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Italy, March 2006

Prologue - Georgia on my mind

With my new job in September last year coming with a severe decrease in holiday, taking week long excursions for each away game is now a thing of the past. And with no less than five away trips in 2007 (plus the remaining outside possibility of a friendly in November when everyone else in our group is finishing their fixtures), something really was going to have to give. In this instance, it was the trips to Italy, the Faroes and France – all places I’ve been before and am not that struck on - thus leaving the best part of a week for exploring Georgia. This doesn’t mean that I’m eschewing the other trips in their entirety; instead I’m limiting myself to two days off (the Wednesday and the Thursday) in each case.

With that decided, the problem with Italy remained the uncertainty over the venue. Whilst Rome and Milan offer a multitude of transport connections, and even Florence or Naples are within striking distance of several airports, rumours had been circulating for some time that the game was likely to be played in Bari, an outpost way down at Italy’s heel. The Italian FA were their usual considerate selves, and duly named Bari as the venue with just days to spare before FIFA’s 60-day deadline. Less than a month later, all of this was again thrown into doubt following the serious rioting in Sicily, however after a week of scare-mongering rumours, it was confirmed Bari’s ground would have the necessary improvements in place come kick-off.

In order to manage the trip with just the two days off, we opted to fly via Cologne from Gatwick with EasyJet on the Tuesday night, flying on to Bari with Hapag Lloyd Express on the Wednesday lunchtime. Our return to Cologne was 25 hours after landing, however taking into account transfer and airport time, we were due to spend less than 20 hours in downtown Bari. With some rare foresight, and after undertaking some serious research into hotel room availability in most of the possible venues, we’d actually booked a (cancellable) room in Bari through Expedia a month before the fixture was confirmed!

Only... 24 hours in Bari...

After a sensible night in Cologne (just the two pubs – Malzmuhle brewpub and the Biermuseum), we were up bright and breezy and off to the airport. HLX allowed web check-in in advance the day before, so it was straight through security and into the lounge for a couple of drinks. A few texts to Bari brought back mixed messages around the touted alcohol ban (in keeping with how the ban panned out), so we opted to airlift in supplies, with a couple of bottles of red wine and a box set of German fruit schnapps making the cut.

A number of other Scots were on the plane across, and we landed in Bari in good time and with no passport checks to slow us down (Italy and Germany both being within the Schengen Zone). After some initial confusion over transport into town, we settled for a taxi with a decent price (after bartering) and made our way into the Hotel Victor in downtown Bari. After checking in at the same time as a job lot of Passport Travellers, and surrendering our passports for registration, we dumped the bags, grabbed the carry out and met up with Ally, Susan, Bruce and Sharon in reception before heading out in search of food and whatever booze was to be had.

Despite Italy’s famous restaurant culture coming to a grinding halt between 3pm and 6pm, we did find a small café prepared to sell us all of the remaining pizza and even a beer to wash it down with, although he did become very jumpy about the beer as soon as the pizza had been finished! By now, Rich, James and Lynne had arrived on the scene, and it was at this juncture that I realised the passports that had been handed back to me by the hotel receptionist were no longer with me, and after a mad dash back to the hotel, I found them sitting on the side table where I had paused to pick up a map! Everyone else found this hilarious, as being known for my less than enthusiastic outlook on all things Italian, the thought of being stranded was pure anathema to me and pure entertainment to everyone else.

Kicked back out onto the street after finishing the pizza, we opted to blitz the carry out in the park. The sun was shining, the shade was pleasant and the fruit schnapps were like petrol – all in all, an ambience that prompted Bruce to remark we should all chuck in work and do it every day! I’d managed to score some tickets for the Italian transfer to the ground from in front of the railway station, and carry out suitably dented, we headed off early doors, pausing only to have some of the worst pizza in Italy at a fast food place opposite McDonalds.

The bus to the ground was friendly enough, with a fair mixture of home and away fans, although the walk around the ground took a lot longer than planned, due to being stopped by so many locals for photos. The dregs of the carry out were finished outside the perimeter, and after yet more photos (Rich posing rock-star like in front of hundreds of screaming schoolgirls!), we were past the supposedly formidable security without so much as a ticket check! After the alcohol ban in the town, we were a little baffled at the beer for sale inside the ground, although at €4 for a 330ml can, it may have been an attempt at Scandinavian style aversion therapy!

