GGGOOOAAALLL!!! Football in Spain: La Liga in Bilboa

Editor’s note: We’re going to do something a little different on ThePoeLog and declare this “Soccer Week.” Guest editor and soccer expert XFE has kindly written up a series of posts on the soccer games we went to in Spain. Part 1: UEFA in Bilbao is here and Part 2: Copa del Rey in San Sebastian is here.  

Our third and final game of our trip to northern Spain would take us back to Bilbao and a La Liga game between Athletic Bilbao and Levante.

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One would think a game scheduled for an early Sunday evening in the top league in Spain would not be expected to be heavily attended, especially as the opponents are one of the country’s smaller football clubs.

But, surprisingly, navigating the process of acquiring tickets proved to be harder than usual. In the end, the concierge at our hotel in San Sebastian was able to arrange for us to have VIP tickets in Bilboa, which as explained to us, “included a welcome reception, refreshments and free WI-FI.”

Neither Poe nor I were particularly excited by this description of the “VIP experience,” or the uptick in ticket prices, but in the end we consoled ourselves with the fact that we definitely had tickets and we were excited for the game. We did do a little additional Internet research to understand that the “VIP experience” was something that the club had added as part of the new stadium the team moved into in 2014.

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San Mames Stadium

As usual, football Sunday arrived and we headed out to the pintxos bars with the masses for snacks and cocktails in the streets before heading for the stadium. This process always requires a delicate balance as a few too many drinks during pregame may result in having to sit through a 90-minute match buzzed and without more drinks available, as most European stadiums do not serve alcohol inside during the game. So we did our best, with Poe testing the limits of her tolerance, and we eventually headed to the stadium well-lubricated to cheer on our adopted Spanish team.

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After a trek to the Will Call window and VIP entrance, an elevator dropped us on the level of our “VIP” experience. Here we were met with a large room lined by a bar, soft comfortable seating and high top tables for mingling and snacking. We quickly approached the bar to find complimentary beer/wine and even gin and tonics, and made ourselves at home at a high top table. The room was enclosed by glass on one side and looked into the stadium over six rows of seats separated from the other sections of the stadium.

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What we learned during our visit was that the team built a section/level of six rows of seats around the entire perimeter of the stadium–all backed with the VIP areas, including bars, restrooms and catering facilities. It was like a group private box where you could sit in the seats outside or stand behind the glass and enjoy the game from general warmth and comfort. The VIP tickets also entitled you to an assigned outdoor seat, and refreshments and drinks before, during and after the game.

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As we sat enjoying our VIP beverages, it became clear that Poe was in need of a snack to soak up her wine from the pre-game pub crawl. A steady stream of servers carrying trays of food towards various areas of the VIP section kept walking by, but none of them were near us.

But when in a foreign country, the next embarrassing cultural incident is just around the corner, so we waited patiently for some snacks to be dropped off near us. As time passed, trips to the bathroom were made, a small bowl of mix nuts was discreetly devoured, and I started in on another cocktail.

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After what seemed like ages, a server carrying a nice tray of meats, cheeses and other snacks appeared and was walking toward us.  As she approached with a friendly smile, she raised the tray towards Poe–who delirious from hunger and too much wine–reached out her hands to take the entire tray of snacks from the server, only to be met with a disapproving head shake and a vanishing smile. Poe quickly changed course, swiping three or four of the snacks to a napkin as she turned away from the server and what she thought was her loot of snacks for the taking. After a few sheepish minutes of snacking, a new strategy was devised–move tables in hopes that a new server could be lured into the trap being laid by Poe.

While no entire trays were captured, a few more satisfying snacks were had and we moved outside to our seats for the first half. Despite several chances to score, neither team was able to convert in the first half and time expired with the score tied at zero.

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During halftime, we again headed inside to warm up a little and grab another cocktail and snack. While neither Poe nor I were particularly excited about the VIP experience initially, it really turned out to be quite nice. Plenty of food and drink was available, no lines to the bathroom, and overall, it added a pleasant little way to pass the half.

I will acknowledge that, right now at least, it seems like only a few people have begun to embrace the idea of the VIP experience. I would suspect that at a sold out game or as popularity grows that the experience may become a little more hurried and not seem quite as exclusive.

Before long the second half kicked off and we returned to our seats. Athletic Bilbao started the second half strong and it was not long until the team scored their first goal and really looked to be cruising towards a victory. A second goal late in the second half sealed the deal and Athletic Club went on to win 2-to-0.

