Sunday, May 14, 2006

This is where I came in ...

Seven years ago this month I first set foot in Barcelona, eagerly anticipating, as I am this week, a European Champions League final.

My first taste of the city was pretty inauspicious. Flying via Paris to watch United play Bayern Munich, I was stuck in Orly for several hours as British fighter jets hogged the air corridors en route to bombing Serbia.

Having faced down the prospect of watching the game in an Orly bar, I finally made it straight from El Prat airport to the Camp Nou with 90 minutes to spare. It was a stunning evening, beautifully hot and sunny and the first sight of the ground full to bursting will live with me for ever.

But the game? After conceding a soft early goal, it was 90 minutes of hell as United huffed and puffed without ever looking like scoring. Miserable beyond belief I ground my way through cigarette after cigarette (I am purely a tension smoker), barely noticing that with Bayern twice hitting the woodwork and making some absurd substitutions, the game was slowly tilting United’s way.

Then came the extraordinary events of injury time when, for those residing on Planet Zog at the time, two Beckham corners delivered two United goals and their second European Cup.

If miracles like that could happen here, Barcelona had to have something special about it.

I had still seen nothing of the city when I left early the next day, and it was only when I came back the following year for a TV news show that the Barcelona drug started to kick in.

Like thousands of others I was suckered in by the trade show routine they have here. Arrive Monday, attend show Tuesday to Thursday while sampling the bars and restaurants in the evening, and then invite your partner out for the weekend. Slowly but surely, and quite methodically, the city walks you through its charms one by one, from the back alleys of the old city to the absurd Sagrada Familia and other Gaudi monuments via the La Boqueria market and the museums which pay homage to Miro and Picasso.

By Sunday afternoon when you are lying on the City’s beach (and this was November) after a fantastic lunch for all of £15 a head at Agua you are well and truly hooked.

Several visits later a plan was being formed. First, a small flat in the centre of the old town and then, the idea to actually come and live here for a year. The great thing is we actually did it, rather than leaving it in the ‘we could have done …’ bin which is where most such ideas end up.

Regular readers of this blog will know in copious and tedious detail of what has been happening to us, nearly all of it wonderful, in our time here. We have been helped hugely by the kindness of the few old acquaintances and friends of friends (Catalan and otherwise) we know here. To them a big collective thanks. One such set of friends took us up to the Costa Brava this where weekend where we lived the ultimate in lotus eater clich├ęs of tearing around the coast in a speedboat and dropping anchor in a tiny bay to eat paella in a beachfront restaurant.

Which brings us to Wednesday night when, along with every other Catalan household, we shall be willing Barca, without doubt the best and most exciting club side in the world, to beat Arsenal in the Champions League final.

If they succeed, the town might just collapse with excitement. When Barca won its second league title 11 days ago, 24,000 people rushed into Las Ramblas at 11 pm to celebrate, throw fireworks and sing. Three days later there were fireworks at the team’s last home game and the following day 1.2 million people came out to watch the celebration bus tour. Heaven knows what will happen if they clinch only their second ever Champions League final (and the first since 1992).

If they don’t, well the sun will still rise over the Med on Thursday and we’ll get back to enjoying this beautiful city once again.

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