Saturday, December 25, 2004

My missed plane story or Proving that I am the true Ponce de Leon

I have told much of the story of my trip to my trip to Spain and Portugal in August on various blogs already. However, the story of the last 36 hours of so of the trip is one I have not told until now. Perhaps I have not done this because I busy, or perhaps because I was a little embarassed by the fact that the story of the last 36 hours was almost entirely about my missing a plane. But now it is Christmas, my mood is good and I have just had a fine glass of single match Scotch.

I had been thinking of taking a trip across the top of Spain and down to Porto for a year or so, but this particular trip had to be booked in an instant. I had been offered a job, I had a couple of weeks before starting, and I had to go at once. Ideally I would have booked a flight into Bilbao or Santander and a return flight out of Porto, but at the time no discount airlines flew to Porto, and flights on full service airlines in August booked with very little notice were quite expensive. And in any event, it might be interesting to make my way back to Bilbao via an inland route rather than the coastal route that I was going on in the forward direction. So I didn't think about it too much, and I booked a return flight to Bilbao.

However, as I flew into Bilbao on the 17th of August, I looked out the plane window. Two weeks later I would realise this was a mistake. For out the window I saw the city of San Sebastian (known in Basque as Donostia), which looked simply gorgeous. I had been to San Sebastian before, and I knew in August the city would be full of bars, full of tourists, full of partying - not to mention full of Australians. I was struck by the immediate desire to go there and I had something to celebrate, so I went to San Sebastian for the evening. I did indeed find tourists, partying, beer, wonderful Basque food (the best in Spain) and Australians, so I had a fine evening. But I was a day into my trip, and I had gone a few miles in entirely the wrong direction to where I was headed. I compounded this by just following my vague wishes for a couple more days. A year before I had seen road signs pointing to "Iruna", and at the time I had not realised that this was the Basque name for Pamplona, famous for the running of the bulls. So this time I went there. Wonderful place. Must try to go there for the Siesta some time. Then the next day I went to Vitoria, administrative capital of the Basque region. (Waste of time, although the bars and food continued to be good. Never go to anywhere in which "administrative capital" is in the first sentence of the appropriate guide book entry).

Which was all fine. (I particularly don't regret going to Pamplona). But it meant that I found myself passing through Bilbao on the way to Santander three days after I had originally intended to go to Santander. Which meant that I was in a slightly greater rush to get to Porto than I had originally intended.

As I got to La Coruna, to Santiago de Compostela, past the beautiful estuaries of Galicia, I considered whether it would be better to leave Porto to another time, and to make my way back to Bilbao in plenty of time. But I checked those big yellow departure posters that one sees on continental European railway platforms, and there was an overnight train from Vigo near the Portuguese border to Barcelona. A quick check of additional train times in an internet cafe confirmed that I could get an evening train on the 29th of August (or even a morning train on the 30th) from Porto to Vigo, then the overnight Barcelona bound train from Vigo on the 30th, then I could get off this train in Burgos and spend a couple of hours at the railway station in Burgos before catching the overnight train from Madrid to Bilbao as it passed through, and be in Bilbao at 7am on the 31st, well in time for my flight back to London at 11am. Easy. Now a sane person would have bought a ticket in advance, but I find attempting to buy train and bus tickets in Spain to be a trial, as I speak very little Spanish and the person on the other side of the window seldom speaks any English at all. And anyway, virtually all British and European overnight trains that I have encountered in the past have sleepers that require reservations and a second class seating section that does not. I might have to spend the night in a seat on a train. I have done this many times before. No problem. So I put it off. Silly me.

So I went to Porto, and had a wonderful time. I walked my legs off in Porto, and got into Vigo, exhausted, at about 10pm on the 29th. I had some idea that I might go on a boat trip to the Islas Cies before getting the overnight train.

But I slept and slept, eventually getting up at what I thought was about 10am. But I had forgotten about the one hour time difference between Spain and Portugal. So it was 11am. No chance of a trip to the Islands. Still, fine. I would have a long leisurely lunch in a restaurant in Vigo, would wander around town a bit, perhaps look at the port, and then head for Bilbao. But first to the station to buy a ticket.

But once I had communicated (with difficulty) what I wanted to the people at the ticket office, things changed. No, it was not possible to book a ticket on that evening's train to Burgos. The train was entirely sleepers - no seats - and no tickets were available on overnight trains for three days. (As to whether this actually served the customers of the Spanish railways well, I guess they don't ask that question much. Such are the joys of state owned railways). The gentleman behind the counter did not laugh and was (as far as I could tell) sympathetic, but there was nothing that could be done. There were plenty of seats on trains to Madrid, but this didn't help.

