Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Trips I Want to Take

10.) Brazil

My interest and desire to go to Brazil has waned slightly over time. I used to be really interested to take a river-boat down the Amazon, and probably still am, but the more I read about the dangers and ills of Brazil’s primary two ports (Rio and Sao Paulo), the less I want to go there. I still would love a trip to Brazil, to experience that fun culture, to eat their nice food, to take that river-boat trip down the Amazon and come across some exotic animals. These are all things I would still do, but when you combine the present dangers and economic crises, and the weather that I am not too much a fan of, there are a few more that have jumped where Brazil would have been had a done this a few years back.

9.) Morocco

I've actually been to Morocco once. It was for less than a day, ferrying over from Spain & Gibraltar, going to the city of Tangier. This isn't that. That (Tangier) wasn't real Morocco, it was a hawkery show, much like the Bahamas, but more desert. Anyway, the real Morocco, of Casablanca and Marrakech, or Rabat, that is what I'm really talking about. It seems like a fascinating country, with a great cuisine, a long history to unwrap. Also, it's fairly close, and can add a nice corner of Africa to my list of countries (to be fair, I count Morocco today).

8.) Scandinavia

Look, I get all the negative aspects of Scandinavia. The cold, the long nights (hint: probably better to just not go in winter?), the seemingly average food. But remove all those trappings, and you get one of the few corners of the world I haven't experienced. I've been to Canada, to Patagonia, to Australia, but not to that scintillating bit of northern country-side. From people I know who've been there, both Copenhagen and Stockholm come well regarded, but I'm more interested in Oslo and rural Norway or Sweden, maybe even visit Faviken, of Chef's Table fame. I mean, when you go to an expensive place, may as well steer into the skids I'm sure to encounter in the snowy Scandinavian countryside.

7.) Safari Trip (Botswana/Tanzania/Kenya)

There is no specific place that I have pinpointed so I just threw three countries that I have heard good things about up there. If price were not an issue, this is probably #1, but now that I understand how much it costs to go on a good safari trip (thinking like 5-7 days), I have to be somewhat reasonable. The allure of roaming around in a jeep and tent among Elephants, Rhinos, Hippos, Giraffes and your odd Predator is obviously alluring – probably nothing would be better on this list, but knowing it cost a months salary (guessing) is less so. I do want to make a point that I know you can go for safaris that are cheaper due to being shorter or in places like South Africa / Zimbabwe – but those places are cheaper for a reason. If I’m doing a safari, I’m doing the real thing. And if I’m doing the real thing, it’ll probably have to wait a while.

6.) The Baltics

Previously, I had put the Baltics as similar to the Balkans. Since I last wrote this, I've visited the Balkans, traveling to Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia. The trio of Baltic countries, in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, are similar in looks and views, and somewhat similar in culture, in at least both being fun, relatively cheap, and untested. The Baltics have also been sold to me as a great beer market, a great fun-loving set of countries, with an interested history with many European and Euro-Asian influences. I'm not sure which of the three I'm most interested to see, and more than that, not sure I want to have any preconceived notions. Let's go in and discover the small differences that make each of the three unique and special.

5.) New Zealand

I missed a chance to go to New Zealand during my Round the World Trip in 2013. It is my one regret of that trip from a scheduling perspective. And ever since, I've wanted to go back, to see somewhat the Eastern Hemisphere's version of Patagonia. I think it would be better now, with my a bit more adventurous, bent since then, mainly again my time in Patagonia, I'm more ready to take on all the adventurous glory of New Zealand. The one pause I have is being able to drive on the other side of the road, still something I haven't done. New Zealand also appeals with the food, all those damn sheep and lambs. More than anything, you actually get reasonable deals down to New Zealand from the US at times, so it can even be somewhat affordable.

4.) Egypt

I had a near miss in going to Egypt, as when I first planned my around the world trip in 2013, my initial first destination was Egypt. About three weeks before leaving, I switched it to South Africa after being a little concerned of the danger at the time. The danger has increased since – though Egypt has been pretty calm in recent years. I would still love to go there as few places, apart from the one to come next, can match Egypt in terms of history. I want few things more than to cruise down the Nile, to go to the ruins in Alexandria, to visit the Pyramids in Giza and the Sphinx and the Valley of the Kings and everything else. Add to that a good cuisine and a great culture beyond its history and few places see so alluring as Egpyt to travel to. Technically I did fly through Egypt, and ideally when I get around to going there I wouldn’t take Egyptair again, but I still want to leave the confines of Cairo airport and see what treasures of the Ancient Egyptians still exist.

3.) China

And of course, China has to be on this list. The problem with countries like China are that their massive size would necessitate 2-3 trips to see it all, but even a chance to see Beijing, Shanghai, the Yellow River, maybe some of the secondary cities is quite the itenirary. Of course we add to that the Great Wall, the Terracotta soldiers, the highlands and everything else. China of course has the other aspects like the cuisine. I have so often heard how real Chinese food from China is so different than what we get in the US, and I'm sure that is true and ready to experience what the real Chinese food is like. It is a fascinating, growing culture that gets more impressive each year, and I really can't wait to experience it sometime.

2.) Israel

Being a Catholic, probably no place has more historical draw to it than Israel, what with it being the birthplace of the religion and housing the site of basically every major event in the history of the religion as well. Beyond the historical significance and sites, there is a lot to see with the other two religions who see this place as a living memorial and even things like the Dead Sea. I honestly have no idea what the food scene is like in Israel, nor do I know a lot about the culture outside of the history and sightseeing, but there is no place I would rather go to sightsee than Israel.

1.) Russia

I almost went to Russia on an High School Orchestra trip in 2007, and while it would have been memorable, I am kind of glad I can go for the first time as an adult. Russia is a fascinating place for me. The people, the history, the beauty of the country is forever understood, hidden behind the rough exterior presence that clouds the country. My parents have been to Russia and raved about it, from the incredible museums and artifacts and culture. Of course, the drinking aspect seems nice as well. Russia also represents a chance to go to a World Cup in 2018 - which given I want go within 2,000 miles of Qatar in 2022 and by 2026 who knows if I'll have kids or, you know, real responsibilities. Anyway, Russia is a place that draws me way more than I could have imagined given all we Americans hear about this country.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Good Riddance, McNasty

I never wanted Josh McDaniels as the Colts head coach. I don't care how much Tom Brady loves him, how great those offenses in New England have been. I didn't want him. And after he spurned the Colts at the 11th hour, I'm grateful because we get to avoid him, gleefully happy that weasel burned more bridges, and of course a little mad at the Patriots pulling some shenanigans again. But more than anything, that first emotion is the most present: grateful. I didn't want him. We're not going to get him.

People may think the Colts are losers in this, and in a way they do end up with quite a bit of egg on their faces. They were left at the alter right as the music started playing and the crowd turned towards the back. But given that they probably avoided an inevitable divorce, they dodged a bullet. Josh McDaniels is a great offensive mind (though his tenure as OC in St. Louis say otherwise), but he lacks the leadership to be a head coach. He lacks the mental fortitude to make a decision and keep to it. He ran right back to his binky in New England, the only place that will ever call him home now.

I feel bad for the Colts. I feel bad for GM Chris Ballard. But more than anything, I feel so bad for those three assistant coaches that came and signed with the Colts thinking they were going to coach alongside Josh McDaniels. Apparently, McDaniels, that snake, didn't even call those three guys to tell them he changed his mind. They're stuck now in a situation where they'll have a coach who didn't pick them, and a boss they didn't sign up for. And all because Josh McDaniels couldn't face the music.

