I’m not sure how it took me so long to visit Barcelona. As a city its never been far from my consciousness. The Barcelona Olympics took place at an impressionable age and one which Britons look back on with fondness. The Freddie Mercury song that is now so synonymous with the city that it almost feels unnatural to say ‘Barcelona’ and not sing it aloud operatically.
Then of course there is the football team.
A few weeks ago I was bored as hell and decided I needed a little adventure. I phoned a couple of mates and said that I was going to go to Barcelona and see a match – are you in yes or no?
So it was that Glenn, Simon and myself found ourselves boarding an Easyjet flight to Barcelona with a couple of days to kill and match tickets in our pockets to Barca v Levente.
We arrived late afternoon, our taxi pulling up outside a hotel that looked far too nice for the money we’d paid. Looking at the city during the drive in my first impressions were unremarkable. All European cities look alike from a car, the houses and small shops giving way to the larger business as you get further in. Occasionally a historic building will flash by. Relics of bygone eras crowded out by the modern. It is only when you leave the car that you start to get a flavour for their individuality.
After checking in and freshening up we stopped at the hotel bar before heading out to look for a nice restaurant.
We were located fairly near to the city centre and the streets were decorated for Christmas. Wide boulevards filled with traffic would have lights repeating as far we could see, the uniformity of the decorations stretching away like a reflection caught between two mirrors. The pedestrian boulevards were surrounded by beautiful period buildings, trees lining each side of a central island. This island was populated by the outdoor seating of the surrounding cafes and tapas bars. Tented areas, dotted with patio heaters and bustling waiters who would dart across the street shuttling food and drinks.
We decided on a restaurant and upon being shown to our table we realised we were the only customers. Despite being close to 8pm, we had forgotten just how late our continental cousins would come out to eat and socialise in comparison with the British. It wasn’t until we had nearly finished that any other patrons would enter the restaurant.
Simon and Glenn both opted for a seafood risotto. Glenn’s in particular was quite intriguing. It was made with black rice and octopus. When I had seen this on the menu I had presumed the octopus would be served in the same way as calamari but this wasn’t the case. Instead the dish contained whole baby octopus. Each fully formed, and a little smaller than my thumb. I tried one, and did not particularly enjoy it – mainly due to the texture.
Seafood is the one the area where I am not particularly adventurous. Shellfish I am mainly OK with, but as for fish I will confess to being fussy. I like a plain white fish like cod or haddock. Although, don’t eat cod nowadays given the decimation of stocks caused by overfishing. I like mackerel fillets, but only cold. No matter what fish I have, it must be properly filleted and boned before it is placed in front of me. The idea of having something like rainbow trout in front of me, the head and skeleton still attached just fills me with dread. It isn’t squeamishness as I worked as a fishmonger for a couple of years, so have seen far than my fair share of fish guts etc. It’s the feel of a stray bone in my mouth. It just gives me the fear and makes me want to gag. People that eat sardines whole, or any other small un-filleted fish like sprat or anchovies provoke the same feeling in me as someone discovering their child eating worms in the garden.
So in avoidance of all seafood, I had a very nice pizza.
After eating we took to the streets in search of a bar. It quickly became apparent to us that the Spanish enjoy their alcohol is a totally different way to the British. The bars were like our own cafes. The drinks were served in much smaller glasses and generally taken along with tapas. The bars where much quieter than at home and we were able to have a conversation at a normal volume without having to raise our voices or strain to hear each other over the loud music and the competing conversations.
Upon getting our drinks moved outside to sit in the fresh air. Here we just chatted and relaxed until we felt it was time to move on.
We walked for a while before discovering an Irish bar. Here things took a turn for the worse as our sensible relaxed drinking turned into much more of a session. We had passed a nightclub near our hotel and we jumped into a cab and went there. The club itself was alright, although very expensive. Unfortunately, Glenn and I got a bit carried away and through a mixture of alcohol fuelled misunderstanding and stubbornness on both our parts we managed to get into a shouting match with each other which threatened to get out of hand until we finally came to our senses. It was a 5 minute session of idiocy and machismo that thankfully ended with no harm done and the two of us feeling pretty sheepish.
Whilst we were still acting like pratts, Simon had quite rightly had enough of our behaviour and left us to it, deciding to head back to the hotel. Unfortunately for him, he took a wrong turning as he left and ended up heading in the wrong direction. Upon realising he didn’t recognise his surroundings he flagged down a cab, who then drove for all of 30 seconds before depositing him back at the hotel.
The next morning I awoke to find Glenn sparked out and Simon walking through the door. He’d been up for a while and was just popping in to grab a jumper before going for a walk. I said that I’d just take a quick shower and join him. We tried to rouse Glenn, but the hangover was in full force. So we left him a note and headed out into the city.
As we left Simon told me how embarrassing our behaviour had been the previous night. He said he just stood there wondering why the two friends had suddenly turned on each other and were acting like the worst British chav stereotypes. There wasn’t really much I could say to that as he was right. All I could do was apologise, and explain that at least we’d come to our senses and sorted everything out there & then and there would be no problems between us and it would be best just to put it behind us as a one-off that both of us would prefer to get back.
