Friday, 17 June 2016

Day 9 - Home

Day 9

Miles travelled - 327 (2214 in total for the trip)

French phrase of the day - Le Tunnel (The Tunnel)

Straightforward day today. Hour drive to Calais, stocked up on cheap wine and beer, and then shared the drive back home with Dad, reaching Llansantffraid and two very excited children (I got a good ten seconds of attention before the present bags took over) just before six o clock. 

So that's it then. Trip of a lifetime over. Back to enjoying the tournament on television, like every other since 1986 when I first watched these brilliant sporting occasions.

With the next two world cups based in Russia and Mars (or somewhere equally as appropriate), and the UEFA experiment of playing the next tournament all around Europe, it's not a trip I'll have the opportunity to do for quite some time. Also, given my dad's 67 now and he's only got 35 or 40 more years left him, unlikely that we'll have another Hopkins/Hopkins Jnr. road trip of this magnitude again.

But there's always something else to look forward to.

The amount we've packed in has left me totally exhausted, so I've just got enough energy to share with you some of the final memories swirling round my head. 

Taking my Dad for his first ever trip to a harvester and watching him struggle to comprehend the number of hugely obese people all in one place at one time. Driving down the French motorways and seeing the beautiful simple villages with their steeples. Cracking open what I thought was a hard boiled egg at the breakfast table, but turned out to be raw, making a terrible mess, and which gave Dad the most enjoyment I've seen him have on the trip. He almost passed out laughing. The Welsh national anthem before the first match bringing us both to the verge of tears. Having a tear up with Bosch Customer Service whilst on the telephone in a little square in Lyon. Facetiming the family and feeling those pangs of homesickness. Listening to Dad happily humming chants he had picked up whilst watching Belgium. Eating cheese rolls in bed at midnight with a can of lager. Watching pretty girls on bikes. Watching a Welsh team continue to play above themselves as individuals and keeping a nation proud, even in defeat. Listening to the Marseilles in the fan park before the opening game. The friendship, warmth and generosity that I saw on an hourly basis amongst fans of all nations. And finally, that magical Saturday in Bordeaux, when Hal mended the hearts that Pele had broken in 1958. 

Couple of thanks before I retire from writing blogs forever.

Firstly to those of you who've read it. It started simply as a way for me to record this trip in a slightly different way, and one day perhaps for my children to read it and be interested in it. However, the numbers of who have read it have come as a lovely surprise and I genuinely hope you enjoyed at least parts of it.

Also to my family (including some no longer with us) who in their own different ways (they know how) made this trip happen for me in the way it did, and I thought of them all frequently throughout. Finally a special mention for my Dad. It was a little bit of a step into the unknown living 9 days in each other's pockets, but it was just superb. Being able to share this trip with him both as father and son, and as friends, is something I'll always be thankful for.

Thanks Dad.

Cymru am byth.

The end. 

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Day 8 - Football

Day 8

Miles travelled - 444

French phrase of the day - Un bise (a kiss on the cheek)

Funny really, today ended up being all about the football, when pretty much everything else on the trip has been about other things, with the football matches just hanging it all together. A new country, new acquaintances, old friends, good food and wine, plenty of wine, some beautiful scenery and just hundreds of thousands of different people from all over the world enjoying themselves. Those have been the special moments for me, but made even better by it being linked to following Wales around, even if only for their first two games.

But today felt much more like we were all there just for the game. An important one, but not a special one. There was clearly rivalry in the air, but not a hint of trouble, and Lens gave us everything we needed by way of a welcome to at least have a beer and make some noise in the sunshine. Both Dad and I had been sorted out with tickets thanks to some very kind Welsh fans (neither of whom asked for a penny above the face value of the ticket), facilitated by another kind Welshpool soul. 

Bale's brilliance again gave us a fantastic moment, and the team gave everything but even though it came in a cruel way, England's late winner saw the right team get the points.   Let's hope Wales have something left in the tank for the game against Russia, and hope that Gareth Bale can be Mr Monday Night and extend our dream for a little longer. Even if they don't, it's been quite some achievement by this set of players. 

