Beautiful game, beautiful life: Camp Nou, Barcelona

Big thanks to the man about the house for dragging me to Camp Nou, headquarters of Barcelona Football Club, to see his club in action. My story on the passion and the fashion of the beautiful game was published in the Sydney Morning Herald this weekend. (For the record, I did get him to visit Sagrada Familia.)

campnou
Action at Barcelona’s Camp Nou. Photo: Belinda Jackson

Forget Michelin stars, and Gaudi who? There’s only one reason to visit Barcelona.

The message is clear. “I only want to go to Barcelona to see Barcelona Football Club play,” says the husband, shelving any ideals of visiting Sagrada Familia or eating at world-famous restaurants.

We’re staying at one of the best addresses in town – the new suites in the Mandarin Oriental Barcelona – and the entrance is a dramatic catwalk up from street level. The lobby is sleek and hushed, the staff as polished as only five-star staff can be. Yet in Barcelona, football transcends gender and poshness.

In Barcelona, football certainly appeals to shoppers: the city’s new-town grids and old-city lanes conspire to walk me into one of dozens of official FC Barcelona boutiques selling balls and caps, water bottles and pencil cases. A genuine FC Barcelona shirt will set you back €80 ($124), even though it’s a sweaty 100 per cent nylon and manufactured in Vietnam or Bangladesh.

 

To read more about kicking off in Barcelona, click here.

This story was published in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper’s Traveller section.

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Beautiful game, beautiful life: Camp Nou, Barcelona

Action at Barcelona’s Camp Nou.
Photo: Belinda Jackson

Big thanks to the man about the house for dragging me to Camp Nou, headquarters of Barcelona Football Club, to see his club in action. My story on the passion and the fashion of the beautiful game was published in the Sydney Morning Herald this weekend. (For the record, I did get him to visit Sagrada Familia.)

Forget Michelin stars, and Gaudi who? There’s only one reason to visit Barcelona.

The message is clear. “I only want to go to Barcelona to see
Barcelona Football Club play,” says the husband, shelving any ideals of
visiting Sagrada Familia or eating at world-famous restaurants.

We’re
staying at one of the best addresses in town – the new suites in the
Mandarin Oriental Barcelona – and the entrance is a dramatic catwalk up
from street level. The lobby is sleek and hushed, the staff as polished
as only five-star staff can be. Yet in Barcelona, football transcends
gender and poshness.

In Barcelona, football certainly appeals to shoppers: the city’s
new-town grids and old-city lanes conspire to walk me into one of dozens
of official FC Barcelona boutiques selling balls and caps, water
bottles and pencil cases. A genuine FC Barcelona shirt will set you back
€80 ($124), even though it’s a sweaty 100 per cent nylon and
manufactured in Vietnam or Bangladesh. 

Freedom of expression! Catelan activists at Camp Nou.
Photo: Belinda Jackson

To read more about kicking off in Barcelona, click here.

This story was published in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper’s Traveller section.

Would you visit Egypt now?

Adrere Amellal ecolodge, Siwa.

Two weeks ago, I started writing a post about the idea of visiting Egypt once again. It was time: tour prices have halved, even from the most prestigious travel companies. The Lower Nile has finally been reopened so that a visitor can sail the entire length of the Egyptian Nile, from Cairo to Abu Simbel. And the crowds that plagued the Pyramids, Luxor and all Egypt’s treasures, have stayed away in droves.

The blog was driven by a recent letter to the editor in the Sydney Morning Herald, in which the writer, recently returned from Egypt said, “I had a great and safe time. I have been there before and this time stayed mainly in Cairo, at the Sara Inn, and was saddened by the empty markets and other tourist areas. The Egyptians are, mostly, very friendly and welcoming and need the tourists to survive.”

Bab al-Futuh, Cairo

A few minutes later, my inbox was hit with a recent survey by the Hilton group, which found that 43% of Australians in the survey said they wanted to visit the Pyramids.

So it’s heartbreaking to see, in the space of a week or two, how the climate has changed, with the anger fuelled by the second anniversary of the overthrow of the Mubarak regime, to the riots in Suez over the death of 73 fans at a football match, which saw a judge sentence 21 people to death over their role in the catastrophe.

