Some estimates say 150,000 Gers fans were in Andalusia to see their team fall agonisingly short, losing to Eintracht Frankfurt on penalties after a 1-1 draw.
The day after Gio van Bronckhorst’s side beat RB Leipzig to make it to the showpiece game, I wrote a travel guide for fans looking to make it there on a budget, offering a series of indirect but yet cheap ways to make it to Seville.
As it turned out the Glasgow Times needed someone to go and cover the incredible Glaswegian invasion. Ideally without paying £1200 for a charter flight and £900 for a hotel.
So, could I put my money where my mouth was? Could I go there and back for, say, less than £300 including accommodation? Was I, in short, just suggesting nonsense from a desk in Glasgow, planning routes no-one would ever attempt from the comfort of an office chair?
I took up the challenge. Out on Monday, back by Friday, using the cheapest route I could find.
Let’s do this.
Monday – Glasgow-Luton-Lisbon
It’s 6am and security at Edinburgh Airport is chaos. Throngs of people in blue sombreros queue in a line 20 deep to scan boarding passes, with the barriers only opening at 20-minute intervals once the sea of people standing at scanners has somewhat receded.
The departures board tells the story: flights leave for Faro, Malaga, Fuerteventura – if it sounds vaguely Iberian it’s on the board.
Alas it seems the early hour may have caught some out – that or the busy airport bars. Over the din comes not the standard, automated announcement of gates and departures, but a stern voice informing a Gary Johnson that this is the “final, FINAL, call for Malaga”. We may never know if he made it.
The first leg of the journey involves an EasyJet flight to Luton and here too there’s a healthy Rangers contingent. Ahead of departure we are informed that the tray tables must be in an upright and locked position, life jackets are located under the seat and, from the back of the plane, that John Lundstram is the best on earth.
You know what you’re getting with EasyJet. The one concession to extravagance is a QR code which you can scan to read the in-flight menu or purchase perfumes and assorted other things. Quite what the point of this is when no-one can access the internet to make use of this facility is not clear.
Luton Airport is similarly packed with travelling Gers fans, one of whom is spluttering indignantly about having just paid £16 for a packet of cigarettes in the attendant branch of WH Smith. With six hours to kill I opt to take a stroll into Luton itself rather than contend with such prices.
You can tell a lot about a place by its branding. New York, that vibrant cultural capital, is The City That Never Sleeps. Rome, where famously all roads lead, is the Eternal City. A short walk from the terminal a giant sign informs me I’m now in the ‘Home of the Vauxhall Vivaro’. Hey, if your other notable export was Tommy Robinson you’d probably go with the van Auto Car called “much more obedient than you might expect” too.
If there is a worse airport bar than Hawker at Luton Airport it must be manned by Beelzebub himself.
After battling through airport security, I have around 90 minutes before my flight to Lisbon. I decide to risk airport prices for a coffee and perhaps something to eat before the gate is announced. Foolishly, I give a swerve to the Wetherspoons-like establishment at the other side of the scanners and head to the other side of the terminal.
I join a small queue, but it quickly becomes apparent I’ve made a huge mistake. One well-sculpted man works the bar with all the urgency of a sloth in an Amsterdam coffee shop. Another walks around ostensibly collecting plates and glasses, but as no-one is actually being served his role consists largely of taking the trays for a stroll.
When someone does reach the front, those behind pray that they do not order food: for some reason this means a third man must come along and work the till, while the well-sculpted gentleman watches on.
After, and this is not journalistic licence, half an hour, I reach the front. I opt to forgo any food for the benefit of those behind me. They’ve suffered enough.
“Can I just have a black coffee, please?” I ask wearily.
“We can’t do coffee at the moment,” replies the well-sculpted chap.
Having worked in customer service I know better than to take my frustrations out on the staff, but after a half hour wait I decide I need something stronger than coffee.
I request a pint of Camden Lager, which they do not have. They also do not have Peroni. In the end I pay £6.75 for a pint of Stella. It’s warm. The man with the trays tips me a friendly wink as I take my seat, so I can only assume the whole outlet is some kind of outsider art piece I don’t understand. For all I know those behind me in the queue remain there to this day.
Despite a brief delay the next leg of the journey, to Lisbon, goes off without a hitch. There’s only so much time one can spend in an airport, so after touching down on Portuguese soil I decide to head into the city itself to get something to eat.
It was at this point I cursed myself that the extent of my Portuguese extends to ‘Obrigado’ and some (what I like to think) are dead on pronunciations of the names of Portuguese footballers. I’d be able to impress the locals if the subject of Joao Felix (pronounced Zh-wow Fell-ix) came up, less so if trying to communicate literally anything else.
