For some people, sports is the essence of life. For some people, sports is an OK diversion. For some people, sports is just stupid. Whatever your position when you’re home, when you travel, it’s not the time to be the “I’m not into sports” person. When you’re traveling, sports can be one of the best ways to learn about the history of a place and what the people are passionate about. It’s also going to give you your best shot at talking to the locals in a non-tourist setting.
We have our own approach to sports on our trips. “He” -- Geoff -- is a former sportswriter who follows not just one team, but any team that’s playing on TV, whose first move when he finds out we’re traveling to a place is to look to see if the local teams have any home games, or if there is a hall of fame dedicated to sports. “She” -- Kathleen -- thinks sports are a fun social event, and is happy to spend one night at a Yankees game and the next night at a Broadway show. She also knows she has an addict on her hands who needs an adult to help moderate things between sports reality and actual reality.
You hit the jackpot when your travels take you to a place that has a historic team. You learn about just how intense New Yorkers are by sitting in the outfield seats in Yankee Stadium and hearing people going nuts about one particular pitch in the middle of the fourth inning of a Tuesday night game in June. We found out just how passionate New Englanders are about the Red Sox by going to a game at Fenway Park where we spent more time talking to locals than we did the entire rest of the time we were visiting the city. One of the great benefits of going to games in other cities is that the locals sort of welcome you in as part of the group as long as you’re not cheering for the visiting team. The best place to find out where the best pizza, bars, clubs or sandwiches are is by going to a game and asking the people sitting around you.
We recently paid a visit to Montreal, the home of the most successful hockey team in NHL history, the Canadiens. A trip to the Montreal Canadiens Hockey Hall of Fame and accompanying tour of the Bell Centre where the team plays taught us as much about the history of Montreal and what motivates the people there as any books, tours or museums we visited. To listen to our interview with the director of the Montreal Canadiens Hockey Hall of Fame, check out our radio show about Montreal by clicking here.
The same was true when we visited Dublin, Ireland, and ended up being in town when an important hurling match was going on. We loved it even though we didn’t understand a thing about it. Just the fact that the Irish were even playing the sport spoke to their history, since it was something the English had once tried to ban. Beyond the game, the stadium itself, Croke Park, had all sorts of history to it. One set of stands was named for a goalie who was killed during a match as part of “Bloody Sunday” in 1920. Another set of stands was built on the rubble created by the “Easter Rising” of 1916. All of that melancholy history surrounding the field, yet after the match was over, the captain of the winning team led the crowd in a cheer for the losing squad. The afternoon was tragedy mixed with cheer, which is as good an explanation of the Irish as you’re going to get.
We got a similar sense of a people and their history while in Bermuda during Cup Match ,which is basically Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, the Major League All-Star Game and a couple of other holidays rolled into one on a tropical island. How could things get any better? It’s a four-day party the locals refer to as “bigger than Christmas.” The heart of the festivities is a two-day cricket match between the best players on different parts of the island. Thousands of people pack into makeshift stands around the cricket pitch in an exhibition that illustrates the unique Bermuda blend of island laid-backness mixed with stiff-upper-lip British tradition. Sitting in the “Newcomer’s Box” and having the locals explain the game to us was a much deeper experience than all of the touristy things we did.
Modern athletics bring out the passion in people. We got a lesson in this last summer in Barcelona. We first went to visit the famed Sagrada Familia cathedral. Thousands of people came in and out to admire the amazing architecture, but 99 percent of them didn’t seem to be there for any particular religious reason. Later, we went to have the Camp Nou Experience at the home stadium of the popular F.C. Barcelona soccer team. We’re not really even fans of the sport, but we still loved the tour, especially the part where the guests get to go down on the field. We stood and watched as grown-ups turned into little kids, got to the verge of tears, or simply walked around staring up in awe to the top rows of a stadium that seats nearly 100,000 people.
So, even if you’re a “I’m not into sports” person, it’s a fun way to experience a people and get a sense of place. After all, can you think of a better way to describe the dynamics of the Beehive State to an outsider than a Utah vs. BYU football game?
The Travel Tramps write regularly about their treks near and far in City Weekly, as well as blogging online at CityWeekly.net. You can follow them on Twitter @TravelBrigade, as well as listen to Kathleen Curry and Geoff Griffin on the weekly Travel Brigade Radio Show at TravelBrigade.com.