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As we left our seats and headed back into the inside VIP area, racks of chocolate treats and small deserts had been set up and the bar was again open for patrons to sit and enjoy one last drink before leaving the stadium. While our ticket entitled us to stay for up to an hour, we decided to head back into the city center and grab one last cocktail among the fans.

Quite honestly, leaving San Mames stadium is a great experience as roughly 40,000 people all depart on foot into the streets of the city. Celebrating the win, the crowd is happy and boisterous, chants still emanating as families quickly stop to pose for pictures, and the diehard fans head back to the bars for more pintxos and vino.

Poe and I made our way to a local waterhole focused on gin, where we sat trying new gins among the local fans as they enjoyed the rest of their evening.

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After our drinks, Poe and I made one more stop before the hotel for donner kebab. Yep, that’s right kebab–the trusted food of the partier everywhere. Greasy mystery meat, ranch dressing and spicy sauce all on a flat bread. Yes, there are better things to eat in Spain and most of the world, but sometimes a kebab is just what the doctor ordered. I would be lying if I claimed the doctor had prescribed me donner kebabs only once on this trip, but hey, I love them.

As I wiped sauce from my chin, I smiled and reflected on having just enjoyed another great night of the world’s sport in Spain. And just in case Poe somehow decided to keep the party going, I grabbed a couple of extra Radlers to take back with us on the walk back to the hotel.

In the end, three more European football games seen in person and a multitude of new experiences had. Poe and I had an amazing soccer experience the first time we saw a game in Bilbao. We were always worried that that experience could never be recreated, and while great experiences are hard to duplicate, our games in Spain this trip were all equally great and created a new set of memories that we will be talking about in the future. So next time you are on the road, pick a new experience, cheer yourself on with a “gumbate,”  and enjoy.

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GGGOOOAAALLL!!! Football in Spain: UEFA in Bilboa

Editor’s note: We’re going to do something a little different on ThePoeLog and declare this “Soccer Week.” Guest editor and soccer expert XFE has kindly written up a series of posts on the soccer games we went to in Spain, and we’ll be posting them throughout the week.  

While this installment of ThePoeLog may not be geared to the usual audience searching for cat stories or reality TV updates, it may let you in on a little secret about maximizing experiences during travel.

The key here is to understand that ThePoeLog coach-for-life XFE, loves a little soccer or “football” as it is known to the rest of the world. This does not just mean the occasional game, but a true following of our adopted team–the Tottenham Hotspurs in the English Premier League (EPL)–and a general desire to witness soccer festivities around the world. To date, we have seen games in Ireland, Italy (3 games), Sweden and Spain (4 games). An upcoming trip to London will take us to two EPL games, both for our beloved Spurs.

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What is great about a football match–or any sporting event truly loved by the home country–is the people and the passion. There is no single more fundamental and direct way to appreciate the people, passion and culture of a city or country than sport.

Take for example, our trip to see sumo wrestling in Japan. Seven very out-of-place Americans had box seats for the second day of the Winter Sumo tournament in Osaka. We arrived early to the festivities, learned that we should have brought our own food and drink, and relied heavily on a printout from Wikipedia to understand the spectacle we were witnessing.

However, despite clearly being out of place, the small Japanese grandfather in the box next to us was quick to lean over and offer us his sake as an introduction to his culture and the sport of sumo. As the afternoon wore on, we smiled, drank sake and yelled “gambate,” the traditional sumo cheer, which roughly translates to “try your best.” An experience and memory that resonates with me today despite having been almost eight years ago.

So as our trip to the Basque region in northern Spain developed, the opportunity to search out football games began. While it originally looked like our schedule had us just missing games in our planned destination cities, the stars aligned and it turned out that not only would we be able to get to one game, but three, all in different “competitions” or “tournaments” over the course of our 10 day trip.

First up was the UEFA Europa League match between the home team Athletic Bilbao and AZ Alkmaar from the Netherlands. Scheduled for a 9:00 pm start on our day of arrival in Bilbao, we both knew it would be a great way to stay up and fight the jet lag to get set on the new time zone.

While accurate thinking in theory, the execution is always a little more challenging and Poe may have grabbed a quick cat nap sometime during the first half, but our first game of the trip was an experience not to be missed. Soccer in Bilbao is special. We have been before and having the opportunity to go again was amazing.

