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Czech Republic, May 2008

Back in December 2007, safe in the knowledge that Scotland were left without a finals tournament yet again in 2008, and told by Helen's mate Lisa that she had a week to play with in mid-June, we took the plunge and booked a week's non-football holiday to see the sights and drink the beer in Prague.

Fast-forward three months to the end of March, and the SFA in their wisdom choose the Easter weekend (when many of us are staying elsewhere, far far away from the internet...) right before the Croatia home game to announce an end of season game away to the Czechs! Still, there are worse places to have to keep going back to, so we booked up for another week (well, Monday-Saturday).

With hotel loyalty points to burn, and our June stay booked in more modest lodgings, we plumped for 3 nights in the Crowne Plaza just behind the castle (in an old Strahov monastery building), with the last two down in the thick of it at the palatial Marriott on the edge of the Old Town.

After a minor delay at T5 (which only meant more wine!), the flight flew by and Helen and I were soon ensconced in the hotel, surrounded by the Czech national side who were also staying there. Having Jan Koller wish us “Dobry Vecher” in his shorts and flip flops was a bit surreal! We'd arranged to meet Rich, who'd arrived earlier that day, in a wee bar called U Klicu at the foot of the hill in Mala Strana, but still found time to stop for a cheeky one at the famous U Cerneho Vola opposite the Loretta pilgrimage church. Then it was down the steps and along to the rendezvous, where Rich was halfway through his first Budvar. He'd spent the day wisely, trekking out to Eden to pick up match tickets for the Czech v Lithuania game the next night then taking in Dukla Prague (not the original version!) host Fotbal Fulnek in the Czech 2nd Division. After a leisurely evening, we left at kicking out time (not that it takes much to kick out 5 people!) and headed over the road to U Maleho Glena where we drank with host of drunk nubile Americans and a very friendly French guy, before Helen and I retired for the night to work out the night tram timetable (rather than struggle up the massive hill) and Rich girded his loins for a night (and a bit of the morning) on the tiles.

Rich's late night caught up with him and he missed the original rendezvous, but soon caught up with us and the arriving Wullie Anderson, who we'd also procured a Lithuania match brief for. After lunch in the very posh Olympia, a “tank” pub just over from the National Theatre, and a couple in the wee Radegast place over the river, we headed out by tram to the pub next to Bohemians ground. This place has definitely poshed up since we last darkened its door, however the beer was cold and cheap (as were the crisps that Wullie was wolfing down for sustenance, having eschewed “real food” earlier on. A swift walk to the ground followed, pausing only for a soggy pizza slice, leaving just enough time for a cheeky beer in the cafe by the ground, with us taking our seats in the impressive rebuilt Eden Stadium. The Czechs eventually ran out 2-0 winners against a challenging Lithuania side with enough guile (and not quite enough composure at the last) to give Cech a headache in the home goal. The other Scots in the stadium (believed to be NOSTA – we saw John Ward in the back of a cab as we were climbing fences off the main road) seemed to disappear well before the end of the game, wisely perhaps given how stowed the bus and tram stops were, so we made our way back down towards Bohemians. Having passed half-dozen or so bars in varying states of closure, we eventually found a Herna (aka “Puggy”) bar – you do have to be wary in these places, so when the waiter swiped the price list after we ordered, we made sure we paid on the spot to avoid being ripped off. After a comical discussion with a drunk elderly local English teacher and a conversation in German with a Czech in an England shirt, we made our way out to catch a tram with a load of Bosnians (it was that kind of night). Wullie was dropping on his feet after a lengthy journey (not to mention an even earlier start to watch ice hockey's Stanley Cup on the telly), so with the exception of clubber extraordinaire Rich, the rest of us made our excuses and retired for the evening.

Wednesday saw Helen and I potter around up by the castle for a while, taking in the Loretta Church and the Strahov Monastery (specifically, the spectacularly expensive brewpub inside) before heading out by tram to an area called Brevnov. Rich joined us in the pub at Brevnov Monastery tram stop (U Klasterna) for some soup and a beer, then we made an abortive attempt to find the pub in the monastery itself which turned out to be closed for refurbishment. Ally and Susan were in town by now, but declined to trek out to Brevnov as “it's halfway back to the airport and we've just come from there!”, so we agreed to meet in Holesovice later on. With the failure to find the monastery pub open, the tram ride back into civilisation seemed a little dry (and a little lacking in facilities), so a couple of stops back into town saw us make a pit-stop at Peter's pivnice for some 19Kc Staropramen and a look at the FC Dragoun Brevnov photos on the bamboo wall.