On the way out, one of the volunteers, a girl about 20 or so, approached me to ask if she could have my flag for her young brother. I initially said no, thinking I'd keep the flag as a memento for myself, but a few steps later, I realised the pointlessness of keeping a flag I'd bought from EBay just a week ago, and which would end up gathering dust in our loft pretty soon. I've already got plenty of mementos and memories, and I'm sure her young brother will treasure it more than me, even if only for a short while. 

So I returned to her, handed it over, and she gave me an unexpected big hug and a kiss on the cheek. So very French. And it was a very nice moment for me to sign out of these championships in person. 

Thanks to pitchside photographer Matt Ashton, for getting a nice shot of me with said flag.

After the game it was back to the hotel just north of Lens, another two star job, but at least the two stars here haven't been secured to the wall with blu tack like our first one. 

Home tomorrow, and one final post from me to close off this blog, and this remarkable experience. 

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Day 7 - Calm before the storm

Day 7

Miles Travelled - 2

French word of the day - Avec (With)

Another short update today. No football and no particularly humorous incidents. 

Little bit of sightseeing today instead. Went to my third cathedral of the trip (a basilica at the top of a massive hill in Lyon). I have a standard routine, which I repeat at any cathedral, and which is as follows, starting from the point of arrival at said cathedral :
1) let out a little gasp and say to my travelling companion - "very impressive isn't it?"
2) go inside 
3) repeat step 1
4) take the opportunity to sit down on one of the many seats for ten minutes 
5) leave 

After that, and after another little beer stop (I'm going to miss these in particular) my Dad and I took a boat trip down the Rhone for a circular tour of Lyon. 8/10. 

We then had more beer and a pizza in a tourist trap before sharing a bus back to our hotel  with a bloke from Swansea and one another from Northern Ireland, where we pondered upon the mathematical possibilities that could lead to us both qualifying from our groups. It certainly beats work. 

At this point I should point out that I have been using my GCSE French to the maximum throughout this trip. There's been more 'Je voudrais', 'Un xxxxxx sil vous plait', 'Merci beaucoup' and 'Ou est la toilettes' than you can shake a stick at. Even when the French have done that thing where they smile and then calmly reply to you in perfect English, I haven't been dissuaded, and carry on using my broken French, always leaving them with a hearty "Au revoir". 

Unfortunately, I haven't had any opportunity to 'provide directions to someone who asks you where the town hall is' nor to 'write to your pen pal Pierre in La Rochelle to tell him about the unfortunate accident you had whilst skiing'.

The low point came tonight though when I confidently ordered 'Un Sprite Avec Un grande Biere' only to spend the subsequent minute desperately trying to convince the barman not to pour them in the same glass. Think I might just go back to pointing and speaking English slowly instead. 

Anyway, it's a 4.30am alarm call in the morning, with a 400 mile trip to do to Lens by midday, so I'll sign off. 

Two more days to go. 

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Day 6 - Portugal Vs Iceland

Day 6 

Miles travelled - 92

French phrase of the day - Marcher (walk)

I thought today would be all about Ronaldo. It ended early up being all about Iceland. What a story.

After a very quiet morning (which featured a superb mid morning nap), we headed off to St Etienne, having managed to get tickets for the Portugal Vs Iceland. 

I got the sense of St Etienne  even more so than either of the other two cities we've visited, were totally embracing the opportunity to host matches in this tournament. Along with the official fan park, there was also a more informal party with a DJ in the town hall square. Fans from all nations were sat outside the numerous bars and restaurants, making a terrific atmosphere. 

After a something like a three mile walk around the town, all based around a decent restaurant, which was firmly closed when we arrived (French opening hours are as  maverick as their attitudes to strikes), we got a tram upto the stadium.

The Iceland story is a great one. With a 330,000 population, like Wales they are here at their first ever tournament. There was a huge presence from their fans throughout the town, with a high proportion of families bringing children of all ages. 

