Photos: First two rows of Paris / Paris Saint Germain / Parc Des Prices. Bottom rows of Barcelona / FCB / Camp Nou.
About four years ago, I finally had a chance to watch a football match in Europe, watching a 2-2 tie between Real Madrid against Valencia. The match itself (I remember Real as a bit sluggish) wasn’t that great, but this Cristiano Ronaldo goal was pretty nice:
What I remember from that match is that the Santiago Bernabéu is an old, non-modernized stadium hosting one of the five most valuable sports teams in the world. Surprisingly (or alarmingly), smoking near the seating area was pretty common and the view really wasn’t so good (I paid the relatively reasonable price of $75 or so for nose-bleed seats). My wife Ha remembers nothing from this match, but a couple of months later she got to see Zidane (before he became coach of Real Madrid) there in the equivalent of an old timer’s charity match for less than $25 (I was jealous).
In planning for our Europe trip this past March, I really wanted to watch more football. I’ve seen Manchester United twice in exhibitions (once vs PSG and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in Chicago, the other last summer vs Real Madrid without Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara), and to see them in England is still a big to do for me.
Instead, we were fortunate to see Paris Saint Germain vs FC Metz in Paris, and then Barcelona vs Chelsea in the Champions League (think playoffs) round of 16 at Camp Nou.
I knew the PSG match would be a blowout – Metz is one of the worst teams in Ligue 1. Unfortunately, Neymar has gotten injured a couple of weeks before the match (months after I bought the tickets direct from PSG) and Cavani was suspended. Kylian Mbappé, the next great young “chosen one” at 19 years old played ok, but despite all this PSG won 5-0.
Ha and I were in row 1 (technically the second row) in the center of the lower deck. The tickets were about $120 each and all considering, a great deal. Since we were close to level with the field, it was a different view from above, but you could truly get a sense of the speed of play and the level of skill, even from Metz. The crowd atmosphere was just ok and the 48,000 seats in the stadium did not look anywhere near sold out.
One thing I learned is that after matches, home players go to the goal side housing their supporter groups and thank them for their support. Supporter groups chant and sing literally non-stop throughout a match.
For the Champions League match, it was a thrilling experience to see Lionel Messi in his prime play in a high stakes elimination match. Messi responded by scoring his fastest goal ever in less than 3 minutes, then followed that up with an assist and second goal.
Easily the best soccer experience I’ve had, even after paying around $250 per ticket to sit in Lateral 3 (good viewing angles, but fairly high up) on Viagogo, a secondary market for tickets. The face value was around $170, and I think I could have bought tickets for the match direct from the club a week before the event. I didn’t know this would be possible however, so I bought tickets months beforehand just to make sure we’d be able to go.
The European Stadium Experience
Parc des Princes and Camp Nou, like Santiago Bernabéu, are older stadiums. All three remind me (not in a good way) of Candlestick Park in San Francisco, which has now been replaced by the fabulous AT&T Park for the Giants and Levi’s Stadium for the 49ers.
The San Jose Earthquakes MLS team play in Avaya Stadium, which was completed in 2015. Despite housing a mediocre soccer team and holding only 18K people, Avaya is a much better experience than any of the three European stadiums I’ve been to.
How so? Huge high resolution big screens are in all modern American stadiums and arenas, but not in Parc des Princes, Camp Nou, or Santiago Bernabéu. I have good stadium-alternatives food options with food trucks at Avaya but Aramark (popular provider in the US as well) does the food at Camp Nou; our sausage / hot dog was plain bad (not worth finishing). If I remember correctly, there were perhaps 3 different food items one could buy in the whole stadium. 3! The food options in Parc des Princes was about the same.
There is no in-seat food delivery as you might get at Levi’s. Whether you think this is good or bad, there’s no alcohol served either. More on that later.
No ads, no extra information, not even helpful overlays on the big screens, no music, no one hawking snacks in the stand. From a purist perspective, I guess you could say you’re just left alone to enjoy football – in some ways the TV experience for football is the same. That can be a good things, but there’s just a lot of money left that these teams should be and can be making without ruining the spectator experience (see Earthquakes).