Back in 1999 for the 3-2 qualifier defeat against the Czechs, Helen and I rented an apartment in the Holesovice area along with Rich and Welsh Steve – as a result, we've always had a soft spot for the area ever since. And now, despite a list of decent pubs to try in Holesovice courtesy of the Good Beer Guide, we only make it as far as Na Melniku, a tank pub just up the hill from the main drag. It turns out that this is a place Helen and I have been to before (during our legendary 5-day pub crawl in 2003), and we settle down in the back room for some beer and goulash and the rendezvous with Ally and Sue. The England v USA friendly was being shown on the telly, and the beer was exceptional, so we stayed put for the rest of the evening whilst Rich broke out his masterplan and plotted a route to that evening's nightclubs for once the rest of us had turned in.

We'd agreed to meet up for lunch in the famous Pivovarsky Dum the next day before heading out to the suburbs again, however in the meantime Helen and I had to move digs from the fantastic Crowne Plaza by the castle to the flagship Marriott in the Old Town. The Marriott was a freebie courtesy of some loyalty points left over from paying for the Georgia hotel, however we instantly regretted moving due to the snobby attitude of the staff (nobody wanted to check us in at first – they obviously thought our kilts were lowering the tone!) and of the other residents (who were mostly conference attendees, i.e. staying there on work expenses and not paying their own way either). Nonetheless, we were eventually checked in and on our way to the brewpub, surprised to see Rich had actually beaten us there!

After some filling food and a tasting pallet of the 8 beers, we headed up to IP Pavlova and onto Tram 11 out to Sporilov (after a close shave where a local had to point us in the right direction!). At the end of the tram line, in what looks like an old ticket office/service building, is an unusual pub called Prvni Pivni Tramway (“First Beer Tramway”), half of which is done up to look like the interior of an old tramcar. Ally and Susan were impressed with the heavy metal music and Jethro Tull tribute band posters, although Rich was less enamoured, and I was happy with the beer (Primator Weizenbier, in case you're interested), however after a couple of drinks (and a good look at the décor of the Gents toilet, with sketches of ladies' pubic styles complete with names) it was time to head halfway back into town as far as Horka tram stop. As we trekked up a massive hill, Ally's detailed street map came in very handy and reassured us that it wasn't a wild goose chase, and a short while later we found our way to U Klockonicka, a locals' beer hall in the residential streets of Nusle. This place not only provided us with the cheapest beer of the trip (10 degree Kacov beer was 15Kc, or 17Kc for the 12 degree version – just be warned, if you're ordering the kvasnicove (yeast beer) version, be prepared to wait a wee while!), but also some excellent fried cheese and chips. The next pub on the crawl, Na Paloucka, was a 15 minute walk around the corner, and turned out to be a wee bit of a disappointment, although certainly busy enough. What we didn't know at the time (but do now after our June visit) is that a brand new brewpub called Basta had just set up shop one tram stop down the hill!

By now we were getting texts from Bruce, who had arrived Thursday afternoon avec famille. We opted to head back into the centre of town, and plumped for U Medvidku (the Budvar/brewpub opposite the big Tesco). Several texts later (stopped for food, gone tourist sightseeing in the dark, don't wait for us etc), Bruce and his gang were eventually lured to the pub shortly after Rich had headed home for a clean shirt and some aftershave before he hit the tiles. The central location of the pub made for a sociable evening, with Andy Pollard and Gus passing through (they were staying upstairs), and the long lost Hit Man of the NATA Inverness Branch, Brian, even made an appearance sporting a Rolling Stones tattoo that would have impressed the absent Rich. I confirmed Bruce's table reservation in Pivovarsky Dum for the next day – he'd promised his parents the nettle beer experience, but the rest of us had agreed to stay closer to the ground – and we called it a night just after midnight.