Fashion comes and goes: why, Syria was tipped the Lonely Planet’s hottest country just six months before it descended into its current, horrific civil war. And now Sri Lanka, still scarred with its own civil war, is 2013’s poster child for world tourism.

I know it is hard for Egyptians to live through these times: it’s hard to watch from the outside. But such a beautiful country, in such a politically strategic location with possibly the world’s greatest tourism riches, will rise again. We just have to hope, for the people’s sake, that it’s soon. 

Twenty reasons to visit Fiji

From white-water rafting to spa treatments, these are the top 20 reasons to visit Fiji.

Castaway Island Resort in the Mamanuca Islands.
Castaway Island Resort in the Mamanuca Islands.

From white-water rafting to spa treatments, these are the top 20 reasons to visit Fiji.

1 Diving

The Great Astrolabe Reef is the world’s fourth-largest
barrier reef and curls around the sparsely populated southern island of
Kadavu. Snorkellers can cruise the reef’s coral gardens and divers can
swim with eagle and manta rays, turtles and wrasse and ogle the reef’s
drop-offs. Stay at the simple thatch bures of Matava dive resort (matava.com).
Astrolabe’s rival for the title of best diving, the Great Sea Reef, is
known locally as Cakaulevu. Off the northern island of Vanua Levu, the
reef was little explored before 2004 and is home to green turtles and
spinner dolphins. The closest resort is Nukubati. nukubati.com.

2 Sigatoka river and cave safaris

It’s a jet-boat safari, yet it’s also a great cultural
adventure. Take a 15-kilometre journey up the rich, green Sigatoka
Valley to visit one of 15 Fijian villages to learn of local customs and
legends on the Sigatoka River safari. There’s a kava ceremony at the
village chief’s bure, followed by lunch and traditional singing and
dancing. Costs from $140.80 adults, $69 children. The newest tour from
the same gang is the Off-Road Cave safari, which visits Fiji’s largest
cave system, Naihehe Cave, once the home of a cannibal tribe. Costs from
$131 for adults, $60 for children. Both tours depart from Sigatoka, 70
kilometres south of Nadi on the Coral Coast, and pick up from Nadi or
Coral Coast resorts, twice daily, Monday to Saturday. sigatokariver.com.

3 Mei-meis (Fijian nannies)

Cultural show ... Fijian fire-walking.
Cultural show … Fijian fire-walking.
Photo: Alamy

Fijians are renowned for their love of kids and every
hotel caters for them (save a handful of exclusive, adults-only
retreats) without busting your budget. Top kid-friendly hotels include
Outrigger on the Lagoon, which has 30 mei-meis (nannies), great for
families with babies, while Holidays with Kids magazine’s latest survey
found the top three family-friendly resorts are Shangri-La’s Fijian
Resort & Spa, Yanuca Island, the Naviti Resort, Coral Coast and
Plantation Island. shangri-la.com; warwicknaviti.com; plantationisland.com.

4 Fire-walking

Who knew that there are two types of fire-walking in
Fiji, not the commonly known one? There’s the indigenous Fijian
tradition of walking over hot stones and the Hindu purification ritual
of walking on ashes and charcoal. Fijian fire-walking can be seen during
cultural shows at many resorts across the country or at the Arts
Village in Suva, and Suva’s Mariamma Temple holds a South Indian ritual,
Trenial, featuring fire-walking, in July or August each year.

5 South sea pearls

At the top of your Fiji souvenir list should be South Sea
pearls, which come in a rainbow of colours from soft creams to
pearlescent greys. You’ll find earrings and necklaces at the big
souvenir shops such as Tappoo (tappoo.com.fj) or Jacks (jacksfiji.com)
but also from the lady sellers at most resorts. There’s also a daily
craft market in the centre of Nadi and Suva’s craft market runs every
day except Sundays. If you’re in Savusavu, be sure to visit the black
pearl farm J. Hunter Pearls for farm tours and shopping. pearlsfiji.com.

6 Tribal belonging

Maybe you never felt you belonged: maybe you belong in a
Fijian tribe in a cross-cultural social experiment. Spend a week or more
on Vorovoro island with the people of this remote community, helping
with sustainable community tourism projects that aim to bring positive
change. tribewanted.com.