These are all just reminders of how American sports, particularly in the last 20 years, has become so competitive from a business perspective, innovating (nowhere near as fast as startups, but clearly fast relative to Europe) to capture more value from the modern sports fan.
Getting back to our hotel in central Barcelona from from Camp Nou was good – a number of different train lines connect at different stations nearby. Worst case, Camp Nou would have been just an hour away walking. Getting back from Parc des Princes was a mess, however. Google and local bus stop information suggested a bus we could take back to our hotel. That bus did not stop at the designated stop. It stopped at another stop (like a mini bus depot) very close by with other buses and just did nothing. I believe it was at least a half hour before any buses left, and all the while, we had no idea what was going on. Bus drivers didn’t know or could not say, or there were no signs that suggested an answer. We would have taken the subway, but the lines just to get into the (one) station were completely packed.
Alcohol and Hooliganism
One of the biggest surprises in European soccer is the lack of alcohol sales at the stadium. I don’t really drink, so it’s not such a big deal, but on the business side, this seems to be a lost opportunity. Then again, I’m not a fan of drunk fans either. I tried to think more about why this is the case, and my guess for it is hooliganism, a term used to describe disorderly, violent or destructive behavior perpetrated by spectators at association football events.
English football in the 1980’s was notorious for this; it was just dangerous to attend games.
During the Barcelona-Chelsea match, I witnessed hints of this after Barcelona went up 2-0, and the Chelsea fans in attendance became upset at a potential missed call. In another section above (and behind us) I had seen a plexiglass-like transparent barrier dividing the top-most section and the one in which I was sitting. I realized that opposing teams fans sat there, but I wasn’t clear why the barrier was needed. I had never seen that at a sporting event before.
After the missed call, I started hearing constant loud bangs on the “glass”. I then started seeing flying objects fly overhead (and likely hit fans). These were coins being thrown by Chelsea (a London-based club). What was astonishing to me is that there was no security to warn fans or to watch the fans doing this.
It was almost everything was perfectly all right and expected. In the US, you see warning messages on the big screens and around you to text message security in case anyone is being disruptive. You feel like you have an outlet in case you feel unsafe. Not the case here.
Then, when you think about not selling alcohol to fans, it does make more sense.
As my wife and I walked around Venice, we kept dreamily thinking of the adventures of James Bond and Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale. (See Venice filming locations) It’s one of our favorite movies, and in my mind, it’s easily the best of the Bond 007 films (I don’t appreciate the older Bond classics like Thunderball).
When we first got to Venice, however, we had come from missing our early morning flight from Paris, and we were not in the best moods. We took a water taxi in because we thought it would be a good experience, but because of the cold and rainy weather (early March) that day, small windows (limited visibility) that were pretty close to water level, and the long wait (not because of long lines, but few boats), this wasn’t a great experience either.
At the end of the trip, we took the bus from Venice to the Airport, and that was a much better, faster, and cheaper experience than the water taxi. Even if it had been summer with gorgeous weather, I would recommend the bus unless you’re staying on the other side of the Venice and would have to walk 30+ minutes to get to your hotel.
We stayed at Domina Home Ca Zusto / Hotel Ca’ Zusto Venezia, a well located 4 star hotel, for three nights for around $100/night. It was definitely the best hotel stay of our Europe trip, with good sized rooms, a solid breakfast, and great support staff.
For our first day in Venice, we essentially slept in after getting lunch. Plus, it was raining pretty hard, and we just needed rest. Two full days ended up being pretty good to appreciate the city, however, even despite the cold (around 10C, 45-55F) and intermittent rain. I’ve seen photos of Venice in the summer, and it is nuts!
If I could do it again, I’d go to Venice slightly later, right around late March / early April so that the weather would be slightly warmer but still without the crowds. That was the big benefit from our visit. There was still a decent amount of people around, but nothing where we’d say things were crowded. We could set up, take photos, and really enjoy the sights without any lines or concerns about pickpockets.
Another benefit of visiting in March? Trying out moeche, or soft-shell crabs, which are only available in the fall or early spring.