The Pats aren't innocent in this, though I don't buy the conspiracy that this was some masterful troll job by Bob Kraft. They probably could have came to McDaniels with the 'sweetheart' offer weeks ago, before he started building a staff he would never lead. They hurt him more than anything. They better pay him back with the head coaching job after Belichick leaves, because McDaniels isn't getting a job anywhere else now. He's toxic, seen as a deserter and a child. The only job he'll get again is coaching a Patriots team where he'll be following one of the Greatest Game of All Time and coaching a QB who will either age before his eyes, or retire and get replaced. Is that really a better situation.

There are some defense. Maybe he did get cold feet. Maybe comfort matters for him, or more forgivingly his family. But what about the comfort of the families he made move to Indianapolis, the one's whose fathers he was speaking to the same day he walked away? What about them? It's simple really: Josh McDaniels doesn't care about them.

Again, at the end of the day, I'm happy the Colts rid themselves of McDaniels before he got the chance to infect them. McDaniels was truly awful in every way in Denver. His record - 11-17 - seems merely bad rather then terrible, but it was 5-17 after a shock 6-0 start mostly built off of Mike Nolan's defense. His draft decision, even beyond the lunacy that was Tim Tebow with the 23rd pick, were pathetic. His players hated him, as did the media and seemingly the organization. He poisoned everything he touched in Denver. People like to compare this to Belichick's Cleveland tenure, but that had an 11-5 season tucked in there. McDaniels didn't come close.

Maybe he's matured, and I would think so because there's nowhere to go but up, but he inhereted all of Belichick's bad qualities with few of the good ones. I have no doubt he works well with Brady, and maybe it is unfair to judge him off of just the Denver years and one year with Sam Bradford in St. Louis (where they were literally the worst offense in the NFL), but combined with the lack of success any of Belichick's disciples have had since leaving Foxboro, it paints a stark figure.

In the end, the Colts will be OK - assuming of course Andrew Luck comes back. Their prime target right now seems to be Frank Reich, who to me is a better coordinator, better fit, and better future coach than McDaniels, a man who succeeded in that role in multiple places (San Diego & Philadelphia, not to mention a brief stint as Manning's last QB Coach in Indianapolis). McDaniels has a bright future as an OC for Brady and under Belichick, and will get his chance to fail when he finally ascends to the head job, and I'll love every moment of that.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

NFL 2017: 5 + 2 Thoughts on Super Bowl 52

1.) That wasn't the best Super Bowl ever, but the difference in how it was viewed to Super Bowl 50 is an interesting thought experiment

That was a really good game. The offenses on each team were insane. Sure, neither team could play any defense, but sometimes when you have offenses that execute at such a brilliant level it doesn't really matter. Watching those two offenses carve it up was incredibly fun to watch. The consensus is that it was one of the great Super Bowls in recent memory.

Other than the last statement about the consensus view of the game, if you replace 'offense' for 'defense' in that last paragraph, it would be a perfectly apt description of Super Bowl 50. That game, Broncos vs. Panthers, was the inverse, an incredible defensive game with two defenses that operated at ridiculous levels, featuring multiple HOF or on the path to HOF defensive players all playing great. Of course, few saw that as a great game, despite it also being a 1-score game throughout. The one difference is a late strip sack made Super Bowl 50 24-10 as the Broncos cashed in with a TD, while here the Eagles got just a field goal.

It's interesting that Super Bowl 50 was largely written off despite it being close throughout and having some transcendent talents play transcendentally (Von Miller, Demarcus Ware, Luke Kuechly), while this game will get put on a pedestal. Both games featured one side of the ball playing pristinely, and the other side just not showing up, including two units that had been great all year (Eagles defense, Panthers offense). But there is an inherent bias towards offense. That is fine, but it's never seemed more stark than with this game.

Look, even for me as a person who likes defensive football, who liked the fact that this season saw, for the most part, a return to pre-2011 offensive levels, was exhilerated by that game. But no more so than watching the Broncos and Panthers defenses dominate each other two years ago, watching Von Miller explode on Cam Newton, watching Kony Ealy take over the game. That too was a great game. We've all gotten spoiled these last 11 years, starting with Super Bowl XLII, with a crazy run of games. I put this one 5th since then, behind both Pats-Giants games, Pats-Seahawks and Steelers-Cardinals.

2.) Tom Brady finally has his Manning/Rodgers/Marino moment

Look, Tom Brady was fantastic. Now, he wasn't pressured too often, and when he was he was generally inaccurate (did have 20 incompletions), and there were so many receivers running free, but still Brady was amazing. He never backed down despite needing to essentially lead a TD drive every drive of the game. In general, if a QB throws a ton in games, they don't win that often. So many times, high passing yard days are in losses when teams pass to catch up. We've seen that with Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodger, and more than anyone Peyton Manning. We never see it with Brady. His record when throwing 50+ times, or 400+ yards is great. Well, for once he got to experience what it is like to be those other guys, to have a defense absolutely fail you, to play out of your mind and still lose. Brady was great. The team still lost. Brady arguably had his best Super Bowl performance and he lost. For all of us who've watched his career, it is about time.

One little quibble, I do wonder if Manning (or Rodgers now as he's starting to catch flak for playoff disappointments) has that exact same game then gets the ball with 2:13 left needing a TD to score and gets strip-sacked, he catches a lot of flak. People look over the 450 (at that point) yards and focus on him turning the ball over. Rightfully so, few are criticizing Brady for this, but it would be good if at least some of the people that went insane when Manning threw the pick-6 to Tracy Porter do the same with Brady now.

3.) Philadelphia deserves this

I have a soft spot for fanbases that have never experienced the joy of winning a title; even moreso than the ones that had won a title and just gone decades without doing so again. My Astros were like this last November, and the Eagles are one of the franchises who haven't won a Super Bowl, this despite a really strong run of success most years. The Eagles fans have endured a lot in the last 20 years, from three straight losses in the NFC Championship Game, to a close loss in the Super Bowl previously, to the odd run that was the Chip Kelly era. They've had their great players, including HOF enshrinee Brian Dawkins. But they never had this. Winning a title for that first time is truly exhilarating.

Unsurprisingly, the city 'celebrated' in that they 'rioted', but even that is part of the fun. Cities like Chicago and Boston (the Red Sox 2004 World Series Title) both had a few riots in their past. No one died, there were few fires. Let's not go too hard. Philadelphia is a hard city, that loves their teams and loves their Eagles, and they've been through a lot. Not that they haven't had success. The Phillies won the World Series in 2008, made another in 2009; the 76ers made a finals in 2001, the Flyers have long been competitive. But still, more than anything that is a football town, like Boston and Chicago were baselball towns, and their football team got the win.

4.) Nick Foles was insane

Years from now, assuming Carson Wentz comes back healthy and has a long and successful career, this may seem as one of the weirdest runs of all time, but let's be real: Carson Wentz was no Jeff Hostettler, he was no last minute replacement that played caretaker, he was incredible, obliterating a great Minnesota defense and then a craft New England defense, in one of the great back-to-back performances in the sports history.

Foles wasn't just statistically great, he put up those numbers with a series of high difficulty throws. Against Minnesota he launched deep to partially covered receivers and fit those throws beautifully. The best example were his bombs to Torrey Smith last week and Alshon Jefferey this week. Then there were so many other great throws, like the pinpoint pass to Chris Clement, or the great play on the 4th down to avoid pressure. Nick Foles was in control, he was poised, he was certainly a bit out of his head with the success on his long throws, but sometimes fortune favors the bold.

It is certainly interesting to see what happens next for him; I can easily see him just wanting to stay in Philadelphia, a place that may need him if Carson Wentz hits any snags in his rehab. Of course, I can as easily see some team giving up a high 2nd or even 1st round pick. Foles has a longer track record of success than Jimmy G, with an insane full season and now an insane playoff run on his resume. Foles was seemingly accepting of his fate to not lead the Eagles come 2018, but he's forever locked a place in the pantheon of Philadelphia athletes, if one of the more flash-in-the-pan ones.

