James Scanlan simply cannot get enough of Spain. Originally from Minnesota, James studied history and languages at Arizona State University. After graduating, he spent several years leading cycling tours through Spain and France. But his self-described obsession with history and culture eventually led him to Rick Steves, where he's been happily teaching our tour groups about Spain's diverse history since 2016. Let's get to know him!
James, what got you started on a life of travel?
My family moved around quite a bit while I was young. That meant I had the opportunity to experience different places to live, and to enjoy that variety. My attraction to new places and experiences continued during and after my university years. By the age of 18, I had lived in six different states, and within a few years I'd added on another five countries. Unexpectedly, Spain gripped me like no other place before. I felt very at home, and coincidentally, ended up meeting my wife there. She is from the Basque Country region, which has tied me even closer to Spain.
What path led you to Rick Steves, and what's different about guiding our tours?
I joined Rick Steves' Europe after already having worked for a number of years as a guide in Europe. The tours I led back then were in the adventure-travel realm, where I would guide cycling and wine tours through Spain and France. The transition to Rick's Spain tours has actually been fantastic! I am obsessed with history and culture, so the chance to have more of a teaching focus — leading tour members with similar interests and such a desire to learn — has been amazing.
What part of Spanish history do you like the most, and why?
Not many countries can boast of having as many historical connections to so much of the world as Spain. The list is incredible! However, my favorite part of Spanish history is one that is generally unappreciated: the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939. It was an extremely influential event in modern history that had far-reaching geopolitical significance. It was an important piece of what would become the Second World War, and it even had some substantial American participation (mostly known through Hemingway). Today, the legacy of how it all unfolded is still significant in every corner of Spain.
Does Spain offer any cultural surprises that some tour members need time to adjust to?
I'd say that one of the few things that may intimidate visitors to Spain is the directness in communication. Spaniards are, in general, very friendly, helpful, and flexible. However, they are also very direct. This can at times be misconstrued as rudeness, when, in reality, it's just honest and direct without any shrouded or fake "niceness." By setting expectations for this directness at the start, our tour members know what's coming, and even have the chance to be a bit playful and get in on the fun.
Whenever there have been separatist or other political demonstrations in Spain, some Americans have changed their travel plans. What advice would you give?
I feel that anytime there is any situation of political unrest that makes news headlines, people will understandably be apprehensive about visiting there. In the case of Spain, and more specifically Catalonia, aside from a few isolated incidents involving police and peaceful political activists, the overall situation has been almost entirely violence-free. It's not had any major affect that would be noticeable to anyone visiting. Without downplaying the local significance of these events, we must keep in mind that any unrest has always been confined to a small area in a large and diverse country. I have yet to hear of a single visitor in Spain feeling unsafe because of politics or protests. On the contrary, many travelers mention that they've had great learning opportunities by engaging with locals, who are eager to share their differing opinions about what is best for the country or region.
When you're not guiding for Rick Steves, what fills your time?
When not guiding, I work as a cycling coach in London. I also practice sports myself, competing in judo and Olympic wrestling. And I'm always catching up on reading to prepare for the upcoming guiding season. Most importantly, I spend time at home with my family.
If you could tell people one thing that makes Spain worth visiting, what would it be?
I would rave about the energy; this is what most drew me to Spain. The liveliness and social life in the streets, parks, and cafés is intoxicating. It really draws you in to be a part of it. I cannot tell you how often I hear tour members say, "It's so much more than I could have imagined. I can't wait to come back and explore more!" I love to hear this!
Here's what James won't tell you…but his tour members will:
"James has the gift of bringing people together and inspiring fraternal bonding. This is, by far, THE tour in which we consistently interacted with every tour participant. By the end of the tour we easily knew one another's names! He also made us feel at ease, relaxed, and yet very involved in the day to day events."
— Helena in Lake Forest, CA — Best of Spain in 14 Days tour