Thursday, 14 February 2013

The Beautiful Game - 36 Hours in Madrid

Best Christmas present ever? Tickets to a Champion’s League game between two of the greatest club teams in history: Real Madrid and Manchester United. And so it happens for little boys who are good and still believe in Santa Claus, or bitter, jaded and cynical men like me who win the spouse lottery (all six numbers and the bonus).  And, in spite of recent admissions by FIFA about possible rampant and global game fixing, I was still very excited to go. Normally, the prospect of watching any sports with me tends to be met with disinterest and mild nausea, in equal measures, by both Ann and Perri. This time, I had the image of Chrisiano Ronaldo dancing in their heads, plus the added benefit of a mid-week hiatus (the game was Wednesday night). 

Ronaldo. He's good at soccer too.

Unfortunately, the curious scheduling offered by Iberian Airlines did not allow a completely painless excursion. Really, why would we want to fly in and out of the local airport, when we can drive to Spain, and fly to Madrid from there for 1/3 the price?  As usual, fiscal prudence ruled the day and we ended up flying out of San Sebastian, a mere 2 ½ hours south of here. On the bright side, we did have a whole day to stroll around Madrid before the game.

One thing that grabs your attention about Madrid is the architecture. The great cities of Europe can all argue quality architecture without their noses growing too much. Still, I am consistently amazed by any of the Spanish cities (Madrid, Seville, Barcelona). As an aside, outside the city centers, urban sprawl looks the same here, there, and everywhere, and I have nothing good to say about it. Getting back to Madrid, it definitely has some cool buildings. 

We spent the day wandering around until Ann insisted on some culture.

Don Quixote and friends
Obviously, we split up at that point so Ann could waste her time in some museum. I visited the Prado and the Picasso museum 20 years ago and I’m pretty sure they have the same stuff hanging on the walls. She may have even gone to the modern art museum, which kicks up the time-wasting multiplier by orders of magnitude (don’t get me started on ‘modern art’). Instead, I followed Perri around the shops on the Gran Via for a few hours. Which, if you have an interest in women’s fashions, as I do, can also have its cultural and emotional benefits.  Perri and I also had the pleasure of stumbling across roving bands of Manchester United supporters, usually in drunken collectives. Apparently there were over ten thousand ManU fans in town for the game. If they are representative of the typical residents of Manchester, I highly recommend watching the second game of the home and home series on television, far from northern England, if you know what’s good for you. I will give them credit for their passion, although Perri began voicing concerns for our safety, even with a significant police presence. A group of four English lads passed us on the street and three of them were sporting facial stitches, black eyes and bruising consistent with a car collision or soccer hooligans. I leaned toward option two.
This was in the Plaza Mayor, seven hours before game time, with perhaps a dozen policemen looking on, and alcohol was involved:

When in Spain, one must partake in the local tradition of pre-dinner snacks, called tapas. Also, most people would starve waiting for the traditionally late dinners. We knew there would be no chance for a proper meal before the game, which started at 8:45 p.m., so we indulged in no small number of tapas. Utilizing the time-honored approach of pointing and head-nodding (Perri elected to abstain from any Spanish speaking on this trip, in spite of her ability to do so, for reasons known only to her), we were able to get a delicious variety of culinary sensations. 
That's my wine, but it is Ann's beer.

The metro ride to the game was notable for the shear volume of people jammed into the cars (quite lame by Japanese standards, I’ve been told), and also for the segregation of locals and Manchester fans by the metro staff. Purely precautionary measures, I’m sure.  Not surprisingly, the game was sold out (80,000 seats), and I read there were 200 million television viewers. That being said, the security measures were relatively sedate compared to a visit to the Milan soccer stadium (San Siro – see earlier blog: Milan with a Plan).

This scarf prevented serous beatings by both sides.
Just after the official referee bribing ceremony.
I got my nose to stop bleeding long enough for the photo.
The game itself was quite good and we found ourselves rooting for the home side, if only to see the obnoxious ManU fans subdued. Our seats may have been officially outside the Madrid city limits and the giddiness and shortness of breath I experienced during the game may have been due to the altitude. On the bright side, we were one row ahead of the absolutely worst seats in the house (that's right: second-last row). It was high drama as ManU scored first. Only ten minutes passed before our hero Renaldo (see picture above) scored the equalizer. All too suddenly, it was over, with nothing truly decided (1-1 draw). However, the Manchester fans considered it a moral victory and spent the next several hours vocalizing their joy through decidedly off-key fight songs. Several blocks separation and a closed hotel window did not completely eliminate our ability to share in the festivities.

On the way home, after a surprisingly efficient metro ride home, we found ourselves running the gauntlet of the local ladies of the evening. Only an extended conversation with Perri could convince her that these young ladies were not simply out ‘clubbing’  (“But Dad, they’re just out with their friends!”).  I’m not sure where to go with that, as a father. It’s a fine line between protective, and over-protective.

Apparently our request to party with Ronaldo fell on deaf ears, or the invitations were misplaced by the hotel staff. So, we settled for a last glass of wine on the terrace of the Plaza Del Carmen and then straight to bed.

Up early the next morning for the flight to San Sebastian, followed by a quick trip to a local wine shop, to top up our dwindling Rioja supplies, obviously. Then, straight home. Where does a day and a half go?