Back in Holesovice the next morning, Helen and I opted for pizza before heading up the hill to meet Ally and Susan, who had set up shop at a pavement cafe near the ground. After meeting up, we picked an inviting sounding place from the Good Beer Guide called “Bastard” right around the corner, texted everyone we were due to meet up with, then headed off only to find it had changed into a cocktail bar that didn't open until 4pm! Back to the drawing board, and a small place in the book described as selling Klaster beer (which Helen and I had tried out in Brevnov a couple of days previously) jumped out at us – what a find! Knocking out Klaster 12-degree beer at a very reasonable 18.5Kc, and not 10 minutes walk from Sparta's ground, the back section of the pub was shady, painted green and boasted windows that look like they're made from recycled beer bottles. All of this, and the cutest wee barmaid in Prague to boot! Helen and I had to duck out to pick up match tickets, so we left Ally and Susan guarding the table and our beer ticket and headed out into the 3pm sun. After passing Rich en route, and giving him directions to the pub, we picked up our briefs from Alison and bumped into Wolfie (from Vienna) at the box office, taking him along with us back to the pub. Kenny, Ray and son made a brief appearance, still swigging from the carry out that had sustained them up the hill, and they took Ally and Susan to the Svijany pub a few doors along for some food, just as Bruce, Sharon, Betty and Bob joined the fray (followed shortly by Kev, Craig, Paul and Jamie Baker). By this point, we were also in conversation with an elderly shirtless Irishman and his Czech friend, and they were lending their own opinion to the book's recommendations.

Come 5pm, it was time to pay up and head around to the ground for the game, due to kick-off 30 minutes later. No queues to get in, but the upstairs section was already filling up, so Helen spotted enough seats across by the fence behind the goal for us all to sit together, although Ally and Sue ended up getting waylaid and stayed further down the front. The game itself never really ignited, with the high temperatures causing problems for both teams, with the Scottish contingent tired after a long season, and the Czechs all keen to avoid over-exerting themselves ahead of the Euro 2008 opener 8 days later. Bruce and his father disappeared after around 30 minutes to do a beer run and didn't resurface until 15 minutes into the second half, around the same time the Czechs took a deserved lead through ex-Rangers legend Libor Sionko. Three goals in the last ten minutes, including a cracking turn and shot from substitute debutant David Clarkson, meant the 3-1 scoreline flattered the game, but there was no complaints about the Czechs deserving to win, and the Scotland team seemed genuinely grateful for the support at the final whistle.

After the customary delay in exiting the ground, during which I unwisely decided to spend 40Kc on a “gristle dog” (the best value sausage I've ever had – I was still tasting it 4 hours later! And so was everyone else sitting near me!), we headed back towards the Svijany pub. The place was full, mostly with Czech fans (so that's what the 30 minute delay was for – to allow the locals to fill all the best pubs!), so it was back to the Klasterni Pivnice. By chance, two tables had just been freed up, so everyone else grabbed the big table, and Ally, Rich and myself took the “Dominoes Table” and (allegedly) spent the next hour looking like grumpy old men (we were actually discussing the merits of the barmaid, whether she'd fit in my hand luggage, and whether Helen would let me take her home – to serve us beer in our living room, nothing adulterous!). Bruce and his dad were treated to a free whisky by a friendly local, possibly the bar owner, and then everyone bar Helen, Rich and me headed around the corner (along with Kev, Craig and co) to Na Melniku for food and more beer, whilst we finished up and paid our bill, ending up with more free whisky (and beer for me).

Na Melniku was even busier than two days ago, and after more beer and a bite to eat, we headed towards Wensclesas Square with Ally and Susan (Bruce and family were turning in for the night and Rich was heading for a club) and against our better judgement, and everyone else's recommendations, we decided to try The Shamrock, which was hosting a Scottish party arranged by Scotty, an ex pat living and working in Prague. It's fair to say it wasn't really to my taste, particularly the 70Kc Krusovice battery acid, so Helen and I headed back after just the one, pausing only to say hello to the Prestwick Tartan Army in the street outside.

Saturday involved a long lie, a late checkout (oh, how the Marriott begrudged giving us that!) and a tube out to Dejvicka metro. Before catching the airport bus (which we managed to tie in with Bruce, Sharon, Betty and Bob), we grabbed a beer and some food in the surprisingly trendy Pod Loubim bar just up the road.

So, all in all, a different week from previous Prague experiences, with a lot more venturing out to the suburbs and off the beaten track, but a lot of fun, and it's definitely re-ignited my love of Prague. As I write this, we've already been back for the follow-up week in June, and now it's simply a question of WHEN and not IF we will return...

