to hell (well, not quite)
I know I said I had a feeling that the locals might go out of their way to make us feel welcome in Palermo, but I never imagined that a bus driver would make a detour a mile off his route to drop me and Maggie at the door of our hotel. Yet that's precisely what happened on the evening of our arrival! While this was a bit extreme, it was a good indication of the treatment we were to receive throughout our visit. Things hadn't started so well though - we'd both had virtually the entire contents of our toilet bags confiscated at the security check at Stansted. Being a bloke, this was hardly a disaster from a financial point of view for me; not so for Maggie though. I think I can safely say she was a bit upset. I honestly thought that the hand luggage rules were the same as they used to be before the latest terrorist scare other than that you couldn't take drinks through. I found out I was badly mistaken!
Our flight touched down slightly early in Palermo. This was good news as it meant there was a chance of getting checked into the hotel and then out to a restaurant in time for something to eat before everywhere shut. The airport bus made good time into Palermo, and we jumped off at 'Stadio' (a major interchange next to the football ground) to get our bus to the hotel. I knew the number of the bus we had to get, but after a bit of a search we couldn't find the stop. So (very unlike me) I decided to ask someone. There was a bus sat at the side of the road, with the driver clearly having a bit of a break between journeys. I asked him in my best pidgin Italian where the number 603 stop was. He seemed confused as if there was no such bus. I then told him where we wanted to go, but he still appeared none the wiser and, after saying quite a lot to me in Italian (not a word of which I picked up), he seemed to be saying that we should get on the bus. Although very puzzled, we did as he said. He then drove round the corner to where there was a kiosk thing where they sold tickets and gave out info. We made to get off the bus, but he told us to stay where we were, and he got off. After chatting to the blokes in the kiosk for a couple of minutes he got back into his seat, apparently no further forward. We again made to get off, but he again told us to stay on. So I again told him that we wanted the number 603, and he again waved us back into our seats. Then he drove off. "We're being abducted, we're going to end up sleeping with the fishes", I thought to myself. Well ok, I didn't really. I knew that the bus we were on would take us reasonably near to where we wanted to be, but we'd have about a mile walk to the hotel, which was not what I had in mind, especially when the right bus would have taken us virtually to the door. After we'd been going about 20 minutes I saw a sign for Addaura (where the hotel was) so we stood up. The driver (yet again) told us to sit back down. We were now headed away from Addaura! Now I really was confused. But after doing a loop through Mondello we were soon back by the Addaura turning, and this time we took it. I wasn't absolutely certain, but I was pretty sure this wasn't the proper route for the bus we were on. Within a couple of minutes I knew for definite that it wasn't, and this was confirmed shortly after when we pulled up outside the front door of our hotel! What was really embarrassing about this was that we didn't even have tickets. As anyone who's been to Italy will know, you have to buy tickets before you get on the bus. My plan was that we'd get them after locating the bus stop at Stadio, but we never got the chance.
After checking into the hotel we headed to a nearby restaurant and a had a quick bite and a few beers. After being initially confused by our Toon tops, the staff and locals cottoned on and were very welcoming. Before long though it looked like they wanted to shut up for the night (well I suppose it was getting on for one o'clock), so we headed back to the hotel only to find that the hotel bar was shut. A bit of a blow, but at least it meant I wouldn't have a hangover the next morning, a bit of a novelty on a European trip.
The next day was very blustery, but sunny and warm. A quick check of the hotel pool told me that I'd wasted my time packing my trunks - the water level was about two foot below where it should be and there was all sorts of crap floating on the surface. The hotel had obviously decided that summer had finished some time ago. Not exactly devastated by this (I hate swimming in cold water) we set off on a stroll to Mondello. We bumped into some of the York Mags and heard about their run-in with some local scallys and subsequent rescue by the riot police the previous night in the centre. It made us realise that we'd made the right move not to be staying in Palermo. After a nice drink in a beach-side bar we set off to check out the ground - I'd thought it would be a good idea in case things were dodgy at the ground to find out exactly where the bus would drop us off and where our entrance was. So off we went to buy some tickets and catch the bus. Except that it was lunchtime and all the Tabacchi (where you buy bus tickets) were shut. A bloke who was stood in the door of the shop next door to one of the Tabacchi said we could buy tickets on the bus, so we made our way to the stop. A couple of minutes later the bus pulled up and who would believe it but it was the same driver as last night! He greeted us with a great big grin and waved us on board. I said that we wanted some tickets, but he shrugged because he didn't have any, and then (as ever) he indicated that we should just sit down. This was getting very embarrassing because I hate not paying my way (especially at only a euro a ticket!), but there wasn't much we could do about it. Anyway, the first thing we did after getting dropped off at the ground was to buy a great big wad of tickets!
