"One day I'm going to see a Wales' game at the Millennium Stadium."
When I wrote this post on Facebook on October 1, 2012, I was far from knowing what the future had in store for me. Yes, I already knew Rui but we had never traveled together. Our first travel, to Paris, in January 2013 was not yet part of the plans and none of us knew that we would become obsessed not only with travel but also with sports, while doing it.
All of this makes it even more curious that on October 1, 2015, exactly three years later, the dream I had revealed with a simple phrase would materialize: see the Welsh rugby team playing at home, the most iconic one, in Cardiff.
I could tell you that everything was easy: we got on a plane to London, got on the bus and bought tickets to a game in Wales. But the truth is that it was nothing like that. The story began in early 2014 when we decided that we would like to watch some of the World Cup matches that took place the following year in the United Kingdom.
And if the first step was taken and the decision made, all the hardest parts were yet to come: look at the calendar, see what games we wanted and could watch, how we would get there, what would be the necessary number days of work to do it...? I, of course, wanted to see Wales. At Millennium, if possible. And I'd also be delighted if I saw the All Blacks - if that wasn't asking for much.
Since the planning gods like us, they scheduled two games on 1 and 2 October in Cardiff: Wales-Fiji and New Zealand-Georgia. It was decided, now we had to wait... for the ticket purchase in September 2014 (yes, more than a year before), and see if we could have a lucky star on our side once again.
In September we made the bid for both games in category D (the cheapest) and a month later we received the results: we did not have tickets to the Wales game. Yes, we were going to Cardiff, and yes, we were going to see the best team in the world, but my dream was not going to be fulfilled.
Surely, because you have a bit of Sherlock Holmes in you, you realize that we didn't give up. The general sale to the public opened a month later - I could write an entire post about the process of ticket selling for the Rugby World Cup, which we repeated to Japan-2019, but now is not the time - and there were tickets for Wales-Fiji available. In category C, much more expensive than our choice of "let's spend as little as possible". But there were tickets. And we were already going to be there... And how many chances do we have to see Wales at Millennium? OK, so be it. We bought the tickets. On November 26, 2014, it was confirmed that ten months and a few days later we would be in Cardiff.
The challenges just kept coming. Now it was the journey itself. How would we get to Cardiff? Where would we stay? Surely, in the three or four weeks that a World Cup lasts, the host cities are turned upside down. Planning ahead - way ahead - was key. After seeing all our options, we opted to fly to London and get a bus to Cardiff.
There, we would stay one night - from September 30th to October 1st - and after Wales' game we would go to Swansea for the next night (why? Because we were able to book a room for £39 in Cardiff for the first night but the cheaper ones for day 1 started at £300). The third night would be spent between a hotel lobby where we could get tea and the bus back to London, which left at 4 in the morning.
We had everything ready. All we had left to do was wait for the day to come. It was all going to be okay - and it was (or would be if there had not been a car burning on the freeway in the middle of England that turned a three-and-a-half-hour trip into a seven-hour torture. With no food).
Cardiff did not disappoint. There is something special about a city that hosts a great sporting competition: I had noticed it in Berlin in 2006, but that was a huge European capital. Cardiff is a city that takes you less than two hours to walk from one side to the other. There was rugby everywhere; to say that the environment was festive is the understatement of the year.
The supporters of the teams playing those days joined thousands of people who got tickets and made long trips to get to the Millennium. John was one of them: he sat by our side during Wales-Fiji and when he realized we were tourists, he could not help himself but talk to us. "Why Wales?", was the question asked. I explained my love, and we took the time to learn a bit more about the Englishman who was there - like so many others - to support Fiji. He had arrived in Cardiff by taxi from London in the afternoon and would leave soon after the game. Why? "I got a ticket and, after all, it's better to come and go by taxi than to pay a lot to get the train at unfriendly hours. It was a workday."
For those of us, foreigners, who stayed in the area, Swansea was a popular choice: we were not the only ones waiting in line to the neighboring town and walk a few minutes from the station to downtown hotels. And if Swansea is not my favorite destination, I can not say that the way back to Cardiff the next day, in broad daylight, was not a treat to the eye.
Being in a World Cup (of any sport, probably) is a unique experience. For me, it was, beyond everything else, a dream come true: I had seen Wales playing at the Millennium. But now I can't stop. Next plan, Japan-2019.
Flight (round trip, per person): 75 euros (for London, Ryanair)
Bus (round trip, per person): 12 euros (London-Cardiff, Megabus)
Accommodation (per night, for two people): Cardiff, 46 euros / Swansea, 65 euros
There is one thing we (all) don't talk enough about. Traveling is contagious. There's a traveling bug that settles inside us when we start doing it, and when we stop to think, we realize that there is no way to get rid of it... even if we wanted to.
Our trip to Vigo started when we were returning to Lisbon after the road trip on the Estrada Nacional 2 between Montargil and Chaves. When we stopped at a service station on the motorway, while Sarah went to buy something, I checked my phone to see when Atletico Madrid was going to play in two cities: Vigo and Sevilla.
My passion for Atletico Madrid has made us make several trips to the Spanish capital. Now, after the trip to Chaves, I thought we could enjoy a different one, that would allow us to see a little more of Portugal and, at the same time, an Atletico game.
Headquarters in Ponte de Lima
The trip would have to start Friday night after work. The main goal was to get as close to Vigo as possible so that we could enjoy a better day on Saturday.
We started looking for hotels after Porto and figuring out how many hours we would need to get there. We wanted to find something cheap, comfortable and, above all, that would allow us to do a late check-in. We chose a hotel on the outskirts of Ponte de Lima, perfectly fulfilling the idea that we had to be able to explore a little of Minho.
The game was initially scheduled for 16h15 (Spanish time) but it was postponed to 18h30 because of the extreme heat. It was a perfect change: we would have plenty of time to see some places we wanted to visit in Minho before heading to Vigo.
Ponte de Lima, of course, was the first stop. We parked near the bridge, in the shade of a tree that seems to have been planted specifically to satisfy us on a morning of immense heat.