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Czech Gallery

Macedonia, September 2008


So, after over ten months of waiting for a meaningful match, since the final whistle blew on the Italy game and our hopes of an Alpine summer, it was off to Macedonia to begin the road to South Africa. Despite the lack of direct flight options, Skopje proved to be relatively accessible, with many fans flying to neighbouring countries (Sofia in Bulgaria, Thessalonki in Greece, Belgrade in Serbia and even some intrepid travelers via Pristina in Kosovo) and catching buses or trains. Helen and I had opted for a route with BA and Malev via Budapest, as we needed the points to keep our frequent flyer status ticking over.

Accommodation was a different matter, as Skopje was desperately short of hotel rooms, particularly at the comfortable end of the scale. Nonetheless, a more-expensive-than-we’d-have-liked booking was whacked through for the riverside Holiday Inn and it was job done (despite a late scare when they threatened to cancel the booking the week before arrival due to an expired credit card!).

Wednesday 3rd September 2008

After a meager 90 minutes sleep it was up in the middle of the night for the 45 minute drive to Heathrow’s Terminal 5. There were no other visible Scots on the LHR-BUD leg, but once we’d emerged from the lounge at Budapest’s Ferihegy Airport we saw a few familiar faces, including that guy from the Pimms adverts, in the bar next to our boarding gate.

Skopje Airport was a bit of a culture shock, where we could walk from the luggage reclaim straight out into the open air to be mauled by the taxi touts. We’d pre-booked a car via the hotel (as a way of making sure they couldn’t deny all knowledge of us once we arrived at the reception!), and he was waiting for us card in hand, so after a brief stop at an ATM to get some local zobs it was off into town. Over the next couple of days we heard some real horror stories of baying mobs of taxi Mafiosi setting about minibus drivers and such like, so all in all it sounds we got off lucky (even if the hotel’s fixed charge of €25 was a little steep).

Despite our more-expensive-than-we’d-have-liked room booking being for a “balcony river view”, the hotel tried to palm us off with a poky standard room – a quick trip back down to reception ended up with us being assigned a suite with not one but two balconies and a disturbingly close-up view of the Irish pub! Brilliantly, in addition to being the team’s base, the hotel was also hosting a European Statisticians Conference – what were the odds on that? (Thanks to Mick Carr for that one!).

We met up with Rich over an early evening beer in the hotel bar – he’d arrived the previous night following an eventful train journey from Thessaloniki – before promenading along the riverside towards some scran in the Pivnica Dab restaurant the other side of Macedonia Square. We had a couple of beers in the Soul Pub (when we eventually found the door!) and then turned in for an early night (90 minutes sleep the night before…) whilst Rich dusted down his list of banging nightspots and headed off to paint the town tartan.

Thursday 4th September 2008

After almost eleven hours sleep, we were up nice and early and decided to do a spot of exploring off the beaten track, despite the oppressive heat (mid 30 degrees Celsius by mid-morning). To facilitate this, I managed to track down a bus ticket kiosk and get hold of some tickets. We’d ummed and ahhed over which direction to head in, as there were a couple of stadia marked on our map, but we instead plumped for the Skopsko brewery out in Avtokomanda in the hope there may be a brewery tap out there.

After an abortive attempt to catch a bus in the entirely wrong direction, we located the correct stop (right opposite our hotel – Doh!) and bravely took a step into the unknown (all the travel guidance had steered tourists away from the buses as they’re allegedly too confusing – they hadn’t been banking on my Cyrillic skills!). Halfway to the airport, Avtokomanda is a big scheme on one side of the dual carriageway, and an industrial area on the other (home to the brewery, a Coca Cola plant and other random factory looking buildings). Off we headed, past a car pound and the main road in front of the brewery, past a wee bar (Bufet Trpeza) and a cosy looking restaurant surrounded by an incongruous hedgerow (Doypran) and onwards under a railway bridge into what can only be described as a lane in the middle of rolling countryside. Our saunter around the brewery perimeter took the best part of an hour, with a kiosk on the country lane next to an old car spares shop offering the only prospect of a beer (unfortunately, the crates at the wooden box table were already taken by a couple of ubiquitous toothless old men), and the main road past the front of the brewery was no better.

As our walk had proved fruitless (other than for exercise and sunburn purposed), we headed back around to Bufet Trpeza and took up a seat in the shaded back garden. By now, Rich had risen from his pit and had texted to ask us where we were. Directions were duly provided, with an instruction to head towards the big hotel and then walk the 20 minutes from there. A beer or so later, a follow-up text from Rich arrived – he’d followed our directions to the corner of the main road (around 5 minutes from where we were), but having looked down the dusty track we’d directed him down, he refused to believe there was a bar there. Thankfully he was soon persuaded otherwise and was soon at the table.

