See you later, Madrid.

I remember clearly how I arrived in Madrid.

It was nearly lunchtime, and as the train from Sevilla was approaching Madrid’s Atocha station, when the music station I was listening to started playing the strains of some grandiose classical music—I felt I was I was Alexander the Great arriving in one of his conquests. Madrid was a city I’ve been looking forward to conquering.

Lonely Planet compared Madrid to a Catholic schoolgirl who grew up to be a sophisticated young woman, and I can see why. Madrid is tempered compared to the modernisme of Barcelona or the grit of Sevilla. What it does have is a lot of grandeur in its architecture and urban cosmopolitanism that keeps the city awake well into the wee hours of the morning.

My Madrid is a city best explored by foot and by the Metro. There is the Palacio Real (whose best part is definitely the Royal Armory) and opposite it, the Catedral de Almudena. Nearby, there is the madness of Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor—its tourists, street performers, and lottery peddlers.

There is the museum triangle, with all the treasures of the Museo Nacional del Prado (Velasquez’s Las Meninas was definitely the highlight, as well as a version of the Mona Lisa that is believed to be painted by a student of Leonardo da Vinci the same time the master was making his masterpiece), the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (Picasso’s Guernica is the highlight, but lovers of contemporary art will also be enchanted by the museum’s top-floor collections), and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (which has works by Caravaggio, van Gogh, Cezanne, and Monet—but my favorites were its pieces of Georgia O’Keefe, Roy Lichtenstein, and Piet Mondrian).

Meanwhile, Parque del Retiro provided a respite in the middle of an urban jungle.

My Madridista self was just jumping with delight at each chance to go to the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu (and gladly plunked down my euros at the Tienda Bernabeu).

However, the best of Madrid could be found in its bars and cafes, its quaint restaurants, and narrow side streets. There was always something to new to be discovered off the beaten path. My friend’s place in Barrio Salamanca was situated in what I think was the perfect neighborhood in Madrid—near places to eat and shop, with lots of room for exploration. I also found myself in Calle de Colmenares, just off Gran Via and thought, “I’d love to live in a street that carries the family name of my grandparents and great-grandparents.”

Madrid may be tempered, but it did feel like home—something I realized in my brief stay in the city. I have never seen bluer skies. I have understood enough of her beauty. I have made my pilgrimage.

On my last afternoon in the city, I climbed up to the Azotea at the Circulo Bellas Artes, which has amazing views of Edificio Metropolis—iconic of Madrid. I thought to myself, I would be back.

Someone told me I would be back. After all, Madrid is a city that always says, “Hasta luego!”

See you later, Madrid. See you later.

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Spain Diary: A Filipina football fan’s journey

This post chronicles all the football-related adventures I  had in Spain. Originally posted here. Grateful to have made all these into reality, and looking forward for more of these in the coming years.

The end of another calendar year calls for a lookback on some of the finest moments in sport for the past twelve months. This isn’t one of those enumerated recap stories, but a series of stories for a football fan who found herself in Spain—one of the best places on earth to be at for some football action.

Barcelona: An Unlikely Experience
The city of Barcelona bursts with color with the architectural marvels of Gaudí, and in many apartment buildings, the Senyera hangs proudly over balconies—a reminder of the Catalan’s deep sense of pride and nationalism.

One other signifier of such pride and nationalism is the blue and deep red shirt of FC Barcelona, which could be found in kiosks and shops throughout the city, along with every FC Barcelona trinket imaginable—from postcards with players’ faces to FCB alarm clocks.

I found myself in the quiet neighborhood of Les Corts in the northwestern part of Barcelona one Monday morning, thinking that tens and thousands of Culés would be making the same 20-minute walk from the Metro station to Camp Nou, their songs and expectations for a win filling the streets.

As someone with a corazon blanco, the FC Barcelona Experience at Camp Nou is the unlikeliest of starts in experiencing Spanish football for myself. Leo Messi and company greet me with their Qatar Airways advertisement at the main entrance.

