Thursday, April 28, 2011

¡Visca Barça!

So far I have resisted the temptation to write about any games outside of the World Cup, but after watching Barça put away Real Madrid in such emphatic fashion today, I just HAD TO break that rule.  Not because it was a wonderful victory (which it was, of course) but it was a victory for the sport.  A victory for the beautiful game played beautifully!!

Some of my friends taunted me after the Copa Del Rey victory over the weekend.  It was Real’s victory, after all.  No matter that they played negative football for most of the game, or that Casillas performed miracles in goal, or that Blaugrana had most of the chances.  It was the final scoreline that gave them the trophy…A trophy that Ramos managed to drop under the moving bus! [I’m sure you’ve all seen that video by now; was it poetic justice?... I wonder!?!]

But today, beautiful football prevailed again!  And moments of brilliance (from Messi in particular) caused me a near-orgasmic sensation in a bar full of hockey-and-baseball-watching patrons in downtown Minneapolis!  Yes, undoubtedly, Leo is the greatest player of this generation and arguably greatest ever [he’s not yet 24, so he still has plenty to grow].  I’m biased here, of course, but not too many can argue that point these days.

This was the third El Clásico in the span of 11 days, much anticipated, of course, given everything at stake, and set up with the proper pre-show mind-games by “The Special One”...  Was it entertaining?  Not much, for the most part…but it was tense (as games with that much at stake often are) and I watched a team that wanted to play the game, while the other tried to massacre it at every step.  I’m not saying that Barça players were angels (they displayed their fair share of theatrics – Pedro especially, and gave back almost as much as they received) but did you see some of the blatant fouls from Adebayor (wiping off Mascherano), Sergio Ramos (on my boy Messi) and – especially – Pepe?  That guy, incidentally, should not be allowed to play the game.  Period.  I don’t think I’ve seen a more vicious player in a long time (brings back childhood memories of F.C. Faru and Cîrîc, who never managed to finish a game before he finished an opposing player)…but I digress.  He [Pepe] was actually suspended for 10 games in 2009 for violent conduct: .  I would NEVER have a player like that in my team!

But back to the game: 72% to 28% possession in favor of the “tiqui-taca”.  In the Bernabéu!  No wonder Real were frustrated.  Not many teams can claim that stat in that arena!  But it’s not just possession.  It’s the sheer pleasure of watching them stroke that ball around in almost artist-like fashion.  Like a toreador playing with the bull until he finds that brief opening and goes for the kill.  Adrenaline-pumping indeed!  It’s “eye-candy” in a form that not too many people can appreciate.   

And how about Mourinho?  Oh, how happy I was to see that pretentious smirk wiped off his face… He was no longer that cocky, arrogant, theatrical, disgusting excuse of a human being once the stark German referee Stark [I didn’t even try that one!] put him in his place.  Behind bars, that is!  Of course, in typical sore-looser fashion, he’s crying “foul” about all kinds of UEFA conspiracies, unfair referee treatment and all that junk nested snuggly in his otherwise limited “intellectual” baggage.  Yes, you probably more than sensed it: I’m not a big fan of the man; never been, never will be.  I just can’t explain how some of the media finds him so fascinating.  He “sells” news (for controversy sells, as amply demonstrated by all the so-called “reality-show” craze here in the U.S.).  He really is the Becali of world football: an idiot who “sells air time”.  But professionally, he’s a disgrace to the sport [I already said a disgrace to human race, so this is just a bonus].  His job as a coach is to develop the team, individual players, and game tactics.  As much as I struggle to, I just can’t find ONE player he has developed, and as far of “tactics” [the quotes are on purpose, of course] the only tactic he’s capable of is “parking the bus” in front of the goal and hoping to capitalize on a counter or a set piece.  It worked for him at Porto, because the team was always perceived as the underdog, but since then, “nada” [with last year’s exception when Inter managed to defeat Barca with similar tactics]…  And it didn’t work for him today either.