We took some pictures near the car and decided to cross the bridge on foot, after buying a big bottle of water. Portugal's "oldest village" breathes vivacity and the children's canoeing competition that is taking place is just another sign of it.
We stopped to see a few minutes of boys and girls pounding at the best speed they could. Friends, family, and monitors were shouting words of motivation and who knows if we didn't see the next Fernando Pimenta or Emanuel Silva, two Portuguese canoers that won a silver medal at the London Olympics.
Next stop: Viana do Castelo
It was time to get back in the car and start driving. The goal was to go straight to Viana do Castelo. We had one thing in mind: the Sanctuary of Santa Luzia. The heat made everything more and more complicated, but we accomplished our mission.
There were not many people there, but a huge limousine waited for some newlyweds. We didn't go in - we didn't want to disturb - but we took the opportunity to photograph the Sanctuary and absorb the views over Viana do Castelo. It was a perfect idea.
Lunchtime was approaching and we didn't know where we would eat. The idea was to follow the coast to the north, Vila Praia de Âncora, Caminha, and Vila Nova de Cerveira until crossing the river Minho to get to Spain.
But the destiny has changed (somewhat) the plans. On the way out of Viana do Castelo, a couple was hitchhiking. At first, we ignored them but after talking to each other, we decided to make a U-turn and ask where they wanted to go. "Âncora," they said. "Well, come in."
She was Spanish and a journalist, he was French and a Political Science student with a big question mark about his future. The two of them lived in Toulouse and had arrived in Porto two days earlier via Marseille. They were on their way to Vigo to meet a friend who worked at the Cíes Islands.
Lunch in Vila Nova de Cerveira
The conversation was timid and interrupted with moments of silence. A little embarrassed, they ended up asking to stay with us for another few miles. In Caminha, we stopped so they could get the ferry to Spain but the next one was two and a half hours away. Once again, they asked us to keep on going.
We said goodbye in Vila Nova de Cerveira. They were going to cross the bridge and we needed a place to eat. We parked in the center and wandered through small alleys, jumping from shadow to shadow. Everything was decorated with pieces of crochet, but nothing came close to the house we saw, to our left. It all seemed to be made of wool, from the bricks to the clothes hanged between balconies.
It was no surprise, therefore, that the few passing tourists lined up for the opportunity to take some pictures.
On the way to Vigo
After a comfortable - and refreshingly - meal, we agreed to go straight to Vigo, arriving in time for a possible beach dive before the game. It was Saturday, the thermometer was above 100 degrees (Fahrenheit), and the beaches should be packed, but as we had done on the trip to Chaves, we only needed five minutes to change clothes, get out of the car, go to the water, dive in and get back.
The challenge was more complicated than we had hoped. Like us, there were dozens of cars looking for a place to park. We gave up the idea and opted in for an intermediate solution: I was going to stay in the car in the parking lot of a Spanish third-tier team (FC Coruxo) while Sarah went to the water. Then we shifted. After we stopped the car, we were rewarded. A couple was getting out and we got a place to park the car almost in the sand. Perfect!
The water temperature wasn't great but it was so hot outside that it was not a problem at all. It didn't take us more than twenty minutes to get out again, with a refreshed body and our minds already at the soccer game.
The biggest challenge was the same once again: parking. We got a place almost a mile away from the Balaídos stadium but, seeing things on the positive side, the road there was downhill. Yes, if you want to be pessimistic you may point out that we had to go up the whole way back to the car. Come on, let's forget this part for now.
The atmosphere in the stadium was interesting. Luckily we stayed in the shadow, so we did not suffer as much as those who were on the other side. Celta beat Atletico Madrid 2-0 (it's a kind of curse I have: in the eleven games I saw, the colchoneros only won three and I was in a draw that could lead to the title in 2014 and in the Champions League final in Lisbon) and never seemed to have the win in the discussion.
Return to Portugal with the Sunday plan in mind
I confess: the way back to the car was not very difficult either. We still had no hotel booked for Saturday night but the idea was to stay near Porto so that the return to Lisbon the next day would not be too tiresome.
When we were leaving Vigo, we had the opportunity to see, possibly, the most beautiful sunset we have ever seen (a pity the motorway did not help us to take a single good picture) and we kept going, already with a hotel room booked in Gaia.
Sunday was not just a pitstop on our way back to Lisbon. We had decided to go to Aveiro. Sarah had never been there and I had only been to work - two different times, always to interview Beira-Mar players. Now it would be just the two of us and with plenty of time to do whatever we wanted. We passed by the river, crossed the Bridge of Laços de Amizade, had lunch while watching the start of the Formula 1 Grand Prix on the mobile phone, bought some Ovos Moles (a famous Aveiro's delicacy) and drove to Costa Nova to see the famous colorful stripes' houses.
By this time, fatigue had already invaded our body. It is not easy to walk in the heat for so long. So, in the middle of the afternoon, we decided to return to Lisbon. With the feeling of duty fulfilled and... already with other trips in mind. It is contagious!
In August we spent four days driving through Estrada Nacional 2 (Portugal's "Route 66") between Montargil and Chaves to go see a soccer match. Along the way, we stopped several times and gathered tips on some of the best things that can be done along this stretch.
1. Geodesic Center of Portugal (Vila de Rei)
It may be a useless pleasure but there's something magical about stopping literally in the center of Portugal when you are driving a road that connects Faro (south of the south) to Chaves (north of the north). If the weather is nice, the view is magnificent and offers us a clear perception of the Portuguese geography... in all directions.
2. Fluvial beach of Folgosa
It will always depend on the month and the weather, but from all the fluvial beaches and dams, none has seemed better to us than Folgosa. Yes, the water at the Montargil and Sordo dams may have been warm and the view of the fluvial beach of Penedo Furado is magical, but if we combine the ease of access, the parking space, the natural beauty, and the water temperature, our suggestion is Folgosa.
