It’s an ominous start to the day: dragging 40 kilos of equipment through Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. On the stones of Placa de Sant Just, we rub our hands together to keep warm, our breath condensing into ash clouds.
We are a group of travel bloggers; the demonic machine, the Segway. In the shadow of Barcelona’s oldest church, our guide Sergi unlocks its secrets.
A Segway is a hybrid creature, somewhere between a scooter and a pogo stick. It has a platform for your feet, two wheels and a central joystick for clinging onto for dear life. The motorized wheels spin either forwards or backwards, the direction determined by which way you lean. Forward to go faster, backwards to reverse. Standing perfectly still to stop.
It’s that last instruction that’s the hardest. Standing still is easy, but doing it suddenly, with foresight, intent and control, well, that’s another matter. It’s like the difference between singing in the shower and giving a speech in public.
“When you crash,” Sergi says, “it is better to collide directly with a wall.”
“If you have a lateral crash,” he explains, “one wheel will continue to spin.” Almost on cue, someone slams side-on into a bollard, the Segway twisting out of her hands and turning, ready to charge like an angry bull. Since tilting backwards puts the machine into reverse, leaping from a Segway won’t help you much: a smooth dismount is essential.
Tobias, our group’s assistant, helps us one by one, his manner relaxed, his words confidence-inspiring. Like a technological horse-whisperer he takes our lurching, jolting movements and transforms them into tentative, controlled circles.
After ten minutes of “training” we set off to explore the labyrinth of the Gothic Quarter, Barri Gòtic. Its right-angled streets – with unexpected crossroads, slopes and inexplicable patches of sand – provide quite an obstacle course for the beginner Segwayteer. Bewildered grey-haired men wearing flat caps appear from their doors, prompting occasional swerves and in one case – a direct encounter with a wall.
I scour the streets for small children, banana skins and men carrying panes of glass, then bouf! A narrow passageway propels us into the sunshine and palm tree lined area by the harbour.
This is the Barcelona I remember from eight long years ago. Vivid, sunlit colour and a sense of peaceful energy. We pass joggers, flamboyant Dalmatians, cyclists and skaters. Even a surfer, sprinting towards the chilled waves.
Rolling past the Hola! newsagent stands, we reach the road. This is the test. So far, I’ve been growing in confidence (interpretation: getting a bit cocky). The green man appears and I accelerate down the ramp. I almost falter on the other side, I need to lean forward, forward but instead I feel myself sticking my bum out in the air and stalling, swerving…Damn. I’ve lost the groove. I blunder upwards, spin around and just about dodge the bollards sprouting out of the pavement.
I have spared myself physical injury but my credibility vanished with my shrieking display of ineptitude. Never mind. Onwards.
Barcelona’s old port, Port Vell, looks anything but. Alongside mustard-yellow sand, buildings gleam and none more so than the W Barcelona hotel, lurking on the horizon like a shark’s fin.
“My city, Barcelona, has changed so much,” says Sergi. “Before, there were slums and no beach. But now, after a lot of work for the Olympics in 92, you see this.”
Sergi gestures towards a clean shoreline, sophisticated skyscrapers and a giant solar panel. “Even in the last five years, regeneration continues. But the mountains, Montjuïc and Tibidabo, and the Mediterranean Sea, they will see that Barcelona cannot grow too much. My city is contained.”
Barcelona may be contained, but on the smooth open space beside the water, we are free. Soaring and swirling across the sunlit ground, with Montjuïc rising up behind us and the coast curling slowly away, riding a Segway feels easy. In finding harmony with this two-wheeled creature, we have found our wings.
Disclosure: my Segway experience was funded by the Catalunya Tourist Board. I kept the right to write what I like, as ever, as always. To organise your own Segway Tour, contact Segway Cat via www.segway.cat.
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com