At Barcelona's heart, the soccer stadium

LA Times | Travel

You've been to Barcelona. So what? Unless you've experienced a match in Camp Nou, the home of FC Barcelona, the national football team of Catalonia, you haven't really been to Barcelona. Catalonia? What? Barcelona is in Spain, right? If you say so. Just don't ask a local. Barcelona pulsa...

By Kevin Williams // 03.21.09

You've been to Barcelona. So what? Unless you've experienced a match in Camp Nou, the home of FC Barcelona, the national football team of Catalonia, you haven't really been to Barcelona.

Catalonia? What? Barcelona is in Spain, right?

If you say so. Just don't ask a local.

Barcelona pulsates with history. You can feel it as you stroll the Bari Gotic (Gothic Quarter) or ping-pong off people during the Festival of Santa Lucia. It's the city of Gaudi and his improbable edifices and the dark, narrow contrast of Barceloneta, or Little Barcelona. It's beautiful, friendly people, scammers and getting your pocket picked on La Rambla. It's great food, museums and xocolata (a molten chocolate drink).

But for me it was a football vacation--one week and two matches. The city and all its glories were a go-with, because you can't spend all day at Camp Nou.

Though you could. There's the stadium tour (including museum), a grounds tour and the FC Barcelona Megastore, where you can buy everything from pens to baby blankets, skivvies to cuff links.

But you don't because you're traveling with civilians.

And then we got lucky, because a Barcelona family--Genis Sanchez, his wife, MariCruz, and mother, Montserrat, whom I met through a Barca football blog--took a Sunday to show us their Barcelona. So you get lunch at the Four Cats and buy a caganer statuette. You visit a beautiful abbey cloister and get a history lesson at almost every corner.

Then you get knocked on your butt.

There is a pockmarked wall in a church courtyard at Placa de Sant Filip Neri, a wall the city hasn't repaired. The marks were made by bullets during the Spanish Civil War. But there's no signage. You have to know, or someone has to tell you. Then when you tell your gracious hosts that you're planning to visit Montjuic Castle, mother and son exchange a look and he says, "We don't go there."

And the "Montjuic est molt Montjuic" (Montjuic is more than Montjuic [Castle]) signs make sense. Because you do your homework and realize that executions went on there during the war, including that of iconic Catalan nationalist Lluis Companys.

And you don't go.

Which is fine, because there is so much to do in Barcelona when you aren't watching football. Like Paris, Barcelona is a city of small museums, from art collections of former Formula One drivers to a small-but-mighty Egyptian museum.

But it was still all about the football.

You're wondering whether a football team is worth a trip to Barcelona? People vacation to visit baseball stadiums, the Super Bowl or World Series, and they aren't even in Barcelona. Nor is there the history, the reality that if you don't know any better, you can visit Barcelona and think that it's in Spain. Because it is. Technically. But not spiritually.

You may even wonder, during your touristy Camp Nou visit, why the signs are in Catalan, English, then Spanish. And why there are hardly any Spanish flags around town. Because Barcelona is in Catalonia, and its denizens are Catalan, even though they pay taxes to Spain and have Spanish passports. They speak and read Catalan, even though you can get along just fine in Barcelona speaking Spanish.

If you're devoted enough to FC Barcelona to become a soci (voting and supporting member of the club), the preceding paragraph sits firmly in the "Duh" category.

Because FC Barcelona, like the Catalan language, is an integral part of the city and the people. Catalonia used to be an empire, and the people have never forgotten. For almost four decades--during the Franco regime--the language was outlawed. The club's motto is mes que un club (more than a club), which is true. It's Catalan iconography. And even if Catalonia is a separate country in the minds of many of its residents, it is officially an autonomous community. But Catalonia feels it's a nation.

As you learn more it becomes clear that FC Barcelona is an institution, one that gets into your heart in a way that makes you fly thousands of miles to see two matches.

We arrived on a Friday and staggered around like lagged, fatigue-sotted drunks. So the first day was sort of a waste, noteworthy mostly for the gleeful discovery of finding a restaurant less than a block away that was excellent and willing to serve us dinner before 9 p.m.

But on the next day, I fell in love.

In Barcelona, there is a drink (a Mexican import) called xocolata, molten chocolate in a cup. In my ignorance, basic hot chocolate was the expectation, but the first cup was almost pornographic and went down faster than a Brazilian footballer when a defender touches him.

And we walked. And walked. And walked some more. We hit museums, but all I was thinking about was sitting in my seat that Saturday night--the first match. My friend Bill and I decided to walk to the stadium, a task made easy even if you are lost, by following the throngs togged out in bits of FC Barcelona finery.

Each match has a ritual path that begins with the Himno, the stirring, martial fight song of FC Barcelona. Then player introductions, with the same clipped cheer after each home player's name, followed by the buzz of anticipation. Camp Nou hums with history on a match night, and anybody who is a football fan and anywhere near Barcelona on a home match day will try to get a ticket. But matches are such an integral part of Barcelona life that you haven't really experienced the city until you've witnessed one, preferably one that matters, so that you can see more than 90,000 people become a country supporting its soldiers clad in the famous blaugrana (blue and burgundy) shirt.

And at the end of 90 minutes you realize that win or lose, a football vacation makes sense because you've gained a much better understanding of a city, a people and vibrant, pulsating history. Then the Himno makes sense, and you sing:

Tot el camp/Es un clam/Som la gent blaugrana/Tant se val d'on venim ...

The whole stadium/Loudly cheers/We're the blue and claret supporters/It matters not where we hail from.