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The heart and soul of Barcelona pulse in this soccer stadium

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Chicago Tribune (MCT) - An incredulous friend stammered, "You traveled all the way to Barcelona to watch soccer? Are you crazy?"

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Highlights

By Kevin Williams
McClatchy Newspapers (www.mctdirect.com)
3/23/2009 (1 decade ago)

Published in Travel

Possibly. But you had to be there as almost 90,000 people screamed in unison while goal after goal flew in for my beloved FC Barcelona, as the team put some serious smackdown on a league rival in an important match.

To say that a football (we call it soccer in America) vacation could have gone any better was impossible to imagine. Maybe if peeled grapes were being placed upon my tongue by velvet-palmed, golden-robed maidens. Maybe. And if my hand weren't throbbing in pain from my exuberant, rail-punching goal fete.

Maybe.

You've been to Barcelona. So what? Unless you've experienced a match in Camp Nou, the home of FC Barcelona, the national football team of Catalonia, you haven't really been to Barcelona.

Catalonia? What? Barcelona is in Spain, right?

If you say so. Just don't ask a local.

Barcelona pulsates with history. You can feel it as you stroll the Bari Gotic (Gothic Quarter) or ping-pong off people during the Festival of Santa Lucia. It's the city of Gaudi and his improbable edifices and the dark, narrow contrast of Barceloneta, or Little Barcelona. It's beautiful, friendly people, scammers and getting your pocket picked on La Rambla. It's great food, museums and xocolata (a molten chocolate drink).

But for me it was a football vacation _ one week and two matches. The city and all its glories were a go-with, because you can't spend all day at Camp Nou.

Though you could. There's the stadium tour (including museum), a grounds tour and the FC Barcelona Megastore, where you can buy everything from pens to baby blankets, skivvies to cuff links.

But you don't because you're traveling with civilians.

And then we got lucky, because a Barcelona family _ Genis Sanchez, his wife, MariCruz, and mother, Montserrat, whom I met through a Barca football blog _ took a Sunday to show us their Barcelona. So you get lunch at the Four Cats and buy a caganer statuette. You visit a beautiful abbey cloister and get a history lesson at almost every corner.

Then you get knocked on your butt.

There is a pockmarked wall in a church courtyard at Placa de Sant Filip Neri, a wall the city hasn't repaired. The marks were made by bullets during the Spanish Civil War. But there's no signage. You have to know, or someone has to tell you. Then when you tell your gracious hosts that you're planning to visit Montjuic Castle, mother and son exchange a look and he says, "We don't go there."

And the "Montjuic est molt Montjuic" (Montjuic is more than Montjuic (Castle)) signs make sense. Because you do your homework and realize that executions went on there during the war, including that of iconic Catalan nationalist Lluis Companys.

And you don't go.

Which is fine, because there is so much to do in Barcelona when you aren't watching football. Like Paris, Barcelona is a city of small museums, from art collections of former Formula One drivers to a small-but-mighty Egyptian museum.

But it was still all about the football.

You're wondering whether a football team is worth a trip to Barcelona? People vacation to visit baseball stadiums, the Super Bowl or World Series, and they aren't even in Barcelona. Nor is there the history, the reality that if you don't know any better, you can visit Barcelona and think that it's in Spain. Because it is. Technically. But not spiritually.

You may even wonder, during your touristy Camp Nou visit, why the signs are in Catalan, English, then Spanish. And why there are hardly any Spanish flags around town. Because Barcelona is in Catalonia, and its denizens are Catalan, even though they pay taxes to Spain and have Spanish passports. They speak and read Catalan, even though you can get along just fine in Barcelona speaking Spanish.

If you're devoted enough to FC Barcelona to become a soci (voting and supporting member of the club), the preceding paragraph sits firmly in the "Duh" category.

Because FC Barcelona, like the Catalan language, is an integral part of the city and the people. Catalonia used to be an empire, and the people have never forgotten. For almost four decades _ during the Franco regime _ the language was outlawed. The club's motto is mes que un club (more than a club), which is true. It's Catalan iconography. And even if Catalonia is a separate country in the minds of many of its residents, it is officially an autonomous community. But Catalonia feels it's a nation.

As you learn more it becomes clear that FC Barcelona is an institution, one that gets into your heart in a way that makes you fly thousands of miles to see two matches.

We arrived on a Friday and staggered around like lagged, fatigue-sotted drunks. So the first day was sort of a waste, noteworthy mostly for the gleeful discovery of finding a restaurant less than a block away that was excellent and willing to serve us dinner before 9 p.m.

But on the next day, I fell in love.

In Barcelona, there is a drink (a Mexican import) called xocolata, molten chocolate in a cup. In my ignorance, basic hot chocolate was the expectation, but the first cup was almost pornographic and went down faster than a Brazilian footballer when a defender touches him.

And we walked. And walked. And walked some more. We hit museums, but all I was thinking about was sitting in my seat that Saturday night _ the first match. My friend Bill and I decided to walk to the stadium, a task made easy even if you are lost, by following the throngs togged out in bits of FC Barcelona finery.