3. Ponte Filipina ("Philippine Bridge")
We have mixed feelings about the Philippine Bridge. Believe me: coming from someone who drove down there from one side and up on the other side, it can be a traumatizing experience... in the following days. But now, on second thought, it was worth it and we're only sorry that we didn't stop at the viewpoint too. Oh, if you don't want to risk it, maybe it's best to leave your car in a safe place and do the last bit on foot. It may be tough to walk all the way back, but at least you'll avoid eventual panic moments and you'll feel more comfortable to enjoy the beauty of what nature has to offer.
4. Castro's Viewpoint
It calls for a small detour - it's eight miles away from Estrada Nacional 2 at Vila de Rei and we stopped there after spending the night in Ferreira do Zêzere. The landscape from Castro's Viewpoint is one of the best we found during these days: between the valleys and a house on a hill, there's also room for the Zêzere to meander in the background. Well worth it.
5. Pena – a schist village
The Philippine Bridge's experience left us a little traumatized and we wanted to avoid great adventures while looking for the Aldeias do Xisto (Schist Villages). After a quick search, we realized that Pena was one of the closest ones to Estrada Nacional 2 and the reward was worthy. While driving, the only danger is the cars in the opposite direction that think they own the road.
August, four days and one goal in mind: to be in Chaves on Saturday at 16.30 to attend the match between the local team and Portimonense.
This was what we knew the day before the road trip started. The original idea was quite simple: to drive to Braga and stroll through Minho, stopping in Guimarães, before heading to Chaves. I had nothing against it, of course. But what if we took the chance to see something else and do something different?
I have no idea how I came across an article about Estrada Nacional 2, which runs through the country from the north (Chaves) to the south (Faro), but it seemed a good starting point for our trip. We like to travel across countries, as we have realized while doing the California Zephyr. The fantastic Chaves-Portimonense game, in the end, made everything seem written in the stars.
The idea of going down from Lisbon to the Algarve and making the whole N2 to the north crossed our minds, but we quickly remembered that the following Monday was a workday. Where should we begin our trip, then?
The first dive
Mora, Montemor or Montargil were the most obvious options. Having arrived from Évora on the morning of that day, I was not dying to feel myself going back, so Montemor was out. The difference between Mora and Montargil is minimal, so we decided to go directly to the dam and start there, in Montargil.
Just before lunch, we had our bags packed and water bottles ready to start the trip. The only thing we knew was that three and a half days later we had to be in Chaves in time for the game. What we'd do until then was still to be seen.
With Estrada Nacional 2 at sight, we also saw the first glimpse of the dam. We couldn't resist to stop and dive and decided it was the perfect opportunity to start a tradition that would follow us for the next few days: to get near a dam or a fluvial beach, park the car, change clothes and dive headfirst into waters that were warmer than we would have anticipated.
The lagoon created by the Montargil dam is huge and has several access points to the water. We didn't get too far and were almost intruders in the middle of two families camped on the banks, trying to fish their next meals. The water was warm and we splashed around a bit before deciding it was time to get back on the road. It was the beginning of the adventure.
Stop by the castle
The road to Abrantes went with no history, even with the charm of passing by Ponte de Sôr's airfield. The plate of Domingão City, a memory from other adventures, had already been changed to Domingão. We were driving for an hour and, suddenly, the hunger kicked in and made us look for something to eat.
Arriving in Abrantes, way past lunchtime, we decided to stop at the Castle for a real photo op and to feed our needs. We noticed that, as we entered the Alcaide across the street, the owner was careful enough to switch the television from a bullfighting to a music channel.
After satisfying the stomach and the eyes (the landscape was really something), we headed towards Vila de Rei - the only place we knew we were also visiting before we left Lisbon. But even before we got there, a sign indicating the fluvial beach of Penedo Furado took us to another detour. And another dive.
Now, after being there, we know that it is a fluvial beach known and recognized for its natural beauty. Maybe that's why it was the only one we felt too crowded. The road to get there is winding, and it was filled with parked cars still far from the water. As luck protects the daring, we kept on going with confidence and we got close to the beach. New change of clothes, one more dive in that limpid water where there was no shortage of fish, and we could go on on our way... feeling fresher.
The center of Portugal, literally, was ahead. "Being in the geodesic center is such a useless pleasure, but so cool," was what we were told, and is actually a good description. We just wanted to say that we had been there, in the true center of Portugal, and seen the view from up above. That is why it was the only star marked on our map.
We found an almost deserted location (with free wifi!) and an unbelievable noise of wind gusts that we couldn't feel. No regrets.
With the end of the day approaching, the time had come to decide where to sleep. And, let me tell you, it is not an easy task to get a place to sleep outside the big tourist centers halfway through August. The solution? Spend the night in Ferreira do Zêzere. The only problem was crossing the worst bridge I've ever crossed in my life (blame vertigo...).
Important tip? Do not assume it will be easy to have dinner on a national holiday in August.
The bridge that made us crazy
Day 2 of our trip began with vertigo (yes, the bridge again), going back to N2. We were in the middle of an area that was blazed last year, and there is no way you can drive through there without feeling a chill. With every new bend or narrowing of the road, we started thinking about how we would survive if there was a fire that moment.
To forget about it, we decided to move on to a new dive. Before, however, the indication of "Ponte Filipina" (bridge from the 16th century) caught our attention. We felt the urge of adventure and decided to go... ignoring what could happen.
Built during the Philippine dynasty in Portugal (1580-1640), the bridge is beautiful, linking the two banks of the Zêzere, but the way to get there - and to get out of there... is not the best, let's put it that way. We were surprised when we saw a car parked at the beginning of the descent when the map indicated that we were still a kilometer away. But we decided to keep on going.
Then it was too late to go back: the road is narrow, always going down on dangerous slopes, slippery and in poor condition, even in the summer. "How will we turn back when we get down there?" started to be a stubborn thought that we couldn't forget. Fortunately, the map showed us that the road seemed a little bit better on the other side of the river.