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Poe took the pictures, which might account for their blurriness.

We headed out from our hotel after a quick siesta in search of some of the same great bars and tapas places we had visited almost three years prior. We walked through the park towards downtown streets which became more familiar as the red and white striped colors of the home team hung from doorways and on scarves around the necks of our fellow fans. We visited a couple of familiar spots and found a few new ones, sipping on glasses of wine and enjoying fresh pintxos as we went.

Bilbao bar scene on soccer night

One great thing about a Europa League match, which we had not experienced previously, is that fans from the away teams actually travel to see their team play. What better excuse for a group of friends to take a 90-minute flight to a far off city for a couple of days then a soccer match. New country, new experience, and an excuse for a quick vacation.

So it was at one bar where we ended up seated across from a Spanish-speaking barman next to a group of non-Spanish speaking soccer fans from the Netherlands. What ensued was why I love going to soccer in Europe.

Our new friends from the Netherlands were enjoying Spanish culture by the plate–but more importantly wine bottle full–and it was clear that the significant others that may be waiting back at home were not high on the priority list during this “boys” trip. So when the buys decided to try to ask the bartender where the local “strip” club was for after the game, it was Poe and her broken Spanish that were called into action. Translating poor English from the Netherlands into broken Spanish required not only words, but sign language, whereby Poe pretended to be lifting her shirt and dancing for the barman all to the howl of our friends form the Netherlands.

And guess what? It worked! The bartender knew exactly what the guys were looking for and drew them a map for after the game. While not exactly an international peace treaty, at the time, this was the most important issue being addressed by the representatives of these three countries.

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Bilboa’s new stadium, San Mames.

Major international issue completed, the crowd continued growing in the streets as locals prepared for the game. Glass after glass of wine was ordered and passed to revelers as they filled the streets in front of bars on the way to the stadium. Then, finally, about 20 minutes before kickoff, the crowd seemed to move as a single unit towards the gates and seats of the stadium. As we took our seats in the stadium we were surrounded by fellow fans and enjoyed 90 minutes of sport while cheering and chanting for today’s home team, who went on to tie 2-2 after conceding a late own goal.

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A far less jet-lagged group of supporters, no doubt.

After traveling overnight the evening before, partying into the night was not on the agenda and we quickly returned to our room for some well-deserved sleep.

Check back later this week for my post on the Copa del Rey cup in San Sebastian.

Back to the Basque

Hola, mis gentes. And Happy New Year! (Where did 2015 go? Seriously. I can’t believe it’s a new year. I’m woefully unprepared.)

My travel-compadre-for-life and I have had a sort of travel rule for the last 10 years, which is: “Let’s go to new places. Places that neither of us have ever been.” After all, the world is a large, wonderful and varied place. We’ve hardly exhausted our options. There’s always some place new to go.

It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it’s one we’ve generally followed.

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Me at an Athletic Bilboa game in 2012. Per XFE’s preference, he’s cropped out. Except the tip of his thumb.

The thing is, as we get to a stage where we’ve done quite a bit of traveling, we find ourselves wanting to go back to places we’ve already been. We want a second chance at something, maybe it was another day at that secluded beach in Vieques or a trip to the Big Easy without stitches.

And so, in December, while the rest of the world was buying Christmas presents and attending holiday parties, we instead found ourselves revisiting the Basque region of northern Spain. We just had to go to our favorite pinxto place in San Sebastian again. And recreate that wonderful day of soccer in Bilboa. And stay in my favorite hotel again in my favorite European city.

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A nice moody picture of La Cuchara San Telmo, our favorite restaurant in San Sebastian.

You know what? It wasn’t exactly the same as that first magical trip, when everything was unknown and each experience was completely new. For example, the late-night kebab place next to our hotel in Bilboa wasn’t as delectable as it was when we went there after the soccer match on our last trip (for one thing, I had had quite a few gin and tonics that evening….). But it was pretty fantastic, and in some ways, even better.

We did go to our favorite pinxto place in San Sebastian again. Twice. And it was freaking phenomenal. (Don’t worry: We also hit up a whole bunch of new-to-us places as well. We ate all of the pinxtos. All of them.)

My favorite hotel upgraded us to an even more ridiculously luxurious room than last time.

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This was our terrace. Just ours. We didn’t have to share it or anything.