After getting my audio guide and going past a Joan Miró poster of FC Barcelona’s 75th anniversary, I make my way through the mixed zone and press room, the away team locker room, and onto the pitch, dwarfed by “Mes Que Un Club” formed by the opposite stand. If I were a player of the visiting team, I would understand why Camp Nou is intimidating—it was as if you were the tiniest bean in the middle of a gigantic bowl.

Perhaps the best view of any match at Camp Nou would be at the press box, situated at the topmost tier, just above the VIP seats. The press box is a deck that protrudes from a portion of the topmost tier, equipped with monitors, but with no glass panes looking onto the pitch, enabling any sports reporter to fully absorb the atmosphere during a match.

What I found most fascinating, however, was the FC Barcelona museum, which was well curated with memorabilia since the founding of the club and multiple interactive stations for visitors to relive some of the club’s defining victories. Fans can also listen to the club’s anthem and read along the lyrics in different languages—including Tagalog!

The museum also pays homage to its current squad, with a section dedicated to the Qatar Airways sponsorship and a corner for Leo Messi’s Golden Balls and Golden Boots.

As someone with a strong dislike for FC Barcelona, I did not expect that this visit to Camp Nou would be a good experience, but I was pleasantly surprised. The club understands and underscores its universal appeal, turning it into an effective marketing campaign—not just in the sponsorship department, but in creating a cohesive narrative for a stadium and museum tour for all football fans to appreciate.

Camp Nou facade Mes que un club The Leo Messi Corner

Sevilla: Passion for the Game
It was el derbi Sevillano on my last night in Sevilla, with Sevilla FC looking to further dominate Real Betis.

As early as three hours before the match, bars leading toward Nervión were already crowded with fans. I usually have dinners at Nervión Plaza, a commercial center right next to the Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, and on my last night, it was a sea of red. Outside, some fans decided to light flares, and the local police cavalry have closed off main intersections leading to the stadium.

I thought to myself, “Thank god, I’m wearing red,” in an attempt to blend in and snap some photos of the festivities. Sevilla beat Betis 4-0, and even then, Sevilla fans would have wanted a five-goal treat from their team.

What Sevilla impressed upon me was that the city has an earthy passion, garnished by its flair for the dramatic, as evidenced by its love affairs for flamenco, bullfighting, and yes, football.

Sevilla fans were loud and rowdy, but they sure did know how to have fun and show how fans during a derby live it up. For someone from the other side of the world with a fledgling local league, it is quite a tall order to wish for the same kind of passion for the game and the local football club to become part of the culture over the short- to medium-term.

Until then, there are experiences like the Sevilla derby to remind me of such fantastic fan atmospheres.

Sevilla fans light flares at Plaza Nervion

Madrid: A Pilgrimage and a Night of Magic
When one is in Europe, one must not miss a European night.

It was one of the coldest Wednesday nights in November in Madrid when Real Madrid hosted Galatasaray for their UEFA Champions League group stage match. Stepping out of the Santiago Bernabeu Metro station, it took a while to figure out which gate to claim our tickets and run up the steps onto the third tier of the East Stand.

I was out of breath when I got to my seat, but the immediate reward was that of a large sign on the pitch with the word, “Hindi kayo nag-iisa, Pilipinas.” Indeed, the calls throughout Spain to help the people affected by Typhoon Yolanda have reminded me of just how much the world is with the Philippines at a time of great need—the world of football included.

When the Champions League anthem blared and the players filed behind the large sign, I thought, “This is it. This is my dream come true.” Indeed, there is nothing quite like a European night in one of the cathedrals of football.

The atmosphere at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu was simply phenomenal. As the tiers on all sides of the stadium are vertically stacked, the Bernabeu presents a rather forbidding atmosphere to visiting teams.