Having arrived in such good time to avoid any security queues, we found ourselves with the pick of the seats, and opted for the front row next to the stairs, allowing a good view of the ground as it filled up. Being next to the stairs meant a handy escape route to the gents when needed (although one or two more inebriated footsoldiers were relieving themselves at the back of the lower section), but what a smell!? I swear you could chew on the stench in the subterranean toilets!

The game itself went to form, and was surprisingly similar to the one two years previously in Milan. We lost 2-0. We had a handful of chances. One-nil would have been fairer, yet the second seemed a goal too far. After a late trip to the toilet, I watched the last 10 minutes from the near-empty lower tier in the company of Tam McGhee. Unfortunately this was to result in a spot of confusion when it came to meeting up later (despite me believing I’d given clear directions to a fellow toilet tripper!). Nonetheless, we eventually rendezvoused with the help of some shaky mobile phone connections and eventually made it back into town on the last bus making the journey.

Bruce and Ally were adamant that a visit to the Paulaner Bar was called for, and with it being right around the corner from the hotel it sounded an ideal shout. Yet more pizza was procured, and with one of the most beautiful barmaids in the world, it wasn’t a bad shout at all! Of course, by now the red wine (my own personal kryptonite) was taking the toll, so with some of beer remaining I beat a retreat back to the hotel.

The next morning we were up and on the bus to the airport for our 3pm flight. We were lucky to get some of the last seats, and the emergency exit stairs were soon commandeered as a luggage rack by the other Scots on board. The airport itself was like a tartan refugee camp, with several Passport charters lining up to check in, although it did prove very sociable, with Big Jim, Tam McGhee, James and Lynne and the entire Prestwick Tartan Army all in attendance. Thankfully, our HLX tickets gave us priority security, much to the chagrin of the queuing masses, but once airside, the queue for the café (also the only source of bottled water) was around 50 deep! Thankfully, a spot of quick thinking allowed me through passport control to the much quieter section, where I could buy a couple of bottles and then simply stroll back through the passport booths!

The flight back to Cologne passed quickly, with us sat right next to Tam Ritchie, with Donny Stevenson and Stevie Imlach in the rows immediately behind us, and whilst Donny, Stevie and friends headed into Cologne for several more days of debauchery, and Tam headed back to Manchester, Helen and I settled down with a few Kolsch beers ahead of our late flight back to Gatwick.

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The midwinter announcement of the end of season trip to Vienna was greeted with glee at NATA HQ: ever since passing through en route to Mattersburg in 2005, Helen and I have been keen to return to what must be one of Europe’s most diverse and intriguing capitals. A quick check of the Fortuna Düsseldorf fixture list revealed we could top and tail 5 nights in Vienna with a weekend in Hamburg for the Holstein Kiel game rounded off with a weekend in Düsseldorf for the last game of the season AND the annual Japanese fireworks display.

After meeting up with our German pal Achim on the train through to Kiel, and then bizarrely bumping into a Kiel journo mate of Iain Gillan’s at Kiel’s stadium, we watched Fortuna stumble to yet another away defeat before softening the pain with a few beers back in Hamburg ahead of our flight the next afternoon to Vienna.

After touching down in Vienna in the early evening, we agreed a rendezvous with Ally and Susan in the Siebenstern Brewpub near Mariahilferstrasse. After a couple of beers there, and a few doors down the street, we headed our separate ways with a plan to meet at the Hundertwasserhaus on the Monday before heading out to one of Vienna’s famous wine suburbs.

Monday - Wein in Wien

The Hundertwasserhaus is one of those weird examples of Austrian eccentricity, where surreal modern far-out architecture is plonked down next to day-to-day buildings (see: Loos Haus in central Vienna, the municipal incinerator, Graz’s Kunsthaus and even Innsbruck’s Goldener Dachl). The building’s weird curves and gaudy colours were a big appeal to me, possibly to the bemusement of Ally, Susan and Helen, and when it came to the “Toilets of Modern Art” in the shopping arcade over the way, I was in raptures!

After eventually tearing myself away, I led the charge to Prater’s Schweizerhaus pub for schnitzels and Budvar beer. There then followed a debate as to where to head next, following texts from Craig and Reeky advising that a base camp had been established in Flanagans to watch the English Championship play-off final. We decided to stick with Plan A, and made our way by train and tram to the remote suburb of Stammersdorf for some of the local wine.