I picked a metro stop at random on the red line from the airport. Bel Vista, I assumed, meant good view and therefore would be a picturesque spot to spend a couple of hours. Unfortunately at a stop called Oriental a huge crowd of passengers boarded the train and, having had quite enough of large crowds of people travelling for one day, I bailed off there.
As neighbourhoods go it wasn’t too shabby, the long beachfront offering a good view of the colossal Vasco da Gama bridge. Opened for the world fair in 1998, it stretches out almost as far as the eye can see and is, fact fans, the longest bridge in the European Union.
A local spots me gazing at the bridge and offers something in Portuguese. “Luis Figo.” I nod sagely. “O Squinty Bridge, mas grande.”
I eat a quick meal of steak and salad before heading back to the airport.
Tuesday – Lisbon-Seville
In my experience, Southern European bus timetables are more like bus guidelines.
Tonight’s overnight bus to Seville is scheduled for 10.15pm, with the ticket warning passengers to be there at least 15 minutes in advance. I find myself standing at the requisite stop around 9.45, and am soon joined by a man in a Rangers scarf and what must be his son.
Of course, there is no sign of said bus and by the time it hits 10.25 the three of us are somewhat worried.
I corner another driver and stammer: “Sevilha? Here? Yes?”.
Leaning against a wall, he takes a deep drag on his cigarette and assures, “yes, here, no problem, not worry.”
It turns out to be sage advice. Five minutes later the bus rolls into the stop and, following a quick break for the driver to smoke a cigarette and exchange some banter with his fellow drivers we’re off on a mammoth trek across the famous bridge, around the Algarve and, eventually, to Seville. I rather admire this attitude to transit. Be there 15 minutes before the scheduled departure time, WE’LL decide when we actually leave.
The bus is equipped with televisions in the headrests, as well as a USB charging point for phones - though it quickly becomes apparent that these don’t actually work. My fellow passengers and I spend the first leg of the journey in silence, occasionally dozing off before being awoken by some unexpected pothole or sharp turn.
It must be said that the towns of the Algarve are not especially pretty to look at, at least glimpsed through a bus window in the dark, with ugly concrete buildings lining the shore and huge high-rise hotels dominating what was once surely a lovely view.
It’s at one such town, Faro, that we pick up our biggest contingent of fans yet. At this point I must be clear: no-one causes any aggro, there are no problems beyond some excited fans being a bit boisterous. That said, a few were… well-lubricated.
One group in particular take great delight in shouting for a man named Steve, despite making clear they are not travelling with anyone named Steven. It’s the kind of in-joke that is probably hilarious when you’re on the beers with your mates, it’s not quite as funny at 3am when you’re not in on the gag.
Soon I grow to hate the fictional Steve. I assign him the blame for any issues we encounter from here on out. When the bus has to stop to allow one young man to be sick? That was probably Steve. It was definitely Steve who told the driver to take the wrong exit, and probably he who kept us for 50 minutes at a supposed 25 minute rest stop.
Eventually a woman across the aisle tells the young men in no uncertain terms to shut the f*** up about Steve and the last hour allows some fitful sleep.
We arrive almost 45 minutes late, step off the sweltering bus and head our separate ways. The sunrise is just beginning to touch the horizon as I cross the rio Guadalquivir, bound for an AirBNB where I’ll be spending the next two days on the couch of some friends who had far more foresight than me. For the moment I’m the only person on the bridge and the view is stunning.
Exhausted I make my way to the apartment. I pass a man in a Rangers shirt headed out for some breakfast, the silence broken only by a dog which takes a sudden and forceful objection to his morning stroll, barking furiously at the bemused Scotsman. Must be a Celtic fan.
Tuesday (after a quick nap)
The city is packed with what feels like more Scottish and Germans than Spaniards. You can tell the ones who have come over for the game. They’ll be wearing either blue, white or orange combined with an alarming shade of red on the skin.
The heat, by the way, is no joke. I spend a couple of hours speaking to fans of both sides, walking up and down one of Seville’s main streets. This athletic endeavour requires me to head back to the apartment for a second shower and the blessed relief of air conditioning.
My bright idea of sleeping on a couch for these two days has in fact proved inspired – the air-con unit is located directly above the sofa so while my temporary flatmates might have such amenities as mattresses and pillows, I can bask in cool air flow all night and that, to quote David Brent, is the real quiz.
Following a long day slogging around the city I realise I’ve not actually had time to eat anything, so I head out for an evening meal. I have, in my heat-addled state, forgotten that Spanish people do not do evening meals.