Each match has a ritual path that begins with the Himno, the stirring, martial fight song of FC Barcelona. Then player introductions, with the same clipped cheer after each home player's name, followed by the buzz of anticipation. Camp Nou hums with history on a match night, and anybody who is a football fan and anywhere near Barcelona on a home match day will try to get a ticket. But matches are such an integral part of Barcelona life that you haven't really experienced the city until you've witnessed one, preferably one that matters, so that you can see more than 90,000 people become a country supporting its soldiers clad in the famous blaugrana (blue and burgundy) shirt.

And at the end of 90 minutes you realize that win or lose, a football vacation makes sense because you've gained a much better understanding of a city, a people and vibrant, pulsating history. Then the Himno makes sense, and you sing:

Tot el camp/Es un clam/Som la gent blaugrana/Tant se val d'on venim ...

The whole stadium/Loudly cheers/We're the blue and claret supporters/It matters not where we hail from.

___

IF YOU GO:

GETTING THERE: Iberia (iberia.com/us) is the best way to get there. Every major carrier flies to Barcelona, but every fare search found Iberia to be the least expensive. My wife and I flew round trip for about $1,400. Note: Even if the Iberia Web site says "non-stop," don't believe it. You will stop in Madrid, which is painful for an FC Barcelona fan.

STAYING THERE: Hotels in Barcelona are plentiful and often inexpensive. We love the Hotel Spa Senator (hotelsenatorbarcelona.com). Rates are reasonable, $99-$192, and rooms are almost always available. The price includes a breakfast buffet. The best part about the Senator is that it's about a five-minute walk to the Camp Nou.

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If you're renting an apartment, Friendly Rentals (friendlyrentals.com) is your best option. They have dozens of spaces, $120-$1,500 per night. Our week in the gorgeous and spacious Bulevard III, in a primo location on Passeig de Gracia (in l'Eixample), was about $1,700 and worth every penny. Passeig de Gracia is Barcelona's upscale shopping drag. Rolling out of an apartment on Gracia will make you feel like a rock star.

MATCH TICKETS: Visit www.fcbarcelona.com/web/english, the club's official Web site. Once you've entered, click the "ticketing" link. Ticket prices depend on the match designation, D (pushovers) to A+ (huge). That means $92-$215 for the biggies, such as the Real Madrid match (known as El Clasico), or $22-$77 for matches against lower-tier La Liga (top Spanish professional league).

The purchasing process is easy, and you can pick your tickets up on match day, though we would suggest getting them the day before. It's madness on match nights.

If you are in Barcelona and don't have tickets, it's worth asking about special deals. Sometimes you can get into a match for as little as $8 if sales are slack and the club wants backsides in the Camp Nou (Avignuda Aristides Mallol, 08028) seats.

If the club steals your heart and you wish to become a soci (member), the $195 annual fee gets you access to match tickets months before the general public, which, if you're thinking of going to big matches without paying scalper prices, is essential. You also get discounts in the FC Barcelona boutique.

MUSEUMS: We liked playing it fast and loose, but that isn't the most economical way. We'd recommend getting an Art Ticket (articketbcn.org); $25 gets you unlimited access to the eight major art spots in Barcelona, including Gaudi's La Pedrera, the Picasso Museum, the National Catalan Art Museum and the Fundacio Joan Miro. It's a bargain.

GETTING AROUND: We walked everywhere we went in Barcelona, except to and from the airport, which was about a 25 euro ($31) taxi ride from the airport.

But Barcelona has an excellent mass-transit system with many ticketing options. Single-use tickets are about $1.70, and a 10-ride pass is about $9. Just watch for pickpockets, which is a general rule wherever you go. Taxis are cheap and plentiful.

We never needed a car, but if you do, Sixt (sixt.com) rules and usually has the best prices. The company has three locations in Barcelona, including the airport.

MISCELLANEOUS: The thing that everyone says about Barcelona is that there are pickpockets. Duh. There are pickpockets in Chicago. As long as you aren't stupid, your wallet will be fine.

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If you like eating on American time, good luck with that. We did find early food at Pomarada (78 Passeig de Gracia). We could stagger there from our apartment, and on that first, exhausting travel day, it was a boon to be able to sit down to dinner at 8 p.m.

But Barcelonans aren't even thinking about where they are going to eat until after 9 p.m., and meals are languid. Move your personal clock back two or three hours, and you'll be fine. So you're finding your way to bed at sometime around 1-2 a.m., local time. You get used to it. Just don't wait too late to eat, or you'll find yourself scouring some of the late-night storefronts on La Rambla, which we don't recommend. We did find gustatory greatness at La Fonda (Passatge Escudellers 10), just off La Rambla. Be prepared to stand in line.

Oh, and if you're thinking of taking a walk 'round the Camp Nou at night, or the route back to your hotel takes you past the stadium, a non-judgmental heads-up: On match nights, the area mostly in front of the stadium becomes an open-air market for travesti (transsexual) prostitutes.

___

Kevin Williams: kmwilliams@tribune.com

___

© 2009, Chicago Tribune.

Deacon Keith Fournier Hi readers, it seems you use Catholic Online a lot; that's great! It's a little awkward to ask, but we need your help. If you have already donated, we sincerely thank you. We're not salespeople, but we depend on donations averaging $14.76 and fewer than 1% of readers give. If you donate just $5.00, the price of your coffee, Catholic Online School could keep thriving. Thank you. Help Now >

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