Vienna has more vineyards within it’s boundaries than any other capital city in the world, and the local produce is drunk with abandon in small, family-run taverns called Heuriger, usually clustered near the vineyards in certain suburbs. Whilst Grinzing is the best known, and is a favourite with bus trips, Stammersdorf is more one for the locals, hence the general bewilderment that met our kilted excursion. After sheltering from a monsoon downpour in the first heurigen we came to, we made short work of a litre of wine (with a matching litre of sparkling water – this local wine is pretty rough stuff!) for the princely sum of 10 euros (for the lot!). By the time our wine tavern crawl had come to an end, 4 hours, one lot of Austrian tapas, several heurigen and lots of wine later, the total impact on the kitty was less than 55 euros, or put another way, around £10 a head!

The night was still young (in a relative sense, anyway…), so we headed south towards the Salm Brauhaus where Craig, Kevin and Robert the Rapid fan awaited. Kevin was already quite tired and emotional, and excused himself shortly after our arrival, however Craig led us on a circuitous route to Flanagans, where Reeky was still holding court at the bar with a few other well kent faces, including a Heb Bar deputation, Ron and Wullie and the rest of the Sporran Legion.

Tuesday - shirtless in Shebeen

Tuesday began with the tinge of a hangover, however Helen and I blew away the cobwebs with the double whammy of some Kozel in the Czech pub opposite the hotel and beer and burgers in the excellent Wiedenbrau brewpub around the corner.

We’d agreed to carry on the wine theme with Ally and Susan by using our Vienna Card vouchers in the Eulenest Wine Bar, however our plan for a mid-afternoon start was scuppered by the late return of the patrons from holiday. Helen duly translated the sign as a delayed opening, so we adjourned to the nearby iconic Loos Bar (or the “American Bar”, to bestow its rightful title upon it) for cocktails before heading back for the wine session.

After a cultured hour and half tasting top-notch Austrian victuals, we decamped to the ATAC Fans Embassy around the corner in the palatial Marriott Hotel’s sports bar. At some point Bruce, Chris Norton and Vic joined the fray, and we all piled into taxis for food at Siebensternbrau. Eating was essential in order to fortify ourselves for the TA party at Shebeen, hosted by some up and coming Glasgow DJ whose name escapes me…

The “ten minutes around the corner” turned out to be a lot further (but only half as far as it was on the way back at 4am…), but when we arrived at Shebeen it was nigh impossible to get in. Ally and Susan managed to find some breathing space, possibly the same space vacated by James and Lynne who joined us in finding a small café around the corner for a quieter beer before pitching back into the lunacy. This brief sojourn was only memorable for a stern barmaid admonishing a singing Norton with the rebuke: “Quiet! You are not Majorca now!”

Meanwhile, back at Shebeen, the wheat was being sorted from the chaff, and our second attempt saw us safely ensconced downstairs. Norton was whisked away beerless by a concerned Vic, leaving the rest of us to throw ourselves wholeheartedly (and shirtlessly) into the evening. The litany of shame veered from excessive nudity to extreme minesweeping, and the nagging guilt lasted well into the next day…

Wednesday - Beisls with Bert

… which began in Wiedenbrau, around 2pm. In the rapid social whirl of the night before, arrangements had hastily been made with Bert to meet up ahead of the game. As an ex-Vienna resident, Bert’s expertise with the local transport scheme (not to mention his eagerness to impress the discerning members of NATA…) meant he was the first in the pub by a good 30 minutes, followed by Paul and Helen, Ally and Susan, and finally James and Lynne.

After more beer-and-burger action and a halfway beer at the Czech pub on the way to the U-bahn station, we hit Hütteldorf on the early side. Eschewing the bar in the station due to the unwelcoming stares from the local boneheads, we chanced on the same Beisl (trans: local bar, as in the German “Kneipe”) that Craig and Kevin were due to meet Robert and Wolfie in. We settled in the garden, although I was treated to a beer by Wolfie whilst talking Kevin in from the railway station opposite.