I wander blindly around trying to find a restaurant which might be open at 7pm, a quest which is entirely in vain. Eventually I stumble upon an Argentinian restaurant. It doesn’t open until 8.30pm, over an hour away, but at this point I’m simply done walking. I buy a bag of ice from a nearby supermarket and cling to it like a comfort blanket in a nearby park as I await opening time.
In the following hour I get some strange looks from the locals – it’s as if they’ve never seen a sweaty Scotsman hug a bag of ice in a playpark before.
It’s the day of the game, and finally a chance to appreciate the beauty of the city we’re in. Gorgeous old buildings abound, with trees of purple bloom lining the sides of the road.
I stop for a paella on the street and observe some Rangers and Frankfurt fans discussing the importance of shade. They may be on opposite sides, but pasty kinship trumps football rivalry every time.
Today is the day of the game, which I am not attending. After speaking to some people who are, I make my way to a showing of the match at the Cartuja stadium in the north of the city. Unfortunately I decide to walk up, reasoning that although it takes an hour the public transport will be so heaving it’ll make little difference.
Of course, the advantage of getting a bus in a strange city is that the driver will probably know where he’s going, in this case a quaint little location the locals call El Arse End del Nowhere.
I and a bevvy – pun intended – of confused Rangers fans wander around some kind of science and research estate, trying in vain to find the stadium, which proves an issue even with sat nav. If you’re ever in Seville and want to see a booster rocket from a space shuttle though, I’m yer man.
After the match, which Rangers lose on penalties, I make the same journey in reverse and now, thankfully, the heat has eased off a bit. Still, it takes me until after 1am to get back to the apartment.
Shortly thereafter my temporary flatmates return and we rehash the match over some sandwiches and crisps. We retire around 3am. My alarm goes off two hours later and I quietly slip out.
Thursday – Seville-Madrid-Milan-Bergamo
Seville’s main train station resembles the scramble for the last chopper out of Saigon. Rangers and Frankfurt fans alike are sleeping outside the main entrance, while inside harassed Spanish stewards try to impose some sort of order on the throngs of people looking for tickets and trying to board trains.
It is, quite frankly, complete chaos but eventually I and several hundred others manage to board a high-speed train to Madrid.
This is probably far too strident an observation based on looking out of the window for a few hours, but it seems like a lot of Spain just has… nothing in it?
We roll through miles and miles of countryside populated only by groves of trees and the occasional farmhouse. The scenery is lovely, and certainly preferable to the concrete monstrosities of the Algarve, but the vast emptiness is striking.
If you travel through, say, Italy by train you’ll see similar scenery but with little hamlets clinging to a mountainside every few miles, or some medium-sized town with a massive clock tower on the plains. On this particular Spanish rail journey at least there’s almost none of that.
We arrive in Madrid on time, and first impressions are not good. After some searching I locate a toilet.
Now, having to pay to use the facilities in a train station is not unheard of but in this particular venue the price was a massive €1. That’s about 85p just to use the bathroom. In any just world the people who had suggested such a thing would have been shot by firing squad at dawn.
Getting a ticket to the airport proves similarly baffling.
Now, I must caveat what follows: I think it’s important to at least try to speak the language when you go abroad, and as English-speakers we’re very fortunate that most of the world can understand at least enough to communicate some basic ideas. It puts us to shame the way most of the world can at least hold a conversation in what may be their third language, while many Brits abroad just talk more loudly and point.
That said: Madrid, sort your ticket machines out. Without being a Little Scotlander, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to have some sort of legible English translation on the automatic machines in the biggest station of the capital of one of Europe’s biggest countries. I approach the machine to buy my ticket to the airport and am, understandably, met with Spanish. Clicking through to English – and one assumes it’s the same for French and German – did little but change ‘carta’ to ‘card’ with the rest remaining in Spanish.
Clicking any of these options to see if there might be a word a non-Spanish speaker could understand simply brought up an instruction to ‘raise up your RENFE card to the reader’. Clicking the button to indicate I HAD no RENFE card and would like to get one simply returned things to the home screen.
A chap beside me observed my swearing and slapping at the machine and concluded: ‘there’s a man who knows what he’s doing’.
“How do I get to Valdebabas” he asks, in Spanish even I could understand.
“No habla Espanol,” I say apologetically. My knowledge of the language is even worse than I thought, as apparently this means “I speak really great Spanish, please ask me a very involved question”.
“No comprende,” I respond, when he obliged what had apparently been my request.
“Ah, English?” says the man, realisation dawning on his face. I sighed with relief. “Si.”
“How do I get to Valdebebas?” he asks - in English this time. I contort my face into an arrangement that finally puts the matter to rest.
I’m not sure if there are signs up around Madrid telling you to find the palest, most confused-looking person you can, for therein lies the fount of all travel knowledge, but this happens twice more on the way to the airport.
