'Los Blancos,' the superfans of Real Madrid FC, never stopped chanting the entire game. The sea of white cheered their team on from their "lucky" end zone, where apparently the majority of the team's goals are scored. Their songs and cheers were remarkably coordinated, with swaying flags and sometimes choreographed arm movements. It was almost as intriguing as the action on the field.
Sadly, superstar player Sergio Ramos wasn't featured in the game. That and the fact the team had recently lost out of any playoff hopes contributed to an atmosphere was less lively than usual. The 80,000-seat stadium was only about 2/3 full, but it was still a cultural experience to see a pro soccer/football game in Europe. The announcer was no less animated when shouting "Gooooooooooal!," as the home team triumphed over Villa Real 3:2.
Even though our seats were quite far up, we didn't feel that far from the action since the stadium has an extreme vertical pitch. Entering and exiting was surprisingly efficient and orderly thanks to smart design that included a large number of wide spiral staircase access areas.
Surprisingly, there was very little food and beverage on offer. The few vendors almost seemed like an afterthought, especially compared to North American sports venues. Maybe Spaniards are so serious about their football that they don't want to be distracted by consumption?
It was only a few days before the game that I'd managed to get the tickets. The team's official ticket site wouldn't accept a non-European credit card, and guidebook advice about getting tickets at branches of CaixaBank was outdated. I had to make an old-fashioned phone call to the team's office to learn there was another online ticket outlet that accepted foreign credit cards.
By the way, the misguided bank visit turned out to be an interesting lesson in the cultural norms around Spanish queuing, or lack thereof. People who were waiting to see a bank teller weren't standing in a line; they were scattered randomly around the waiting area. When someone new arrived, they looked around at the other customers and asked a question, which I eventually figured out was 'El ultimo?', or 'Who's last?' Brilliant.
The Royal Palace was supremely sumptuous, dripping with chandeliers, tapestries and frescoes. The mammoth complex has 2,800 rooms. Yes, 2,800. Only 20 or 30 are open to the public, and we were corralled along a tightly controlled route by velvet ropes. The amount of gold and silver we saw even in those rooms was already over the top; I could only imagine the value of the full treasury.
I couldn't help thinking back to my visit to Cusco, Peru years ago, where the temple of Coricancha -- 'Golden Courtyard' -- was bereft of its namesake gold. It originally had walls covered with sheets of gold and a garden full of golden sculptures, but the conquistadors claimed it all and hauled it to Spain for the monarchs.
Other highlights from our whirlwind two days in the city:
A mindblowing collection of modern, cubist and surrealist art by Goya, Picasso, Dali, Miro and more at the Reina Sofia gallery. And that was only one of the four floors.
Our best and cheapest breakfast: coffee and pastries consumed efficiently up at the bar for a couple of euros, the way locals do it.
Being stalked by the costumed cartoon characters who attempt to get tourists to pay for photos with them in the Puerto del Sol. Creepy hilarious.
A fixed price lunch at a shaded sidewalk table with huge delicious portions, finished off with complimentary chocolate cups of Madroño liqueur.
Corny flamenco costumes times two. First on an all-too-willing British bachelor party tourist in Plaza Santa Ana, and later for an irresistible tourist gimmick photo in Plaza Mayor where a photographer posed us behind mannequins.
Watching life pass by from the tiny balcony of our newly renovated and well-located hostal.
Seville's Cathedral and Real Alcazar
Further south in Seville, there was another unreal treasury of gold at the Cathedral. The entire floor to ceiling altarpiece behind the "high altar" was carved from hardwood and completely covered in gleaming gold leaf. And the Cathedral itself was ridiculously large, being the world's biggest Gothic church.
The other famous 'treasure' we saw at the Cathedral was the alleged tomb of Christopher Columbus. The claim has been debated, but our local guide said that recent DNA testing concluded the tomb does include a small percentage of the explorer's remains, along with those of his brother.
Our tour also included the Alcazar, a Moorish palace rebuilt in the 14th century on the foundations of the original 10th century complex. The rebuild was for a Christian king, so the rare combination of styles is called 'Mujedar.' It had similarities to the Alhambra in Granada, with artisanal Islamic tiles, ornately carved wood, cool courtyards that once held reflecting pools, and expansive gardens with fountains. Overall much more subdued than the gilded palace in Madrid, but just as regal.
My favourite part of Seville (besides the flamenco) was getting a bit lost in the narrow streets and alleys of the Barrio Santa Cruz around our hostal. I could have spent a few more days doing just that. For real.