5.) Something odd is brewing in New England

Look, I may regret everything I write in this paragraph. This could look really wrong and/or really reactionary next February if BB and Brady are hoisting their 6th Lombardi trophy, but right now it is unavoidable. Here's what we know: Malcolm Butler was benched for some reason that the team doesn't want to disclose, in a move that apparently pissed off a few Patriots defenders. Bill Belichick was noncommital after the game about coming back for another season, contrasted with Tom Brady that said he is going to come back. Rob Gronkowski is openly pondering retirement. There was the story before the playoffs of a rift with their Holy Trinity. Josh McDaniels is leaving despite a strange 11th hour story on him staying back in New England. Defensive Coordinator Matt Patricia is leaving. There's a lot of change and weird feelings throughout New England right now.

Of course, it should be said they still came fairly close to winning the game, and Brady looks as good as ever, but this feels a bit different. The outcome (and outcry) of the Butler benching deserves a lot of monitoring going forward. Something had to happen last minute for him to be active, but I don't understand why hold him out for defense but then let him get a few snaps on Special Teams. I don't know how much impact it has, but in a game where their defense was the primary issue, it was odd to see him on the bench the entire game. The Patriots did a great job of avoiding the drama of the ESPN report right before the playoffs, but where there's smoke, there's fire.

I have no idea what to expect. I don't really buy Gronk retiring, though I guess I would not be shocked. Maybe think it is a 10% chance he really retires. The bigger one to watch is Belichick. He'll be 66 by next season. He's losing both coordinators who have been entrenched in their roles for years (especially Patricia), with a team that has Brady, but a 41-year old Brady that showed some signs of physically slowing late in the season (a fear abated well by his great play the last two games), and no current back-up plan. Put it a 20% chance that he retires. Whatever it is, there is a chance things are very different going forward for New England. Of course, there's a chance nothing changes but the coordinators and they're right back here.

6.) Doug Pedersen and the Eagles Staff had one of the most impressive days in recent memory

It's a bit reductive to say that the Eagles Coaching Staff won the game because they were aggressive. I mean, people were rightfully criticizing Kyle Shanahan's play-calling last year for being too aggressive in the 2nd half. It wasn't really aggression that ruled the day, it was calmness and conviction. Doug Pedersen is a great head coach. This was a great staff. And this playoff run, if not the season, was their masterpiece.

Whether it was going for it on 4th down, mixing in RPOs, not losing the run even on their game winning TD drive, and of course the 'Philly Special' play, Doug Pedersen and his offensive staff had this game in control. We've never seen an offense run over the Patriots from beginning to end like that before, though Pedersen's mentor Andy Reid came close in Week 1. Generally teams with the best coaching staffs more than the best talent are the ones best able to hang with New England, see the Ravens in the Harbaugh era, or Tom Coughlin's Giants, or even Ron Rivera's Panthers (2-0 against the Patriots). Pedersen's Eagles fall easily into that camp.

My favorite drive was their drive to score the TD to make it 38-33. It had it all, with great playcalling, great plays, great identification of matchups (Ertz owning McCourty at the end a prime example). But my favorite part of the drive was Pederson being smart enough to slow the tempo down and still run the ball, understanding a quick score is not too helpful, and smarter even so to understand the math and go for it on 4th down and 1 near midfield. Pederson was brilliant, never backing down to the challenge.

I compared Doug Pederson to Jim Harbaugh in terms of the energy and clarity he brought to the Eagles early in 2016. That season ended up with them at 7-9, but the underlying numbers had them as a better team, and they were rolled a bit with injuries late. But I loved what he was doing, what Frank Reich and John DeFillipo were doing with the offense, and even for most of the last two years Jim Schwartz and the defense. But Pederson is a star, and while this could easily be the peak of his career, I think he'll be spending a lot of time at this altitude.

7.) The Eagles could be on the cusp of something special

Not counting the Nick Foles situation, the Eagles have 21 of their 22 starters under contract for next year. They won the Super Bowl without their MVP QB (who admittedly could not have done better than Foles these last two games), their all-pro LT in Jason Peters, and a few other key cogs. The Eagles have a loaded roster, where apart from a few standouts (Wentz, Peters, Fletcher Cox) there are few indispensable parts, but a ton of quality players and depth. They can roll 6-7 players on their front, and have athletic linebackers, and a young secondary that played great all year until the Super Bowl. The offense has the league's most athletic, if not outright best, offensive line, and a cadre of weapons that mesh well with each other. The team is loaded.

The problem for the Eagles is so is the rest of the NFC. Even in a year where the Seahawks and Packers missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011 and 2008 respectively, the NFC was the tougher conference, and for those two they seem in good position to make it back. Alex Smith could improve Washington. You figure Dallas should bounce back. But Philadelphia has the combination of roster talent and coaching to really make a run at this again.

Can they become a dynasty? Getting the most out of the next three years with Wentz still somewhat cost controlled. Things could spiral quickly, just like it did for the last few NFC Champions like the 2010 Packers (Rodgers got expensive) and 2013 Seahawks (defense got expensive, and old). But even those teams had a great run of playoffs year after year. The Eagles look to be on the cusp of that type of run. The Patriots have set a ridiculous standard when it comes to continual success, and it is unfair to hold any team to that benchmark, but the Eagles can forge a pretty impressive path all their own in the coming years.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

My 40 Favorite International Cities

The last time I did this was in 2015, and since then I've added a few more cities to the list. Not as many as you would think, but enough to warrant another go at it. I didn't have 5 more to add, but a couple and I'm really opposed to dropping anything off, so I'm just going to go to 32.


The last time I did this was late in 2013, following my Round the Trip world. I don't know why I'm choosing now to update the list, but it is now expanded to 30 cities, and adds four new places that I've visited the last two years, and then an additional forgotten gem from my Round the World Trip.

I’m going to rank my top-32 cities to visit that I have been to. Take this more of a recommendation list, as in I would recommend the cities in the following order to someone who hasn’t visited them based on my experience visiting them. With that, obviously, only cities I have visited make the list, and visited means more than two days. I’m rating them on the following criteria: the places to see in the city, the ease of access of the city (public transport – much more important internationally when renting a car is more of a precarious idea – and the city’s airport or entrance system), their joi de vievre (a fancy way of saying ‘how would this city be to just chill out in), their weather and overall appearance, and some other factors. There’s no formula here, though.
This is heavily weighted by the amount of time I’ve spent in a city, and what age I was when I visited there. These rules hurt London, while help Madrid, because I’ve spent all of three days in London as a person of legal age, while spent more time in Madrid. It really hurts some other European cities, like Frankfurt, Zurich, Rome, Milan, places I’ve been to as a kid of 9-11.

Again, these are ranked as cities I would visit (all of them I have visited), not where I would live. I would live in Geneva, but probably not visit again because there isn’t much to do, it is cold, and some other reasons. There are places that I wish I could rank because from what I’ve heard from family/friends that have been there they seem really good, like Moscow, Berlin and Hamburg, and when I visit them, I will update this list. Also irrelevant is the ease of getting to this city. Singapore isn’t hurt because it is the farthest commonly visited location from NYC than any other place, and London isn’t helped because it is 6 hours away.

A city includes sites and destinations that are a reasonable distance away, so Barcelona won’t get credit for the Playas that are 2-3 hours away (and are closer to Valencia), and Athens won’t get credit for Ephesus which is 3 hours away, but London would get credit for Stratford (or whatever it’s called where Shakespeare is from, or Oxford – and Rome gets credit for the Vatican, which for being a different country, is totally part of Rome) which is reasonably close.