Bruce joined us after a while, having slept away most of the day, and after some bizarre exchanges with some Rangers-shirted locals on the way out of the pub, it was off around the corner to the turnstiles. Helen and I had to pick our tickets up from the SFA kiosk (due to our extended route out to Vienna), but soon enough we were in the ground and “enjoying” an alcohol free beer (I would have had diet coke, but it was full sugar or nothing… which may have helped as it transpired!).

As the game to-ed and fro-ed, the Rapid Vienna fans behind the goal provided most of the entertainment with a changing selection of political banners baiting the Austrian FA and their ex-player Ivanschitz. Garry O’Connor stole the show with a well-taken winner early in the second-half, however I don’t remember too much due to taking a bit of a funny turn through lack of sugar!

Back in town the plan was to head to Flanagans via the 1516 brewpub over the road. Despite somehow shoe-horning the group into a table and getting hold of some of their great beer, I was still suffering from what I now know to have been a diabetic hypo, and had to beat an early retreat.

Thursday and beyond - Fortuna and Fireworks

After a late checkout, following a night of cold sweats, hallucinations and a morning altercation with a spider hiding in our suitcase, we caught the airport train with Tam McGhee, Tartan Taunton, Coullzer and pals. Our Air Berlin flight to Düsseldorf was on time and allowed us to enjoy the rarity of a free beer and a schnapps in our favourite brauereiausschank (as we’d told the waiters it would be a few months before we were back).

Friday was spent with a day in Wuppertal at the zoo (and the brewpub!), and Saturday saw us watch Fortuna tonk Borussia Monchengladbach reserves 4-1, although I did miss two of our goals due to the beer queue! We met up with Achim in the clubhouse after the game, a surreal evening of beer gifted by an ex-player, blagged corporate hospitality, being mooned at in Auberge and watching the Japanese fireworks from the riverbank followed, ahead of our flight home from Cologne on the Sunday evening.

One of the best things about German third division football? The close season only lasts from early June to late July!

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Faroe Islands

When the draw for the Euro 2008 Qualifiers was made, there were more than a few groans that the Faroes had come out of the hat. Never mind the fact that in three previous visits to the islands, we’d only won once, for many of the long-standing travellers, they’d had enough of the place (this was the fourth consecutive Euro campaign we’d drawn the Faroes)! Granted, Helen and I had only been the once – for the 2-2 draw in the first game of Berti’s regime – but seeing as I was off the drink on medical advice for that trip, it’s fair to say I’d seen the islands in the cold light of day and knew that they didn’t offer much in the way of either activity-based or alcoholic diversions. As a result, we were more than grateful to Chairman Jim for tipping us off about the WESTA charter flight day trip, and so got our feet in the door at the earliest opportunity.

After flying up to Glasgow after work on the Tuesday evening, we checked into the Holiday Inn over the road from the airport for what seemed like 20 minutes sleep. Up at the crack of dawn and onto the back of the already sizeable queue (well, there were only 30-odd people on the flight, and they were pretty odd…), only for me to be called up first as the hand-written boarding cards were being issued alphabetically (Helen was still travelling under her maiden name at this stage, so had to wait for the “B” group!).

With a couple of charters, plus the inevitable holiday flights, all taking off around 7am, security was moderately busy, as was the Duty Free shop (where quite a few small bottles of red wine, complete with plastic glass/lid combo) were procured for the day ahead. The flight was a little late in being called, and when it was, it was via bus all the way to the far end of the airport where our “executive prop plane” awaited. And very nice it was too, with leatherette seats in a cosy 1-2 configuration and a very friendly Aberdonian stewardess.

With Bruce in the single seat going into raptures at the views of coastal Scotland, and James and Lynne sleeping in the seat behind, we got torn into the complimentary wine (after the stewardess decided we were civilised enough to warrant cracking open the bar trolley!) as Bruce supped a beer and snapped away out of the window.

The landing at Vagar International Airport was less dramatic than I remember from 2002 (although that was in a larger Atlantic Airways plane, so we may well have been clipping the Fjord walls that time!), and despite causing the border guard confusion by asking for a passport stamp, customs was a breeze and our bus awaited. After a team photo in front of the bus, it was onboard and en route to downtown Torshavn, to a chorus of “Ole, ole, ole!” in honour of the bemused driver Olly.