In the quest for food, we decided to give Doypran a few yards down the road a go – an inspired choice! Top notch Macedonian beer and cuisine was to follow, along with shots courtesy of a neighbouring table and free desserts from the waiters in exchange for a NATA pennant. Bruce & Sharon also joined us here after the meal, sensibly opting to arrive at the door by taxi, before we headed back for Trpeza for a quick one before heading back into town. Bruce took some persuading that the bus offered the best route, but given we were now too many for a taxi, and that the bus cost buttons, he was soon placated.

Once back in town, we stumbled across an outdoor bar with a spare table – this turned out to be some kind of Macedonian Hen Night out the back of the Hotel Jadran, but Bruce and Sharon were able to get some food and all was well, including a spot of impromptu dancing and a conversation with several other Scots who’d wandered into the orbit of the party, including Steve from Oxford. At some point later on, Ally and Susan then Helen and I went to our respective hotels and Rich took Bruce and Sharon on to another bar before heading out to do his club thang.

Friday 5th September

Friday was a very early start for the two of us, as we had booked onto the bus tour organized by the venerable Reeky Sporran, taking in Matka Lake and a meal. The bus resembled the aftermath of a zombie film, but somehow almost all of those booked made it for the 9am start. En route, Alexander (one of the guides, named after the great Macedonian hero) offered us a choice of a stroll up to the lake or a more energetic 45-minute walk uphill for a great view of the lake from above – he assured us that this wasn’t beyond any of us (despite the 40-degree heat and the raging dehydration of the hungover majority), so off we set up the hill. Whilst we were still on the floor of the valley, we had to negotiate a canoe course via a bridge and a ridiculously narrow concrete ridge.

After a good half-an-hour of uphill slogging, I was bitterly regretting my decision to stick with my kilt, but at least my feet were coping relatively well. My grey Tartan Skopje t-shirt, on the other hand, was betraying just how much fluid I was losing! With most of the party near collapse, but thankfully near what looked like the top of a hill, we asked Alexander how far we had come – “oh, about halfway” was completely serious response! Thankfully, most of the climbing had been done, although as we rounded one summit we were now exposed to the sun beating down on us. After another 30 minutes or so, we made it to the monastery only to find it closed (the sole monk who runs it had popped into town!), so after a wee rest and the use of the “scenic” toilets (i.e. no door and looking right across the gorge), we headed what felt like straight down on a gravel path to the lakeside. After a ring of a bell, boats were sent across from the Matka restaurant, and once we were all across, a quick beer stop followed before catching boats down the lake to the cave. The cave provided some welcome respite from the heat, but it was a wee bit cramped for the 30 or so of us who’d squeezed in, and then it was back to the restaurant for a slap-up Macedonian meal.

After a good couple of hours of eating and drinking, and some Macedonian bagpiping, it was time to head back down towards the bus (taking the low road, thankfully) and back into town, accompanied by the aroma of Tom’s rather ripe wind.

After a quick shower it was out to catch up with the rest of the NATA contingent, who were drinking over the river in the old Bazaar area. What should have been a 10 minute walk ended up taking an hour due to meeting everyone drinking along the riverside, however the rest of them had managed to find a nice wee air conditioned pub called Graffiti to take a couple of beers and catch up on what had been occurring, specifically Café Versace that we’d missed out on by being tardy. James and Lynne headed back to their nearby hotel and the rest of us eventually struck out for food, ending up eating outside a Mexican restaurant called Amigos on the main drag Marsal Tito.

Saturday 6th September

My big plan for matchday was to avoid drinking too much of anything but water before the game, as I had an inkling that dehydration would be a massive problem. Helen and I were out around 11.30am, stopping for a croissant from the wee French bakery in the shopping centre, and then made our way along the riverfront, meeting Ally and Susan chatting to Kenny, Ray and son. Ally and Susan tagged along with us, as well as Rich, and we slowly made our way towards the City Park containing the ground – Rich had been out there drinking earlier in the week and was confident we’d be able to grab a beer out there.