Security was high outside the stadium. I had the most efficient body pat down by a security guard I've ever had (including those in airports) on the way in, to the point I got extremely ticklish mid point, and had to bite my lip to stop myself from laughing as some of my more sensitive areas were randomly grabbed by the security guard. Would it have been inappropriate to have laughed during a body search? Surely no more inappropriate than the behaviour of my father who began queuing in the female only queue, where you receive a body search from a female security guard. I think he must be missing my mother. 

I'll probably write something about all the hooliganism stuff at the end of this trip, but yet again all that I saw were fans having a brilliant time. When we got into the stadium, we had great seats, with English, Portuguese, Icelandic, Japanese, French and Russian supporters all sat within a couple of seats of us. Interestingly, the Russian lady sat next to us had each one of her fingernails individually patriotically painted. These includes Russian flags, Russian dolls, footballs, and an image of a Mixed Martial Arts fighter hammering a football supporter with an iron bar. Well, the last one was made up, but the rest were true. 

The games was high paced action throughout. The Icelandic fans were fantastic, and objectively I'd have to say this was the best atmosphere of the three games I've been to, with the 38,000 capacity stadium noisy throughout. 

Iceland had a great chance to score early but were denied by the keeper and Portugal took over, with a goal on the half hour. I thought I would be neutral watching this game, but just after half time when Iceland majestically swept in their equalised, I, along with the other neutrals around me, leapt to my feet to cheer. It was quite moment. 

They hung on, despite a couple more great Portuguese chances, and received a great ovation at the end. The Portugal fans looked shell shocked. 

Another great day. We're into the home straight of the trip now, with our last day in Lyon tomorrow before we start making the long trip home, with just the small matter of Wales v England to deal with. 

Monday, 13 June 2016

Day 5 - Italia!

Day 5 

Miles travelled - 38

French word of the day - Fromage (Cheese - I'm eating my bodyweight in the stuff this trip) 

Good day today. Explored Lyon by foot, tram and trolleybus. Since the kids have come along, the simple joy of spending holidays wandering round a new city, stopping for something to eat or drink as you want, has become a distant memory, replaced by endless kids clubs and shows featuring Anxious the Elephant and DJ Ned. Still, won't be long before I can bore them to tears by dragging them round various European cities I'm sure. 

Quickly became apparent that the Belgians were hugely outnumbering the Italians in the city today. The red devils as they call themselves were packing the cafes and bars from midday onwards. Great atmosphere all day, with plenty of singing, drinking and not a hint of trouble. I'm sick to death of Seven Nation Army mind. 

Dad and I have managed to go 5 days without a row, despite me putting up with some absolute nonsense from him.  Here's a couple of the gems we've had from him today:

"Gareth, look here in this shop window. There's a pair of jeans for 49 euros. But next to them, there's the same pair but with a rip in the knees, and they cost 69 euros!"

"Oh no, my rain hat has got all wet....."

Also, the mess he got into ordering his breakfast in a cafe had to be seen to be believed. They had to bring him an English language menu out in the end, which in the culinary capital of France is as insulting as it gets. He assures me he got a 'pass' in his O Level French however, and overall he's been great company so I'll lay off him for now. 

Can't quite work the Italian support out. The country's regional history is pretty complicated of course and I know that the national team's relationship with the Italian people is not straightforward, but hell they always bang out their national anthem, particularly that last line about their name being Italy, or something like that. And when they went one up, they suddenly showed up. Also, seemed to be a lot of English and other non-Italians supporting them.

The game was very enjoyable. Belgium started strong but Italy, the seasoned veterans they are, got a beautiful goal out of nothing, and held firm defensively before sealing it with a second in injury time. We missed the second goal as we'd left to catch the bus before the crowds hit. Always makes me wonder why the hell do we travel miles and spend ££££s to watch a game of football and then bugger off early just to save ten minutes queuing to get out. 

Still, I was back in the hotel within 40 minutes of the final whistle,  tucked up with a can of Sterling lager (40p a can) and my third cheese sandwich of the day, so it was a good call.