Now my situation was not necessarily terrible. The distance to Bilbao was maybe ten hours travel. I had to be in Bilbao in about 22 hours. If I could find a series of transport options that could keep me on the road or on a train for a fair portion of that time, I could probably still make it. There would likely be a period overnight where travel would not be possible unless I was on a portion of a long distance train or bus. Local day transport in most places would probably start at 6am or 7am the next morning, so if I could get to somewhere close enough to Bilbao that the first bus or train to Bilbao in the morning would get me there in time to make my flight. That meant Burgos, or (on the coast) maybe Santander.

Rather than attempting to get a train some of the way, I went to the bus station to check whether there was a long distance bus going in the right direction. Bad move. Nobody at the bus station seemed to speak any English, and few timetables were posted. It was possible to get a bus to Ourense - which was in approximately the right direction. There were also plenty of buses to Madrid. Vigo was one of those cities where the bus station has been built a long way from the centre of the city to make it hard for people to use (or something) - so I didn't go back to the train station and just got on the bus to Ourense.

Having a couple of hours later got to the bus station in Ourense, I looked at timetables there. There did appear to be an overnight bus to Bilbao, but the woman behind the ticket counter was extremely unhelpful to people who did not speak Spanish, and eventually appeared to be indicating either that the bus no longer ran or that there were no seats. So no good. (There were however lots of buses to Madrid). I went to the railway station and there was a train to Leon a couple of hours later, as well as a train to Madrid. So I went to a cafe, had some lunch and perhaps a beer and a coffee, and then got the train to Leon.

On the train I encountered a couple of Americans. One was a college student who was spending a semester at a university in Oviedo, and the other was her boyfriend, with who she had been travelling prior to her starting her studies, and who was flying back to the US in a couple of days. I dicovered that they had also come up from Porto the previous evening, and had intended to get an earlier train to Ponferrada and Leon. However, they had forgotten about the time difference between Portugal and Spain and had missed the morning train, and were thus on the afternoon one.

Now discovering that there had been an earlier train was slightly annoying to me, as if I had got up and had got that one, I would have got to Leon in the mid afternoon, and there would have been no difficulty whatsoever getting to Burgos or Santander - or perhaps even all the way to Bilbao - by the evening. But as it was I would get into Leon at about eight in the evening, probably too late to get any further transport that evening.

But I had a nice chat on the train with the Americans, as in my experience one does with Americans.

And in any event, I had a slightly odd urge to visit Leon. My reason for this may or may not have been almost entirely stupid. When reading history a few years ago, I discovered that the first European to visit North America was traditionally considered to be someone named "Ponce de Leon", who visited Florida in 1513. (An episode of Seinfeld a few years back made fun of the name, merely because I think they thought it was an amusing name). The suggestion that he was the first European to North America is entirely ridiculous, as a great many Vikings, Basque fishermen, merchants from Bristol, etc etc got there first, but he probably was the first European to get to North America via the Carribean.

My immediate assumption from knowing this was that "Ponce" was a title of nobility and that this particular gentlaman came from somewhere near Leon, a place I found on a map of Spain and otherwise knew nothing whatsoever about. So I sort of had an idea that it might be fun to visit Leon. Also, on this trip I had been (quite deliberately) travelling through the ethnic and cultural fringes of Spain, and Leon was quite obviously in Castille. This was part of the ruling culture of Spain.

So when I had planned to come back overland by a more leisurely route, I had thought that I might stop in Leon and have a look around. This had left my schedule when I had got distracted earlier, but now I found myself in Leon at about half past eight in the evening, not knowing quite what I was doing. I first went to the ticket office and attempted to see if I could get a train ticket to Burgos overnight. There was only one train to Burgos, and this was the same train to Barcelona that I had been unable to get a ticket for in Vigo, so unsurprisingly I was still unable to get a ticket to it. I could get a ticket to Palencia (halfway to Burgos) or Valladolid (a bigger town, but closer to Madrid than Bilbao) on an overnight train to Madrid fom La Coruna that left Leon at about half past four in the morning, however. (And of course, if I wanted to get the train all the way to Madrid, there would be no problem).

