A run-in with the Barcelona police
And why I am not allowed to drive anymore
The morning started inauspiciously.
As I pulled the van out of the garage under the Mercat de Sant Antoni, Google Maps announced it would be re-routing me around certain road closures. Instead of going straight toward Parallel and then up to the roundabout at Plaça España, I turned north toward Gran Via.
The reason for the re-routing, it became clear within a block, was a race. I carefully drove through a crowd of runners in short shorts with numbers pinned to their chests, drinking water, chatting with friends.
Past the crowd, Google advised me to turn left, toward Parallel, but as I came around the corner I saw a line of cars backed up to the intersection. Ahead of the cars were police barriers. To my right, more police barriers. Back where I came there were barriers.
Left was the only option, into the line of cars.
The line didn’t move for 20 minutes. There were five of us in the car—all climbers itching to get to Grau de Maxtos an hour north of the city.
Except, we were stuck. I brought up a website on my phone with the race route outline on the map. It was a blue ring around my neighborhood, with us in the center:
“I hate runners,” my friend said, sitting next to me. “They hold special privileges in Barcelona.”
She recounted that one day during COVID, she tried to take a walk through Montjuic, the hilly park on the other side of the Poble Sec neighborhood. But she was stopped by police and told to go back to her apartment. As they were talking, a man in short shorts and a runner’s t-shirt ran by.
She asked why he got to go into the park and she couldn’t.
He’s a runner, the police officer replied.
We sat there and listened to the story and stoked our resentment toward the runners monopolizing the neighborhood. Where were the special privileges for climbers? we asked.
Finally, the police let us through the barrier.
The drunk driving checkpoint
Google now gave me two options: north back toward Gran Via, or south to the Ronda Litoral along the beach. Gran Via seemed likely to ensnare us in more of the race, so we headed south.
I turned down Parallel and headed toward the water and the marina. Past the theaters, past the south end of Raval on the left and Poble Sec on the right, I entered the first roundabout next to the Maritime Museum, then exited toward the second to get on the Ronda Litoral.
But rather than being able to get onto the highway, there we saw the Barcelona city traffic police.
“It’s a drinking checkpoint,” my friend said. “They’re always here on the weekends.”
It was now 11 am. Roughly an hour after we had planned to leave the city for a day of climbing. The night before there had been more festivities in our neighborhood. There always seemed to be festivities. Fireworks and dragons in the street, and men in costume, and beers on tap setup outside the Mercat. Apparently, a lot of locals like to get drunk and stay drunk right through ‘till morning on these occasions.
They waved me and my old Fiat Doblo van over to the side of the road.
They asked for my license and registration, the first time anyone had asked for this information since buying it. The compact diesel had been a great companion the past few months, carrying me and friends back and forth to Siurana, and to various other climbing crags around the city. Most of the week it sat parked in the garage underneath the Mercat, but on weekends it set me free from the city.
I reached into the glove compartment where I had stashed the papers. I’d still never organized them since making the purchase transfer three months earlier. They were all in a plastic sleeve: registration, insurance, and the official blue document that has the stamps for the annual Inspección Técnica de Vehículos, proof of the mechanical inspection.
Then a woman came over with the breathalyzer test. She handed me a plastic pouch with a mouthpiece on it and instructed me how to blow into the machine. She asked if I’d ever done a breathalyzer test—never, I said.
The test was all clear. Of course, I wasn’t drunk at 11 am on a Sunday.
An American driver in Spain
The woman went away, but just then the older man came back to ask if I had a Spanish driver’s license. I’d already shown him the International Driver’s License I’d gotten from E-ITA back in April.
About ten months ago when I had gone to pick up a rental car in Barcelona, the people at the counter had told me that I needed to go to this website, upload my photo and my U.S. driver’s license, and pay a fee.
The website is the International Transport Authority or e-ita.org. Its existence was news to me. I’d rented cars in Galicia and in Andalucia, in Portugal and France, but never had I needed anything other than a U.S. driver’s license to do so. Yes, the rental car people said—this was new.
The whole thing seemed like a racket brought on by some new layer of EU bureaucracy, but the rental counter people were insistent: they couldn’t give me the car unless I had the international license, or IDL.
In the end, it only took 15 minutes and €70 for the expedited electronic service, which only made it seem like more of a racket. But I got the rental car, and later when I bought the Fiat, I used the IDL to get the car insurance. The license had an expiration date on it of 2026—more than two more years before I needed to renew.
How long have you lived here? the police officer asked.
About six months.
Do you have an NIE? he asked, referring to the foreign tax ID you need to either live or do business in Spain. I had gotten mine a year earlier in preparation for buying the property in Cornudella de Montsant.
Yes, I have a NIE.
Then he started talking very fast, and I turned to my friend to help translate. I was a resident of Barcelona. I’d lived here too long, and I had a NIE. All of this meant my IDL wasn’t a valid license to drive in Barcelona. It was valid for a tourist, yes, but not for a resident.
Of course, as a practical matter, this made little sense. Someone on vacation can drive these crazy streets but I as a resident with the exact same paperwork and driving history couldn’t?
In any case, I pleaded ignorance. I’d had no idea.
The officer went back to the police truck, and the five of us were left to wait. Cars continued to be pulled over. The sun continued to get warm in the sky. The climbing cliffs of Grau de Maxtos were still an hour away.
My friend told me to stay calm, smile, and be as polite as possible with the police.
Banned from driving
Twenty minutes later, the officer came back.
I was getting two tickets. The first was for an expired ITV, the technical inspection. I hadn’t even looked at the official blue document when I bought the van, but as he handed it back to me, the officer pointed out that the last stamp had expired just over four months ago. The inspection was due.
The next ticket was for driving without a proper license. The fine was stiff (€250), and if not paid within two weeks, it would double.
Then came the cherry on top: I wasn’t allowed to drive again until I had a proper Spanish driver’s license.
I wasn’t even allowed to drive away from the traffic stop. My friend, who thank God did have a proper Spanish driver’s license, signed a piece of paper saying she would take responsibility for the van, and the two of us switched seats. For the first time since owning the Fiat, I climbed into the front passenger seat, more than a little stressed out about the whole experience.
Everyone had been extremely patient. None of this had been my fault exactly (except perhaps the ITV expiration), but regardless, I felt like apologizing profusely. Mainly, I had been thinking about the crags, and the beautiful weather, and the climbing we were missing.
Later, I would learn that getting a Spanish driver’s license is no simple procedure. The U.S. and Spain do not have a reciprocity agreement for driver’s licenses (probably because the U.S. itself has 50 different states in charge of issuing them, all with different rules and standards)—thus, I have to take a Spanish driving test and written exam, just like any local would.
But those were logistics to figure out another day. Between the race and the traffic stop, it had taken us an hour and a half to get out of the neighborhood. We had crags to get to.
And I had stress to work out.