We pretty much recreated that wonderful day of pub crawling and soccer in Bilboa, not once, but twice, watching two Athletic Bilboa games in the team’s fancy new stadium. We even got tickets to the swanky VIP suite for one of the games, which has completely spoiled me for any future soccer matches. Plus, we saw a match in San Sebastian, so we basically tripled our soccer gluttony compared to our 2012 visit.

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It was all slightly familiar and comforting in a lot of ways. While it wasn’t what some travel guides would call a “journey of discovery,” it was great to cut through all the angst of getting somewhere and not knowing what you want to do first or where to go for dinner. The whole trip had a bit of nostalgia to it. Almost every sentence began with, “Well, when we were here last time…”

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Another XFE hand shot. I feel like we’ve been here before….

The world is a very big and varied place and there are plenty of places to go, but sometimes, going to a place you’ve been before offers up the opportunity to take a little trip down memory lane and revisit old favorites. After all, we don’t stay the same and neither do our favorite destinations. And that late-night kebab place deserves a second, more sober visit (but probably not a third visit. I think we’re good on that one).

Take a Bow, Bilbao

Bilbao. The name itself fills the mouth. I’ll admit, at first, I kept messing it up. Pronouncing it like the last name of a certain famous movie boxer. I could not quite get my tongue around it. For the record, it’s Bihl. Bow. As in, take a bow.

And indeed, the resilient Spanish city by the bay should take a bow.

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Bilbao has rebuilt itself several times, usually after being wiped out by a war. Surrounded by iron ore and located on the Biscay Bay, the city focused on its industrial growth, particularly exporting iron to Great Britain, and shipbuilding.

Several factors in the 1980s, including labor disputes and terrorism from Basque separatist group ETA, caused the city to switch to a more services-focused path of economic growth. It’s now home to major companies, particularly in the banking sector. And the whole city has been undergoing an urban renewal, kicked off by the opening of the Frank Gehry-designed Bilbao Guggenheim Museum in 1997.

(Interesting side note: earlier this week, ETA announced that they are ready to disband after more than 45 years of fighting for Basque independence. I’m pretty sure our visit had something to do with that).

Bilbao was the first stop on our Spanish vacation and was a good introduction to the Basque region. We were attracted to the city by the fact that 1) there was an international airport nearby, so it was easy for both of us travelling from different directions to get to; 2) the Guggenheim Museum; 3) it was off the beaten path. But what really clinched the deal was the fact that there was a soccer game at the same time we were planning to be there.

The airport: XFE was already in the south of Spain for work, and I was flying over to meet him. The Bilbao airport itself is pretty lackluster and a bit depressing. It was small, particularly for an international airport serving 3.9 million customers, and it didn’t have any shops or restaurants. It was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, who also designed one of the wineries we went to later in the week. Overall, it was very modern, but in a cold, concrete-gray kind of way.

But, it was easy to get in and out of, so that’s a bonus.

The Guggenheim: We figured going to northern Spain in November was a risk, weather-wise. We expected cold, rainy and gloomy, so we thought it would make a perfect excuse to spend a day in a museum. It was indeed chilly and drizzly the day we went to the Guggenheim, but the inside was comfortable, and because it was November, blessedly free of masses of tourists (the Guggenheim had 4 million visitors in its first three years). If anything, the gray skies made a fantastic contrasting backdrop to the gold, undulating exterior made of sandstone, titanium and glass.

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The museum is pretty massive with a total of 256,000 square feet, but it doesn’t feel that big. It was well laid out and focused on modern art. A couple of our favorites were the Jenny Holzer installation piece of large LED columns with phrases in English and Basque, and a current exhibit of works by Austrian painter Egon Schiele.

But the real star of the show is the building. It is breathtaking. We stayed at the Hotel Miro, which is spitting distance from the museum and had a waterfront room with views of the museum so we could see it day and night. It never got old.

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I’ve heard it described many ways — like a giant ship in a nod to Bilbao’s maritime past, like a giant fish with scales made up of titanium, like a flowing river reflecting back into the River Nervion it hovers over. It was all of that and more. It was one of those buildings that somehow stirs an emotion in you.

The Hotel Miro was great, both in location (city center) and amenities. It’s very modern and small, and had a great breakfast including pour-your-own mimosas. It was close to the museum, shopping and the soccer stadium.