After a pitstop for photos, we had to go. A moment of slight panic arrived when the wheels of our urban car got stuck in a hole, but we managed to get out of there and back to the N2.
Pedrógão Grande: a land of kayaks... and rocks
We thought of going to the fluvial beach of Troviscal but ended up choosing the Pedrógão Grande dam. Good choice. Upon arrival, we were presented with the vision that makes the heart of one of us stop - kayaks!
The opportunity was irresistible and not even a not very functional hip/leg (four months after surgery) was a dealbreaker to the 30 minutes of physical exercise that allowed us to reach the other side of the reservoir and take a dive away from the (few) people that were spending the day at the dam. Unfortunately, this also meant that we stayed away from the protection of the floating pool: a foot hit on a rock and put the return trip at risk, but we managed to do it. Nevertheless, we were forced to change the driver and to visit the nearest pharmacy.
Diving stopped being an option - at least until the foot got better - so we decided to drive towards the «Aldeias do Xisto» (Schist Villages). The road that connects Pena, Aigra Velha, Aigra Nova, and Comareira to the N2 is not for weak stomachs, and it takes some time, but it is well worth it.
In Pena, three or four streets with traditional stone houses, mixed with others of more recent construction, lie on a cliff that has, in the background, a river that seems to invite us to dive. On a hot day like the one we were in, you don't see anyone on the street, and maybe that's also the reason we could not even walk for more than a few minutes. Even so, successful detour.
We crossed the Mondego river in Penacova almost without realizing it, and in an instant, we left behind the district of Coimbra. Without major improvements on the foot, the dives remained on hold and we decided to get as close to the city of Viseu as possible. We took a tour of Santa Comba Dão and Tondela before stopping again to make a decision: where will we sleep today? We chose Nelas, forcing us to leave «our» road again.
Day 3 - from Viseu to Trás-os-Montes
The time we passed driving started to make itself felt and a good night's sleep was reinvigorating. In the morning, (relatively) early, we continued our trip towards Viseu, where we took the opportunity to visit Fontelo Park, where Académico plays. Once again, as luck protects the audacious, we arrive during the training session and there it is, Manuel Cajuda surrounded by players in a secondary field.
While leaving Viseu, we notice that the landscape is not the same one we saw the previous day. Even the burnt sections have a different aura from the more southerly ones and the houses we pass by seem to scream "Beira Alta". It is a beautiful, and different, road to the first stop of the day: the fluvial beach of Folgosa.
We got there before lunchtime and there were not many people: some families spread towels in the shade, but the noise is almost minimal and there are not many people in the water. We decide to go in with confidence, half stumbling because the stones of the riverbed are not friendly. Around us, a handful of fish nibbles our feet and legs. The water is the coldest we get on our trip, but also the most clear and serene. We could stay there for hours... but we just kept on going.
We stop at Lamego to have lunch and take a stroll around the city. Curiously, we took some time to realize the «Santuário de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios» (Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedies). Inspired by Bom Jesus do Monte, in Braga, it challenges us to a climb, but it's so hot that we just decide to glare it from the bottom.
The road to Peso da Régua is winding and crowded with vineyards, with the Douro river lurking from time to time in the distance. For the first time these days, we get stuck in the traffic for a few minutes - to cross the bridge. We decided to continue our trip with the Sordo Dam in mind, the place where we would get our last dive.
We have read comments saying the water was clear and warm. Knowing the area, and the resilience of the transmontanos (people from Trás-os-Montes), I had my doubts about the hot part - but the truth is that there is no other way to describe the temperature of the water. Great choice for those who are close (even if the road to get there is not good).
The end of the road
It was also in the dam that we decided that it would be a good idea to spend the night in Chaves (or nearby) to be able to rest more than we had done until then. After the game, we would only have 24 hours to get back home, and it would be good to have our eyes open.
Thus, the passage through Vila Real was just an express version and the main concern began to be to book a place to sleep at the final destination. We knew from the research we did that hotels in the city were practically fully booked, at least for online reservations. Our hope was the traditional pensions and residences that we would pass along the way.
With Chaves getting closer and closer we began to notice names, make stops and calls. We kept hearing the same words: "we have no rooms available". We decided to go to the stadium, where we'd buy the tickets for the next day's match and another jersey for our collection. With nothing to lose, we took the opportunity to explain our situation and ask the employees if they had any idea where we could stay overnight.
It was the best decision we could make: that allowed us to book the last available room in a hotel just outside the city. "Do not forget to tell them you are coming from their Chaves's friends, I'm a neighbor," one of them told us. The message was given and our journey came to an end.
China was never part of our plans. I had always preferred trips to the West, with the United States as a front-runner, and the concept of East to Sarah was more of the kind of paradisiacal destinations. Even so, a bit by chance, we decided to travel to Beijing in a matter of minutes. When we discovered a low price on a Lufthansa promotion and realized that, after all, the flight time wouldn't top ten hours, we immediately knew that there was no way to resist.
We were almost six months away from it, but the trip seduced us instantly. Today, five years later, we agree to say that it is a good thing that we did it even though it is not something we want to repeat - at least for now. A destiny that always seemed so distant as I was growing up, in a country that has only recently begun to open up to other cultures and to show its own, appeared more seductive than ever.
Born in 1985, I vaguely remember seeing pictures of the Tiananmen Square Massacre on television. Almost thirty years later, visiting the square, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall of China and, of course, the Olympic complex was an opportunity we could not miss despite the big question mark we knew this trip would be.
All our choices were aimed at making our stay the best during those six days. We opted for a hotel in a shopping area very close to the Forbidden City to ensure that the meals and a good portion of the tourist plan would be easily made by foot.
Besides, there was an airport bus that stopped just across the street from the hotel. Given that none of us even scratched Mandarin beyond hello and thank you and that English is not widely spoken, we wanted to avoid problems that would be aggravated by communication at all costs.