Someone had just put up a stall selling scarves and tee shirts next to the ground. We decided we just had to buy a scarf each, those half-and-half ones, even though they contained a frightening amount of pink. The going rate was 10 euros, but this being Italy I felt obliged to haggle and offered him 15 euros for two. He didn't look impressed so I tried 18, but still no joy. He explained that he didn't actually own the stall and so couldn't negotiate, so we had to fork out the full 20 euros. Well at least I tried. As we wandered around, wearing our Toon tops of course, lots of people were shouting at us or tooting their horns, but it was all good natured. We sort of sussed out what the lie of the land was at the ground. Our tickets said entrance 23, except there wasn't an entrance 23. There were maps of the ground all over the place showing all the entrances, including 23, but they were clearly hopelessly out of date because the actual gates bore no resemblance. Still, we managed to work out where we had to go in, and we knew where to get off the bus so that we'd have the least possible distance to have to cover to get there, so we headed off for food and drink at a nearby bar, before catching the elusive number 603 bus back to the hotel.
After getting organised for the match (dumping anything we could possibly do without, like credit cards and any money above what we reckoned we needed, and picking up jackets so that we could cover up outside the ground) it was back to Mondello for a few pre-match pints. We soon found out that we weren't the only ones who'd decided that Mondello was a sensible option as the "beach bar" had been taken over by a group of Toon fans. These were lads who could clearly look after themselves, but they'd also had a run-in the previous night and didn't fancy a repeat. Before long Dennis and Big Issue arrived, not by coincidence I might add - they knew where we would be. It was about this point that the weather took a turn for the worse. Not only did it start hoying it down, but the wind got up. We were under a canvas cover, but the sides were open and we were getting wet. We moved towards the middle, but we were still getting wet. We moved to the other side, but we still got wet! The rain eased off eventually, but we moved on anyway. The next bar was very welcoming, despite Brendan saying it was "unfriendly" when he was there a few weeks back. Every time we ordered a round they brought freebies (sandwiches, crisps, etc) to the table.
When we couldn't put it off any longer we headed to the bus stop. The first bus went straight past without stopping. We found out later that the driver decided there were already enough "hooligans" on board. We only had to wait a couple of minutes for the next one to turn up. While this would take us to the ground, it wouldn't drop us at the stop we had planned to get off at. As it turned out this was academic because we discovered that the streets around the ground were closed to traffic and the buses were all diverted. As we got off the bus it was really quiet - even though it was still a good 20 minutes to kick-off most people were already in the ground, as they do in Italy. In fact it was so quiet Maggie and me didn't bother covering up our Toon tops. As we'd found all day, the Palermo fans we did come across were all dead friendly. About 100 yards from the ground we reached a barrier across the road where they were checking tickets. As soon as they saw us we were taken to one side and escorted by a couple of police towards the ground. We assumed this was standard procedure, and was certainly fine by me! When we got to the ground we were surprised to find that, instead of being taken around the side to our entrance, we instead went straight through the main entrance. We then went through to the side of the pitch, and around the pitch to the Toon section. I again assumed this was how everyone else had got into the ground, but it was obvious from the heroes' reception we got from the rest of our fans that this wasn't the case. Quite why we received this special treatment is still a complete mystery. It could have been for our safety because we were showing our colours, or perhaps the police thought it was a bit close to kick-off (it certainly wasn't by Toon standards!), but whatever it was the police certainly didn't give any impression that we were causing them a problem.
As for the game, you'll have seen it. The Toon fans did their best at times to make some noise, but it's not easy when there's only 162 of you (168 who'd bought tickets, minus 5 who'd allegedly been arrested, minus Paul Blacklock who'd bought a ticket even though he never intended going). The Palermo fans were noisy throughout other than right at the end. I can't say it was intimidating though because we were fully protected by fences and nets.
As ever in Italy, we were kept in for ages at the end of the game. It's a lot easier to take when you've won though! In the days leading up to the game I'd been worried that after the game me and Maggie would be forced onto the buses back into the centre. I was worried (ok, petrified) because the West Ham fans had got ambushed when they got back. But by the time the game came around, because we'd had no bother with the locals since we'd landed, I was no longer worried about any reception the Palermo fans might have planned for us. I was though really keen not to be forced onto the buses because they'd be taking us in completely the wrong direction and it could be a bit of a nightmare getting back to our hotel. But when they did finally let us out the ground our reconnaissance earlier in the day paid dividends. We were surprised to see a side gate that was open and unguarded, and we knew exactly where it led. We dived though it then jogged around the ground and made our escape. Within 15 minutes we were on the bus back to the hotel. Once again, the driver dropped us right at the door. What a service! Unfortunately the hotel bar was shut when we got back, as was the bar next door. But I'd got some cans in earlier in the day just in case, and so we weren't that bothered.
The next day was all about catching lots of buses and seeing as much of Palermo as we could. Most of the Toon fans reckoned the place was a dump, but it seemed pretty ok to us. We ended up back in Mondello for a bite and a couple of drinks. Eventually it was time to head to the airport and so we trudged to the bus stop. As ever, we didn't have to wait long for a bus, and when it pulled up we were amazed to see that it was 'our' driver yet again. And what a smile he gave us.
I know some/most Toon fans reckoned that Palermo was a dodgy experience, but I can honestly say that Mags and me both had a great time and never felt threatened for an instant. Quite the opposite in fact - everyone we came across was brilliant. And to think I wasn't going to go at one point after hearing what happened when West Ham were there.