7 Tropical spas

The award-winning Bebe Spa Sanctuary at the Outrigger on
the Lagoon is built high on a hilltop and looks over the main island’s
Coral Coast. The spa treatments use Pevonia and Pure Fiji spa products
and Bebe’s warm seashell massage is worth the journey south ($126/hour).
The founder of Pure Fiji, Daniel Anania, lists among his favourite spas
Spa Denarau at Denarau Marina, Harmony Spa at the Radisson Blu Hotel
and the InterContinental Fiji Golf Resort and Spa as well as Bebe Spa. bebespafiji.com; radissonblu.com/resort-fiji; intercontinental.com.

8 Pure Fiji

Fiji’s own spa brand, Pure Fiji, puts into a jar all the
reasons we love to visit Fiji – papaya, coconut milk, pineapple and
kaffir lime – the scents of a tropical paradise. Bestsellers are the
coconut hydrating lotion and coconut sugar rub: the orange
blossom-scented rub is a winner. Find the products at the Pure Fiji spa
in Suva or at the airport on the way home. If you happen to be in Suva
on a Saturday, you can buy the products discounted at their factory
outlet. purefiji.com.

9 Rugby

Rugby is Fiji’s third religion and the locals are
obsessed. Almost every village has a team. Teams from the outer islands
compete in the Island Zone Championship in Suva every August, while the
beloved Farebrother-Sullivan challenge pits provincial teams against
each other from September 1 to October 13. Fijians go crazy supporting
their own province.

10 Blue lagoon

Children of the ’80s, remember when Brooke Shields rose
out of the crystalline waters in the 1980 shipwreck movie Blue Lagoon?
It was filmed on Turtle Island, in the Yasawas, a string of islands
north of the Mamanucas in western Fiji. Widely regarded as having the
best beaches in Fiji, they’re connected by inter-island flights, fast
catamaran and multi-day, languid Blue Lagoon cruises. Yasawa and Turtle
islands are home to two of Fiji’s top resorts, with a high
beach-per-guest ratio. bluelagooncruises.com; yasawa.com; turtlefiji.com.

11 Tropical golf courses

There’s nothing more delightful than dropping a
hole-in-one on a beautifully landscaped, tropical green. Fiji offers a
few green gems, including the home of the Fiji Open, the Natadola golf
course, designed by famed Fijian golfer Vijay Singh, Denarau Golf and
Racquet Club, and Pacific Harbour’s tough Pearl Champion course,
designed by Robert Trent Jones jnr, which has held eighth ranking
worldwide in the past. natadolabay.com; denaraugolf.fiji-golf.net; thepearlsouthpacific.com.

12 Kokoda

Fiji has two main cuisines – indigenous Fijian and Fijian
Indian. Fijian Indian is heavy on the rice, spice and chilli, and
indigenous Fijian features plenty of seafood and is easy on the spice.
Kokoda is the Fijian take on cerviche, a divine dish of local fish
marinated in lemon juice and coconut milk. Time your visit to include
lovo night in the hotels, where food is cooked in an underground oven.
Otherwise, try Indigo, at Port Denarau, which serves Indian fusion as
well as indigenous Fijian, or Sky Top, on the rooftop of Ohana
restaurant (Queens Rd, Martintar). If you’re self-catering, get down to
the morning produce markets, held in all the main towns, including Nadi,
Suvasuva and Suva, or just stop along the roadside to buy freshly
caught prawns, mud crabs or fish. Also, pineapple, papaya and mangoes
are plentiful when in season.

13 The Mamanucas

Castaway, Treasure, Beachcomber and Bounty islands: the
Mamanuca Islands are total showponies (literally: the Tom Hanks movie
Cast Away was filmed on Modriki). This handful of islands is beloved of
day trippers with good reason: the diving, snorkelling and surfing are
world class and busy Beachcomber has the reputation of Fiji’s top party
island. Lying west of Nadi, the islands are easily reached by boat from
Denarau Marina; South Sea Cruises does most of the day trips. ssc.com.fj.

14 Kula Eco Park

Get up close and personal with Fiji’s rare and endangered
animals in this environmental haven near Sigatoka, on the Coral Coast.
It’s a great stop for kids, with fruit bats, iguanas, an array of
rainbow-coloured parrots including the flashy Kadavu red-breasted musk
parrot, and the fluffy orange dove. It’s
also a pram-friendly set-up. fijiwild.com.