The first adventure on a restaurant
The “Eastern jet lag” attacked us in a way we'd never experienced before. Since waking up at 4:30 in the morning more than ready for breakfast (and I rarely get up to eat when the meal is available until 10:00 a.m.) until having an insatiable appetite for dinner mid-afternoon, we went through it all. So, shortly after arrival we were looking for something to eat in the commercial area of Xidan, a few minutes walk from our hotel.
There were more Western fast-food solutions to which we are accustomed, but we wanted to try to find something more local. On an underground floor of a small shopping mall, we saw a counter with menus that looked great. The time had come for us to speak for the first time with Chinese off the beaten track. Fortunately, on the other side were two employees as adventurous as we were, who were delighted to communicate with strangers.
We ordered, with relative ease, the menu we wanted and paying was also not that hard. The worst came when one of the employees began gesturing toward us as if she suddenly did not want us there. She was making a cross with the index fingers in our direction as if she were pushing away vampires and we, completely lost, couldn't understand it. She repeated it once, twice, three times until a light shone in Sarah's brain.
“Ah! I've read about it! That means ten!" We realized she was telling us that the food would take about ten minutes to be ready. Conclusion? We waited without any problem and, when the food came, we were surprisedly pleased with most of it, except for a soup and something else in which only the smell was enough to drive us away.
On the way to the Forbidden City
It was our first stop. You can't miss it. When we chose the hotel we were already expecting that and, after the first breakfast, with the streets still deserted, we decided to walk that mile, mile and a half to the entrance near Tiananmen Square.
Those twenty minutes walking helped us realize, for the first time, the number of policemen in each block and to confirm that the maps can be quite deceivable. If in Boston, for example, everything seems to be a step away, in Beijing the smallest distance on the map is misleading.
Security is a key point in Tiananmen Square. Successive episodes of self-moaning in protest tightened checkpoints and it became mandatory to go through a metal detector when accessing the square and main entrance to the Forbidden City next to the Mao Tse-Tung Mausoleum.
When we arrived, there was already some movement of tourists but nothing too bad. The entry is done without any kind of problem and it does not take long to realize why they call it City. Between stairs to go up and down, access to temples, well-treated gardens, and historic trees, we finally realize that the space is much larger than we expected.
Here and there, we hear what the guides are saying but our walk continues. We stop at strategic places to take pictures or take advantage of the beauty that each corner of the Forbidden City offers us, but the historical part that comes in the guides is relegated to the background.
We walk through the Forbidden City to the exit on the other side and climb a few steps to take a new photo that offers us a different perspective of the Forbidden City, with the advantage of giving a context more appropriate to its dimension.
Being famous at Summer Palace
What do two Portuguese do in Beijing? The same as millions of Chinese do every year, coming from every corner of the country that is rapidly approaching 1.5 billion people.
Why does it matter? To realize that in spite of the Portuguese, French, English, Americans, and other Europeans, the largest fringe of tourists in Beijing, whatever attraction we're talking about, will always be Chinese. More: it will always be Chinese who have no contact with Westerners.
Once again, Sarah had already read about it and shared it with me. It is very common to have Western tourists approached by Chinese ones to take a photograph. If someone is blonde and very tall, the requests increase exponentially. We are not blondes. We don't even reach six feet. We thought we were not going to experience it, and we had forgotten all about it, but suddenly, for a few hours at the Summer Palace, everything changed.
Speaking English or Mandarin doesn't matter. They approach us with a shyness that is almost contagious, tell us "picture" and point to both of us. It happens one, two, three times. And it's never just them. Nearby, discreetly, the whole family is listening, embarrassed, waiting to know if they will be able to do get close. We never refuse it. We find it amusing. We say to each other that maybe we'll feature on their family photography shelf forever. A family who is going to look at that photograph they took and think about that couple whom they knew nothing about but happened to meet one morning at the Summer Palace. It was all because of the curiosity to see someone so strange and with traits they had never, or rarely, seen before.
The Summer Palace is exactly what the name indicates: the place where the emperors moved during the hottest season of the year. The point of greatest attraction is the Longevity Hill, bathed by Kunming Lake, and that's where we head to on foot and climb steps after steps, after steps.
The view is invigorating. It is also there that I realize the happy, tired and contemplative look that a Chinese man has, by my side, at the top. To this day it remains one of my favorite photos.
The place where Bolt and Phelps' myths were born
Sport is part of our lives and the trip to Beijing could not be any different. We tried, unsuccessfully, to go see a Beijing Guoan football game (we were assured at the hotel that the tickets were sold out), and we knew that no matter where we were, we were going to visit the Olympic Complex, which hosted the Games in 2008.
The Olympic footprints are still very present on public transportation. It is great to be able to get on the subway and see perfectly the evolution of our journey and where we have to leave. The station is still a bit far but walking, for us, is never a big problem.
The Olympic Stadium (Bird's Nest) and the complex where the swimming took place (Water Cube) are side-by-side. It is impossible to be in that place and not feel that much of the history of world sport was made there, within a radius of half a mile. Usain Bolt showed himself to the world definitely - with a bang! - while Michael Phelps fulfilled the design of beating the record with eight gold medals in a single edition.
We sat on a bench overlooking the lake next to the Bird's Nest to rest and remembered some stories of how we had lived that 2008 summer. I was working with no days-off on a sports newspaper, Sarah was still in high school. There were many late nights without sleep and controversy with the Portuguese delegation.
There, with the Bird's Nest in the background, we did a photographic series imitating references from 2008. We were Usain Bolt, we were Marco Fortes (a Portuguese shot putter who jokingly said the morning session was too early and that he was better off in bed), we were Nelson Évora winning a gold medal, the only one of Portugal in that edition, in the triple jump
Marriages at the Temple of Heaven
One of our last stops in Beijing included a visit to the Temple of Heaven. The logic is very similar to that of the Summer Palace but here we were not asked to take pictures. More than a tourist stop for the Chinese themselves, it is an area where the Pekinese go to enjoy a good afternoon.
There are many photoshoots of newlyweds and, at least in the first week of April 2013, not too many people. The landscapes are beautiful, begging for good photos and we almost forget the polluted environment of downtown Beijing, which was one of our biggest concerns before and during the trip.