Jen and Jim had arranged with Florentz, the ex-manager of the famous Café Natur (the only true “pub” on the islands) to open her new Café Galleria Jinx early doors to give us a base camp. Unfortunately the licensing laws prohibited alcoholic sales until 11am, but a blind eye was turned to some of the “ribena” that was being passed around before the deadline expired. After 11, it was straight onto the local Gull and Black Sheep beer, memorable for Bruce studying the difference in the ingredients on the bottle label – “This one has added asborbic acid – no wonder the sheep’s shooting lightning bolts out of its arse!”.

The drinking soon moved outside, as the glass walls and roof of the Café gave a serious greenhouse effect. More and more fans were gathering, either having risen from their slumber (having slept off a reputedly wild night in the local disco with a young, upcoming guest DJ from Glasgow at the wheels of steel) or arriving on different charters. Tam himself was spotted on the green in front of the parliament shed, sporting a rather natty pair of fabric gingham DM’s, presumably from his summer wardrobe. At one point, a transit from the local brewery pulled up to deliver emergency supplies to Florentz, only for a keg to go off in the back of the van, causing me to jump not a little (and Helen to ridicule me accordingly).

Eventually the time came to head off to the ground, and with Jen and Jim valiantly trying to corral the WESTA day-trippers (plus some Loony Alba members taking up the empty bus seats) towards the coach park (Bruce: “like herding cats”), we eventually set off with Mick North Croy playing a compere role in the aisle (having lost his seat). The red wine was flowing freely, at one point right down Helen’s shirt (an authentic 1986 away shirt, last worn by me when I was 12), and this was later to prove fatal (well, it did look as though she’d been shot in the chest!). A communal “watering of the flowers” brief kick-around with a plastic football in a petrol station forecourt provided a brief interlude, before the bus carried on towards Toftir, taking the hill with ease (as the waterborne travellers struggled valiantly up the mountainside from the jetty to the stadium).

After meeting, and no doubt bemusing with our incoherent ramblings, many people outside the ground, we were in and behind the goal. Unfortunately, the events from here on in are a little cloudy – I remember Shaun Maloney’s free-kick and the second goal going in, if not the exact events leading up to it, but then Helen and I had a difference of opinion and ended up watching the rest of the game from separate vantage points. All I can say to those around us is “sorry” and “thanks very much for looking after both of us” – I won’t name people individually, but those involved know who they are.

Back on the bus, and with only a little more drink to go round (trust me, this was now a good thing), Chairman Jim took the eminently sensible decision to drop the Loony Alba members in Torshavn before continuing straight out to Vagar and the hotel adjacent to the airport. The Vagar Hotel was bouncing, with a handful of bemused locals watching on as the Tartan Army besieged the bar (and the buffet in some cases). We sat outside, as even though it was approaching midnight, the night was light and clear and quite temperate (in contrast to the scorching sun earlier in the day – several topless footsoldiers ended up with sunstroke at the game!). We weren’t the only ones to take advantage of the clear air – across the car park, someone was completely out for the count on their back in the long grass!

Again, Jim and Jen did a sterling job in getting us all across to the airport building, and with the plane sitting on the tarmac, we were simply waved through security without any boarding cards, only to have our names ticked off at the door, school-register style. What made this episode even more comical was the (admittedly unfortunate, in a “there but for the grace of God go I” way) fact that our sister charter plane had been commandeered by the SFA to get the team home, leaving everyone stranded for an extra four hours or so. Given they looked in a far worse state than us (we’d only been dragged away from the hotel because we had to – these guys were mostly out for the count on benches and the floor), I’m not sure they all saw the funny side of ad hoc classics such as “Where’s your aeroplane? Where’s your aeroplane?” and “We’re going home, we’re going home – you’re not, you’re not!”.

The flight itself was a relatively quiet affair, with most people being lulled to sleep by the gentle hum of the propellers and only the dedicated jakies taking advantage of the free-flowing wine (well, I wouldn’t to stop now… I might get a hangover!). Much to Helen’s eternal shame, after sleeping the whole flight, and with only a few steps to go before the hotel room over the road, she had to rush to the Ladies in the baggage hall to speak to the big white telephone. A cancelled flight to Gatwick on the way home (necessitating a last minute change to Heathrow and a National Express bus) added to the farcical nature of the trip. Still, at least we don’t need to go back for four years! As a footnote, this was also a personal triumph for me, as the last away game I missed was the Faroes in June 1999, marking 8 whole years of consecutive away matches.

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