The ties that bind

Michael Visontay and his son put their relationship centre court at three spectacular events.

'Lets call it a post-HSC celebration," I explained to my wife. She rolled her eyes and gave me one of those looks. "More like middle-aged man trying to reclaim his youth ... with money I could have been spending in Paris."

Ouch. But she didn't say no. "Try to be sensible," she sighed. "He's only 17. I don't want a phone call from some remote Spanish hospital." Whatever you called it, we were off on a holiday to die for: first stop, London, to see Wimbledon, then to Siena in Italy for the mediaeval horse race known as Il Palio, and finally Pamplona in Spain for the Running of the Bulls. Three weeks of sport and bravado, late nights and high-carb diets, with no one to drag us into boutiques and markets, or ruin our meals with salads.

We brought complementary assets to the adventure: mine were obsessive planning and multiple credit cards; his were digital savvy and the appetite of a horse. It was a good fit: I booked our hotels and he would find them with Google Maps. I tapped friends for smart restaurants and he would finish my meals.

After nine months of meticulous planning, all the bases were covered as our flight left Sydney. All except one: we didn't have any tickets for Wimbledon. As hurdles go, it was a beauty. We had applied for tickets under seven different names to maximise our chances, privately calculating how we would sell the extras. The closer we came to leaving, it dawned on us that we had nothing.

The day before play began we sat down to buy tickets online. "I've got them, I've got them," the tech guru shouted 30 seconds after they went on sale, as I flailed at the maddening security words. We hugged each other in jubilation. What a start! This was too good to be true.

And it was. Ticketmaster, which sold the tickets, asked for an SMS security verification so my bank could authorise the transaction. But my SMS was linked to an Australian mobile number, which wasn't working in London. We were trapped, the clock ran down and the tickets disappeared before our very eyes, returning automatically to the online ether. "No, no , no," he screamed, and proceeded to trash the room.

That meant we faced the famous Wimbledon queue. Next day, still jet-lagged, we rose at 5.30am to get a place in the waiting line, shivering in 10-degree dampness with 8000 others for ground passes that eventually got us close to the famed grass at SW19.

It was all we hoped: the players in white; strawberries and cream; the retro umpire outfits; gorgeous grounds; and the fizzing of the balls on manicured lawns was an intoxicating mixture. We fixed our SMS glitch, scored tickets online for the rest of the week, cheered Tomic, Stosur and Hewitt, stood on Murray Mound as Nadal lost in the first round and Federer crashed in the second.


The tech guru spied Martina Hingis and caught Maria Sharapova with his zoom when she sneaked into our court to watch her Bulgarian boyfriend in action. My only regret was not snapping up one of the umpire's jackets. But at £800 ($1375), I could not enjoy wearing it and chose a cap instead. My son agreed: "It hides your baldness better."

Siena, a gorgeous mediaeval town just out of Florence, was the black hole in my son's imagination. He knew Wimbledon and the bull runs, but Palio was just a name to him.

"Trust me," I reassured him, "there's nothing quite like it." I had witnessed this extraordinary event a quarter of a century ago and dreamt of going back. We arrived via another mediaeval gem called Lucca, where you can ride bicycles around the old city walls.

The Palio dates back to 1656 and comprises three laps of Siena's main piazza, with 10 horses from 17 of the town's contradas (districts) racing for bragging rights, which count for everything in a community where children all go to the local school and social relations follow suit.

Seats on bleachers around the piazza can fetch €300 ($445) but we arrive just after lunch (pizza and gelato) and secure a good view on the edge of the track for nothing (well, not exactly: crammed in a crowd of 60,000 for five hours in sweltering heat, we feel like sardines frying on a hotplate).

Everyone wears the distinctive scarf of a contrada: locals proudly sport their colours, tourists choose whatever. Processions of costumed drummers roll into the square and my son feels transported to the Middle Ages as each contrada makes its entry, men wearing wigs and tossing flags. "What a scene," he gasps.

At 7.30pm the sun drops behind the bell tower and a roar announces the arrival of the horses, ridden bareback. The crowd hushes in anticipation as they trot to the starting rope. But the horses take forever to settle and jockeys squabble as they jostle for position, some even using their whips.

Suddenly a gunshot cracks the air and a blur of legs and hooves gallops past us. By the next corner, one horse has lost its jockey. Not that it matters. If the horse wins, that's good enough. We watch them circle the piazza, the locals urging their horses on frantically towards victory. The red-white-and-green jockey holds off the riderless horse by a length, and now the real drama unfolds. His supporters swarm onto the track to mob him; the boys next to us join them, trampling a young woman who lies sobbing on the ground. Supporters of the runner-up (second place is worse than last) shape up for a fight with the winners and the police march out to restore order.

My son is breathless with excitement. Seven hours of anticipation have exploded into a melodrama of visceral intensity. The jockey is hoisted high and the winners celebrate long into the night, singing, drumming and parading through the town before sitting down to a huge communal meal. Off to our villa we head, still giddy from the experience. Perhaps that's why I take a wrong turn and end up on a rutted dirt track instead of sealed surface.