Such is the faith the people of Madrid have in my travel expertise, I could be mayor in a week. And my first decree will involve the people who set the prices for the toilets in the train station…
Having finally secured a ticket to the airport, the train mysteriously stops two shy of the terminal. A man in a high-vis vest instructs us all to get off for reasons that are unclear. The train then drives away and we’re left standing on the platform.
A French couple, hearing of my prowess in the Madrid transport system, ask if this is the right line for the airport. This I actually understand. “Oui, mais…” I respond with a shrug. The key to speaking French is to really master your shrug. The tannoy is presumably explaining the situation but the French couple speak no more Spanish than I do.
“Un autre?” the husband asks.
“J’espere…” is all I can say. I shrug to underline my point.
Eventually another does arrive. Madrid airport is the same as any other airport. The flight to Milan goes smoothly.
Without wanting to spark a Brexit debate, the Schengen Zone really is excellent. The plane lands at Malpensa at 4.30pm and 15 minutes later I’m on a train to Milan.
If you’ve never been to Milano Centrale, it’s very difficult to convey just how grandiose it truly is. Built in the 1920s at the behest of Il Duce, it’s all high ceilings, marble, and fearsome looking eagles. It is, despite its unfortunate beginnings, one of the greatest train stations on the planet. It's also not in the centre, proving you should never trust a fascist.
I pay £4 for a train to Bergamo. We pass over a perilous ravine that has my heart in my mouth, and through Monza – famous for hosting the Italian Grand Prix – and Arcore – famous for hosting Silvio Berlusconi’s Bunga-Bunga parties – before pulling into our destination at around half past six.
No-one ever really goes to Bergamo, whose airport stands as a gateway to Milan, and that is a crying shame. It’s an underrated gem, flanked by the alps, with a glorious old town, the citta alta (high city), in which you can spend hours just wandering around marvelling at the medieval streets. There’s even a funicular to railway to take you still higher, to San Vigilio, where you can gaze down upon the city and the plains of Lombardy below.
Obviously I did none of this as I had a €30 B&B to get to. It would turn out that the place was a lovely converted farmhouse, set out in the countryside in the most idyllic of locations. It also wasn’t technically in Bergamo. A bus on the way up rendered the issue moot, but I had a flight to Wroclaw at 7am the following morning. A quick scan showed that the bus I’d used to get here didn’t start running until 6.30 the following day. I grabbed a pizza and a bottle of beer at a nearby bar and resolved myself to another ridiculously early start.
Friday – Bergamo-Wroclaw-Glasgow
The alarm wakes me at 3am, and after a quick shower I begin the hour long walk to the airport shuttle bus.
This wasn’t actually the worst thing in the world. Bergamo is, as I’ve mentioned, hugely underrated in my book and you don’t have to worry when crossing the road at that time.
I arrive in plenty of time for the flight, which cannot be said of the man who walks through the airport doors beside me.
“Noooo, dio cana!” he exclaims, a phrase which can’t really be translated to English properly but is, I assure you, some serious swearing. He then does what I suppose any Italian man would do in such a situation and simply began pushing past people who had actually turned up on time for their flights, accompanied by furious hand gestures and declarations of ‘cazzo!’ as though it were their fault he’d showed up too late. Italy is such a great country.
Even here there are Rangers fans. As I’m thumbing through a copy of Gazzetta dello Sport I hear a father and son discussing Aaron Ramsey’s fateful penalty. I glance behind and see two more in Gers shirts.
I turn to the father and ask about their journey. He replies it seemed like a good idea at the time, but he’d reappraised his opinion while trying to sleep on the cold tiled floor of Orio al Serio airport.
They’d also be going from Bergamo to Glasgow via Wroclaw. He and I exchanged a brief nod.
We few. We actually-quite-tired-and-sweaty-if-we’re-honest-about-it few. We band of brothers.
And so to Wroclaw. The plane lands early and it’s a sunny day in Poland.
I’ve actually been to Wroclaw before. It’s nice. I met a sausage maker called Wojciech and an English couple called Anthony and Linda. I think I did a shot in honour of Polish independence day.
There will be no time for such hi-jinx today, with just two hours until the flight to Glasgow. The airport is the same as every airport, and I should know after this week.
It all goes off without a hitch, and we touch down in Glasgow around midday. I and the Rangers fans I met in Bergamo disembark. Are we the last back from Seville? Who can say.
I sling my backpack over my shoulder and prepare for the final journey – the journey home.
So: Can you get to a Europa League final in Madrid and back for under £300? Yes. Should you? I’ll tell you when I’ve had some sleep.