I was at this point exhausted and hungry. I saw a McDonald's in the distance and went and ate, after which I felt much better. This delay may have cost me the chance to get somewhere useful on a bus, but I needed to sit down for a few minutes. I then went to the bus station. There were only a few overnight buses still to leave. As always, I could go to Madrid, and there appeared to be a bus to Santander.

Hurrah, I thought. Rather than deal with the woman behind the ticket counter, I attempted to check availability on a computerised ticket machine with an "English" option. After 20 minutes of sending me in circles the machine announced that it was out of order. I then spent 20 minutes in a queue, after which the woman behind the counter basically laughed at me when I said I wanted to go to Santander on the bus that was leaving in by that time about five minutes. So it was the train to Palancia in the morning.

Thus I had about six hours to fill in in Leon. So I went for a walk. Leon turned out to be beautiful, with walkways and parks beside the Rio Bernesga, and a cathedral and public buildings in a more pompous but somehow much more Castilian style. I was no longer in the cultural fringes of Spain, and it was obvious just from walking around in the night. Leon had nightlife, and the bars and restaurants were open. I found myself a fine Belgian beer bar, and had some Belgian beer. I sat in another bar, and had a little food. At around two I disvovered that bars had switched off their espresso machines prior to closing and that I could not buy coffee, although I could still have beer or wine. I went back to the station, where the cafe was still open and still serving coffee. (Imagine trying to buy a cup of coffee or a beer in a British railway station at half past two in the morning). The television in the bar was showing a bizarre Spanish game show in which women in bikinis were attempting to push contestants off conveyor belts with long poles, which was certainly intriguing, if nothing else. At 4.30am I caught the train to Palencia, where I arrived an hour later.

It was obvious upon getting there that I had made a bad choice. Palencia was a small town, and there were no early buses to Burgos or Bilbao. Perhaps there would have been from Valladolid, but the distance was such that they still might have been early enough. I attempted to catch the first train to Burgos at about 8am, but although it appeared on the timetable it never appeared on the electronic departure boards or in reality. I got the first bus to Burgos at about 9am. I then got a bus to Bilbao at about 10.30, and got into Bilbao at around 12.30 pm. My flight had left an hour and a half before. I had failed.

There was only one thing to do, which was to play the check-in desk game at Bilbao airport. My ticket was on Easyjet, a budget airline. The rules stated that if I missed my flight I would lose my seat and would have to buy another ticket. Which is fine. In the end it was my fault.

However, check in agents always have a little bit of discretion. In a genuine emergency they can waive the rules. (On the one and only occasion that I genuinely was prevented from making a flight by a natural disaster, getting onto a later flight really wasn't a problem). Even in lesser circumstances, airlines don't really want to piss off their customers, so come up with a good excuse and they might be nice to you. One thing which has a big impact on this is the period of time by which you miss your flight. Show up five minutes late and they may put you on the next flight for free. Show up a day late and you have no hope. I was going to show up two hours late at best. I wasn't hopeful but I had some chance. (I was helped by the fact that I was on Easyjet, who are more sympathetic in such instances than are Ryanair, at least in my experience). So even though I had missed my flight by two hours, time was still of the essence.

So I rushed for a taxi. The Bilbao bus station appeared to be surrounded by taxis on all sides, and finding precisely which taxi was at the front of the peculiar circular queue took some time, but I eventually found it


Twenty minutes later I was in the quite attractive Santiago Calatrava designed terminal at Bilbao airport. Calatrava is famous for his bridges, and his airport terminal looks a bit like one of his bridges, but I digress. I went to the Easyjet ticket counter. I explained that I had missed my flight by two hours. The woman behind the counter told me I would have to buy another ticket. I gave her my best beleagured and exhausted look, not hard as I actually was both those things. I asked her what I had to do to buy another one, giving her my best "Oh this is terrible - "I am completely exhausted and am having a really bad day, but I suppose I am resigned to paying extra, but I know you are only doing your job so give me the bad news" look, and told her that I was late because a train was cancelled. (This was as far as I know true, although I almost certainly would have still missed the flight if it had not been cancelled). She asked me where. I said in Palencia. She corrected my pronunciation - adding a lisp to make it "Palenthia", took the piece of paper with my flight details and typed something into her computer. She looked on her screen and told me that she could in fact save my reservation and put me on the next flight to London, although there would be a €30 fee. The flight was even to Gatwick Airport whereas the original flight had been to Stansted, and I live much closer to Gatwick. Easyjet fly London-Bilbao three times a day, so I would only have to wait a couple of hours. As the journey home from the airport in London would be much shorter, I would probably be home at about the same time I would have been had I caught the earlier flight.