The Madrid faithful had their flags and banners, their drumbeats and chants. On this particular night, cardboard cutouts of Cristiano Ronaldo’s face were distributed, to be put up during the 7th and 77th minutes. There was also a large banner that called for the Ballon d’Or to be given to Madrid’s #7.

The only downer? Cristiano Ronaldo was injured and not included in the line-up.

That did not spoil the night for me as much as Sergio Ramos getting red carded in the 27th minute (“I did not travel halfway across the world to see get sent off so early, Sergio!”). I cheered for the goals of Gareth Bale, Angel di Maria, Alvaro Arbeloa, and Isco. My heart swelled when Xabi Alonso was finally substituted in the 60th minute. Finally, I was able to see the maestro in person, stamping the tempo of the game, proving to be most influential in the midfield.

90 minutes flew by so fast, and when Real Madrid’s players stepped off the pitch after a 4-1 victory and the crowds started filing out, I stayed glued to my seat, just taking everything in. A sense of calmness replaced the raucous cheers.

It will be a while before I could experience another night like this.

Hindi kayo nag-iisa Pilipinas

Three days later, I found myself once again at the Santiago Bernabeu for the stadium tour. It started with a trek to the topmost tier for a panoramic view of the stadium, before going to the museum.

No club does it prouder than Real Madrid, with the nine European Cups taking centerstage in a long hallway that displays memorabilia through the years, including membership cards from the 1900s, replica shirts, players’ boots, and the Copa del Rey that Sergio Ramos broke.

On the opposite wall, a series of flat screens show some of the club’s most memorable goals, set against an operatic musical background.

The tour also includes stops at the VIP area, the technical area, and the media room. The highlight of the tour, however, would definitely have to be the home team’s locker room—which was quite a surprise to me that it was accessible to the public. Yes, it did smell like sweat and feet.

This is perhaps the closest you could get to your current football heroes or obsessions, not counting the unlikely chance you’ll cross paths with them anywhere in Madrid or staking out in Valdebebas.

I left the Bernabeu for the last time in this trip with a better sense of Real Madrid’s élan. It’s not so much a victory-at-all-costs mentality, but a victory-with-flair attitude, just as how the Spanish capital would do it.

Just as every Spanish city has something unique in store for the weary traveler, so too do they offer varying experiences for the football crazy traveller. These are the football highlights of my 2013—and possibly, of some other year in the near future.

9 European Cups View from Fondo Norte Where CR7 undresses

A Walk through Heritage and History: Ávila and Segovia

One of the things I love about Spain is that it has preserved so much of its art, architecture, and history. The cities of Ávila and Segovia upped the notch for preservation, being medieval cities and having sites that have been built over 1,000 years ago. Both cities have been named UNESCO World Heritage Sites and rightly so.

Ávila is Spain’s highest provincial capital, and the city is best known for its walls, which were built starting in the 11th century and completed in the 14th century.

Ávila also has the distinction of having the most Romanesque and Gothic churches per capita in Spain, including the Catedral de Ávila and the Basilica de San Vicente. The highlight of the latter is the tomb containing the remains of San Vicente and his sisters, Santa Sabina and Santa Cristeta, who were martyred during the rule of the Roman emperor Diocletian. The tomb has carvings of how crucifixions were carried in those days—and it is quite different from what we know.

One other highlight of Ávila would be the Convento de Santa Teresa, a shrine for St. Teresa de Ávila. The convent stands on the site of St. Teresa’s birthplace and has a small museum where her relics could be viewed—including her shoes and her right ring finger.

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Meanwhile, Segovia was first established as a Celtic territory before being controlled by the Romans. Its most defining feature is the Aqueduct of Segovia in Plaza del Azoguejo, which was built in the late 1st or early 2nd century.

The Catedral de Segovia is the last Gothic cathedral built in Spain, and as the guide explained, there are sections of the church where only royalty could sit and another section for the nobility—hence the phrase, “To hear mass,” as the general public are just usually outside, listening to the sermon. Inside the cathedral is a pre-Gutenberg bible from which the priests read.