40.) Belgrade (2017)

In 20 years, Belgrade may deserve a spot well up this list, but for now for a city on the rise it gets on. For advantages, Belgrade is cheap, it houses some nice history, really good restaurants, and a great bar and club scene. For negatives, none of these things are marketed well enough. Belgrade should continue to grow, and as it does it will replace dirty streets with cleaner ones, complete the renovation on its main church, and just overall work on the edges. Then again, I kind of like a city that can still have cool ass floating clubs with affordable bottle service.

39.) Da Lat (2013)

The little hamlet high above the Vietnamese hills, Da Lat was probably the most pleasant surprise of any place on my trip. The city itself is modeled after European cities, with parks, downtown circles and even a model Eiffel Tower. The surrounding areas houses more traditional Vietnamese fair, like temples, Buddhas, waterfalls and even roller coasters, all underneath a cool mountain air. Da Lat's hills hide many nice restaurants, bars and clubs. It isn't nearly as loud or as famous as Ho Chi Minh, Nha Trang or Hanoi, but Da Lat may be the most pure mix of Asia and Europe that I have seen. Also, it has an incredibly nice airport given the just six flights that fly there each day.

38.) Penang (2013)

There are positives and negatives to Penang, and depending how important the positives are relative to the negatives to you, Penang could rise or fall on your rankings. Personally, food and culture are really important to me, and Penang has both in spades. It may be a little overrated with food, but the seafood night markets that litter both Georgetown (the main city) and the beaches (all within an hour or so from Georgetown) are wonderful. The Nyonya food in Penang is far better than that in Kuala Lumpur. There is enough to see, including a nice little trek in Georgetown to some interesting historical buildings (the Cheong Fat Tze is a nice highlight). Of course, Penang is also very crowded, slightly dirty and the beaches themselves are quite barren. In the end, I find this fair for what I still consider a great eating spot.

37.) Warsaw (2014)

Warsaw may have gone higher had I spent more time there, but like many other European countries, the capital is often a bit too commercial, a bit too gray, than the smaller pearls of cities (like Krakow, for Poland). Warsaw has some great sites, like its main street and clock tower, the palace, and I'm sure a whole host of others I forgot about or didn't have time to visit, but it is a bit lost in a city a bit too big for its own good. The food is decent, but what I really want to commend is its bar scene. There were some great gastropubs and beer bars that littered across the Warszawa Central district.

36.) Hong Kong (2003)

Hong Kong has little to do in terms of historical sights. With a couple countries claiming ownership of Hong Kong, they have done a nice job removing any ties to any country. Still, it has arguably the best skyline in the world (though after the new WTC complex is finished in all its glory, NYC will have a good claim to that spot), and being situated in front of and on a mountain gives it some excellent views. Their airport in universally hailed as great, and the gambling capital of Asia (Macau) is just a ferry ride away. But still, picking a place to be higher than 15th given its total lack of history, or its lack of any particular brand of brilliance other than its propensity to build really tall buildings just feels wrong.

35.) Jaipur (2013)

I hated traveling in India in my limited tourist experience in India prior to Rajasthan. First was Agra, where the Taj was nice but completely offset by the filth of Agra. Kerala was a mess. Given those two, was not too excited to be going to Rajasthan, but I have to say it was great. Jaipur is slightly too touristy, with most of the city, at least as far as I could tell, built off Forts, Palaces, strange Astronomical objects, and of course shopping. For pure tourism, it is probably the best city in India, even if it gets a bit too hot at times.

34.) Punta Arenas (2017)

It's odd that none of the Patagonia cities are that close to the sites that surround those areas, so they were hard to judge. Punta Arenas is probably the most substantial town of the three we visited, with an actual down-town, with nice ornate buildings and squares, The best part of the city is an unexplainable sense of being so far away from home, from anywhere, with Punta Arenas being the Southernmost city of more than 50,000 people. There are of course some nice restaurants and bars, and a good mix of locals and tourists, which created a nice atmosphere as well. Of course, with the Tierra del Fuego and Isla Magdalena Penguins within driving distance, the tourism isn't too bad either.

33.) Florence (2003)

I’ll admit that Florence should probably be higher on this list, but it is my list of favorite cities that I would recommend. This is a strange combination, because personal favorites are wholly subjective, while cities that you recommend should be somewhat objective. Anyway, my problem with Florence is I’m not really into art, and if you aren’t than there is little to do in Florence. If you like art, specifically really detailed portraits from the renaissance era, then you will love Florence. If you don’t, then it will be something of a bore to a disappointment.

32.) Munich (2000 & 2009)

I have a strange history with quite a few international cities, and Munich is another one. I had both my 9th and 18th Birthday in Munich (in related news, I’m pretty sure where you can find me on April 7th, 2018). The first during my initial trip to that part of the world, and the 2nd on the penultimate day of our Orchestra’s tour of Austria (we flew out of Munich). Berlin is supposedly a great, modern city, but out of all the cities I have been to in Germany, Munich is by far the best. It is incredibly modern, and getting increasingly so, with modern architecture abound. It is the only European city with a skyline that can compare to those in the US (not a crucial factor, but still nice). The downside is there is little to see and that German food isn’t that good. Either way, Munich will always be the place to spend any birthday that is a multiple of nine, and for that alone, it gets on the list.

31.) Udaipur (2013)

Our first new city on the list is my 2nd Indian city on the list. As somehow who hated traveling in India, picking a city that is in one of the hottest areas in the country, and a city I visited during their hot dry season, this high might seem surprising. Well, I can't recommend Udaipur, along with Rajasthan as a hole, enough. The city has some beautiful scenery being built on a far more hilly area of the country than you would expect. They have famous lakes that hold famous hotels built on famous castles. They have nice food and street shows that line the corridors of the inner city. THere's the strange love for the movie Octopussy, where screenings are shown nightly. There's a beautiful palace inside the city. And I'll stretch my 'sites withing 1.5 hours count' rule by saying that the Jain Temple at Ranakpur was incredible - and in any modern country it would be within 1.5 hours.

30.) Split (2017)

Both of my two new cities are coastal Croatian outposts, and first comes the bigger of the two cities, in Split. There is so much to like about Split, be it the sprawling old town with enough sites and small alleys lined with shops and restaurant to keep you busy way too long, or the modern clubs and restaurants, or the sites from its hills. I guess in theory I can include the island of Hvar as well as that is within a 1-hour boat ride away, which adds beautiful beaches and mountains to this as well. Split as a whole might be a little too commercialized - they had a lot of stalls selling the normal tourist fares that aren't always appreciated, but the city truly is a beautiful slice of culture deep in Croatia. I do love how varied the drink and food scene is there as well.

29.) Lima (2016)

Lima has a few things going for it. First, its culinary brilliance, with two restaurants ranking in the Top 10 in the World per San Pelligrino's list (the most accepted of that type of list), one being Maido, a Japanese-Peruvian sensation. The sites aren't the best, few major cities are in retrospect, with a few museums and halls. The real sites of Lima are the whisping cliffs, the shops and the eclectic nightlife. The best South American cities combine Andean views with European charms, and few big ones do it better than Lima.

28.) Paris (2006) 

There’s obviously a ton to see in Paris, and the city center around the Eifel Tower, on either side of River Sein, is beautiful. Paris is a probably a city that certain people would love, but I am not one of them. Of course, I liked it enough to put ahead of some damn good cities, mostly on the ridiculous amounts of things to see alone. I actually don’t remember much of my Paris trip, which is strange given its relative recency, but I do remember thinking one day in the Louvre was far from enough, and the city center of Paris containing some of the best architecture of any European city. A lot of these European cities are impacted by my like or dislike of footballers from that region (I know, that sounds stupid, and it is), and Paris gets a boost for being the hometown to Zinedine Zidane.