It is much worse in the summer, and in April the levels weren't that bad. We felt no need to take any special precautions but realized, at the end of the day, when we were blowing our noses, we had black nostrils because of the quality of the air - or lack of it.
Surely, our trip to Beijing could not have been completed without a visit to one of the sectors of the Great Wall of China, but this was such a special adventure that it deserves its own text.
A few days ago someone asked me: "Tell me what you liked about LA."
It's an easy but difficult challenge: to say that Venice is lovely, that the Downtown is what we never thought Los Angeles could be, that Hollywood is not full of crazy and half-naked girls and that Chinatown is another world, where one can communicate more easily in Spanish than English, is the easy part. The hard part is explaining how it made me love a city that, months before, made me roll my eyes when I thought about spending five days there.
Our late afternoon at the Griffith Observatory had a strong influence in this outcome. The Griffith Observatory is an astronomical observatory (duh), opened in 1935 and with a lot of interesting history. You can get there easily by bus (leaving it is another matter that I'll tell you about later) and then you can walk freely through the gardens and the various buildings, see the exhibitions and peek through the telescopes... all very nice, but that's not what turns this place into *the* thing.
We tried to get there by the end of the afternoon, just in time to watch the sunset, and by the grace of someone other than me - and Rui - we got a "Star Party" that day; a party open to the organized public, once a month, with the support of several astronomical societies, in which dozens of amateur astronomers set their telescopes on the lawn and show... the sky. First win.
For a good hour, we saw Venus and Mars, the Moon and the stars, we listened to conversations of astronomers and interested people, we experimented in the museum and took beautiful photographs with the whole city of Los Angeles at our feet. Yes, because the Griffith Observatory is also capable of being one of the best vantage points of the city, not just of the sky.
Then came that magical time when we decided to be alone on the grass to see the sky growing orange until everything was tinged with that color, and to talk. We are great fans of doing what we want on the road, even if it means spending hours in a place just because it is beautiful. After a sunset that seemed to last for hours, we decided it was time to take the bus back.
Oh, by the way, and for reference to what you're going to read next: the observatory is perched on a hill, the kind where characters from movies go for serious walks. Hence the importance of the bus ride.
We missed the bus for a minute, because after the laziness from the grass, and despite seeing it at the stop, we did not feel like running. Also, there would only be another in 15 minutes. But... no. 15, 20, 30 minutes passed by and there was no bus. 'When going down, all saints help,' says the Portuguese proverb. That's what we thought, before deciding to start walking. According to Google Maps, the walk to the metro station would be 44 minutes. With our legs, we bet on 35. It was done.
We started going down and in the first hundred meters, we saw no cars. A few minutes later, in the distance, we began to have the typical view of who looks at the highway at rush hour: an endless row of red lights, completely still. What the hell? We kept going down. The queues, up and down, were compact and still, and we didn't realize why that enthusiasm was about. There weren't that many people up there.
We passed by the bus we lost, and we still saw two more going up (it was by then that we understood we'd decided well), but we were still confused. The parking was completely full and there were dozens of volunteers helping the cars park (actually trying to get back, because there was no more space).
It was only when we got to the foot of the hill that we noticed, already after seeing several miniskirts and high heels hurrying ahead of us: Griffith Park has a "showroom", the Greek Theater, where a music concert was at its peak - and quite nicely composed, despite the whole crowd still in the cars trying to get there.
We thought about staying, but it's not quite our scene. It was, yes, one of those moments that make a trip, and a story that we always laugh at. It's good that we gave up waiting.
The LA Lakers' star said goodbye to the courts on April 13, 2016, with a memorable showing in which he scored 60 points in the win over the Utah Jazz. Behind him, he left a brilliant career with five titles and many nights that left us all in awe.
An unforgettable night
Wednesday, April 13, 2016. The world of sport had its eyes set on California. In the north, in Oakland, the Golden State Warriors were about to set a new record of regular season wins (73). Further south, in Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant was about to end his playing career.
We were there. With tickets bought in October, a month and a half before Kobe Bryant officially announced that 2015/16 would be his last season, and after an authentic marathon to guarantee the pickup of the tickets, we were more witnesses than spectators. Yes, because Kobe Bryant did not just play one game. He gave a proof of greatness to which no one could be indifferent.
The following paragraphs are a mixture of the various texts that were written at the time, with everything still warm in my mind, after everything that had happened. Because as much as the strongest memories resist in the brain, there is nothing better than to relive the emotion and that feeling of numbness I felt that night.
A competitive predator
Kobe Bryant, the end. Saying that, in a crude way, seems to take away what he built during his twenty-year career at the highest level, always representing the same team - what is increasingly rarer.
In a sport of enormous demand, Kobe Bryant did not limit himself to an elite athlete. He was a predator, a competitive animal that smelled his prey as if he was in a jungle without being noticed. But he was not. From the age of 17, when he was chosen by the Charlotte Hornets (after the LA Lakers whispered them his name only a few minutes before the moment of truth), Kobe was always a star. Beloved by some, hated by others, he has garnered millions of witnesses.
Until today, April 13. It was the last day. The day when a career full of ups and downs (in which the first ones will always be more memorable) came to... an end. The day the Pico subway station, a few meters from the South entrance of the Staples Center was renamed after him - only for 24 hours. The day the rivals lowered their defenses and recognized the unrivaled quality of an incomparable talent in the NBA.
And the day that tickets bought at $71.50 on Oct. 15 were worth more than 900 in the authorized resale market. It was not a shot in the dark but an anticipation of what was speculated and confirmed at the end of November: Kobe Bryant was going to end his career in April 2016.
The predator had aged. The eyes that stared at the basket with an obsessive will to triumph grew tired. And the group around him became weaker. Where once there was Shaquille O'Neal, Pau Gasol or Lamar Odom, there is now the youth of Jordan Clarkson, D'Angelo Russell, and Julius Randle. They are just that for the moment... promises.