The Alcazar de Segovia is built on a crag where the Eresma and Clamores meet. The guide explained it’s actually an inspiration for Walt Disney’s castle, and it’s easy to see why. The structure bears Romanesque, Gothic, and Mudejar influences, and the views from its tall windows at the throne room shows vast tracks of sandy brown hills set against a clear blue sky. The Alacazar’s throne room has two thrones—for Ferdinand and Isabela, who created the united realm of Spain.

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Sensual Sevilla

Sevilla holds so much history and presents an interesting amalgamation of cultures. Its main attractions—the Catedral de Sevilla, the Alcazar, and the General Archive of the Indies—are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the Plaza de España at the Parque de Maria Luisa is an example of Renaissance Revival in Spanish architecture (not to mention doubling as the palace of Naboo in the Star Wars prequels).

The Cathedral and the Alcazar are interesting examples of how Christianity built upon structures that were Moorish/Muslim in origin. Legend has it that the builders of the Cathedral said, “Let us build a church so beautiful and so great that those who see it built will think we were mad.” And they probably were.

Sevilla’s Cathedral is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. There is so much detail in the structure’s exteriors and interiors, as it has about 80 chapels inside. On one part of the cathedral lies what were supposedly are the remains of Christopher Columbus, contained in a sepulchre that is as Gothic as Gothic could be. The main highlight of the Cathedral would definitely be La Giralda, the bell tower, which provides majestic views of Barrio Santa Cruz. One has to go up 34 ramps to the viewing deck, but it is well worth it.

There are, however, two things that I count as my personal highlights during my visit to Sevilla. The first is seeing the exhibit, España y la Aventura de la Mar del Sur, which included a section on Manila—labeled as the gateway between two worlds in the 1600s. It was quite a humbling experience to see artifacts that are significant in the history of the Philippines, including a sketch of the first Spanish settlement in the country by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi and a map of Manila and Manila Bay in the 1700s. There were also weapons from the tribes in Luzon on display, as well as a Spanish-Tagalog-Bisaya-Bicolano dictionary. It is both triumph and tragedy to realize that such artifacts do exist, but no institution in the Philippines holds such treasures.

The other highlight would be discovering Barrio Santa Cruz simply by throwing away the maps. I started at Avenida de la Constitucion, making my way to narrow, winding streets lined with white and yellow buildings. This was when I finally realized that Sevilla was earthy, sensual, passionate, and even fatalistic.

Exploring Barrio Santa Cruz and Triana in 9-degree weather makes one think that this city is more alive under the heat of the Spanish sun. The yellow and white buildings seemed to be built for the heat.

A visit at the Museo del Baile Flamenco allows one to experience the dance with all the senses. Meanwhile, a visit to the Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballeria de Sevilla is also a reminder of how fatal passions and entertainment could be. All the while, images of Christ and the Virgin Mary mark every other building, as if the city was enveloped in fervent and feverish faith.

I think this earthiness is the heart of Sevilla, and it took a while to uncover it. I would love to see the city again, perhaps one summer, one day.

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The Many Faces of Barcelona

There’s a bracelet on my right arm, jangling with charms that resemble Antoni Gaudi’s broken tiles, formed to resemble some of the architect’s most famous works. I got it to remind me of Barcelona, a small city whose energy, I think, emanates from the Catalan Modernisme—art and architecture with a personality unique to Catalonia.

I admit my knowledge of Gaudi’s works is merely scratching the surface, but Gaudi defined my Barcelona. As a daughter of an architect who has unconsciously observed building styles and interiors, Gaudi’s works fascinated me—from the details of the interiors of Casa Batllo to the whimsicality of Parc Guell to the grandeur of the Sagrada Familia. There is nothing that comes near to the man’s vision, which combined design with function and design with religion. His genius does not border on madness, but on the divine.