27.) Mexico City (2014)

I put 2014 there, but I went to Mexico City two different times, staying in two different areas of that expansive, massive, festive city. Far safer than most areas of Mexico, La Cuidad is incredibly impressive. There are tons of historical sites, like the entire Zocalo, the Chapultepec, and La Reforma. Mexico City also has a wealth of food options, with incredibly authentic Mexican fare from around the country, including the incredible Oaxacan food. Really fun night spot as well. Mexico City blew me away also with its strange, mysterious beer culture. The City is a sprawling testament to how secretly, behind the dangerous cartels that line the exterior, the soft interior of Mexico is a gorgeous, cultural attraction that is bettered by so few cities.

26.) El Calafate (2017)

I have a few inexplicable choices on this list, and El Calafate, a more or less one-road town, might be at the top of those odd choices. I mean, literally 95% of the restaurants and shops are either on, or right off of, the main road. Of course, those restaurants and shops are fantastic, a great number of restaurants with fine Argentinean fare (Parilla's, and more earthern restraurants). Of course, the bars are great as well, from chic library-style cocktails, to an American craft beer oasis. However, none of that would place it on this list, but the irreplaceable Perito Moreno does. One of the greatest tourist joys of my life was walking around and then on that amazing, stunning glacier. A perfect mix of blues and whites, cascading chalks of ice, and the hoth-like conditions when traversing its face. All of it special.

25 & 24.) Prague/Budapest (2000)

These two are kind of blended together for me. I visited them essentially right after each other, both 13 years ago so my memory of each is a little hazy. I remember both for mainly positives. They are both beautiful cities, with lovely rivers running through them. They have some stuff to see, but not a whole lot. They are more affordable than the major cities in Western Europe, which is a plus (but also English –at least then – is not very transferrable to there). Budapest has some great food (Goulash!), while Prague is a pilgrimage for Catholics.

23.) Phnom Penh (2013)

I lied when I said that Da Lat was the biggest surprise of the trip. Phnom Penh was. I wasn't expecting too much from Canbodia's capital, but the mix of history, good and bad, food, nightlife and surprising urbanity made Phnom Penh a real highlight for me. I really loved Cambodian food, and it was at its best in Phnom Penh, a perfect mix of Malay and Thai cuisine. Phnom Penh itself embraced its own history, not shying away from the terrible acts of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, maintaining multiple areas in the city to pay tribute to those who died. The rest of the city pays tribute to the rich culture of Cambodia that preceded the destruction, with large pagodas in beautiful parks and nice museums. Phnom Penh also has a nice riverfront area that is really, really lively at night. Add into all of this that the currency of choice in the Dollar, and you get a really nice, underrated city.

22.) Panama City (2012)

My highest ranking Caribbean city probably could be higher, but I’ve been to a lot of great European cities so I don’t want to get crazy. I went to Panama with really low expectations, and I was blown away. It has a really impressive skyline, one that holds its own even if you forget that it is a poor latin country. It has great food of different cuisines. It has a ton to see, with the Panama Canal and the rainforest both falling into its sights. Other than Calgary (which I talked about in the last list) I don’t know if any trip I’ve gone on has been such a surprise as Panama, the Caribbean’s only truly modern city.

21.) Berlin (2014)

Berlin is the only German city I've gone to as an adult, and from what I read it was a good one to pick. The city is sprawling, and has covered it's whole 'we had a giant wall' thing with some really modern buildings and a few nice memorials. But what it also hides is an incredible city. The main squares, or platzes are all incredible, including that entire stretch between the Brandenburg Gate, through the Tiergarten, and ending with the Berlin Island. There are various areas of the city with incredible churches, restaurants, bars (and bars, and bars) and historical buildings. The city houses some fascinating museums that touch on the long, varying history of Germany is a country. Berlin as a city is too big to do in 3 days like I did, but it is definitely alluring enough to go back.

20.) Melbourne (2013)

Melbourne could be a Top-10 city to spend four or five days in. There is not too much to do, but enough to keep you occupied. If you like sports, which I do, then it is even better. Melbourne tries to lay claim to the Sporting Capital of the World, and when you mix together one of Tennis' four main tournaments with the 2nd most famous Cricket Ground (and most famous Aussie Rules ground) in the world right next door, it is hard to argue. Melbourne's riverfront is a beautiful area, with amazing views of the city around it. It's food options are endless, with really good Asian cuisine throughout the city. The nightlife seemed nice enough. It also has some really beautiful scenery around an hour of its boundaries, with beautiful parks, wine regions and the Great Ocean Road. Add into that Philipp Island, which just hits the cutoff to be included with Melbourne, and you get a solid, Top-15 city.

19.) Turin (2015)

I was close to picking Parma, as then I could include the Parma cheese factories, but picking Turin allows me to count the Piedmont wine country, and those little towns that dot it. Turin the city though, is a understated version of how incredible Italy is. It has the requisite churches and squares, but also has the open palacial squares and river-fronts that you normally associate with other countries in Europe. It has some incredible little hamlets of food, with great options for eating throughout the day (some excellent tea joints). My favorite place in Turin actually wasn't one of the two main squares, but Piazza Vittorio Veneto, one that borders the river with an amazing view of the city behind it. It was the last place we went to in Turin, an incredible capper to an unexpected amazing day in a great city.

18.) Tokyo (2013)

As a tourist, I don't care what the work and life culture are of the people in the city, and good thing, because if I did I may hate Tokyo. To see people in full suit in the subway at 11 PM coming home from work is jarring. But this isn't about any of that, it is about Tokyo the city, and it is a really fabulous metropolis. Tokyo is sprawling, in a way that makes New York seem small. There are really bustling regions like Shinjuku, really fun late night spots like Roppongi. There is a ton to see, and great food options. The food may be more corporate than traditional and homestyle in Tokyo, but that isn't all bad. The biggest complaint with Tokyo is just the size. It is so big that it is tiring to navigate at times, getting from one end to the other. Even with the reliability and the local JR Train lines, it takes time to get around. Good thing that most regions have enough to do to spend half a day there anyway. One last point, I thought Times Square was bright, until I went to Ginza.

17.) Vienna (2000 & 2009)

The 2nd time I went to Vienna was on my high school’s Orchestra’s tour of Austria during my Senior year, and much of my high ranking for Vienna is based on that trip. There is a ton of history in Vienna, with the music scene being located there (Mozart and Beethoven’s houses), with the adjoining arts scene with a bevy of theatres. If you like classical music, then Vienna is heaven. I am including the adorable little town of …… where we performed, which was half an hour outside Vienna. The best part of Vienna is how modern it is. The city center has some of the largest streets and public squares of anywhere in Europe, with grand architecture all around. The food isn’t great, but it is no worse than Germany and Switzerland, and Austria is generally less expensive. It took a second trip to get acclimated with Vienna’s charms, but they are there, and plentiful.

16.) Bangkok (2003 & 2013)

Here’s the gist of what I remember from Bangkok: nice Wats to see, incredible food, up all night, eating all the time. Bangkok is a food-lover’s paradise, especially for those who like Thai food. Bangkok is also close to areas where you can do all those Asia type things like ride elephants and see the jungle. The weather is surprisingly decent for a city in Southeast Asia, and from what I remember it is pretty easy to navigate. My thoughts regarding Bangkok have indeed changed with my one-plus day visit. The city is better than I remembered, with sprawling malls, an advanced metro system, and new urban centers. The weather isn’t quite as good, as it is still hard to get to different parts of the city, but the city center of Bangkok is about as good as any I’ve seen in Asia.