More than his last game, it was a farewell. The last chance that everyone, Lakers fans or not, would have to revive everything Kobe has achieved since 1996, highlighting the five champion titles - the last one in 2010.
Four hours before the start, the central square next to the Staples Center was already crowded. The supporters were not intimidated by the dimension of the homage and brought what they could: Bryant sweaters with the numbers 8 and 24 (both used by the Lakers) but also with the 33, from Lower Merion, the high school from where he left for the NBA.
And for those who had not bring any, there was a plan b. For hawkers, this was a golden opportunity, with t-shirts tailored to the goodbye and some of the striking photographs of Kobe's career.
The Staples Center was also ready for the moment. During the afternoon, dozens of workers slowly lined its outer walls with images of Kobe Bryant and the inscription #ThankYouKobe. In addition, many balloons, inflatables, and endless entertainment spots helped pass the hours. And there was also a Snoop Dogg sight, with his huge entourage, generating the euphoria of those who waited.
Already inside, after an hour in line, there was no doubt about the star of the night. Right at the door, a shower of offers, featuring a book with the best moments and images of Kobe's career. Then, in each seat, a t-shirt dedicated to #mambaday.
The court was also dressed for the occasion. On one side, the number 24, on the other, the 8. As time passed, the giant screen showed career videos.
The cheerleaders had almost no work that night. With each pause, the entertainment was different and the giant screen only had Kobe to show. First with testimonials of old colleagues, then rivals, with appearances of idols from other sports like David Beckham and Novak Djokovic, and North American film stars like Jack Nicholson.
The preparations for the party were so carefully made that Kobe Bryant did not want to disappoint anyone. Especially because before the game he was presented by Magic Johnson as the best player in Lakers history. But the beginning of the game was shaky. He missed some shots and appeared to feel the pressure that he'd defeated so many times in his career.
A blocked shot was the spark that was missing to set fire to the Staples Center crowd and Kobe Bryant himself. The next two hours were unforgettable and are now a part of history. There is the raw way of looking at things - Kobe tried 50 field goals and literally had the team playing for himself - but the side that matters is the romantic one. The one where a player said goodbye after twenty years with 60 points. And a win. Thanks to him, of course, and the way he led the game in the final minutes.
Feeling of smallness
There are moments in life when we feel small compared to what we're seeing. Moments that take our breath away, which make it difficult for us to recognize, in that second, the exact dimension of what is happening.
In the case of Kobe Bryant's farewell, the trance state took hours. By itself, the last game of his career would be special but the player managed to raise the bar in many levels. As if was whispering in our ears, "did you think it was going to be good? I assure you it will be even better."
Just think that this text is being written 12 hours after tipoff and I barely slept. No matter how hard you try, the feeling of having witnessed something unique is transcendent, it invades our state of mind and makes us return to each moment of an unforgettable night.
Like when we thought it might not be so good, when he failed several shots in the beginning, or when we started to do the math to predict how many points he could score. When we hoped he could reach 50 points without even realizing he was on his way to 60.
Kobe Bryant did it. He left us nailed to the ground, but standing. With our legs shaking but standing. On the first, second and third floors of Staples Center. Reviewing the videos made, it is impossible not to notice that when Kobe converted the free throw that gave him the 60th point, the whole arena was standing.
The hidden track on a mythic album
When Kobe Bryant attacked the closing minutes of his last game, the night was already special, but what followed served almost as a hidden track at the end of one of the best albums ever.
And to listen to it, live, without realizing how long the song was or when it would end, is indescribable. It's about putting your hands in your head, looking around, and realizing that everyone has the same question in their heads, "How is this possible?" On the night of April 13, I was not a journalist, I was not a Celtics fan, I was not a basketball fan. I was a witness. In the middle of so many others who had the same fate. Yes, because for us those two and a half hours were a matter of luck.
When he was not on the pitch, the game lost interest. Few where those who cared, and only the prospect of Kobe returning to the court fueled hope. Soon, the 10 points became 20. And the 20 turned in 30. And the 30 turned in 40. Then, in the last period, we all thought the finish line was at 50. After he reached 47, with 3'05" to play, it was impossible to sit again. It was as if in the back of our minds we all knew and felt that history was just around the corner, and no one wanted to miss it. There was only one mistake: we were very much wrong when we thought the round mark would be 50. Kobe, the genial human, became Kobe, the gifted extraterrestrial.
A show must have ups and downs but Kobe sank the logic and raised the incredulous euphoria with each action. He was Mamba, he was King Midas, he was Kobe, a teenager from Pennsylvania with the dream of being the best Laker in history. And every time he held the ball with both hands on the way to the basket, I had no other option than put my own hands in my head, totally overwhelmed.
It's still hard to understand what happened. And to believe it happened. Kobe turned a night that was already special in something impossible to forget. He did not miss a shot again and closed the night with 60 points. But it was not only that: he alone gave one more win, for the last time, to the Lakers. No pressure? On the contrary. What do you think it means to go to the free throw line with 15 seconds to play and with the chance to reach 60 points? In your last game?
Unlike me and everyone else in the arena, Kobe did not tremble. He could not do it. Because Kobe is not from this world, he is special. We are just passing by, we're just witnesses. He is eternal.
It was the real American experience. A game that requires you to book a full day, the adventures through tight security, the protests of players about what Trump had said, the fans and the sleeping volcano that erupted because of Tom Brady.
Anticipation is the key
The logistics to go see a New England Patriots game were the most complex ever. Airline tickets were purchased the day the NFL announced the schedule: April 21. Tickets for the game were bought in the first five minutes they were available on July 14.
The hardest part was done (half an hour later the ticket price was already out of reach), but there were steps that still had to be taken, especially because the Patriots play in the middle of nowhere between Boston-Massachusetts and Providence-Rhode Island.
You cannot go on foot. You cannot go by bus. The best option is the trains chartered exclusively for this purpose and with limited seats that go on sale only in the week of the game. One train departures from Boston, another one from Providence.