All the way along, the talk was that the local police were going to strictly enforce the segregation we’d been warned about, but most were still confident about getting in okay. Outside the stadium was a row of outside bars, most of which were rammed, but we still found time to stop and chat with Craig and Michelle and Fraz Magee. Striking on for a bar/restaurant called Marakana that Rich had recommended, we noticed a supermarket built into the stadium itself, and dodging the police lines, we were able to purchase yet more water as well as some Capri Sun style fruit juice pouches. A quick beer and some local starters in the Marakana followed, along with Bruce, Sharon, James and Lynne all meeting up there as well, although NATA proved to be their sole customers from the time we arrived until we left 45 minutes before kick off.

Back in front of the stadium, there was complete confusion about how to get in, with lots of unhappy Scots trying and failing to get into the home end. Eventually we twigged what we had to do and made our way down and behind the foul smelling ticket kiosks. As expected, our water was confiscated, along with all of our coins and sundry other items (torch, suntan lotion, badges), but we were allowed to take the drink pouches in. A further four bag checks followed down the long lane we were funneled down before we were finally in with just enough time to spare to grab some of the remaining shaded seats. By all accounts we had been exceptionally lucky, with the gates being slammed shut soon after we were in, causing no end of bother to a number of pals who had official tickets and were caught in a lengthy delay getting in.

By the time kick-off came around, there were loads of empty seats, both in the corners of the main stand and in the unshaded section of the Scotland end. Macedonia took an early, and decisive, lead around the 10th minute when a controversial free kick rebounded to an unmarked striker with the Scotland defence far too slow to react. Crowd-wise, there was a bit of a surge after 20 minutes or so, evidently due to the gates being reopened, and reports from the back stating it was chaos outside. Five minutes or so later, the banging on the fences started, which we later found out was because they had indeed locked the gates again, but the police had disingenuously told all the Scots holding home end tickets that they would be accommodated in the Scotland end after all.

Halftime, and Scotland were one-nil down with little visible hope of a comeback. The horror stories were true and there was indeed no water or refreshments of any description available to Scotland supporters, however with a little encouragement from the excellent UK embassy staff located at the trackside, the fire brigade provided a hose poked through the terracing fence, or a “legionnaires’ disease dispenser” as the more cynical amongst us speculated. Eventually the stewards started handing out 1.5 litre bottles of fizzy lemon flavoured water, which seemed a bit daft as we were all prepared to pay for it, but nonetheless a very appreciated gesture (and one which probably kept the numbers requiring ambulance treatment for dehydration and heatstroke to single figures). Meanwhile, on the pitch, the second half proved slightly more promising with a few chances, including a very good Shaun Maloney effort punched away by the keeper, but no luck with the bounce of the ball left no real chance to get back into it properly. Many of the fans were exasperated with the ineffectiveness of Scotland’s midfield, with Brown and Fletcher in particular appearing to be uneasy with the furnace-like conditions; my own view was that the management messed up in not having the team out in Skopje and training in the heat of the day for a few days, enabling a judgment to be passed on who was best equipped for the heat, instead of arriving less than 24 hours before kick-off, staying in a noisy city centre hotel and only training in the relative cool of the early evening.

The majority of the second half entertainment was provided by a riot in the home terrace, as police were sent in to clear political protest banners in a brutal fashion. As a result, it seemed that the home fans at the far end of the ground were actually kept in, with the Scots let out promptly. We all headed back through the park, bumping into Inverness Brian who was heading straight for a Passport Travel bus, and decided to head for Rich’s hotel – the Hotel Square, overlooking Macedonia Square. Lacking an actual bar, the hotel had an excellent sun terrace with a television and a beer fridge, which we tore into with some enthusiasm whilst watching the sunset over Skopje and hearing the skirl of pipes drifting up to us seven stories above the city centre. Whilst there, I bumped into Robert from Vienna enquiring about a room at the reception desk, so he joined us for a few beers, and then tagged along when we headed downstairs to the Pivnica Dab for a meal for the ten of us, making up what we the third Tartan Army table, as Graham, Dasha and friends were already in situ.