15.) Goa (2011 & 2013)

Yeah, yeah, yeah, my initial ranking of Goa was a little ridiculous. It was built off of an admittedly awesome trip to Goa in 2011, but that was a perfect storm. We were staying in the best part of Goa for a first timer who loves food on beaches at 2 AM. I was fresh off of an alcohol cleanse (which of course came after the opposite of an alcohol cleanse), and was greeted with $0.50 beer. Goa still has all those things, but I quickly realized upon my second visit that the area of Goa you stay in makes a huge difference. Stay too far South and you get isolated beaches, which I am sure are nice to some, but they don't have the same nightlife and food options littering the beach. Instead, they have litter littering the beach. Stay in the right part of Goa and it is amazing, the wrong part and it is merely OK. Still, it is unlike anything else in India, and for that it will always be in my part.

14.) Dubrovnik (2017)

My expectations were raised on Dubrovnik from a number of friends and families had already visited, and oh man was it great - matching everything I would have hoped for. Dubrovnik, like many cities that line my top half of the list, aren't huge sprawling metropolises, instead smaller, untouched little power-packs of culture and beauty. The actual structure of the town reminds me of a European Cape Town, with the old town and fort replacing the V&A Waterfront area, and the hills of the newer part of the city similar to East Cape Town, and the hills in hte background, fixed with their own version of Table Mountain, being, well, Cape Town's Table Mountain. The history in Dubrovnik is amazing, with the old town such a beautiful array of nooks and crannies, with steep stairs on alleys down to the water. Within it contains history, and amazing restaurants, and, of course, Game of Thrones. Dubrovnik is one of the gems of the Adriatic Sea, right there with the other great ports of the Mediterranean.

13.) London (1999, 2000, 2010 & 2017)

I probably should just go to London more, because both my Dad and my Sister, who lived there, swear by London as an incredible city. But again, I’m not ranking this by how livable they are, but how good they are as tourist destinations. London definitely has enough to see, including the nicely compact Royal stuff (palace, parliament, other stuff), and a neatly packed city center (West End, Trafalgar Square, other stuff I’m forgetting), but it is a little too big. It’s subway system is clean, but doesn’t have the expansiveness that it needs (something I give huge credit to the NYC Subway System for, no matter how dirty it is). Of course, it is damn expensive, and the weather is mostly lousy. It may get better with more trips, but I think London is too big for its own good, and a little too confused, as it tries to be both Rome and New York.

**So I went here in 2017, and really have nothing more to add. I think what I wrote back then is more or less accurate**

12.) Cusco (2016)

Full disclosure, I'm cheating by including Machu Picchu as one of the associated sites of Cusco, which is a large part of the reason it places so high. Machu Picchu is a spectacular tourist attraction, from teh never-ending views of Hauranya Picchu's face, to the cascaiding hills on every side, to the great hikes. When you peel back to Cusco proper, it remains a great secondary city, a South American, high altitude version of Krakow (next on the list). The food is great, with so many small, but fine quality, restaurants. It has a vibrant restaurant and bar scene, and quite a bit of tourism locally, including other Incan ruins near the city limits. Finally, the altitude, as Cusco us probably the highest city that is easily and heavily visited. Plus, I owe a lot to the Loki Hostel, a wondrous place of Blood Bombs and fun.

11.) Krakow (2014)

By rule I like smaller cities over sprawling ones. Well, while there are expanses to Krakow that extend in all directions, almost everything worth seeing in the city is in a 10x10 block radius circling the best city square (Rynek Glowny) I have seen in Europe. When you get a city that has (their claim) more bars per capita than any in the world, combine that with amazing open space and roadside/streetside restaurants, and an economy that does not use the Euro and is far cheaper than comparale cities in Western Europe, you get a pretty fantastic city. Also, you want history near its borders, you get Auschwitz about 2 hours away. Krakow is an incredible secondary city, arguably the best secondary city I've ever been to. The beer, food and endless beautiful women makes it Top-25; the sites, easily walkable goegraphy, and amazing history (Copernicus lived there too) makes it Top-10.

10.) Kyoto (2013)

Kyoto is the 3rd biggest City in Japan, but resembles so little of Tokyo (the biggest city) that makes it seem like a different country. Sure, the food options and the bustle is still there, but Kyoto, in some ways, is like a supersized Siem Reap. The real highlight of Kyoto is the ridiculous amounts of Temples and historical Japanese buildings. All of these are encircling the downtown area of Kyoto. Of course, that downtown is quite large, with beautiful malls, tall buildings with summer beer gardens (umlimited beer buffets for $30) and plentiful up-scale food options. Kyoto even has the most expansive Geisha area of Japan. Kyoto is the perfect city to experience what people's idea of Japan is, temples and pagodas and sushi, oh my!

9.) Rome (2003)

Speaking of Rome, history’s most famous city checks in next. I haven’t spent any time in Rome as an adult, but I don’t think Rome is the type of city that would change much from an adult’s perspective. It is good for its history and sites first, and if you like Italian cuisine, the food second. If you include the Vatican, and as a Catholic I do, in Rome, then there is even more to see, as you have two different parts of history, the formation of the Catholic Church in the awe-inspiring Vatican grounds near and inside St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Roman history which is very well kept up. I can’t remember how their public transport was, and we went in December, so the weather was bad, but I don’t think it is a very big city. And then there is that food. I don’t want personal biases like my ambivalence towards Italian food to sway this. Many do like Italian food, and the city is even better for those people. That said, what hurts Rome in my book is I think it is too dependent on the sites, and if you aren’t there on a religious pilgrimage, I can’t imagine the allure of going to Rome more than once.

8.) Athens (2010)

So Athens is very much like its historical partner, Rome, with a few less sites, a lot less crowds, less expensive, and with better weather. So does that whole equation spit out a better city? In my mind, it does. Part of this has to do with visiting Athens at the perfect time (19, during March) and Rome not (13, during December), but Athens has it all. It has a lot to see, but not so much that sightseeing takes over the trip. It has a city that is hard to navigate by car and by walking, but has an adequate subway system. It has excellent food, and a great environment that bursts with fun and enjoyment. Just a grand old time in Athens, as I’m sure it was 2,500 years ago.

7.) Singapore (2012 & 2013)

Singapore is one of those places that has to be seen to be believed. There is no city any cleaner. There is no city as tightly situated while having enough external attractions. There is no city better built for a short stay. What doesn’t Singapore have? It has a theme park for kids. A bird park (highly recommended) and a night safari for kids and adults. It has a brand new casino for adults. It has a centralized bar/pub/club area near the waterfront. It has a preponderance of food from really, really cheap to really expensive. It has livable weather year-round. It also has the most interesting and enjoyable airport I’ve ever been to (there is a pool and gym that everyone can use for free in it!), and the cleanest, best organized subway system I’ve seen. So why is Singapore only #3? Because there isn’t that much to do, and Singapore’s not cheap enough to just sit around and eat/drink/do nothing. The sights have no historical resonance, and are replicated in other cities. Still, for a period less than a week, there is no better city to visit.

6.) Santiago (2018)

Midway through my second day in Santiago, I started debating how high it would go. Honestly, on the initial drive to the airport, through beautiful underground tunnels and well manicured streets, it earned its place on the list. Many great meals, multiple vibrant and differing neighborhoods, enough sites to last you days, and a cleanliness of Europe and culture of the Americas, and Santiago morphed into a truly special city. You have views, like at the top of Santa Lucia Hill. You have museums. You have regal government buildings. The restaurants are amazing, going from good street food to world class tasting menus. The competing Barrio Italia, with its Portland-esque vibe, and Barrio Bellavista, with fun bar after fun bar, add the neighborhood vibe as well. It all mixed to a truly brilliant city.

