Friday 8th April
Leon and I arrived in Matlock, Derbyshire, at 11 pm, leaving just a 5 hour slot for catching up with parents/grandparents, dropping off Cassie the Labrador (ecstatic to see her friend Holly) catching the lite version of a night’s sleep and setting out to catch the Ryanair flight for Reus via East Midlands airport.
Saturday 9th April
Up at 3.45 to catch the 6.40 am flight. Had one teeth-gritting moment when we had to pay an extra £60 at check-in because all Leon’s AS level revision materials put him 3 kg over the miserly 15 kg luggage allowance. Despite that, all tiredness vanished on being greeted by balmy sunshine in Reus. After an easy bus ride to central Barcelona, we checked in at what proved to be our great hotel on the Rambla (TripAdvisor definitely got it right this time) and were soon sitting in the sunshine on Placa Catalunya drinking an ice-cold beer with tapas. All these was a mere prelude to Leon’s 18th birthday treat: an FC Barcelona match against Almeria.
With a few hours to kill, we took an open-topped bus ride round Barcelona to see the obvious sites: Gaudi houses, the Sagrada Familia and a first glimpse of Camp Nou. Camp Nou can take around 100,000 spectators, around the population of a medium-sized town such as Reading. I briefly fell asleep in the hot sun on the bus, apparently with only minimal embarrassing drooling, but came round in time to go back to the hotel and join the growing throngs heading for the ground on the metro.
The crowd heading to the ground was strikingly different from a British football crowd for its Latin lightness of mood, lack of alcohol and loutishness and family mix. Despite the numbers, we got to our seats easily and had a great view of the flawless pitch in the fantastic stadium. Even I was impressed. A lot of people arrived at the very last minute and our immediate neighbours included a family with a small girl and two supporters who looked to be well into their eighties or even nineties. The latter flicked the dust off their seats with spotless white hankies and shared a bag of peanuts they had bought with them at half-time. I can only imagine the number of decades they have been following the same ritual.
The team was announced with a flourish and to our relief the team were fielding a strong side including Messi. Then came a stirring rendition of the Barca song to the accompaniment of lots of flag-waving. Because Barca had beaten Almeria 8:0 last time they met, we were anticipating lots of goals, but the score was still a disappointing 0:0 at half time. Then Almeria scored to take them into the lead, but a penalty and another goal soon put Barca on top. The icing on the cake came in the last 2 minutes when Messi chipped in a cheeky goal, making it 3:1 overall and enabled him to beat Ronaldo’s previous season scoring record with a total of 48 goals altogether.
Then it was back to our hotel and a welcome sleep after a 20 hour day.
Sunday 10th April
Back to Camp Nou yet again for a tour of the stadium and some oohing and ahhing over various artefacts including vast silver cups and boots that had shod famous feet and played in famous matches. The multimedia part of the tour was really well put together.
In the afternoon, we lugged our cases (including the aforesaid revision material) through Barcelona and picked up a car at Sants station. We navigated our way out of Barcelona fairly easily with the aid of sat nav Ken who was only briefly flummoxed by the new road layout. Note to self: time to update Ken’s maps. Then we had a two hour drive down the coast to L’Ampolla with cerulean blue sea to our left, bright Mediterranean sun and temperature of 28 degrees.
We briefly checked in at our hotel overlooking the little harbour, its terrace crowded with Catalans enjoying a Sunday evening drink and chat, and then set off to find Emma and Dom’s house in the wilds off the N340, following Emma’s hand-drawn map.
We drove for 45 minutes along a road that had ceased to be a road and turned into a track 30 minutes earlier, through scrubby barren landscape made up of shrubs, cactus, olives and white rocks and the odd wizened, sun-beaten local. With no phone signal, no clear road and the light fading fast, we made a tactical retreat and – to cut a long story short – eventually found their house some 30 minutes back along the way we had come.
Emma and Dom’s new house is a long, low two-storey building surrounded by a magical garden and olive grove: Dom has now made the transition from urbanite indie band tour manager to organic olive oil producer and Emma is teleworking as a proof-reader and editor. We walked into the aftermath of their previous night’s party, with a few friends still drinking the hair of the dog. We’d missed all the fun, such as the local policemen break-dancing into the wee small hours, but it was great to catch up and see Dylan and Alfie the twins and meet new friends.
Monday 11th April
Time for Leon to leave and take all his revision stuff off to his dad’s house in Madrid, where I fondly imagine him industriously revising for 3 hours a day for the next 2 weeks. Barcelona airport is one of the nicest airports I’ve ever been in and I took advantage of having to retrace our steps back up the motorway to Barcelona to call in at Sitges, which is about 20 km or so south of the city and still just as great as I remember it when I stayed there about 16 years ago. After lunch and an afternoon on the beach, I headed back to Dom and Emma’s with some manchego cheese – yum – for more chat.
Tuesday 12th April
Having hit it off in a big way with Emma’s friend Sam, I volunteered to take her to the airport to give Dom and Emma a chance to clear up, take children to school and so on. We set out so late, were so engrossed in conversation and had such a hazy idea of when her flight actually left, that she ended up missing it and we had a bit of an ignominious return to l’Ampolla. Still, it gave us plenty of time to do some serious networking on the way there, have a bit of a cry over the missed flight and put our lives in order on the way back.
After lunch, I set off yet again on the motorway for Barcelona and sat nav Ken and I managed to negotiate our way back to Sants station despite yet more hairy moments when Ken wasn’t up to date with the road system.
I dropped the car, headed to the ferry port by taxi and boarded the ferry for Civitavecchia about 9-ish in the evening. Rather taken by the fact that it only cost EUR 60 to travel as a foot passenger on this 20 hour overnight trip, I thought it would spoil the bargain to pay for a cabin. How bad could it be to spend a night on a recliner, after all?
I quickly changed my mind when all the passengers without cabins were herded into the 21st century equivalent of steerage and I was forced to spend the night on a disgusting upright chair in one fetid room with all the rest of the scrofulous steerage passengers.
To make matters worse, roughly half the passengers were made up of over-excited Spanish and Italian teenagers on school trips. This meant that, even if you managed to snatch a few minutes’ sleep on the chair, the teenagers soon woke you up again. The other half of the passengers were delegates to a ferry conference who had taken over all the communal areas of the ferry, leaving nowhere to sit and sadly it was uncomfortably chilly and windy on deck.
I mentioned my grievances to a woman who was helping the ferry conference delegates and declared myself to be ‘delusa’ (disappointed) with the trip. Amazingly enough, not long later she came and found me and whisked me into a cabin where I could spend the rest of the trip in comfort. ‘Delusa’ must be the magic word. After that I padded quietly back into steerage and sneaked out my wash things and a change of clothes, too embarrassed to tell my fellow sufferers that I was just about to have a nice hot shower and a proper, horizontal lie-down.