15 Glamour digs

Make no mistake: while Fiji loves its reputation as a
family getaway, its 333 islands hide deeply glamorous resorts sought out
by the international jet set. Mel Gibson owns an island in the Lau
group, and TV bachelorettes hang out at Anthony Robbins’s luxury Namale
Island. Dolphin Island was the private island of the owner of New
Zealand’s top lodge, Huka Lodge, but has been opened to guests – it can
be home to just four couples or one lucky family – and the new,
adults-only Tadrai Island Resort, which is just a chopper ride from Nadi
in the Mamanucas, has just five villas with their own plunge pools and
butler service. namaleresort.com; dolphinislandfiji.com; tadrai.com.

16 Sigatoka Dunes

When the sun is shining, why stay inside? The prehistoric
sites excavated at Sigatoka Sand Dunes give a glimpse into Fijian
history without having to trek through a museum, and you get to stretch
your legs, too. Archaeological digs are still turning up stone tools and
the area is one of the largest burial sites in the Pacific. You may
even catch sight of Fiji’s national rugby team, which trains down here.

17 Real ecotourism

Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort, on the northern island of
Vanua Levu, is home to Johnny Singh, Fiji’s first marine biologist.
Cousteau, an explorer and oceanographer, set his small resort away from
the bustle of the main island and it has won several awards for its
ecotourism projects. The family-friendly five-star resort has set the
benchmark for other Fijian resorts to follow, featuring organic gardens,
rainwater harvesting and edible landscaping without compromising on
comfort. fijiresort.com.

18 Island-hopping

In Fiji, “day tripping” doesn’t mean hours in a car, it
means lying on the deck of a yacht, smelling the sea breeze, seafood
banquets and snorkelling stops. Charter a private yacht and choose your
course or join a cruise to, say, Tivua Island on the tall ship Ra Marama
and spend the day snorkelling, glass-bottom boating, kayaking or
chilling on the beach in Fiji style. fijisafari.com; captaincook.com.fj.

19 World-class surfing

Most surfers head for the Mamanuca islands to hit the
waves – the permanent six-metre wave Cloudbreak, off the coast of
Tavarua, is a Fijian legend, and reigning world champion Kelly Slater
describes nearby Restaurants as “one of the most perfect waves that I
have ever surfed”. Taravua will host the Volcom Fiji Pro, featuring the
top pro surfers, from June 3 to 15. Off the south coast of the main
island, you’ll find little Beqa Island is home to the challenging
left-handed reef break Frigates, and Sigatoka Beach’s Sand Dunes stand
out on the Coral Coast.

20 White-water rafting

Fiji’s lagoons are brilliant for sea kayaking and the
waterways through its mangroves let you explore these mysterious
ecosystems. The local guides of Rivers Fiji take groups river-rafting
through the forests and past highland villages on the main island and
sea kayaking out to Benq Island, renowned for its fire-walkers and
surfing. riversfiji.com.

Source: Sun Herald newspaper

World Cup fever diluted to a sniffle in Oz…

Some may thing we Aussies don’t do football. Maybe because sports commentators continue to refer to it as ‘the round-ball game’, not to get mixed up with rugby and Australia’s own Aussie Rules, both played with the pointy-end ball.

But there are those who are putting in the hard yards during the World Cup, no matter that matches are broadcast at either 9.30pm, midnight, or 4.30am.

A few pubs around the inner city are open all night and offering free coffee to viewers (“to keep you awake in case you miss an Aussie goal!” hahaha) and even on the too-cool-to-wear-anything-but-black Smith St, there were signs out the front of cafes supporting the Socceroos. Now you’d NEVER see that for a rugby or cricket team…

I’ve gone back to an old friend, the Guardian, which does a live text commentary on its website. It’s compared by a journalist and anyone who feels like it drops a line in that may or may not be included. I like this comment from the other night’s Argentina v South Korea match:

41 min: Messi wins the ball deep in his own half and skitters all the way down the left wing before feeding Tevez. The perfect counter-attack is foiled, however, when Tevez tries to take on a defender too many, rather than pass right to the unmarked Higuain. “German TV have just trotted out a stat that the Korean players are on average ten centimetres shorter than their opponents,” blabs Iain Copestake. “However, they have failed to mention the drag coefficients cause by Argentina having far more hair.”

