Friday, April 27, 2012

The Miracle at Camp Nou or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Crowds

It all started innocently enough.  My husband attends the Barcelona/Chelsea Champion’s League Semi Final football (soccer) match at Stamford Bridge stadium - capacity 41,000 - in London. Against the odds, Chelsea beats the legendary Barcelona with the next leg of the competition to take place at the Nou Camp stadium – capacity 96,336 - in Barcelona.  An ecstatic but lonely husband (I was away in North Carolina) returns from the match, goes online, finds match tickets, flights and a hotel and so I found myself heading for Barcelona to spend some time with 96,336 impassioned, inebriated football fans. How’s that for a No Crowds experience? Had he forgotten … I hate crowds.

No he hadn’t. So the first thing he did right was book us into the Hotel Rey Juan Carlos – a luxurious hotel close to the stadium. It’s a massive place and not in the center of town. Not the kind of place I usually like.  My first surprise on this journey of discovery was that I liked it a lot. The staff were quite delightful – well, I’m a sucker for a charming concierge - the room was quiet and comfortable but best of all, the place was crawling with football celebrities including the Chelsea players and most of the 824 accredited members of the media from 199 press outlets from 28 countries. I can’t remember the last time I had that much fun at a hotel bar. Plus, we were a 15 minute walk from the stadium so no concerns about transport on match day.

The next thing my football-loving husband did right was to get us to Barcelona in time to eat some fabulous food and see some sights. The first night we headed for the well-known seafood restaurant Botafumeiro (Gran de Gracia, 81 Tel: 932 184 230). It’s huge, it’s loud, it’s expensive and once again not the kind of restaurant I usually like but we had a blast helped by the fact that the place was heaving with football stars – Jamie Rednapp, Gary Neville and Lauren Blanc to name a few. If you like your restaurants buzzing and aren’t too worried about cost, Botafumeiro is big fun. The seafood was outstanding.

With the match not starting until 8:45 in the evening, we spent the next day focusing on artistic pursuits with a three hour architectural walking tour of the modernist masterpieces: Manzania de la Discordia, La Pedrera, the Palau de la Musica and many more extraordinary buildings. Sadly, the crowds and lines to get into the buildings were extraordinary as well. Between the student groups and the cruise ships, we didn’t stand a chance. So we satisfied ourselves with viewing the exteriors and that was pleasure enough.

Lunch was a delight. The concierge at the hotel had spoken so enthusiastically about the restaurant, La Pepita, that I was skeptical but the place was terrific – lovely food in a friendly, fun atmosphere at a great price. Plus, the best gin and tonics in town. We’ll be back. (Carrer Corsega 343, Tel: 93 238 4893)

But on to the main event. The game. Let’s start with the fact that Jeff insisted that we get to the stadium 1 ½   hours before kick-off. I thought he was nuts but he certainly wasn’t. Let’s put it this way, there were 90,000 of them and 5,000 of us and if that wasn’t scary enough, we were so high up, it was like watching the game from a blimp.

But what a game. An upset for the ages. Ordinarily, I’m not that interested but this was epic. I loved it. Yet the best was yet to come. After Chelsea’s miraculous victory, 5,000 of my new best friends and I had a love-in for the next 40 minutes while we were held in our pen in the sky so the stadium could be cleared of the 90,000 people who now hated our guts. Screw them. After 40 minutes of cheering, singing, hugging and chanting, the stewards opened the gates and we few, we chosen few, marched triumphantly, like gladiators, still singing, still in disbelief, out into the Barcelona night.