After finishing the meal, we walked Robert around to meet up with Gav (he’d become separated from both Gav and his phone, but had luckily managed to blag his way in with a Macedonian main stand ticket and his Austrian passport), at which point Ally and Susan, then James and Lynne turned in for the night and Rich headed off to go clubbing. Bruce, Sharon, Helen and I instead decided to give the comically named Little Britain a go, based on Rich’s recommendation from a previous night – despite looking from the outside like a tacky Oxford Street souvenir shop, it turned out to be quite a find. The landlord and his wife, Josh and Lilly, were exceptionally friendly and down-to-earth, and happy that some Scots had sought the place out; whilst we were in there chatting, Neil and Susan Harper popped in as well, and after a few beers and a loose arrangement to go back the following night, it was off to bed via the riverfront, which still had a few Scottish stragglers in amongst the largely deserted bars.

Sunday 7th September

We were up later than usual for this trip – around midday – but it coincided with Ally and Susan walking past our hotel texting us to see what we were up to, so we all met in reception, just in time to see the WESTA contingent trying to organise themselves onto a bus back to Sofia. We headed out across the river with Ally and Susan, past a big book market (apparently, the more “interesting” stuff was being sold from the Stone Bridge) and up to the Bazaar area. We managed to find Kapan An, a large old trading courtyard now famous for a couple of good restaurants, by accident but carried on uphill to the Kale Fortress, from which we had an excellent view of the river and the stadium. James and Lynne met us up there, and we carried on round for a beer in the shade outside Restoran Kale, served by the world’s grumpiest waiter. Craig and Michelle appeared over the crest of the hill and joined us for one beer before we set back off down to the hill and back through the bazaar to Beerhouse An, overlooked by Mo, Tom Small, Davie and company eating in Sofra, a restaurant on the upper balcony. The most amazing meal of Macedonia food (and wine for Ally and Susan), finished off with free shots of Rakija, followed – the general consensus is that Macedonia is one of the best places most of us had ever been for food in our lives!

With our food slowly digesting, we waddled around the corner to the wee street of bars containing Versace and Graffiti – this time we plumped for a wee kebab and tea house (don’t worry – they had beer in the fridge!) which had an air-conditioning unit pumping out cold air halfway up the one-way staircase (walk forward going up, then reverse when coming back down!). Back into town and a brief stop at Super 10, an outside café in the row behind the riverfront before a walk up Marsal Tito Avenue to the old station (where we bumped into Mirza and his Macedonian friend Nadia), then looped back around to Little Britain. Neil and Susan were already there, sitting outside with Josh, Lilly and a Scottish expat called Gary. An interesting chat followed, particularly about the local culture and the riverfront bars, and we headed back to the hotel around midnight ahead of the flight home the following lunchtime, and the upcoming trip to Reykjavik.

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Iceland, September 2008


When the draw was made, Iceland and Norway were met with quite a few groans – Norway as it’s the third time since 2003, and it’s very expensive, and Iceland as it’s very, very expensive and trickier to get to. To have it hot on the heels of most people’s most anticipated trip (Macedonia) was another low blow. Just to compound matters, the fixtures themselves were confirmed on the day of my work Christmas do in 2007, so I had to rush through a booking whilst at work, hence the reason I managed to book the flight in Helen’s maiden name…

We opted to fly Tuesday-Thursday with Icelandair from Heathrow, i.e. the shortest amount of time possible without traveling on matchday itself, and stay out near the ground (mindful of the excellent wee sports bar we’d found after the 2002 game). After some to-ing and fro-ing over the hotel, we ended up booking the Hilton, and combined with a cheeky request of Bruce and his hire car (i.e. pick us up from the airport, take us to the Blue Lagoon, and we’ll give you the bus fare instead), we were all set.

Tuesday 9th September

Waking up with a hangover (I’d drank my way home from Skopje via Budapest, even taking a carry-out in the car around the M25 and then having another whilst watching Murray in the final of the US Open), we made our way back to Heathrow early doors, as we needed to make sure Icelandair were happy with Helen’s marriage certificate as proof of her change of name. All was good, and we even managed to get Rich into the seat beside us once we’d met up with him.

The flight out was fine, if a little cramped – thankfully Rich offered to swap out of his aisle seat for me as the middle one really was a bit too snug for my fuller figure! – and Keflavik Airport was brighter and airier than I remembered. Bruce and Sharon were waiting in the car park, so as soon as we’d withdrawn some cash we were out and on the road towards the Blue Lagoon.