The crabs were great, but the rest of our meal at the highly touted (and easily $70 per person) Osteria alle Testiere was disappointing. The other items we ordered were just okay, but we were left waiting over 25 minutes between appetizers and the next dish. There wasn’t any advance warning, bread in between, or any service. When we asked about the wait, we were told snootily that “this isn’t fast food”.
I’ll talk more about the specific things we did in a bit, but in general, it’s really easy to walk around Venice, but it’s also just as easy to get lost. Even with Google Maps (which got confused all the time) and a map in hand (yes, I can read maps), I felt like I wasn’t sure where I was a quarter of the time. You can take water taxis around the main islands, including Burano and Murano – overall, pretty convenient and quick though I imagine it’s different during the summer.
Tourist maps will show a main path that loops around Venice, taking you through all the main touristy areas, including food and shopping. While we took that path, just to see everything, we also took considerable time off going into random areas, looking for places that locals ate at. Our best meal was at one such place.
See these articles for more on Food:
We originally booked Venice more on my wife’s suggestion. I really wasn’t so excited about it, but once I got there, even despite the rain, I took to it quickly. There definitely feels something magical about the place. I don’t have a big need to visit again soon, but I’m glad I made the trip. There’s a feeling that you’re visiting something unique in the world, something with a lot of history and significance, and walking in a town surrounded by water is a bit surreal.
Things We Did
We didn’t go to the Guggenheim (I’m no art lover, but had at least heard of it, and had no idea it was in Venice until the night before we arrived), or do a boat canal serenade (it was cold, expensive -$100-, and as we thought about it, we did not think it would be that great). I’m not a big coffee drinker normally, but I learned about cappuccino vs espresso vs latte. We also had passion fruit tiramisu at I Tre Mercanti; tiramisu arguably has its origins in/around Venice.
- Canal Grande
- Doge’s Palace (Outside)
- Basilica Di San Marco (Outside)
- St Mark’s Square
- Ponte di Rialto
- Basilica Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
- Bridge of Sighs
I’d heard that true Italian pizza is like a small piece of cheeze and meat on a cracker. Despite plenty of restaurants touting their authentic Italian pizza, however, they were all like the pizza we had at Antico Forno, American style pizza.
Our favorite meal was in Murano, a ten minute water taxi away from Venice, at La Perla ai Bisatei. This is seafood for the Venetian (in Vietnamese, we’d use the term bình dân). Ha’s second favorite meal was at another local-focused venue, Trattoria Alla Rampa. This is where we discovered other Venetian favorites like Baccalà Mantecato (white fish), spaghetti con nero di seppia (squid ink spaghetti), and Polenta (almost like rice porridge).
- Cicchetti (Italian tapas) and Spritz (not al Bitter) at Osteria Alla Ciurma. I’m not so into tapas on cold, non toasted bread, it turns out.
- Ice cream at Gelatoteca Suso. I remember liking this quite a bit with the unique ice cream flavor that I tried.
- La Patatina a San Giacomo – expensive ($50 per person) but nothing special. We regretted this meal.
During the trip, I also learned about Venezia FC, the local Serie B soccer team. They’ve been moving up steadily after new ownership by an American-Italian owner and might get to Serie A within the next couple of years. A new stadium is planned. I went to Venezia F.C. Rivenditore Ufficiale to buy an official 110th anniversary jersey, getting the baby blue goal keeper shirt along with official Serie B and Respect patches. In talking to the store owner, he mentioned that he hoped the team would get into Serie A after a couple of tries rather than right away in order to build enough of a foundation to stay at the top levels.
For me Burano and Murano are not so special, but walking around them makes you realize how much the Venice area (uh, Merchant of Venice?) is purely a tourism hub today. What was once perhaps the financial hub of the world due to its location between continents is now just a place left by time. I read some articles discussing how locals have been leaving in droves over the last decades; what was formerly a city of 100K is now at 40K .
Burano has colorful houses, which are great for photos, and lace, while Murano is focused on glass-making. These end up feeling like gimmicks to attract tourists, and I think the reality is that there is just nothing else to pivot to. This makes me think of manufacturing jobs and old industry in America; those jobs are better done elsewhere, but are there new jobs, even with training, that can take place of those old jobs? In Burano and Murano, the answer feels like no.