December 13, 2014

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Watch out for pickpockets



"Do you plan to visit Barcelona?", they asked me, perhaps noticing the blue and maroon stripes that protruded from below my jacket.
I nodded, excitedly.
"Watch out for pickpockets."
"Huh?"
I found it a bit strange that this was the first piece of advice they had to offer. Coming from a group of Spaniards in Germany, that I had just met, over a game of football, I had expected them to give me a list of iconic football destinations worth visiting in Spain. Or at least, inside information about the local cuisine, or local drinks worth sampling. Anyway, I made a mental note.
"And, do you plan to watch a match at the Camp Nou?"
I smiled, my eyes pointing to said stripes, to reinforce the point.
One of them, presumably from Madrid, shook his head disapprovingly.

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A few weeks later, a friend and I were on a Ryanair flight from Stuttgart. The whole thing seemed almost surreal; we were on our way to watch a La Liga match in Barcelona! 2 hours later, we touched down at Girona airport, but the excitement soon died down, as we realised that our destination was actually a further one hour bus journey away. We boarded the bus from Girona, and, one short nap later, found ourselves entering the heart of Barcelona, surrounded by Catalan flags, strategically constructed balconies and congested buildings. We got off the bus, and decided to take the metro to our hostel. As we entered the nearest metro station, I reluctantly put my wallet in my front pocket and then cringed inwardly.

Before we knew it, we were at Hostel One, Paralelo, where we were given a warm welcome by the amazing people there. The sweet lady at the reception told us that beer at the hostel cost one Euro, which was pretty much all we needed to know. To be honest, she did also tell us about the beaches of Barceloneta, the architecture at La Sagrada Familia and how to get to the Nou Camp, but all of that was purely incidental. After checking in, we ventured out into the city, for an evening of Sangria(a heady local cocktail), and Tapas(snacks intended to go along with alcohol and conversation, or, as in Malayali parlance, "touchings").

Still buzzing from the Sangria, it was soon time to head out for the match. Having purchased our tickets online, we had plenty of time to soak in the atmosphere around the stadium. In every direction, as far as the eye could see, there was some football merchandise on sale. Souvenir footballs, F.C. Barcelona memorabilia, football jerseys--it was a footballer's paradise. As we made the long walk up to our seats, it felt, for me, like the culmination of a football pilgrimage that had started late one night in India, watching with family, as Zidane scored those two perfect headers at the finals of France '98.

We finally entered the arena, to the majestic sight of the club motto, Mes que un club(more than a club), plastered proudly across the seats. It took a moment for that feeling to sink in---we were at the Nou Camp. The iconic stadium, that we had seen a million times before on TV, looked even more impressive in the flesh. The perfect pitch, that had witnessed the wizardry of "Fat Ronaldo", the elasticos of Ronaldinho, the bicycle kicks of Rivaldo and the trickery of other legends that went before them, looked even better that night than it did in the million Youtube videos we had watched while growing up. Naturally, the pitch was being watered as we entered, to suit the style of play that Barcelona had defined under Johan Cruyff, perfected under Guardiola and Rijkaard and stood by for so many decades. Long story short, the perfect settings provided the perfect social media photo op for thousands of spectators, including ourselves.

Thereafter, the match itself was fast-paced and the atmosphere in the stadium was pure magic, every time the Barcelona chant went up. With the South American trio of Neymar, Suarez and Messi leading the lines, Barcelona created many chances, but failed to convert. Celta Vigo then managed to score a scrappy goal to put the Blaugrana on the wrong side of a 1-0 scoreline and it eventually finished that way. I had played the match a million times in my head, and a hundred times on FIFA 2011, but it was never supposed to finish like that. Anyway, the unfortunate result did nothing to dampen our spirits; it had been the experience of a lifetime.                

The following day, it was obviously difficult to come down from the natural high of watching a live game, so we took the time off to relax along the beaches of Barceloneta, although constantly on the lookout for some fine mamacitas anyone playing football on the beach. On our way, we were greeted by the catchy, saxophone driven sounds of Latin Panas, a local band that had a swagger all their own. The strong jazz, rock, reggae and Latin influences combined with a funky street performance had the crowd grooving. For me, that would soon become the sound of Barcelona. With the tunes still ringing in my head, we were treated to the remarkable blue of the Mediterranean Sea at midday and the white sand of its beaches, from under the shade of its green palm trees, enhanced ever so slightly by the maroon of the Sangria.

Having heard so much about La Sagrada Familia by then, we had to see for ourselves what the fuss was all about. We set out the next morning, expecting to avoid the crowds, as it was a weekday. No such luck. A massive queue of irritable tourists had already built up around the entrance, like diabetic Malayalis around a TASMAC bar. However, one peek at the elaborate architecture of the gothic-looking church, and its eerie motifs was enough for us to realise that this was not for us. Fair enough, considering that we had been to our temple and watched our idols a couple of nights before.

Having stayed at Hostel One for close to a week by then, it was starting to feel like home. For starters, it was incredibly refreshing to stay at a place where not everything had a price tag or a receipt. It felt good to sit down for a nice homemade dinner every night with fellow travellers and share our stories. It felt even better, knowing that dinner was made by the residents and staff together, and that contributions were totally voluntary. Our last night at the hostel was made especially memorable by some chap who was checking out, and, not wanting to let a fine bottle of bourbon go to waste, had generously donated it to the hostel. Free alcohol notwithstanding, our Colombian chef diligently prepared the Tortilla de patatas(Spanish omelette) for the following day's breakfast, sharing the secrets of his recipe, recounting tales of his life in Colombia and the things that he loved about Barcelona, pausing only occasionally for a shot of the good stuff.   

We checked out the following day, and headed to the scenic beaches of Costa Brava. The day was spent aimlessly, sampling paella and mojitos from seaside resorts. The sun was beginning to set on our trip. I looked out one final time at the tireless, moonlit sea, thinking about the incredible pilgrimage that had just been completed. I had been warned of thieves in Barcelona, yet, the city had stolen my heart.


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