, mystics etc, and of course as painters too, especially if self-portraying (Sofonisba Anguissola’s is particularly good). If the idea may sound soppy, just go to the Prado immediately after: and among all Goya’s Mayas and Raphael’s Madonnas, you will really struggle to find works portraying women as subjects. All the Heroínas paintings do it, and very well.

Still in Madrid, and even more of professional interest for me, was the ‘Worker Photography Movement’ at the Reina Sofía (until 22nd August). The movement started in post-revolutionary Russia, equipping workers with one more revolutionary weapon, cameras. It then spread to other countries with strong communist movements, especially Germany, Austria, Belgium and Czech Republic, to the USA and to a much lesser extent Britain and Mexico. Many photographs are exceptional in both exalting the dignity of the worker while documenting the abjection of the surrounding conditions – although those from the Soviet Union, except the very first ones, obviously do only the first of these jobs. The works are presented with lots of contextual materials and one can spend hours reading pages of worker-photography magazines from different countries. The only bewildering part is the Spanish one, which is not about workers but about the Civil War: who thought that they were the same thing? Or is the Civil War the only thing about the XX Century they can sell to tourists in Madrid?

Over here, in Barcelona, the Picasso Museum presents ‘Feasting on Paris. Picasso 1900-1907’ (until the 16th October). Originally at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Van Gogh is particularly well presented among the sources of inspirations that Picasso found during his first visit to Paris. By directly confronting Picasso’s works to his predecessors, the aim of the exhibition is defending Pablo from the (rather idiotic, in my view) charges of having done nothing new. In this, the exhibition is successful, although the impression is that Picasso was lucky that in 1900-1907 they had not yet invented plagiarism-detecting software.

And a final personal impression. One of the very first works in the exhibition is Picasso’s amusing little drawing of himself arriving to Paris. It’s one of my favourite pieces from the Berggruen museum in Berlin, which I had re-seen last Autumn. Is Picasso going around Europe with me?


July 04, 2011

Spain vs Italy, gender relations

A couple of years ago Spain overtook Italy in the GDP per head – something unthinkable 30 or even 20 years ago. In fact, when I first visited Spain in 1994 I could not avoid the unconfessable impression that the Spanish were our poorer cousins: very similar, but a bit old-fashion or run-down, simpler, less smart, in dirtier cities and with more provincial attitudes. Well, now it’s better not to compare Naples with any Spanish city...

But the field were the Spanish have overtaken the Italians at fasted speed is not the economy, fashion, cuisine, football or urban management. It is gender relations. Spain, with until just 35 years ago the most retrograde regime and Church in Europe, has gender parity in the government, fast growing female employment rate, gay marriages. In Italy, 35 years ago at the forefront of women movements, machismo has been elevated to a government ideology, female employment is stagnating as the lowest in the EU, and just forget about civic marriages or gay marriages: hate violence against gays is on the increase and there is no regulation against homophobia. As Teresa Jurado and Manuela Naldini have shown in a recent joint Italo-Spanish paper (“Towards a Dual-Earner Family Model: Italy and Spain in Comparison”, SASE Conference 2011), for a complex set of reasons gender arrangements are much more ‘modern’ in Spain than in Italy.

That calls into question Italian men. They are an easy target for any sort of jokes, stereotypes and denigration. When these come from Northern Europeans, an Italian man can just smile and perseverate in the secret belief that such denigration only betrays protestant repression, industrial-society frustration or just simple envy of ‘our’ (supposed) capacity to enjoy food, music, flirts, sensuality. But when it comes from Spanish cousins, the criticism cuts much deeper.

Take the brilliant article by Elvira Lindo in yesterday’s El País, ‘Berlusconeando’. She describes the Italian men she sees in Rome (of course, in Milan it would be different!) and she sees many Belusconis: ‘I must say that they are extremely likeable to the sight, that included the ugly are handsome, even more, I’d say the ugliest are the most handsome (...); but that beauty does not blinds me I often meet a male self-esteem that is very Berlusconian’. On an honest note, Lindo concludes that she also sees many Rajoys and Camps in Spain, but that is not as demeaning on Spanish men than the Berlusconi charge on the Italian.

I will postpone in-depth observations of Italy to the time I go there later this year. But it needs to be added that the incredibly fast women emancipation and cultural change in Spain have also produced what seems a strong case of what feminism calls ‘male backlash’. Women are getting their way in the economy and in politics, but at the margins some men are escaping in the worst ways. Spain has been described, for instance by The Independent, as the ‘world’s capital of prostitution’, and even if statistics on this topic are by nature unreliable, what anybody can observe is how prostitution is pervades Spanish life. Even a serious and progressive paper like El País has pages of sex services classified ads every day: I can’t imagine not just The Independent, die FAZ, Gazeta Wyborcza or Le Monde doing the same – even for Repubblica or Corriere della Sera it is unthinkable. Even worse, Spain has bas records for domestic violence. And when the fight in the Socialist Party for Zapatero succession came to the tie between Carme Chacón and Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, it also took a strong traditional-gendered tone, with her in tears and him boasting his sporting career. But then again, at least the Spanish government takes domestic violence seriously, and hgh number may reflect higher reporting; Carme Chacón has been a strong minister of defence; and indeed the Spanish prime minister is unlikely to invite underage prostitutes to his home.


