Running with the pack

Madrid

Decreed the “team of the century’’ by Fifa, Real Madrid (www.realmadrid.com) are the aristocrats of world football. Loved and loathed in equal measure throughout Spain, the club has an imperious — some would say aloof — air.

But with a team that boasts four or five of the best players in the world and the magnificent Bernabeu stadium, this is Europe’s most spectacular footballing stage.

The big match: Barcelona vs Real (April 31 2005) is one of the sport’s greatest occasions. Tickets are like gold dust, but worth every penny.
Atletico Madrid are not in the same financial league as their neighbours, but the local derby (February 20 2005) is still huge. Deportivo La Coruna (October 6) and Valencia (October 24) have given Real a good run for their money in recent seasons.

Swift one: The Bernabeu is ringed by bars. The walls of the Chiquifru are covered with old match tickets; okay Madrid with classic Real photos.

Madrilenos are nocturnal beings, so do as they do and go out late. The art deco Museo Chicote, described by Ernest Hemingway as “without doubt the best bar in Spain”, is a good place to start, then head to Plaza Santa Ana and take your pick from hundreds of bars. The Malasana area attracts a younger, grungier crowd.

Extra time: Die-hards will want to visit the Exposicion de Trofeos at the Bernabeu. For local colour, check out the El Rastro flea market around Plaza dos Cascorro on Sunday morning. It sells everything from clothes to antiques and stolen goods — so watch your pockets.

Where to stay: The kitsch leather and marble lobby — not to mention mirror-filled rooms — at the Monaco reflect the fact this was once a high-class brothel. In the heart of the lively Chueca area, this is a fun place to stay. Nearby is the more sedate San Lorenzo, with well-equipped rooms and a café in its attractive courtyard.

Valencia

The Spanish and Uefa Cup champions, Valencia (valenciacf.es) are one of the most stylish and exciting teams in Europe. Throw in the beach, plenty of sunshine and some of the best nightlife in Spain and this is the ideal city for a getaway.

The big match: Games against glamour boys Barcelona (May 8 2005) and Real Madrid (March 6 2005) are the ones to go for, but the most eagerly awaited match is the local derby against Levante (January 9 2005), the first time the city’s second team has been in the top flight for 40 years. Valencia vs Deportivo La Coruna (February 13 2005) is a meeting of two smaller clubs playing exciting football.

Swift one: The Museo Deportivo de Manolo “El del Bombo” is a bar-cum-shrine to the club’s most famous fan, the rotund drummer that cameramen zoom in on at every World Cup. The hip Barrio del Carmen neighbourhood in the old city is full of bars, clubs and restaurants fighting for space in the narrow streets.

Extra time: The futuristic City of Arts and Sciences appears to rise out of the blue pool that surrounds it. Some of the exhibits are as stunning as the architecture. The long, sandy beach north of town, backed by bars and seafood restaurants, is where Valencians go to play. The water is a little murky but fine for swimming.

Where to stay: Consul del Mar is a Modernista hotel near the beach. Rates are halved at weekends, so it is a real bargain.

Porto

The home of the European champions is now as famous for its football as it is for its fortified wine. The “Dragoes’’ (www.fcporto.pt) have slayed plenty of big names on their way to winning the Uefa Cup and Champions League in successive seasons. And the old town, Cais da Ribeira, with its cobbled streets and steep alleyways, has a timeless air.

The big match: Porto vs Benfica is the crunch match. They meet for the first time in Porto’s new Estadio do Dragao, built for Euro 2004, on February 27 2005. Porto vs Sporting (November 7) is also worth catching.

Swift one: The old town is full of bars and clubs — a good place to head, both pre- and post-match.

Extra time: The famous port wine cellars (Taylors Sandemans, Crofts, Grahams) are in Vila Nova de Gaia on the north bank of the river. Tasting tours are free or for a nominal fee.

Where to stay: Pensao de Paris is a popular old place with huge rooms. The Grande Hotel do Porto is good value at â,¬80 for a double with breakfast.

Milan

Perhaps the first city of European football, with two of its most successful clubs, AC Milan (www.acmilan.com) and Internazionale (www.inter.it), and one of its greatest stadiums, the San Siro, home to both clubs.

The big match: With both clubs effectively playing at home the AC vs Inter local derbies (October 24 and February 27 2005) are electrifying, especially as the stands rise up from the pitch-side — rare in a stadium as grand as this. Inter’s hardcore element base themselves in the curva nord, Milan’s in the curva sud.

The Inter vs Juventus (November 28) derby d’Italia also lives up to its billing, but Milan vs Juve (May 8 2005) is a bigger match. The visit of the two Rome clubs, Lazio and Roma, are also eagerly awaited (Inter vs Lazio October 31; AC vs Lazio February 6 2005; AC vs Roma November 7; Inter vs Roma February 13 2005). To get to the ground, leave the metro at Lotto and jump on the free orange bus.

Swift one: La Motta on the Piazza del Duomo is the place for people watching, espresso and panini. The best areas for nightlife are the navigli (canals) south-west of the city centre and the Brera district near La Scala.

Extra time: The Duomo (cathedral) is Milan’s most famous landmark and offers views of the city and the Alps. The designer shops along Montenapoleone and Via Spigo are cathedrals to another kind of religion.

Where to stay: Antica Locanda Solferino is a charming 19th-century inn in the heart of Brera. Book well ahead.

Rome

Lazio (sslazio.it) and Roma (asromacalcio.it) are less glamourous than the Milanese teams, but the rivalry between the two is fiercer, the local derbies headier.

The big match: Il derby della Capitale is the rowdiest in Italy (January 6 and May 5 2005). With the laziali at the curva nord and romanisti at the curva sud, the fun starts with the coreografia, the impressive displays of coordinated card holding that fill each end of the ground. These games are also worth catching: Lazio play Milan (September 29), Inter (March 13 2005) and Juve (April 24 2005); Roma play Inter (October 3), Juve (March 6 2005) and Milan (March 20 2005). To get to the ground take metro Line A to Ottaviano — S Pietro, then jump on the 32 bus with everyone else.

Swift one: Bar San Calisto, with old pictures of both teams on the wall, is good for a cheap beer on the terrace. It is in lively Trastevere where Romans go to play at night.

Extra time: There is so much to see in Rome you might forget about the footie. If you only have time to visit one attraction go and marvel at the Colosseum.

Where to stay: Mid-range hotels are difficult to find, so book early. There is the refurbished Residenza Cellini near the Trevi Fountain. Fawlty Towers is a famous cheapie near Termini, where many budget hotels can be found. — Â