The beaten path: Bilbao was quite a surprise to us, but a very pleasant one. Neither one of us knew anyone who had ever been there, so we had no idea what to expect. But the city is a beautiful mix of old and new buildings with wide European avenues lined with trees and lots of pedestrian-only streets and bridges. There’s a fairly new metro system, but we never needed it during our two-day stay.

Thanks to the great location of our hotel, we walked everywhere. Our first night in town, we fought off jetlag by strolling over to the Gran Via and the Plaza Eliptica for a couple of hours of shopping. All the major Spanish chains were well represented, including Zara, Mango and Maje.

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And meat. There were lots of meat shops.

On Sunday afternoon, we made like Spainards and strolled through the lovely Dona Casida Itturizar Park on our way to the soccer game. It was a gorgeous fall day, and everyone was out, pushing strollers, chasing kids and walking dogs. Usually, in that amazing way that European women have, all three at the same time and looking stylish while doing it.

We didn’t really make any dinner plans, but more often than not found ourselves eating pinxtos at the casual English-themed bar next to the hotel. There was a post-soccer/all-day-drinking feast at a donner kabob place near the hotel. At the time, I was sure it was the best restaurant in all of Spain.

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I cannot remember the name of the bar next to the hotel, but it was very friendly and had some fairly good pinxtos.

Which brings us to our final deciding factor: the soccer game.

When we first started planning our trip, we looked up the schedules for three soccer teams in Northern Spain: Sevilla, San Sebastian and Bilbao. Only one was playing on the weekend we would be there: Athletico Bilbao.

Spain, like all of Europe, is crazy about soccer. It’s like a holiday when the home team is in town, and Bilbao was no exception. They regularly reach full capacity in their 40,000 seat San Mames, known affectionately as the Cathedral. (Don’t worry, they’re building an even larger new 53,000 seat stadium right next to the old one to open sometime in 2013 – the 100th anniversary of the original stadium).

It’s an understatement to say we were very concerned about our ability to get tickets to the game.

We contacted our concierge to get tickets but were told they weren’t released until the week of the game. His recommendation was that we stand in line at the stadium to buy them the day before the game. Not a very appealing option.

Instead, we took our chances with an online ticket broker, Viagogo, and had them delivered to our hotel. It was a nerve-wracking four weeks while we waited to see if the tickets would indeed show up, but they were waiting for us when we checked in at the Hotel Miro and the seats were fantastic. Front row. They were very expensive, but worth it.

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Not surprisingly, the people of Bilbao make a whole day of the soccer game. We saw people heading towards the 4 pm game at around 10 am. We left our hotel at around 11:30 and headed to Calle Licenciado Poza for pinxtos and drinks.

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We saw this guy from our hotel window heading to the game.

The entire neighborhood was draped in red and white Athletico bunting and every bar was flying the Athletico flag. We stopped at bar after bar—everything ranging from super chic steel and chrome numbers, to older establishments with plexiglass protecting their pintxos—and the whole vibe was very festive. Since they don’t serve beer or alcohol at the stadium (a widespread European rule that I’m not particularly fond of), things get pretty tipsy on the streets beforehand.

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That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of families out and about. We particularly enjoyed one kid who sat next to us and just inhaled two bowls of the tiniest little garlicky snails we’d ever seen. They were miniscule, but this kid was pulling them out of their tiny shells like he was a machine.

We bought our traditional (and overpriced) team garb from a small shop right outside the stadium. We try to go to a soccer game every time we go to Europe and now have a pretty impressive collection of scarves (for me) and baseball hats (for XFE). I also might have accosted a group of young American students I happened to overhear on our way in as if they were our long-lost relatives. What can I say? I was carried away by the many glasses of 1 Euro tintos and the excitement of game day.

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Finally, we made our way into the Cathedral. The atmosphere inside the stadium was electric. European men, I’ve observed, are very, very demonstrative at soccer games. They cheer wildly and cry and throw their hands up in disgust and hug each other. It’s a pretty impressive display. On that particular day, the home team beat the Sevilla visitors 2-0, so it was mostly cheers.

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No cheers for the broken stadium chair, though. Those wimpy EU chairs are not made for American butts. (To be fair, this is not the first stadium chair we’ve ever broken. We leave a trail of butt destruction)

As we marched out of the stadium, carried along by the exuberant crowd into the neighborhood streets, I decided I liked Bilbao very, very much indeed. And then I went into a bar and had another glass of tinto. Somewhere there was a very non-Spanish kebab calling my name.

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