Want to experience some of the great cities of the world like a local? You might want to try GoCar, gps-guided mini scooter-cars that put you onto the streets of cities like Barcelona, San Francisco, San Diego, Barcelona, Madrid, Lisbon, and Miami.
The genius brainchild of engineer-inventor Nathan Withrington, GoCar tours feature a two-person mini-car powered by a scooter that takes you around each city guided by a gps with a friendly voice that not only tells you where to turn, but also offers interesting facts about the sights and suggestions for places to stop and enjoy some refreshment. You can follow the pre-set tour, stopping where ever you’d like, or go gps-free outside the tour route.
We chose a three-hour GoCar tour of the teeming city of Barcelona. (You can rent a GoCar for one to three hours or for an entire day.) After checking in with our international driver’s licenses and credit card for a refundable deposit, donning the required helmets, and having our backing up skills checked by a technician, we pulled onto busy Via Laietana. The scooter cars, equipped with just brakes and gas, are simple to drive and require no balance. The car part of the scooters has you sit low to the ground belted in with seatbelt, plenty of leg room, no doors, and no roof (so bring your sunglasses).
“Turn left at the next street,” says the gps’s female voice. GoCar tours are available in English, French, Italian, German, and Catalan.
“Opps, you missed the turn. Go right at the next street to rejoin the tour.” The gps-voice, whom we dubbed Miss GoCar, easily corrects you when you miss a turn.
We wend our way through the city, next to scooters, cars, and lumbering trucks. The scooter-cars can get up to 35 mph, but the city traffic rarely allowed us to travel at top speed.
We race down wide, three lane boulevards and onto narrow winding streets. Every once in a while, we hit a pothole and, without much in the way of shocks, we slam down hard on the car’s plastic seats.
The Barcelona tours offer uptown or downtown tours (each requiring 2-3 hours) that cover the highlights – the Christopher Columbus column, Gaudi’s amazing cathedral-in-perpetual-progress Sagada Familia, the Barcelona Stadium, the bullring, the Acr de Triomf (Arch of Triumph), and several interesting neighborhoods like bohemian Gracia.
As we motor along, easily keeping up with traffic and guided by the gps, I begin to feel more confident. Everywhere we go, people smile and wave. Intrigued by our little yellow car, when we stop at intersections people ask about our GoCar. Driving the GoCar feels a little like walking a really cute dog – it makes people smile and want to say hello.
We motor along the waterside avenue of Colon before turning onto the narrow streets of the old Jewish neighborhood of Ravel. At first, Miss GoCar guides us carefully around sharp turns and narrow alleyways. Suddenly, our progress is stopped by a construction detour. Miss GoCar goes eerily silent, so we turn first one way, then another through the towering old buildings. We pop out onto a familiar street we’d previously traveled and suddenly Miss GoCar comes to life, “Proceed ahead, get into the right lane, and turn at the light.”
As we pass through particularly tricky intersections, Miss GoCar offers encouragement, “You’re doing great.”
Sometimes the gps’s reassuring voice is difficult to hear over the engine’s whine and other traffic noise and there’s no way to ask her to repeat. However, when we slip up, she says, “Opps, you missed the turn. Take the next left to rejoin the tour.” The gps doesn’t work outside the various tour boundaries. And, if you want to go on your own tour, simply turn offthe gps.
Miss GoCar instructs us to head up Montijüic (Mountain of the Jews), a natural area that offers spectacular views of the city and Mediterranean Sea. One of the advantages of renting a GoCar is that it enables you to go to areas you’d likely never see on the standard tourist tour. It also let you experience Barcelona much like locals – right in the thick of local traffic on a scooter.
We careen through a tunnel and then decide we’d missed a photo opportunity. We make a quick U-turn and head back up the mountain. Miss GoCar says nothing, so we park at the top, leaving our stuff in the little car’s trunk, and get out to explore the rose garden, watch the tram at crosses over to the harbor, and snap a few photos.
Then we head our little car back down the mountain toward the water. That’s when Miss GoCar abandons us completely. We use our GoCar map to navigate back onto the tour route, but the gps remains silent. We keep expecting to hear her voice, but there’s nothing.
We head down the boulevard along the water, enjoying the cool sea breezes. However, within a few kilometers, it’s apparent that, without our trusty guide, we’ve gone off course. Fortunately, my passenger is good with maps and easily navigates us along the tour route. On the downside, we miss out on the insights of the gps. (If we’d had a cell phone, we could have called the GoCar people who would have come and reset our gps.)
Soon, we head back toward the Mercat de Santa Caterina (St. Catherine Market) and the GoCar garage. We’re a little sunburned and a little rattled from the buzzing vibration of the scooter, but feeling like we’ve experienced the city in a really unique and fun way. —BH