5.) Sydney (2013) 

Take the weather and leisurely attitude of Australia, combine the waterfront facade of a Chicago, add some pub and club nightlife of any city in Europe and you get Sydney, a city that combines the great aspects of every major city I have been too. It doesn't have a true culture of its own which hurts it in my mind. What I really mean by that is, much like the problems I have with England, there are too many similarities to the US. You don't really feel you are in a foreign city too much. Of course, that all changes when you walk towards the Opera House, or go to the night spots with the Australians out partying, or eat great meats. Sydney is a wonderful city, probably the most livable of any in the Top-10 (of course, it is helped by being English-Speaking), but sometimes I would sacrifice livability for uniqueness, which is why it isn't any higher.

4.) Barcelona (2007)

I really want to go to Barcelona again, because it could easily be #1. All the ingredients are there. Pristine weather. A people who don’t care about life, making the tourist experience more fun. Good beaches within reach. Stuff to see. An airport that is easily reachable and a city that is easily maneuverable. My issues with Barcelona (other than my dislike for the Blaugrana) are simple. There isn’t a lot to see in terms of history, mainly because the Catalans want their own history so they destroyed or shunned any Spanish national history. Barcelona is a nice city in terms of seeing the sights for a day or two and then doing nothing the rest of the time, but I do want more from my cities. 

3.) Istanbul (2007)

Istanbul is kind of a secret still, but there is really nothing to complain about. It has a waterfront, an easily accessible city center, a lot to see (the palaces, the Bosphuros, the Red & Blue Mosques). Istanbul also has a brilliant food scene, with both Muslim and Meditterannean influences but all sorts of bases (including a ton of seafood). There is little to separate any of the cities this high in the list. My only knock on Istanbul would be the public transport is lacking without a proper Subway (this could have changed since my last visit). Overall, Istanbul combines the palate and affordability of Asia, with the energy and cleanliness of Europe, the best of both worlds.

2.) Cape Town (2013)

I've been wondering whether doing Cape Town first helped increase my perceptions of it. I was at my most curious and excited at the start of the trip. Then, I remember everything amazing about Cape Town, like the incredible scenery and breathtaking views, the active harbor and Long Street areas (for the youngsters among us), the great food of every type and the wine region to one side with the Cape of Good Hope below it. Cape Town is a special place on the total other side of the word (laterally speaking). I've really never been any place quite like it, which is why I want to go back there more than any place in the world.

1.) Madrid (2001 & 2010)

I’ll never forget Madrid. It was where I turned 10 years old, in April of 2001. It was where I saw my first naked woman in real life, as I saw two nude woman near the pool in Madrid (given my age and their age, this wasn’t a good thing). It was where I first traveled alone, and where I learned the inherent joy of visiting a place a 2nd time. Barcelona might be more ‘fun’, but I can’t think of a place that combines everything I want from a city more than Madrid. Madrid has a dependable airport, and a dependable subway system. More than that, the city is small enough in its center that you can easily walk from the Prado side on the East, to the Palace on the West and not break a sweat. It has some of Spain’s best museums. There is more than enough to see. And, of course, you are still very much in Spain. It isn’t as relaxed as Barcelona, but is just as Spanish, with open squares, easy food and drink,  a lot of youngsters (and a lively area for them at night). This wasn’t a criteria, but a lot of people speak English there to boot. Madrid is basically a perfect city. Small enough to walk, with enough sites to not get bored, enough food to not go hungry, and a relaxed, but not too relaxed nature that you won’t ever get tired of doing nothing for an afternoon or two.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Nostalgia Diaries, Pt 10: 2013 NFC Championship

There was a time when I loved the NFL. I still do, but not nearly as much. I don't know when my NFL interest peaked. It probably had already crested by the time the 2013 NFC Championship Game was played, on a cloudy, but calm night in our Northern NFL outpost in Seattle. But it was still near its apex. I will say it was the last time I truly enjoyed the sport in its entirety, the game before the victor here (Seattle) romped over Peyton in his last great season. The following year, Manning started great and suddenly lost it in Week 12. The next year, his team won the Super Bowl, but he was a shell of himself. Since then he retired, and Brady won another Super Bowl and will win another MVP (and who are we kidding, another Super Bowl). But this was a different time. Manning was the best QB in the NFL. Had a clear line of sight on the GOAT title. Brady hadn't won a Super Bowl in 9 years. I could sit back and enjoy a game. And man did I ever.

That said, I didn't watch the game live. I watched it in its entirety a few hours after it started, if not finished. That's because I didn't watch the Patriots @ Broncos AFC Championship before this. I couldn't. I did not think I could handle it. I watched The Godfather Pt. 2 instead. When that was over, I checked the score on - one of the most nervous few seconds of my life was when that page loaded - and saw the Broncos won. I was overjoyed. And then I watched football.

The 2013 NFC Championship was in a way preordained. The Seahawks and 49ers were the two best teams in the NFC that season (quick shout-out to Carolina, who went 12-4 and lost to the 49ers in the divisional round). They were the two hottest teams in the NFC the previous year. They had two of the next-generation type QBs, two dominant defenses, and played a fun little game of 'Anything you can do I can do better' in the offseason, with the Seahawks answering the niners signing of Anquan Boldin by trading for Percy Harvin a few days later. When the season started it felt like this is how it would end. And it did.

In 2007, 2009 and 2011, the NFC hosted the 2nd Championship Game on Championship Sunday. Each one was a classic, three of the 10 or so best NFL playoff games I've seen period. A consistent throughline in each was the setting adding to the overall quality; the atmosphere helping to build up the moment. The best example was 2007, in a Lambeau Field that was -3 degrees, -27 with wind chill. But even 2009, with the ridiculous atmosphere in the Superdome, and 2011, with the rainy haze in Candlestick, one of the last Cathedrals in the NFL prior to it being torn down, the atmosphere played a role. And while there was no weather, there was noise, and there was isolation, this game being played in some tucked away corner of our country.

What also helped set the tone of the game was its defensive nature. I've always been open for my love of defensive football - one of the reasons that I've enjoyed this season outside of the Patriots continued annoying brilliance is the comeback that defenses made - and even in a year that still holds the record for most points scored, defense mattered in a big way. The 49ers and Seahawks staged a ridiculous battle of defenses, with the Seahawks secondary matching point for point with the 49ers incredible front-7. The scoring was mostly all driven by turnovers, or miraculous plays by Seattle (a patented Wilson scramble 15 yards behind the LOS and 50-yard launch, or a 4th down bomb for a TD, or Kaepernick's general brilliance in those days). Every first down seemed a minor miracle. Every play was an opportunity to be wowed by defense.

There were so many amazing moments in that pulsating contest. The sacks, the incredible play by Navarro Bowman to strip a ball while having his ACL torn (cruelly, the play was called dead and the fumble did not count), or the subsequent 4th down stop. Of course, the capper was the Richard Sherman play, but more on that later.

What struck me most about the game though was how this is the type of football I wanted to see, the type of football that just seems more emblamatic of what the sport should be. I rewatched the game the following day with my parents who were travelling earlier that weekend (it was MLK weekend, I believe), and they had an observation that was fairly astute: this seemed like a different, more serious, more intense game than what the Patriots and Broncos played earlier that day. And of course it was. In that other game, the Patriots hit Peyton one time and he had 400 yards passing. The QBs didn't combine for 400 yards passing in this one, and not for a lack of trying.

The atmosphere was just different. The dark field as night descended in Seattle, mixing with those dark Seattle uniforms and the classic look of the 49ers, mixed together to form a potent cocktail. The energy in the stadium was as well. Seattle cheats in a way, creating a stadium that literally was built to make it sound louder than it really is, but cheating has its benefits. 