Jose’s morals are deplorably pathetic and unsportsmanlike.  Just a few months ago he was fined and suspended for instructing his players to get yellow-carded during the last minutes of that game against Ajax (so they can get suspended and start with a clean sheet the game after).  As for his “mentoring” capabilities, nothing there either.  He encourages the “foul-every-30-seconds” approach, because that’s the only way he knows how to break down a team.  He doesn’t frown upon theatrics; he encourages them, rather.  He just doesn't present a positive role model for his team.  In my opinion, DiMaria would make a wonderful winger if his coach would have him focus more on his game and less on diving and imploring the ref for free kicks all the time.  But then again, he would need a different coach for that...  

Oh, and one more topic – which brings me back to his defensive tactics: today he started with 5 defenders (Pepe, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Albiol and Arbeloa) two defensive midfielders (Xavi Alonso and Diarra) and three midfielders (DiMaria – always isolated on the left, Ronaldo – you could argue he’s a forward, but always plays behind the front men, and Ozil – who was in Ronaldo’s way for the most part today).  No forwards to speak of (with 3 very capable examples on the bench: Benzema – in rare form lately, Higuain – who scored 3 over the weekend, and Adebayor – also in form).  And of course, Kaká – one of the best creative midfielders in the world – on the bench as well.  I may not have a coaching pedigree, but definitely have more common sense to come up with a better starting 11.  Any of these “options” would have made the game more entertaining, but then again, his “tactics” were to just kill the game, defend and hope for another spark of brilliance from one of his many high-paid “galacticos”.  In the end, it was not to be, for karma is a cruel bitch!

So now, the return leg – which will undoubtedly result in a replay of the CL final from 2009: Barça against Man U. – should be a more pleasant affair.  With Mourinho probably suspended and the “executioners” Ramos and Pepe in that same boat, we should expect more of a spectacle.  That is, if Real want to play the game, not kill it again.   I really hope they’ll do that, out of [hurt] pride and respect for the game…

Thursday, April 14, 2011

South Florida Spring Break - Part 2

Key West (Cayo Hueso)

Following Hwy 1 South through Coral Gables and Palmetto Bay you run out of “land” at some point and hit the marshland of the Florida Glades.  Shortly after, you’re driving through the famed Keys, starting with the larger ones (Largo, Plantation, Islamorada, Marathon) before hitting the smaller ones (too many to count) and ending up in Key West.

So, 510 years after Ponce De León “discovered” the Florida Keys we descended upon Key West after a 120+ mile drive down the Overseas Highway.  Amazing drive over bridges connecting the islands, feeling almost like you’re floating on water (especially on the Seven Mile Bridge).  The island is quite small (less than 8 square miles) and the city itself – the southernmost in the US – is actually closer to Havana, Cuba (94 miles) than Miami (160 miles).  And it’s quite unique, given that in the “Old Town” most buildings (well preserved for the most part) date back to the late 1800’s and early 1900’s!  It still feels like a throwback to older, simpler times, which have inspired over time the likes of Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and Jimmy Buffet.  Various “tourist traps” try to steal that spirit, but it’s all still there if you chose to venture a block or two off the beaten path…

Views from the Seven Mile Bridge (to and from the Keys) 

The Conch Republic – as it’s known in local circles – briefly declared “independence” from the states back in 1982 when the US Border Patrol became overzealous in response to a Cuban exodus knows as the Mariel boatlift.  Obviously that didn’t stick, but the name has.  Incidentally, Conch was a name given to immigrants from the Bahamas who came in droves during the 1830’s.  Today it refers to the natives of Key West (while “implants” from the north are symbolically called Freshwater Conch).

Key West is another adults-only playground, with its fair share of gay/lesbian representation (statistics show that 40% of the locals are actually in that category) yet conveys a much more relaxed, laid-back atmosphere when compared to Miami Beach.  Duval Street – the main thoroughfare – is littered with pubs, bars that offer live music (the famed Sloppy Joes where apparently Hemingway “drew” a lot of inspiration from [or was it “drank”?]) drag shows, second-rate restaurants, and [low quality] cigar shops (I guess that’s attributed to proximity to Cuba, although the quality of the ‘habanas’ is questionable at best).