Simon then told me about the taxi and I could not help myself but laugh. When he asked what was so funny I just pointed to a door just a couple of hundred meters down the road. When we passed it, we turned to look back at our still very visible hotel. At night it was lit with Christmas decorations and I’d thought pretty impossible to miss.
We strolled down to the city centre just taking in our surroundings. Occasionally we stop and people watch for a few minutes. The people of Barcelona were generally wrapped up in warm clothes despite the temperature still being above 15 degrees. As winter had set-in back home and double digit temperatures a distant memory, this was a beautifully pleasant day. Indeed I was still wearing a t-shirt.
We stopped at one of the small cafes to take on some much needed water. This turned into a longer stay then planned and we ended up having lunch there. Simon and I ordered the same thing – chicken and ham croquettes. But my pronunciation must have been particularly weak that day for whilst Simon received his, I received two thick, but slightly toasted slices of bread, coated with a tomato based salsa/relish and topped with shaved ham.
My guess is that my order must have been interoperated as Croque rather that Croquette. Either way, my dish was absolutely superb and hit the spot perfectly.
We continued to explore, eventually finding ourselves in a Christmas market outside the cathedral. In its way I found this surreal. Every ingredient for Christmas was there, decorations, Christmas trees, food and of course the people wrapped up warm. But this was all happening under a blue sky on what felt to my skin like a pleasant early autumn day. Heaven help me if I ever find myself in the Southern Hemisphere for Christmas. I’ll probably have some kind of breakdown.
The area surrounding the Cathedral was full of life. Aside from the market there were street entertainers, from acrobats and jugglers to a man blowing giant bubbles. Other vendors made their way amongst the crowd hawing balloons, drinks and other items.
By this time we had still not heard from Glenn despite it getting late into the afternoon., so we started to head back to the hotel at a leisurely pace. When we arrived back at the room, Glenn was still asleep. He woke shortly after and was not looking good as the hangover was obviously still in full effect. We told him that we were going to book a taxi to the Camp Nou and go down to the hotel bar for something to drink. Glenn then very gingerly dragged himself out of bed and began to get ready. As we arrived at the bar he slumped into chair and told us it was 50/50 if he’d make it to the match.
He did however perk up a little after getting some food down him as we each had patatas bravas from the bar. This is sliced fried potato served with a spicy tomato sauce that reminded me of a thousand island dressing containing cayenne pepper.
Soon our taxi arrived and deposited us at the gates of the Camp Nou. We jumped out into a throng of people as they made their way to the illuminated stadium. We stopped at a stall were Simon bought the one thing that he’d wanted to get – a shirt from the Camp Nou. He had it printed with Iniesta (a damn good choice) and wore it then and there. Glenn bought a beanie hat and I bought a baseball cap. We then walked up the steep concrete ramps into the stadium itself.
The concourses of the stand we were in were not especially pretty. Their plain concrete walls and steel pipe barriers seemed remarkably shabby for one of the world most glamorous clubs. However, as you then walk through the gate you first catch a glimpse of the red and blue seats through a gate, and then they begin to fill your entire vision. As you arrive into the open air the stadium in so huge that you cannot begin to take the entire scene in.
This magisterial scene is then spoilt somewhat as you try to take your seat, for the Nou Camp uses one of the oddest numbering systems I’ve ever seen. Whilst the tickets are printed with the row and seat number as you’d expect; the seats themselves do not following any logical sequence. Therefore it is possible to find seats 9 & 10 together followed by number 14; with 11,12,13 being on the other side of the aisle. This made getting to the seats a bit of a nightmare, with people just sitting wherever and then having arguments when asked to move. This game of musical chairs was still going on even after kick-off.
I found my own seat with after a little exploration and some assistance from an elderly couple who were evidently used to this sort of thing. Glenn was sat at the end of my row, and Simon a couple of rows in front of us. I was sat next to an American woman who was trying to explain to a man about the seat numbers, and that her young daughter sat a fair few seats away was not sat in his seat. I asked if she was sure the daughter was in the right place, and on showing me her ticket and making sure it was correct, I offered to swap seats so they could sit together. She gratefully accepted, and so I went over to my new seat pointed out the number to Mr. Shouty, pointed at the ticket number and plonked myself down.
What I hadn’t expected inside the stadium was the wind. We’d had no wind at all during the day, but now we were much higher up it started to whip around us and we would hear the fencing around us vibrating with each gust. The wind was also surprisingly cold, and I was glad that I was wearing a jumper, and even more pleased with my hat. I looked down the row to Glenn who didn’t look at all comfortable. He was obviously still suffering with the hangover that he was just wearing a thin Barca shirt didn’t help either.
Barca won the game easily, brushing Levente aside 5-0. The highlight of the evening for me was getting to see Lionel Messi play. He’d been injured when Barca played Spurs, his appearance limited to a late fitness test and a job around the Wembley pitch. The whole team were a joy to watch, providing you can turn tolerate the rolling around on the floor after each tackle. Their passing was so slick and confident, yet even amongst this company Messi stood out as someone special. That he scored was just the icing on the cake.