The game ended the way it should, with defense ruling the day. That last 49ers drive was so perfectly set-up. They were down 6, 80 yards from stealing the NFC Championship. Immediately they were forced to convert a 4th down, and they did it by having Kaepernick roll left, throw across his body, to Frank Gore, probably the 4th option on the play. It took those sorts of miracles to just get 1st downs. The drive continued with Crabtree catching two passes (ironically, Crabtree had a really good game, making the Sherman - Crabtree banter all the more ironic), and the 49ers found themselves about 20 yards away with 30 seconds to go. And then Kaepernick got greedy, and Sherman made a ridiculous play to tap away the ball on a deep fade, and of course a Seahawk was right there to snatch it, as it always seemed like they had 13 guys out there on defense. And just like that, one of the great playoff games of our lifetimes was over. 

Of course, it wasn't just over. There was a little Sherman-ness left to go, with his memorable interview, but given that I found that whole affair way overblown no need to recount it here. All in all it was a continuation of the game, one with a ridiculous level of intensity throughout, with two teams constructed over a three-year period to play in that game.

This game effectively closed a chapter of the NFL book. The 49ers fell off the next year to 8-8, a year that ended with Jim Harbaugh running off to Michigan, and a number of players retiring. The Seahawks continued to be good, but even for them they were never this good again. The Pacific Northwest has been the site of numerous other great games, including the OT NFC Championship Game the next year, but no game felt as important, as meaningful, as perfect for that city and that stadium.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Year End Trip of 2017-18, Day 12: Santiago

Day 12: The Long Goodbye

We only had a few specific tasks for the final day of our vacation (sad-face), a few touristy, a few more relaxed. We had nine or so hours to play with after checking out of the Radisson Blu in the Dohesa suburb. My only real goal was to re-test my initial love of Santiago from yesterday, see if I was right in my initial opinions. Luckily for us, we did see enough the strengthen that judgement.

Our first destination was the Plaza de Armas; the most famous and serene of the many Plaza de Armas that found their spot at the center of pretty much every Chilean city we visited. We finished parking in another one of Santiago's beautiful underground garages and walked to the Plaza. I had three thoughts that immediately entered my mind. First, was how prominent the Cathedral was. Second was how green it was, with lush trees in the middle of the square. Third, how clean the entire square was. Santiago is classicly Europe in many ways - it is the city that most people think Buenos Aires is.

Many buildings border the Plaza de Armas. A few were intended sites for us; the first being the Correa hotel, which back in the day was the hotel international journalists stayed in during the military takeover conflict of the country. Next door was the old house of Pedro Valdivia, a large mansion now converted into the Museum of National History. It is a free museum (most in Santiago were), and a quick run through, but far better than the two semi-disappointing art ones from the day before. It started from the beginning of European exploration, through Spanish rule & settlement, to the many twists and turns from democracy through to Unionized socialism, to republican rule to finally Pinochets reign. The only downside was the information was all in English, but it was a good chance for me to try out my Spanish - it's gotten quite good over the last two weeks. The best part of the museum is it was a relatively quick stop, in and out in 30 minutes with gaining a better understanding of Chile's varied history.

The final stop at the Plaza de Armas was the Santiago Cathedral, a well ornate house of worship. We had the good fortune of walking in during a mass service, allowing my parents and I to catch the last 40 minutes of the service. Given the mass was in Spanish, and there were a few other tourists walking around the perimeter past all the side altars, I decided to do the same and take pictures while listening to the service. Probably not the most Christian thing to do, but we didn't have enough time to finish mass and then see the church. Had to multi-task a bit.

Our next stop was a block away from Plaza de Armas. It was the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art; basically a museum of old pre-European settlement art for all Central and South America. This museum was unlike the others in that it was more formal, had a price attached (a reasonable ~$3 USD), and English explanations. The basement was a large open hall with black walls explaining the aboriginal history of Chile, which is incredibly varied North to South. The rest of the museum actually forces more on the rest of South and Central America (including Mexico), as a tribute to the heritage of all the indigenous people across Latin America. They had a special exhibit also about the people that inhabit the Atacama desert in Northern Chile, the dryest in the world. The whole museum was extremely well curated.

It was nearing 1:30 and we needed lunch, so we took a quick cab over to Barrio Italia, slightly East of the city center. Barrio Italia is somewhat the city's artsy, hipster district, something of Santiago's mini-Portland. Our restaurant Casaluz was at the edge of this district, but showcased much of the Barrio's flair. The decor was trendy, the restaurant had a beautiful little patio area in the back, and a slew of 20/30-somethings out for their Saturday brunch. We ordered an octupus starter with lavender and pureed potatoe, a merluza with sauce, and braised lamb with diced potatoes. All the dishes were plated excellently, and constructed beautifully. Casaluz was a great final full meal.

To both walk off the meal and experience more of the district, we walked down Barrio Italia's main road (conveniently titled Avenida Italia). The walk was informative in realizing how nice this area of Santiago was. The restaurants were all as trendy and cozy as Casaluz. The coffeeshops the same. The middle had a series of deep buildings that housed dozens of small boutique shops, something I saw a lot of in Portland. The difference is Portland is a fairly rich city in the US. Santiago is a city in Latin America. The fact that they can support this type of area is really impressive. Barrio Italia is not a place that particularly appeals to what I like (despite having a nice coffee and going to a few gourmet food sops), but a sign of Santiago's excellence as a city.

Our last bit of tourism was Santa Lucia Hill. Santiago contains a few hills, with Santa Lucia the one in the heart of the city. The Hill itself is maybe ~150 feet high, with the ascent being fairly easy on the main route (there are about 50 different pathways in all directions). The main trek up passes through Castillo Hidalgo (closed, but looked nice), and then up to a landing area with a fort, a few statues and a few great views. But the real challenge is further up, maybe another ~50 feet or so, mostly by steps, up to the final Mirador look out point. The walk up is totally worth it, as the views show how sprawling a city Santiago is, and how overpowering the mountains are. One view to the North gives you the city's taller hill (San Cristobal - we didn't go because the funicular up was broken), but beyond that was mountains all over the perimeter of the city. And in each direction were further layers of mountains, with snow-capped peaks peeking out in the distance. Santiago is truly settled in a beautiful location.

We ended up having about an hour to kill before needing to head back to the airport, and I proposed we go to Bar Lugiria, one of the last places on my list. It would give us the opportunity to get a bite to eat with dinner on the flight being probably close to 1:00 AM, and it would give us a chance to see the only other notable area within the heart of Santiago we hadn't visted yet: La Providencia. In the end, the restaurant / Bar was nice. We sat outside, because the inside looked a bit small (if still nice), but we didn't realize the "back room" was giant, open aired and packed. Anyway, our food was fine (mussel soup and lamb chops), and the beer was good. Providencia is a quieter neighborhood, if a bit workmanlike, but still far more European in styling than other Latin American city I had been to. For a last piece of tourism, it was great.

We then drove off to the Airport, with the only drama not being able to locate a gas station to fill the tank at - this may be Chile's biggest issue, the complete lack of gas stations. This is a bigger issue in Patagonia where there are 3-4 hour drives with 1-2 gas stations present, but even in Santiago it caused a senseless nervous moment. In the end, we were able to drop-off the car, check in and fly with no issues.

Our time in Santiago was in some ways representative of this whole trip, even if the urban city was so different than the open roads and wondrous terrain of Patagonia. Chile is a 1st world country with a few lasting 3rd world problems. It is a country that has embraced tourism, but one where the world hasn't yet embraced it. A great thing as crowds are still very manageable - I have doubts that will be true in another decade.

I plan to do an A-to-Z type review of this trip, the most substantial bit of tourism I've done since my Round the World Trip nearly five years ago, so I'll save my overall thoughts a bit for that, but like the entire trip, Santiago was clean, stunning and fun. I know judge cities by a few elements that all add up to answering two questions: 1 - how high will it go on my list of favorite cities (Santiago will be very high), and 2 - how much do I want to go back, and I want to go back immediately. And that applies to both Santiago, and Chile at large.

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.