Key West is mainly an adult destination, unless one of these drops anchor...

As much as Duval Street is noted for the “bar scene” and “people watching” (sort of a Burbon Street flavor to it), I’d recommend staying away from it if you’re looking for a nice dinner place (in terms of quality and ambiance that is).  Most of the notable [quality] restaurants (Blue Heaven, Seven Fish, El Siboney, just to rattle off a few) are off the beaten path.  We did, however, find an exception in Bagatelle, right on Duval; a bit pricier, but well worth the extra bucks.  Phenomenal food and awesome pie! Key Lime, that is! 

For a trip to the Keys is not complete without gorging on my favorite desert!  Kermit’s seems to be a local favorite (Bagatelle serves their pies), but from what I hear (and what “experts” are saying) Blond Giraffe’s is equally good.  Despite being more of a tourist theme (as limes are primarily grown in Mexico today) [Key] Lime Pie on any of its forms is at least one of the reasons that brings people to the Keys.  I just wish I had more while down there; but the overnight trip was definitely too short for a full experience.  Promise to be back though, sans enfants!

The beaches in Key West are nothing to write home about.  Small, with rocky “edges” but the water is clean and the diving/snorkeling [I hear] is excellent.  Fort Zachary Taylor state park is the one beach worth visiting, albeit for a small admission fee.

Other attractions are the local marina, boat tours, Fort Jefferson and the Dry Tortugas (70 miles away by boat), and the historic houses of [former president] Truman and Hemingway.  Have seen none of them, so can’t offer an opinion.  Maybe next time…

The one other tourist “attraction” is a concrete buoy near the Truman Annex (Navy property) that’s not even accurate on what it claims, yet makes for another ‘Kodak’ spot.  In actuality, there are a couple of private islands further south, and even some of the land owned by the Navy (or portions of the aforementioned state park) lie further south.  Fun fact: this used to be just a small sign that was often stolen, before local authorities built this in 1983.  Good luck stealing this, they said!  So all we did was ‘steal’ a picture!

West Palm Beach & the Florida Gold Coast

The rest of the vacation took us up and down the Florida Gold Coast, with a relaxing 5 day stint at a Marriott property on Singer Island (West Palm Beach).  Not much in terms of sightseeing, unless you count the ever-present yachts, boats, waterfront mansions and golf courses (seems like one around every corner).  The area ‘screams’ expensive, with manicured lawns, lush vegetation, gated communities, designer shopping, expensive cars and people who average over 60 years old and 2-3 (minimum) “corrective” surgeries.  We were by far the youngest group around…

 The hotel's back yard...
...and views from the balcony...

Yet again, if you’re looking for rest and relaxation, this is the place to be.  Just make sure you pack a thick wallet!

Some suggestions I’d offer: a water taxi ride among the inner canals that would make you gawk stupidly at some of the mansions, mini-castles and accompanying watercraft, a visit to the City Place downtown WPB, where I recommend Italy for amazing gelato [for those of you who live in Atlanta, Paolo’s in Virginia-Highlands is just as good, if not better] or a short drive further south to Havana, for authentic Cuban cuisine [this was recommended by our Cuban bartender].  There are many other “attractions” undoubtedly, but all we cared about after the Atlanta – Ft. Lauderdale – South Beach – Miami – Key West three-day marathon, was a relaxing resort, sunshine and umbrella-bearing drinks.

