This was my 3rd international competition under the UPCA banner. In Eindhoven, I stressed too much over beating the US record, over placing in the competition, that I watched in despair as my pipe went out in just over 45 minutes as I struggled to keep a good light. This time, my victory at the US National Championships in 2010 , and my 1:45 time in Portugal long behind me, in Seville I was determined to make a vacation out of my trip to the European Championship.
Seville is a charming city, with the medieval center of town containing everything one thinks of when you hear “Spain”. Narrow city streets decorated in flowers that open up to large patios with ornate fountains, surrounded by tapas bars and the streets lined with orange trees too numerous to count that drop ripe fruit even in the middle of October. The Hotel Abba was situated next to the River Guadalvir in the heart of the Triana district. A short walk next to the river through a public park will lead you over cobblestone streets to the numerous bridges crossing the river from Triana to the old section of town. The residents of Seville love dogs, and you walk by numerous native Spaniards jogging with dog breeds of all kinds, while the rowing teams of the local universities practice their skills down the river. The Torre del Oro, an old Moorish defensive structure, now a naval museum, indicates where you should cross to see the historic old city.
It is a city of sharp contrasts, as this is the capital of Andalusia, the southernmost ancient kingdom of Spain. It was here where the Arabic Moors dominated the Southern European countryside until the 1200s, when Ferdinand III of Castille expelled the North African kingdom and began establishing what history would eventually know as “Spain”. This was also the port from which Christopher Columbus began his epic voyage to “discover” what we now know as the Americas. The mix of Roman, Gallic, Castillian and Moorish influence is everywhere. A walk down the narrow city streets may very well lead to 16th century cathedrals as well as Roman ruins, Arabic baths, and modern glass and steel structures.
My wife Paris and I arrived the Wednesday before the competition. Learning a valuable lesson from our first international experience in Portugal, we flew into Madrid and opted to take a taxi to the EuroRail station. After flying coach class on an international flight, I purchased 1st class tickets on Renfe, the Spanish Eurorail partner, from Madrid to Seville. The large leather seats and 1st class service were a welcome respite from the cramped transatlantic flight, as we enjoyed watching the Spanish countryside appear and disappear at 200 mph on the high speed rail service. A wise investment, considering a flight from Madrid to Seville in coach class costs about the same as a 1st class rail ticket.
Our taxi took us from the rail station to the Hotel Abba Triana, a modern business class hotel right on the River Guadalvir. After a much needed rest, we met our good friend, Antoni Pascual, president of the Spanish Pipe Club. Anton invited myself, Paris, Italian pipe maker Aldo Morelli, as well as our good friends from Great Britain, Mark and Sarah, to dinner at a local seafood restaurant situated near the river. We were treated to a feast of Iberic cured ham, as well as fried calamari and a host of Spanish seafood dishes such as king prawns, fried cod, and marinated dog fish.
If it’s hard for Americans to imagine what Spanish cuisine actually is, there is good reason. Spanish cuisine is extremely varied. Practically every café in Seville serves close to 50 different “tapas” or small dishes somewhat akin to appetizers served in America. Some of these are specialties of the house. And on any given street, there may be hundreds of cafes to choose from, from the very modern serving sushi grade tuna and ceviche to old wood and marble taverns that haven’t changed their menu since the 1700s. The variety of choices is mind-boggling. The legend goes that a Spanish king once had a hard night of drinking the local wine. He figured out that if he had something to eat, even a small snack, to enjoy while imbibing, his recovery time the morning after was greatly reduced. He therefore mandated that every tavern serve a small dish along with a drink.
We enjoyed exploring the ancient streets as well as such sights as the Royal Alacazaar, the oldest active royal residence in Spain, dating to 1100 and originally built by King Alphonso X around 1100 on the site of a Moorish Mosque. Paris and I also climbed the inside of the Giralda Tower, a Gothic bell tower build on the ruins of the old Minaret, the numerous portals offering fantastic views of the city. The Alcazaar is an impressive sight, with its maze of rooms and labyrinthine gardens stemming from addition after addition from over 1000 years of history. We also visited Seville Cathedral, itself an artistic and architectural marvel as well as the final resting place of several historic figures, including Christopher Columbus.
Saturday evening before the championship there is the annual Gala dinner hosted by the CIPC. These Gala dinners are not only great for the food and the chance to mingle, but also a chance for the host club to display the cultural and gastronomic treasures of the host community. Seville did not disappoint. We were treated to local white dry sherry served straight out of the barrel. A young lady in traditional flamenco dress would lower a small decanter on a long rod into the barrel, drop it to the floor, swirl around the wine to aerate it, and lift the decanter above her head and pour a perfect arc into a glass. Dinner consisted of a five course meal ranging from king prawns to Iberic pork loin wrapped around vegetables.
The Championship took place in El Pabeleon del Futuro, originally built for the 1992 World Expo. The US team was represented by 5 competitors, including 2 former champions as well as the current US champion.
Doc Garr earned the top US time at 1:36:43, with Andy Hamilton coming in at 1:18:14 and myself rounding out the top 3 US times at 1:08:59. Our combined time of just over 4 hours should have put us in 9th place, over Slovakia. Because this was the European Championship, the US was only ranked individually, not as a team. However, this was the best showing by a US team in UPCA’s history.
After the competition, we enjoyed snacks and complimentary gin and tonics served to us in large brandy glasses garnished with mint and juniper berries, as well as perused the various vendors at the pipe show. This is the time to take photos with new friends made as well as to commiserate with old rivals from all over the world. I wore my tartan kilt and UPCA polo, as has become my custom at these competitions. Naturally I became a photo opportunity for several members of the various teams.
These competitions really are the United Nations of pipe smokers. Everyone, the French, the Germans, the Russians, usually dresses in either club or native garb. I wear a tartan kilt in the Irish Diaspora tartan, representing my Scotch Irish heritage and their expulsion and settlement in America. On someone’s IPhone there’s a photo of me clad in kilt smoking my pipe while a large Russian man wearing a Cossack hat is giving me a bear hug and a thumbs up to the camera. Somewhere there is also a photo of me clad in kilt with a large contingent of smiling Bavarians wearing blue vests and alpine hats with lederhosen. That is the true spirit of these competitions, and why I encourage any member of a UPCA club to seriously consider joining us and representing the USA in international competition. It is truly an experience like no other.