July 03, 2011

AVE, high speed trains?

AVE 'flying' through AragonOver the last month I took the new AVE train between Madrid and Barcelona, or vice versa, five times. 2h38’ for 621km, and never one minute delay – very much unlike my recent flights. It’s the same distance as between London and Edinburgh, which requires 4h22’, delays not included, making it impossible as a day return trip and forcing people on the plane.

Spanish high-speed railways are the best in Europe in all regards: faster, longer, more comfortable, more punctual. Until May they were also cheaper, but crisis is striking hard and the many generous advance economic fares have been tacitly removed – a cheeky way to increase prices without saying it. The AVE has more legroom than in the countries of supposedly taller races, headphones and on-carriage movie, quick unobstructive security checks (the Atocha station bombs are not easily forgotten), and a display tells you all information you need (next station, outside temperature 42C, speed 305km/h...), while the arid Castellan and Aragonese landscapes gives quickly way to the green Catalan one.

2,655kms of high speed rail (only China has more) have not come cheap or without controversies. The first lines, in the early 1990s, to Andalusia were criticised as clientelism by the Andaluz Felipe González. The total bill for the infrastructure so far is 100,000m Euros, i.e. some 2,200€ per head, if the EU hadn't taken up a part of the bill. It is legitimate to ask if the money couldn’t have been spent better differently. The Toledo-Albacete high-speed service connecting all Castilla-La Mancha capitals, has just been closed, after only six months in operation, after realising only 18 passengers used it on average...

Yet in such a large country with such strong centrifugal forces, the under-three hours connections between most main cities do have sense and provide excellent alternatives to internal flights. The Spanish mistake, rather, is to have simultaneously invested similar amounts on motorways and airports – as if any provincial city had the right to be connected to Madrid by all options: plane, high-speed train and motorway. Spain has now 48 airports, of which only 11 are profitable, according to a reportage by El País (Aeropuertos para todos). The main ones, Madrid’s and Barcelona’s, have seen pharaonic new terminals built - indeed, Barcelona’s is the only European one to compete with the big Asian ones in terms of comfort and posh (it even has, quite uniquely, a large courtyard), but it is not particularly crowded. Worse with the small airports built over the last ten years in a ‘Ryanair rush’: every town believed that it only needed an airport to attract crowds of heavy-spending tourists. Take Burgos: it had five airports within 125 km, but it still needed its own. Or Castellón, inaugurated with great pump, but with no plane yet. Or Huesca, with more flights than passengers in 2009. The crisis has hit, and Ryanair is engaging in threats to local authorities: in Catalunya, after withdrawing from Reus airport, it is threatening to leave Girona too if the local council does not contribute with 5 Euros per passengers. Apart that Catalunya is the most indebted region of Spain, and that state aids are banned by the EU, if Girona really wanted to promote tourism it could spend the money much more cleverly than sponsoring one, controversial company. In fact, the fascination with cheap airlines has made no favours to Spain, contributing to the construction bubble and to a cheap-tourism industry that damages the environment and creates no good jobs – in fact, most jobs it creates are so bad that only impoverished immigrants take them up.

So, compared to airports and motorways, high-speed trains look like the least evil in Spain – but they still have a hard time around Europe. The new Portuguese government, given the notorious financial situation, has just suddenly withdrawn from the planned Lisbon-Madrid line – for the anger of the Spaniards who had already started work on their side. In the UK, the plan for a high-speed line from London to Birmingham and Manchester has so far survived the public spending cuts, but reactionary planning laws make the project extremely arduous. But the biggest disruptions are in Italy, where already the Milan-Roma (2h59’ for 517km, but the Apennines in between) was controversial, and now the planned Turin-Lyon line through the Alps is causing civic resistance and violent protests – also today.

Even if enjoying the Madrid-Barcelona train, and dreaming of a fast connection between England and Scotland, I’d say that the Alps are an exception. Such a delicate and unique environment requires slowness and respect, rather than being violated by long tunnels, mountains of excavated soil and noise. Indeed, in the Alps even more than elsewhere trains are better than planes and cars (motorway valleys have record incidences of cancers, as the exhaust pipes stick there). But the existing lines have enough capacity, and they only require an hour or so of calm – rewarded by the views.


July 2011

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  • Agree with you about stand–up comedy. I've always disliked the unctiousness of the performers and th… by Tom on this entry
  • I'm in two minds whether to carry on going along with the olympic hype or jump ship. by Sue on this entry

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