Apologies for the hiatus in our perambulations across Europe, whilst we’ve been diverted by weightier matters closer to home. But with the Champions League winter break almost behind us, and a trip to Napoli heaving into view, it’s time to re-visit la bella Italia.
With The Special One having joined Internationale following his departure from the Bridge, it was inevitable that we’d meet him in the Champions League, and when the draw for the round of 16 paired the clubs together, a number of hasty telephone calls with a few pals resulted in some fairly cheap flights to Milan, a half-decent hotel next to the station and an early trip to Gatwick to fly out the day before the game.
It’s worth remembering that Milan is served by two airports, and whilst Linate is the junior partner, it’s certainly more convenient for the city centre (as I discovered last March when my flight to Pisa was diverted to Milan Malpensa when the windscreen in the cockpit cracked whilst flying over the Alps and I was told that it would take nearly as long to get to central Milan as it would to wait for the replacement plane).
Having evaded the squadrons of mini cabs looking for a fare and located the official taxi rank, a 20 minute ride took us to our hotel and following check-in and a meet up with a mate who was in another nearby hotel, we set out to explore the city. One of our party (let’s call her K) had expressed a wish to visit an outlet store in the Via Manzoni where highly desirable designer goods could be purchased at heavily discounted rates, so we decided to call in there. It was the first in many shopping disappointments for me on this trip. Nothing worth having, in my book, or hers. We then decided to head for the famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, packed to the brim with Prada, Gucci, Chanel and other leading designers. On the way, we passed La Scala, one of the world’s most famous opera houses. Another disappointment. It looked incredibly utilitarian and municipal. I’d been expecting something along the lines of the ROH, where I occasionally patronise the cheap (sic) seats, or the heavily rocco’d Paris Opera.
The Galleria Vittorio Emanuel reminded me of nothing so much as the Great Western Arcade in my native Birmingham, but with shops infinitely out of my price range. Even K. was heard to mutter in Prada “too expensive” whilst Jimmy M., the sole male member of our party was told by G., “If you bought your wife one of those [£1000] bags, you could have your dinner cooked at 6pm every night for the rest of your life”, to which he replied “at those prices, I’d cook it myself”.
Whilst strolling back towards the Metro, I’d decided to call up a couple of pals who were also over for the game, Mr E. and Dazza A, who’d promised to join us at a dinner in the Porta Rossa for my flatmate, whose birthday it was (see also Travels with the Chels – Stuttgart). Whilst the phone rang, I looked ahead of me, and to my amazement saw them standing 50 yards away from me. We firmed up arrangements for dinner, and made our away back to the station and our respective hotels to bathe and change.
The restaurant in Porta Venetia necessitated a cab through the dark streets, however we arrived a little after the appointed time and made our way through an unlovely corridor into what appeared to be an outdoor bar and restaurant protected from the elements by a marquee. We were shown to our table, where our friends were waiting and proceeded to order. When it came to the Contorni (side dishes), the waiter was asked about a salad. He said “this is a beautiful dish. You have tasted nothing like it”. Therefore an order was placed for it to share amongst us, together with a more prosaic side of chips. So the food arrived and the wine flowed. When the mysterious salad arrived, four or five of us tested it. I thought it was like an extra vinegary coleslaw. “Be careful”, warned Dazza A. “That could go right through you”. Prophetic words.
So the meal went on, only threatening to come to a fractious head when the bill arrived for a seemingly extortionate sum, which was resolved by the discovery that we’d been charged for more main courses than we’d had and the fact that the waiter had thought the party at the next table were with us. With the usual grousing accompanying a large party (“I only had a main course”, “I didn’t drink all that beer”, “I didn’t have a side order) – we settled up and adjourned to the bar for drinks.
By the time 1am arrived, having had a few drinks, I was starting to feel tired. My tummy was also starting to rumble in an ominous manner, and I decided to go back to the hotel, leaving K and G in the doubtful care of Dazza A.,whom I left outside the restaurant asking a cabbie what sort of low nightclub they could go on to. I got back to the hotel just in time. Dazza A’s prophecy came to pass and I spent much of the next two hours firmly clamped to the loo, clutching a packet of Immodium. By 3am, the sickness had passed, and I crawled into bed just as K and G arrived back, not having much luck in finding a venue with suitably banging tunes. G curled up in her bed and went to sleep, but K and I spent a most amusing hour playing “Arse versus Elbow”, in which the competitors take a picture of their arms crooked at the elbow, with the wrist pointing down, to see whose arm ends up looking most like arse cheeks.*
In spite of the uproar in my stomach, I slept, only to wake at 8am. I thought I’d better go and try to have some breakfast but in spite of the tempting array, I could only manage a little toast and coffee and retired back to bed. We hadn’t formulated any particular plans for the day, but over their breakfast K and G received intelligence of more friends arriving in town, and decided to go off to a bar to meet them. I simply wasn’t up to sitting in a pub and lay in bed with the window open, praying I wasn’t going to be too ill at the football. I was also considering the implications of wasting the whole of the day in bed. Eventually it was too much for me, and I decided that the pub might have been out, but I could do some quiet sightseeing on my own. I was determined at least to see the Duomo (Milan’s Cathedral), and I’m glad I did. I’ve visited many of Europe’s great churches now, and there’s no doubt that Milan’s has got to be near the top of any connoisseur’s list. In spite of the large numbers of visitors, it still maintained an air of peace and holiness that are lacking in others (Florence, for example). I even managed to attend a mass in a side chapel, where I devoutly prayed for a win against Inter. As many of the shops were close to the Cathedral, including La Rinascente, Italy’s main department store chain, I paid them a visit (mainly to laugh at the prices), and also went on the City Sightseeing tour in the pleasant winter sun. I also hoped a light meal of pasta in the restaurant next the hotel would succour my recovering stomach against the night at the San Siro.