We spent over 3 hours in the Blue Lagoon, and I had my first experience of a sauna and a steam room, but as before, never really got on with the beer that Rich and Helen were drinking. There were loads of other Scots there at first, including most of the WESTA/Sporran Legion contingent, but most people had drifted away by the time we’d finished and headed back into town via an Icelandic burger bar on the outskirts of Harfnarfjordur before being dropped at the hotel doors. Helen and I were both nicely tired by the flight and the chilling out at the Lagoon, but nonetheless we dragged ourselves onto the complimentary shuttle bus service into the town centre. No sooner had we got off the bus than we’d bumped into Inverness Brian and Scott, and sheltered from the rain for a while before deciding to head off to find a beer. Tam’s TA party looked bouncing, but we were after something a little quieter – unfortunately everything else had either changed since the last time, was a restaurant, or had closed! After splitting up from Brian and Scott, we did find what was renowned as the cheapest pub in Reykjavik, but only stayed for one beer before beginning the long walk home to the hotel.

Wednesday 10th September

After a sound sleep, it was back on the hotel shuttle for the trip downtown and breakfast at the famous hotdog stand before wandering about. Most of the downtown bars were still shut at around 1pm, but strolling up Laugavegur (and pausing to buy Helen some funky green tartan tights that she’ll probably never wear) we popped into an old haunt from 2002 – Unkle Tom’s Kabin – only to find that several of the Loony Alba veterans from that trip had formed the very same idea and were already in residence. Some good banter followed, including some with a toddler banging on the outside window, much to our, and her mother’s, amusement, before they headed off for fish and chips and we continued down the street to a rock bar, complete with whacky garden mural and a local at the bar with a guitar that Rich jammed with for a short time. In addition to Rich, Ally, Susan, James and Lynne were all now in attendance and James regaled us with stories of a wee jakey bar further down the street towards the ground he’d been in earlier and was pleasantly surprised by the prices.

We duly headed off down the road, steadily whiling away the hours to kick off, and popped into said jakey bar – we weren’t disappointed, it was indeed cheap, and it was also filled with older local jakies, along with a Liverpool supporting barman called Eh-oh (at least that’s what it sounded like), to whom Helen continued her run of getting nationalities mixed up: “Liverpool? Of course, John Arne-Riise’s a local hero!” (no, he’s Norwegian, just like Andiry Shevchenko is Ukrainian and not Czech!). Eh-oh ended up walking towards the ground with us, at least until I spotted a beer sign up a hill near the stadium and set off with Rich and Helen for another beer whilst the others took the sensible approach of continuing towards the ground. Unfortunately, said beer sign was attached to a hotel canteen, but we duly queued up and supped our beers at the deserted formica tables before restarting our walk to the ground.

Despite the hordes of people all heading for the stadium, the Scotland entrance was relatively quiet, and we had pick of the seats when we got in (we just headed for where Ally, Susan, James and Lynne had already claimed). On the other hand, Bruce and Sharon were late getting back from their geological gallivanting and had to settle for seats in the front row. Across the pitch, the Icelandic “ultras” were doing a good job of keeping the atmosphere going on their side, even if some of their chants and songs were actually derived from our own!

Match-wise, Scotland were far better than they had been against Macedonia, with Kirk Broadfoot confounding his critics (of which there were many in the stands!) by scoring the first, with the second coming after an hour off a rebound from a needlessly conceded penalty. We then conceded our own needless penalty via a McManus handball, which Gudjohnson duly scored to leave Scotland hanging on desperately for the three points.

We were some of the last fans to leave the stadium, posing for various photos including some with the Kiel boys (we’d met Patrick in Kiel at a Fortuna game, en route to the Austria friendly a couple of years previous), and then headed up the hill to Goodfellas, a sports bar the Tartan Army had patronised en masse after the 2002 win. Despite the obvious charms of a newer bigger pub, we kept on for what we knew and were rewarded with a local treating the entire bar to a round of Scotch (at considerable expense!) and a singer being rustled up to entertain us, only for Rich to borrow his guitar and spend the best part of an hour jamming. The other entertainment was provided by the mass of 17-20 year olds queuing up outside to get into a student disco at a neighbouring nightclub; despite the event being dry, the young lads and lassies had obviously started the evening at home, and some were even crawling around the car park!

Helen and I left around midnight, popping into the local 24-hour supermarket on the way back round the corner to our hotel, before getting some shut-eye ahead of the afternoon flight home. We had discussed the possibility of going to the airport via the Blue Lagoon again, but having remembered the chaotic check-in scenes six years previously, we felt an early arrival at the airport was a far more sensible option this time around!

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