St Etiene for another night game tomorrow. Then it's time to turn our thoughts to England in Lens. 

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Day 4 - Bordeaux to Lyon

Day 4 

Miles travelled - 345

French word of the day - Crepe (Pancake......... or is it a Crepe? Anyway, it's what I had for my lunch) 

Will keep it brief today. Still a little drained to be honest after yesterday, which really was as good as it gets. 

So today was a stunning drive across France, from Bordeaux to Lyon, past the Chaine des Puys, a collection of volcanic mountains which gave some superb views. 

Comedic highlight was my father choosing to pay a 10 euro toll with a 50 euro note, and then getting paid his change entirely in coins, and promptly dropping half of it out of the car window. The Spanish couple in the car behind, who had to wait for two minutes whilst he scrabbled round on the floor after it, found it hilarious. Or perhaps they'd clocked the GB sticker on the car and thought we might hurl some patio furniture at them if they didn't laugh. 

Decent hotel with a pool in Lyon for the next four nights. We're based opposite a camping site where there are lots of fans from different countries including English and Belgiums who all seem to be getting on and having a great time. Not sure that will make the pages of the Daily Mail mind. 

Belgium V Italy tomorrow. The first International I've attended as a neutral since watching Colombia Vs Morocco at the Nou Camp in 2006. Now there was a clash of cultures.

Off to sleep now. Still dreaming of Hal. 

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Day 3 - Hal Robson-Kanu

Miles - 26 (just the car rides in and out of Bordeaux from the hotel)

French word of the day - Biere (Beer)

"Excuse me sir, what does it say on the back of those t shirts" the elderly French gentleman said to me. "I think it's meant to say in French that they have sex with sheep" I replied. "Yes, but the translation is very poor and it makes no sense" a nearby French girl on a bicycle chipped in. "Don't tell them" I said, "they're having a good time".

And they were, and so were around 24,000 other Welsh fans in Bordeaux. It's a great city, and has managed the influx of fans with total ease. The bars and cafes have been packed, the weather has been reasonably kind, and there's been a very relaxing atmosphere all around.

After a morning stroll down Rue St Catherine, France's longest pedestrianised street as you all know, we ventured to the Blarney Stone. I always think it's vital to really try to get to know a city when you travel, and nothing achieves this less than visiting a faux Irish pub to drink a pint of carlsberg out of a plastic cup, surrounded by people from your own country.

From there, we had an enjoyable catch up with some fellow Montgomeryshire lads, and after a decent pizza, more beer, a glass of wine and a shot of limoncello, we headed off to the Cathedral, then another couple of bars for more beer and wine, and then headed off to the stadium.

To be honest, the alcohol was kicking in at that point and I joined in perhaps over-heartily with the Welsh songs on the tram on the way there. The Welsh have really upped their game in terms of songs and decent airings were given for both 'Give me hope Joe Allen' and 'Ain't nobody like Joe Ledley'. However, neither of these could touch the 'Hal Robson-Kanu' rave-up.

Ah, Hal. A proper cult hero. I'd even worn my Hal t shirt as a tribute to the man. Says everything about Wales that's man who has been released by Reading and essentially is currently eligible to claim unemployment benefits is just as revered by the fans as one of the top 5 footballers in the world.

Not going to rattle on too much about the game. If you're interested, you will have seen it yourself so you'll know how it went. And if you're not, well then you're just waiting for me to go back to amusing anecdotes aren't you?

All I can say is that the Welsh fans and team were superb. Brought, emotion, passion and humour to the stadium in bucketfuls. Kept together when Slovakia threatened to overrun us second half, and then of course Hal came on and with eight minutes to go, and gave us the result that we've all dreamed of. The last few minutes with the wall of sound in the stadium was just terrific. 

A perfect day. Spent an hour or so more in Bordeaux with another beer and a ham and cheese sandwich with the ham taken out (the vegetarian option) and then back to the hotel in time to see the end of the England game with a nightcap.

Plenty of alcohol. Plenty of singing. Plenty of magic. 

And Hal.

Off to Lyon tomorrow. See you there.