After the match Simon was buzzing and even Glenn had perked up a bit. We walked with the crowd out of the stadium and into the street. We spotted a free cab caught in traffic and dived in, instructing the driver to drop us at the hotel. On the way the talk was about the match and the goals. Messi’s name figured quite often in the conversation.
We had planned to head out to a tapas bar for a late dinner. But in the end we decided to eat at the hotel before retiring for a pretty early night. The others seemed to fall asleep the second they hit the pillow, whereas I stayed up reading for a while before eventually dropping off.
As we needed to check in for our flight in the early hours of the morning, I had booked us a cheaper hotel closer to the airport. Our plan for the day was to go to the Barca museum, and then check in to the new hotel to get rid of our bags.
The gates to the stadium were closed when we arrived, so we popped into a little café for a spot of breakfast whilst we waited. Breakfast over, we joined the queue for the museum, and then also bought tickets to see the Barcelona basketball early in the afternoon.
The museum itself houses an impressive collection of silverware, with a trophy cabinet stretching the entire length of the building. Other displays are dedicated to famous players, or other sports Barcelona compete in. In the centre of the room stands a single cabinet in which the six trophies won in a single season are displayed.
Descending some stairs leads you into the heart of the Camp Nou itself. Through the interview areas and the conference room, where yet another European Cup is displayed into the away changing room. Here, monitors above the lockers rotate through photographs of the famous players that have used this room. From here you step into the players tunnel, particularly notable due to the small chaplet in an alcove. Then you see a couple of steps and daylight.
As you ascend these, you arrive at pitch level with the dugouts either side. If the stadium looked imposing from the previous nights vantage point, it is even more of a spectacle from ground level. You have to crane your neck upwards to see the highest seats in the ground surrounding the scoreboards. They are so high that it is hard to discern individual seats as they appear as specks of colour against a concrete background.
From the pitch we then made our way up to the gantry where the worlds media will sit and commentate on the match. Here tables with strange swinging seats are bolted to the floor, which put me more in mind of my old science classroom rather than a football stadium. Needless to say the view afforded to the commentators is excellent. Leaving the commentary booth the route then winds back through the stadium returning you to the museum.
We popped into the club shop, where I picked up my traditional magnet and a pint glass before popping across the courtyard to the basketball arena.
We had a little difficulty getting into the stadium as the security guards didn’t like the pint glass. I thought that he was going to confiscate it until he took Simons bag (which was larger than my rucksack), opened it up and put it inside. As he handed the bag back he told us that he would be watching, and that he did not want to see the bag opened inside the arena.
The match was between Barca and Gran Canaria, and Barca controlled it throughout. It was the first time that I’d seen professional basketball in the flesh and I was thoroughly entertained throughout. The atmosphere was fantastic, provided chiefly by a band of supporters sitting above us in a corner of the arena that was filled with banners and flags. They drummed and sang throughout with remarkable enthusiasm for midday on a Sunday.
After the match we caught a taxi to our new hotel in order to ditch the bags. This was an interesting ride because it became clear to us that the driver only had a rough idea of where he was going. We guessed this because every few minutes he would get out his phone and call someone as he read out the address written on the paper that I’d handed him. Eventually we found ourselves alongside the sea and heading into a nice little area dotted with bars and restaurants. Our cabbie then pulled over and started to ask random strangers where to go.
Eventually our new hotel came into sight and I was pleasantly surprised. I’d booked it for a pittance and so expected it to be pretty rough. Instead it was an absolutely lovely place and our room was excellent. It had a balcony and a small lounge area where a temporary bed had been set-up. I claimed this for myself, and there were no arguments as no-one else wanted the cot. That it until I triumphantly pulled the shutters together creating my own little room.
We relaxed for a while in the hotel bar before heading back into Barcelona and our destination the Sagrada Familia. Regarded as Anton Gaudi’s masterpiece the basilica has a fascinating history behind it with the initial build beginning in 1882 and with another 20 years still expected.
It is certainly an imposing sight, and whilst it is undoubtedly impressive I’m afraid I have to put it in the category of ‘not my thing’. I understand and love the inspiration of nature in its twisting spires, but I just find the whole thing a bit tacky. It somehow feels fake and contrived as if someone had decided to build the fairytale castle from Disneyland in the middle of a real city. The whole effect being that of a Christmas decoration scaled to monstrous proportions.
One brief walk around the area later, the sun was beginning to set and so we made our way back to the hotel before heading out to one of the nearby bars for a chat. Simon then made his way back to the hotel, whilst Glenn and I went to hunt down one of the restaurants that we had seen from the taxi.
We stopped a steakhouse and decided to try the tasting menu. We sat outside in the cool night air and were treated to lots of bite sized courses of beautifully prepared dishes from stuffed peppers, to very lightly sliced beef medallions. Things of course would be different tomorrow as we returned to Guernsey, winter, jobs and normality. But for this evening, this would have to do.