Having joined up again with the others, the ladies of the party spent a pleasant hour customising some specially bought Fila y-fronts, in tribute to Ashley Cole’s recent marital problems with the bon mots “Girls Allowed” which we planned to smuggle in past the stewards. Then we headed to the recommended metro station to meet the buses which would take us to the ground. Happily ours was full of Chels, but the drive to the ground seemed to take hours, in a huge Milanese traffic jam. By the time we got to the ground, the game was about to start, and we hoofed up the circular walkways. Halfway up, I was starting to feel unwell again. In a throwback to the Old Wembley area, male (natch) fans were starting to use the walkways as a urinal, having been caught short after too much Peroni. Eventually, we reached the top, only to find the view of the pitch obscured by netting, presumably to stop supporters from the upper tier throwing anything on to those below. In a state of disbelief we took our seats, just in time to see Diego Milito open the scoring on 3 minutes. To say we were disgruntled, at this point, would be an understatement. However, the team dragged themselves back into the game, playing some decent attacking football. And in spite of Jose Mourinho’s burgeoning reputation as a defensively minded football, Inter looked capable of scoring every time they had the ball. Just before the interval, we should have had a penalty when Kalou was upended by Walter Samuel, a foul seen by everyone, it seemed, apart from the ref. Half time saw us still a goal down, but hopeful at such an early stage in the tie.
Just eight minutes into the second half, a miracle. An equaliser from Salomon Kalou, following a rampage down the right by Ivanovic. The decision to drop Joey Cole looked like a good ‘un. But our dreams of a draw with a crucial away goal were dashed only four minute later when Esteban Cambiasso was the beneficiary of a couple of weak clearances, first by Carvalho and then Terry, and we found ourselves 2-1 down.
Worse was to follow when Petr Cech had to be carried off shortly after in one of those inexplicable turf accidents, to be replaced by Hilario. Say what you like about Chelsea’s No. 2, he’s never let us down when he’s been called into the fray, and the game ended without us shipping any more goals. The Inter fans celebrated as if they’d just won the Champions League, never mind about a round of 16 first leg, their joy magnified by a victory over a team now managed by the former boss of their bitter local rivals, AC Milan, the amiable Carlo Ancelotti.
The Chels settled down for the usual inevitable post-match lock-in, but this proved to be probably the most enjoyable part of the evening, save the Kalou equaliser. The San Siro Wheels of Steel rocked us to the sounds of The Clash, The Jam, Madness, Squeeze and many other favourites. It’s almost as if they’d done their research.
There was some unpleasantness on the way out as the doors at the bottom of the walkways were blocked by Carabinieri to avoid any potential clash between any Inter Ultras hanging around (of which there were a few) and our fans – the queues backed up unpleasantly and some misguided individuals decided to have an off with the Police; never a good idea in any country, downright foolish anywhere in Italy. It is purely my opinion, and of course we were probably in the rubbish bit of the ground, but rather like the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, the Giuseppe Meazza looks great on TV, but does not live up to the reality. Happily I didn’t find it necessary to use the “facilities”, but I’m told there were two loos for 4,000 visiting fans. Animals would probably be treated better.
However, eventually we got ourselves on a bus and reached the metro in time to take a late train back to our hotel. The evening concluded with a few drinks (non-alcoholic in my case) in the bar, but with the firm conviction we could still turn the tie around.
The next morning, Jimmy M. met us at our hotel to join the flight home and said that he’d been feeling lousy, and a subsequent conversation with Dazza A. confirmed he’d been ill too. We all had one thing in common; we’d had the coleslaw salad at dinner on Tuesday evening. However, conversations with other friends confirmed that the sickness hadn’t just been confirmed to us. I’ve never heard of so many cases of illness during a European trip and whilst I don’t know what other people were eating, the moral appears to be of the story is whilst in Europe, be a salad dodger! This is of course something which those off to Naples might want to bear in mind…
Speaking of which, I’m packing my tiny bag for my first European away trip of the season, which hopefully will bring enough stories to furnish a future “Travels”. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter @BlueBaby67
*Readers travelling to Naples may find this a cheap way of filling any empty hours.