Driving back to Ft. Lauderdale from West Palm, A1 hugs the coastline and takes you through the diamond-studded scenery of the Gold Coast:  Delray Beach, Boca Raton, Deerfield, Pompano, etc.  More of the same, left and right: mansions, yachts, lush landscaping, just opulent, extravagant wealth.  The area is considered to be the heaviest concentration of “money” outside of certain part of California. Robin Leach would only have to close his eyes and throw a dart to find the next location for his show…

This is some of the 'scenery' along the Gold Coast...
$15-20+ Million can put you in one of these...ehmm...'houses'

So there you have it.  A quick account of the South Florida Spring Break getaway.  It took us through places that truly define “vacation”, places that we’ll definitely revisit soon. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

South Florida Spring Break - Part 1

Miami & South Beach

“Beautiful people”, skimpy thongs, sculpted [and in most cases surgically enhanced] tanned bodies, topless sunbathing, fast cars and “bling” define the scene in South Beach, or SoBe as most locals call it.  It is where young people hang out and Europeans come to find a taste of the American beach scene.  Unfortunately – unlike most beaches in the civilized world – you won’t find any beach-side bars, with the exception of a few hotels that are located on the coveted strip of land on the “right” side of Ocean Drive.  That, however, doesn’t mean that one can’t get an ice-cold beverage of choice lounging in one of the patios that line up along the famed “A1A”.

Mango Mojito - the half-gallon version!

 Ocean Drive

"Beautiful bodies"...on wheels 

Aaaahhh... Paradise! 

Collins Ave. and the Ritz-Carlton

There’s a buzzing scene day and night under the backdrop of well-maintained Art Deco hotels and restaurants that give SoBe some of its innegable character.  But it’s definitely an adult playground, with a fairly strong gay and lesbian presence; any child strolling by on a parents’ metaphorical “leash” is most likely to be staying in one of the more family-friendly nearby resorts, like Ft. Lauderdale or Hollywood.  Nonetheless, no trip to Miami can be complete without a few hours (at least) spent on this island.

As for the “night scene” – which I have not “sampled” on this trip due to a variety of reasons [age, social and family status, etc.] you’ll hear that SoBe is the most “happening” place on this side of the Atlantic.  Celebs and the super-rich rub shoulders (and any other choice body parts for that matter) in some of the most exclusive night clubs on earth.  Here are a few suggestions if you want to check out the night scene: Cameo, Set Miami, Mansion, LIV or Nikki Beach (this one is right on the sand!).  There’s also a good selection of dining spots – most offering Latin American “fusion” and of course, seafood options.  Every renowned chef is present here, which means options abound, but if you have a discernable palate stay off the “tourist” path (pretty much most places on Ocean Drive or Collins Avenue).  Here’s a few places that constantly get ‘rave’ J reviews: OLA (for fish tacos), Scarpetta (Italian), Wish, Puerto Sagua (Cuban), Bambu (Asian / co-owned by Cameron Diaz).  You’ll also hear everyone talk about Joe’s Stone Crab (a SoBe “institution” going back to the early 1900’s) but you’ll have to dress up and wait for hours; instead, try Joe’s Take Away, the restaurant’s “pick-up window”.

Bottom line, whatever your vacationing plans, SoBe will deliver and will provide a unique experience.  Keep a tight lid on that wallet though; it could get expensive fast!

Driving across the MacArthur Causeway (or Venetian, or Julia Tuttle…take your pick, but MacArthur offers better views) you’ll find yourself downtown Miami: more glitz, skyscrapers, waterfront parks and the ubiquitous yachts.   A very photogenic scene indeed!

Further down – across Rickenbacker and towards Key Biscayne – is the Miami Seaquarium.  A must do if you travel with kids; not as many fish on display, but several shows (orca, dolphins, sea lions, shark feeding, etc.) make it an exciting experience.

A little shower from the dolphins (or standing too close to the rail)

We went further down to visit Key Biscayne (there’s a nice state park at the end of that island, and several “celeb” houses on display as well) but hit a little bit of traffic as people were dropping in the Sony Ericsson Open for the women’s’ final [ Azarenka beat Sharapova in straight sets].  Driving back across the Causeway, stop at the makeshift beach-cum-picnic spot for another Kodak moment, with the Miami skyline in the background across the bay.

So as you can see, always something to do, always something to see in the Miami area.  We were there for two days (only because we’ve been before) but one needs at least 4-5 days to really take it all in.

(taken from that 'beach-cum-picnic area' spot mentioned above)

PS - before I get chastised, credit for most of the pictures goes to Laura!