Santander, San Sebastian, Bilbao: so many pintxo bars, so many cake shops, so many ice cream parlours…so few obese people. How come? Here are a few observations - unscientific, anecdotal and observational, and based on a couple of weeks spent in Northern Spain - which doesn’t mean not valid. Mostly, the answer appears to be food culture and active travel. First, the food, though wonderful, comes in small portions – eg, pintxos (tapas). Very little is processed. Moreover, it’s ok to share. The fast food oligopolies/chain outlets (please don’t call them “restaurants”) are scarcely seen (San Sebastian has one McDonalds). Practically all of the dining happens in small independent businesses, whether bars or restaurants. There's hardly any eating or drinking “on the go.” You just don’t see people toting bottles of soda or eating crisps whilst walking. Eating goes like this: Arrive. Talk. Eat. Talk. Leave.
So much for the food culture, what about active travel? As per the previous post/Argus article, great swathes of Santander, Bilbao and San Sebastian are carfree and there’s efficient and inexpensive public transport. Not just in the main cities, but in many small towns and villages, cars have been put in their place – after pedestrians. San Sebastian is a poster child for rebalanced streets – cars come way down the hierarchy, below walking, cycling, roller-blading, skateboarding, jogging and running. Pavements are uncluttered and unobstructed - the advertising “A boards,” which make getting around on British pavements so difficult, are just not to be seen. Guard rails, which pen pedestrians onto pavements at crossing points, don’t exist. So what’s the paradox? Brits abroad will tell you that they love these places. Elected and appointed officials from UK local government go on fact finding- missions to see for themselves. But back in the UK many of the good intentions melt away, and motorists seem to acquire a magical power of veto when it comes to improving our towns and cities by better management of the car. The question is, why? Pedestrians have votes too….