This was far, far better than the worst case scenario (which could have meant paying something like five times that for a new ticket). The woman had used what powers of discretion she had and had been nice to me. I thanked her very warmly, pulled out my credit card and paid the €30. I headed for the bar, where I had another couple of beers and some Basque food before boarding the flight to London for my new job that was starting two days later.

And the lesson I learned from this? Well, Spain has a hub and spoke transport system. It is always easy to get to Madrid. If I had booked my return flight from Madrid rather than Bilbao (which I could have done) there would have been no trouble making my flight, regardless of how many trains I missed or failed to buy a ticket for. In future I will remember this.

And the other way in which the world is improving? Ryanair is about to start discount flights from London to Porto. If I were to do this next year I wouldn't have to get back to my starting point anyway. I am not going to do this next year, but I think I might perhaps go for a drive to some of the vinyards of the upper Douro, where the grapes from which port are made are grown. That sounds nice.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Some random thoughts on bridges

Brian Micklethwait made a post on his blog about the new, magnificent Millau viaduct over the Tarn River in southern France. Various people made further comments about it (which can be read if you scroll down the post). In particular Michael Blowhard made an observation that amounts to the fact that he doesn't like modern cable stayed bridges compared to more classical suspension bridges. I started writing a comment which got a little out of control, so I ended up deciding to post it here. I recommend you read the original post/comments first. It would also probably be better with pictures, but I don't have time to draw them.

There is actually nothing impractical in terms of physics with what Michael Blowhard suggests. You could build a viaduct with multiple suspension spans, just as the Millau viaduct has been built with multiple cable stayed spans. Each end tower would be anchored to the ground on one side, and would have one end of the cable catenary (not a parabola) from which the deck is suspended hanging from the other side. The non-end towers would have a catenary hanging from each side. This is in fact probably the way the bridge would have been built prior to the invention about 20 years ago of the materials that made long span cable stayed bridges practical. However, it wasn't done because it would have been too expensive. (There are also perhaps issues with safety. A catastrophic failure of a multiple span suspension bridge would be more likely to cascade from one span to another than is the case with a multiple span suspension structure).

Or perhaps Michael is saying that he would prefer a single span suspension bridge. Once again there is absolutely no physical reason why this couldn't be done across the Tarn at Millau, other than the cost of it. One possibility would be to actually build the two towers on the banks of the valley - that is have a bridge which does not touch the floor of the valley anywhere. This would lead to an extremely long span (2.5km) which would be the longest in the world, but not by a huge margin (the largest is presently 1.991 km long). Or you could anchor the towers on the floor of the valley and have a shorter main span. This would require pretty immensely thick towers, but again there is no reason why it couldn't be done. Other than the expense.

The reason why we now have lots of cable stayed bridges nowadays is of course simply cost. (cable stayed = the cables connect the tower to the deck directly but at a non-vertical angle. suspension bridge = there are catenaries between the two towers to which the deck is connected by vertical cables). In around 1980 new materials were invented that were strong enough to allow large cable stayed bridges to be constructed. As these dispense with an entire aspect of the design of suspension bridges (the suspended catenaries) the total mass of such bridges is much smaller, and the total cost of much lower.

But, this only hold up to span lengths up to about 1km. For lengths above this the lateral stresses on the deck are so great the the modern materials cannot cope with them, and a classical suspension bridge is still the only possible way to go. So, simultaneously with the construction of a great many cable stayed bridges around the world (This one in Normandy being one of the largest) the last decade has also been a great time for the advancement of the art of the classical suspension bridge. However, this is perhaps not noticeable to the casual observer, as while there have been a huge number of new cable stayed bridges build with span lengths of (say) 500m to 1000m, there have been fewer than ten new and immense suspension bridges. (List here). But, these small number of bridges have been particularly great. The longest is this great structure connecting Kobe in Honshu to the Island of Shikoku in Japan. (Unlike the Millau viaduct, this one is pretty genuinely a white elephant).

But all that have been built so far pale in comparison next to the bridge the Italians are planning on building across the Straits of Messina connecting mainland Italy and Sicily. This will have a main span of 3.3km, which will be by far the longest span ever built, massively further than the distance across the Tarn Valley for instance.

Unlike the Millau viaduct, this one will indeed be a colossal white elephant (and a lot of the money to pay for it will end up in the hands of dubious people, as happens in southern Italy). But somehow I just want to see it, and to walk across it. For white elephant or not it will certainly be magnificent.

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