The other aspect of Barcelona that fascinated me is its Gothic face, a fascination that I developed after reading the works of Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It was quite a delight to discover that my hotel in the Gothic Quarter was located at Carrer de Santa Anna, where the fictional bookshop Sempere & Sons was located (yes, I was disappointed that there are no bookshops along Carrer de Santa Anna!).

What did not disappoint me was exploring the Gothic Quarter (which did give me the creeps—in a good way) and strolling along La Rambla, with its street performers, stalls, cafés, and intricately designed buildings.

It had been raining during most of my stay in Barcelona, but I was gifted with clear blue skies on my last full day in the city. La Rambla on a clear day was bustling with activity, but Barcelona was most beautiful when you continue to La Rambla del Mar onto Port Vell, where the sky and sea meet in varying shades of blue.

On my way to the airport, the tourism campaign of Barcelona was on repeat in the airport bus. The copy reads, “Barcelona inspires”. I couldn’t agree more.

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Love/Paris

Love comes to make you remember and forget.

Love is fleeting. Love is ephemeral.

Love is Paris.

They say you find love in the most unexpected of people, in the unlikeliest of circumstances. I also discovered that you find love in the most unexpected of places. I say unexpected largely because I never really planned to go to Paris—it seemed the most daunting for this solo traveler, who only knew a grand total of five French words, pommes frites included.

I arrived in Paris on a cold, dark November morning. Armed only with information memorized on how to get to the RER trains and a map to my hotel in Paris’ 14th arrondissement, I make my way into what has been, to date, the most foreign of places to me.

Despite the unfamiliarity, Paris was kind to me, like a mother making sure her never got lost in the RER and Metro trains, as she traversed through this big city. More importantly, Paris revealed various facets of her beauty with each street strolled, each monument seen, each museum visited, and each café stopped at.

The Musée du Louvre, and the richness of art and history she holds enamored me. I was lucky to have seen the Mona Lisa when there were less than 10 people in her hall. I almost fell to my knees when I saw Venus de Milo, Cupid and Psyche, and the Code of Hammurabi. If one must understand what eternity feels like, the Louvre is the closest approximation to capturing what great things humanity could do.

On the other side of the Seine, the Musée d’Orsay provides an intimate experience with Impressionist and post-Impressionist works of art, including those of Monet’s, Degas’, Renoir’s, Cezanne’s, van Gogh’s, and Toulouse-Lautrec’s. What I did love most about the Orsay was its large clock overlooking the main hall.

Then there was the Eiffel Tower—something I never dreamed of seeing with my own eyes. I first caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower while walking along the banks of the Seine, and it is as every bit as grandiose as all the photographs have immortalized it. The best views of the Eiffel Tower are from Trocadero on the other side of the Seine—best enjoyed with crepes and waffles to boot.

There are also not enough words to describe the experience of seeing the Arc de Triomphe. The clouds formed rays behind the monument when I saw it, as if further underscoring that this city is the greatest place on earth.

I also found myself scaling up Butte Montmartre up to the Sacré-Cœur (who said skipping the funicular was a good idea?), and I was rewarded with a majestic view of Paris upon reaching the basilica’s steps.

The Notre-Dame de Paris proved to be equally beautiful and glorious, standing next to the Seine as one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture. Before it stood a reminder that the cathedral was 850 years old.

Despite the grandeur, I found love in Paris among its streets, neatly lined with apartment buildings and their ornate details, their dainty balconies. I found love in Shakespeare & Company, possibly one of the best bookstores in the world, and now, my favorite.

I found love while strolling along the Left Bank. It is in those quiet moments when you just soak everything in—the chaos, the cold, the history, and the beauty.

This is love at its truest form.

Two days is not enough. Perhaps eternity will never be enough.

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(And the view from Montmartre, as far as the eye could see:)
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