"Keep going. Google Maps says it's a road," my navigator says. "There's nothing here," I shout. "It's a road," he insists. Our headlights beam into nowhere. We pass a cemetery, round steep verges and find ourselves enclosed by large manicured bushes. We have driven into a vineyard! Tall vines block our view in all directions and a wave of panic rises in my throat. But Google holds the course. We inch forward and a few tortured minutes later, the track meets our villa driveway. Our mediaeval journey is complete.

Touchdown Barcelona. The flight is on time but not my suitcase: our laptop, accommodation documents, my Wimbledon cap - all gone. Instant role reversal as I fall apart. "It's not that bad," my son reassures me. "There's nothing of real value. We have all our photos, our memories."

What we have is one hour to find clothes, toiletries and underwear before the shops close. On our way to the hotel we dive into a menswear shop and grab clothes at will. This was not the sort of male bonding I had anticipated. But we are due in Pamplona the next day and this is no time for gender politics. They won't let us try underpants on so we buy them in three sizes plus shorts, thongs - you name it. It would have been fun if I wasn't so angry.

The Festival of San Fermin starts with a giant party a day before the first bull run. It's called the Txupinazo. From early morning the old city is packed with people, everyone dressed in white with red scarves, chanting, drinking and spraying red wine at each other. Parents bring babies into this melee, too. In the alleyways residents dump buckets of water from their balconies on the revellers below. Brave or drunken women periodically jump onto men's shoulders and the crowd erupts, egging them to take their tops off. The bars are jammed all night, and still thumping at noon. This is a frenzy.

The bull runs begin at 8am each day. We rise early to find our spot before the route fills with nervous runners who limber up, hug each other and pray to the Virgin Mary. We have rented some balcony spots on Dead Man's Curve, the bend in the route where runners collapse into a logjam, the bulls lose their balance and the script goes out the window. It's a brilliant location, on the first floor and with a bird's-eye view of the curve. Yet we have mixed feelings: we want to see some drama but not see anyone get badly hurt.

"Most injuries are due to falling runners in a panic, not the bulls," our host explains. "Many of the locals wait until later in the week to run because the crowds thin out by then." Today the street is packed, runners waiting anxiously while they look for signs of an approaching pack, which means the six bulls and six steers are on their way. After a minute of treading water, a mighty roar rushes along the street and in a few seconds the bulls arrive. We are barely three metres above the road and the sight of these massive animals careering through the panicked horde is exhilarating.

They pass right under us, bringing a couple of runners down beneath them. Thrill turns to dread as we fear for their safety, until our gaze is diverted to the other side of the road where about 50 runners have piled into each other, arms and legs thrashing to get away from the animals. It's a scene of utter chaos.

Five seconds later the bulls are gone, the danger has dissipated, the runners and spectators disentangle, then jog calmly down the road to the bull-fighting arena. The trampled runners are treated by medics and we filter back into the apartment, only to hear more shouting behind us. We can't believe our eyes. One of the bulls is charging back down the road towards us, having lost its bearings outside the stadium. Even our host is excited. "Never seen this before," he exclaims. The animal runs straight into a metal barrier, butts it fiercely and forces the gate ajar before charging off. A minute later he is back and gallops down the route again. We are beside ourselves at this dramatic bonus.

After our siesta we search for a bar to watch the Wimbledon final. With Nadal out, we find nada (nothing). In desperation the tech guru consults Google Maps, which directs us to O'Connor's Irish pub. We walk into a room of Aussies and Poms glued to a large screen, urging on Murray who is a set up against Djokovic, order drinks and pinch each other at our fortune. Deep into the second set, my son's mobile rings. "Dad, dad," he whispers excitedly. "It's Pisa airport." The airline has found my suitcase and will send it to our hotel in Barcelona overnight. I stroll back in to see Murray take the second set, luggage returned, son at my side. Does it get any better than this?

Four days later we're back at Barcelona airport, waiting for our flight to London and then Sydney. I would love to say that we got home on time and basked in the glory of our trip. But a jet caught fire at Heathrow, the airport was closed for two hours, our flight was delayed and we missed our connections. We took three days to get home - and it was truly horrible. But nothing will erase the memory of our father-son adventure.



Each morning Wimbledon puts 500 tickets online for the next day's matches on Centre Court and No.1 Court. Log in right on 9am and you have a reasonable chance. Make sure you have a local SIM for SMS ticket purchase verification. If not, you can camp overnight in the queue for an allocation of Centre or No.1 Court tickets, or get in the queue by 7am next day for a ground pass (£20 [$34] cash). See


Held on July 2 and August 16. Come the day before to see final trials. On Palio day, arrive by 2pm for a rails position or make do in the centre. Otherwise, buy a balcony/bleacher seat online, but be prepared to pay €150 ($222) and upwards. See


Held July 6-14. Opening party on July 6 is a must. Buy the white clothes and red scarves or you'll look stupid. For bull runs, arrive at 6am for a street position or book a balcony for best safe views. At balconiesestafetasan, they cost €50 a spot right near Dead Man's Curve. Book at least six months ahead to get one of the opening days, and even earlier for a hotel room. See