My other fave comment comes at the point of a goal against South Korea.

GOAL! Argentina 2-0 South Korea (Higuain 32′) Tevez deserves high praise here. He pursued two Koreans into the corner and then robbed them. They responded by kicking him to the ground and conceding a freekick.

Don’t worry, I’m not turning into a football freak, though it was funny to see Argentina’s coach, Diego Maradona, parading around like a midget opera singer. You know how it is – not a gambler on the horses except for the Melbourne Cup, never watch athletics except in the Olympics and Commonwealth Games…why break with tradition?

Football: the drug of the nation?

It’s been days now. Days since Egypt was defeated by Algeria in its last chance to play in the 2010 World Cup. But Egypt’s not letting go.

Even though Ireland is calling for a rematch from a goal handballed in by a French player who admitted his deed, and the whole European soccer scene is plagued by allegations of widespread match-fixing and subsequent healthy but unusual betting wins, Egypt is still shaking its fist at its North African rivals.

Even I am getting hate Skypes because I’m in Cairo, with someone skyping me and my mother bad names. After giving me a serve in Arabic because I rejected the call, he beat me to the ‘block’ button, spraying venom by text then declaring “iam algerien”. How rude! How badly spelt!

The football channels are full of news of Algerian youths rioting in Marseilles, of stories (quickly disproven) of 11 Algerian deaths in Egypt, of reports of Egypt fans threatened in Sudan, where the game was held. Footage of Algerian fans waving knives (so much for the 15,000 Sudanese riot police) as they chanted in the stadium are flooding the net, and on Friday, what started as a peaceful protest outside the Algerian embassy in leafy (well, as leafy as you’ll get in Egypt) Zamalek ended in yet another riot.

“They are not our Arab brothers,” say my football friends. “We have ended diplomatic ties with them.”

It might come as a surprise to some of you that there are some people in Egypt who are not into football. “At least we’ll talk about something else,” one said to me. Yeah, like bread prices. As my lovely Arabic teacher pointed out, Egypt is full of families who can’t afford their daily bread, which has doubled in the past year to what equate as 12 cents for a plain round of aish balady (brown bread – the processed white is, of course, more expensive again). Instead, they’re reliant on the government bread, at half the price and, apparently, half as palatable.

It’s true football is a drug. I would have said before yesterday, that it is a drug that’s cheaper and healthier than, say, Egypt’s rough and nasty budget drug of choice, bango, which is famously trafficked from the Sinai. But if the alternative is the severance of diplomatic ties with a North African neighbour and fellow Arab country, makes you start thinking otherwise, doesn’t it?

(ps: apologies to The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy for bastardising the title)

Tension in the hours before Algeria-Egypt match

Palpable. That’s the word of the day. The final qualifier between Algeria and Egypt is being played at 7.30pm local time today, in Sudan. Because it’s not in the Cairo stadium, like Wednesday’s match, when Egypt managed to stave off defeat to go to a rematch, there’s less traffic clogging the streets as we saw when fans poured into the stadium early. Instead, last night, in the dead of night, we spotted buses packed with fans heading down to Sudan.

Word is the Sudanese have waived the usual visa restrictions for Egyptian fans. I heard that tickets cost LE500 (about A$100) but the black market snapped them up and spat them out again for LE2500 (A$500).

TV shows happy Sudanese people rooting for Egypt…but then again, that WAS Egyptian TV. The news wires report that Sudan is “overwhelmingly supportive” of Algeria.

The sport shows have been full of claims and counterclaims of violence: the Algerian team was allegedly attacked in their bus in the airport on arrival into Cairo on Wednesday, and three players appeared on the pitch sporting head bandages. But the driver of the bus said it was all nonsense, that there were a few people managing to sling some mud at the bus, but the team themselves smashed the windows to paint Egypt in a bad light.

Also for a few brief minutes were reports in the Algerian online press of 11 people killed at Cairo stadium at the Wednesday match. The stories were quickly whipped down, but not before they’d travelled the world. Egypt is full of righteous indignation. They know they could lose the chance to attend the 2010 World Cup if FIFA decides they can’t control their fanatical fans.

So it’s four hours to kick-off and the drums are ready…