The game is scheduled to start at 1 pm on a Sunday - as the tradition holds - and the Boston train leaves South Station at 10.15 am for a three-stop trip with a duration of around 60 minutes. It is the secret of anticipation that will be so important later on.
An hour before the departure time, the station does not allow you to be lost. It's game day. You start seeing the first jerseys, Brady-12 and Gronkowski-87 being the most common, and all kinds of usual props. As the time approaches, the line to the platform is formed almost spontaneously. In total, the train consists of twelve passenger coaches (eight of them with two floors) and has the capacity for about 1800 people.
The backpack game
The Gillette Stadium station is in the middle of nowhere. There is a shopping complex next to the stadium but the rest is just acres and acres of ... car parks and trees. The small path between the train stop and the stadium has two lines so no one gets lost, but you really just need to follow the crowd.
Waiting for us, there are several staff members with transparent bags. Reason: safety measures in the NFL are tight, even more than in any other sporting event in the United States, and no exceptions are made. There is no room for bags or backpacks.
That's bad news for anyone who, without a car and unexpectedly, has a backpack and is left with no great alternative. In the good Portuguese way, the first solution is to create an illusion: the bag is emptied, a second transparent bag is ordered and the bag is very well folded, almost to the size of a hand, and we try to enter. Access denied! There is no margin: if you want to see the game, you can not take the backpack.
The shopping complex has no lockers. Security guards tell us that there are no such exceptions and that the best option is to ask help to someone with a car. And they add: "Hiding it in the parking lot is not an option, policemen are walking with sniffing dogs and, if necessary, they'll destroy what they find."
We resign ourselves. We return to the parking lot and put into practice all that we have learned with Cal Lightman in Lie to Me. In the midst of the true tailgating American experience, with barbecues capable of feeding all the crowd in most of the Portuguese championship stadiums, we try to study people's expressions and see who will be trustworthy and friendly enough to attend to an increasingly desperate request of those who see the time passing by while the options are running out.
We were successful at first try. Already with the car parked and setting the grill next to the car are two men who do not seem to have any family relationship. "Excuse me, we have a very strange request for you," we begin explaining.
It's not easy. There is a whole lot of logistics that need to be clarified. We explain what is going on but there are details that cannot be solved: How do they give us the backpack back? What if the game is a blowout and they leave early? How can we get in touch, considering they have no active international calling service to call us?
It might have seemed that they were just trying to refuse politely but that was not the case. All questions were focused on ensuring that there was no way to go wrong. One of them, an American of Italian origin with an accent that would not fool anyone, even promptly offered to take us the backpack the next day.
We refused. The confusion was on us, so if it was necessary we would be going where we had to the following day. By this time, it was sure that they were going to keep us the backpack. Relief dominated our minds, and the chat was dominated by the Italo-American. His name was Anthony and he looked like Salvatore's character in the film The Name of the Rose. The other one, whose name flew during the confusion, told us about his trip to Portugal and how he had eaten so much fish. During our chat, they offered us all kinds of food. "Eat, be at ease. We know what they say about the people of Boston not being nice but it's not like that", Anthony told us.
We refused the food one last time, after accepting only one shrimp, and said see you soon. Until the end of the game or, at worst, the next day, at Anthony's company. "Take a card with my contact. I'm going to play golf tomorrow morning but if you want to go to my company, my wife Lucy will be there to deliver your backpack. No problem."
At last, the stands
We finally made it. With tickets for the nosebleeds, the way to get there takes its time and the euphoria among fans is growing. After the defeat at home on the season opener, the hope is it will be possible to get a convincing win.
But this is not any other weekend. Two days earlier, Donald Trump had ferociously attacked NFL and criticized the "motherfu*kers" of players who had knelt during the national anthem, urging the owners to have the heretics fired.
The president's shot backfired with the players' response. At Gillette Stadium, the Texans did not kneel, merely wrapping their arms. But on the other side of the field, about fifteen elements of the Patriots' defensive line fell to their knees and made a large number of fans boo.
The first boos came before the anthem, with "stand up" yells, but the biggest one, after an anthem in which the verse that included the flag was much applauded, only happened after the end. There, as when Colin Kaepernick began the protest against violence in 2016, the division of the country was evident. For some, the interpretation of the protest is an insult to the memory of all those who have defended the flag and freedom of the United States in successive wars.
The game dynamics
American football is a winter sport but on that day it didn't seem to. The heat was hard to bear even for us. The sunscreen factor 50 did its best to protect us and the cold bottles of water were sold like... hot buns for four dollars each.
And one bottle wasn't enough. Not even two. The race to the water, even more than to the beer, was so big during the game that sales had to be suspended more than once. During that time, bottles were delivered with tap water, and we read later that day that people were protesting the fact they had to pay five dollars for those bottles.
Another big part of being seated in the stands is the analysis of the universe that surrounds us. Of course, if the tickets were the cheapest for us, so they would to the Houston Texans fans who wanted to see the game. So, in our row, six places to the left, there were three big fans (XXL format) who had the freedom to express themselves as they wished because... XXL format.
Immediately to our left, there was a father with a son and two daughters. The older one didn't speak much, as he was submerged in the grief of a game far more distressed than he hoped, while the younger ones bombarded their father with rookie questions about the game.
That was the good part. Even in the nosebleeds, the game was seen and understood well. Of course, we can miss the absence of the yellow line that marks the first down, but everything else runs perfectly. The speaker summarizes each play, explaining who ran, who made the tackle, how many yards the play had, who will kick or punt and who will receive it.
And the sound system is perfect, especially when the referees explain the decisions made.
The New England Patriots got a touchdown in their first drive but the Houston Texans never gave up. And when Tom Brady fumbled a play that ended in a touchdown, the silence in the stadium was weird. Curiously, at that time the Texans' supporters had gone to "stock up". "Well, at least those guys are not here!" said the father next to us.
That was a general feeling. That and the scorching heat, of course. As soon as the halftime came, the nosebleeds were naked, while people looked for a shadow. We were no exception. The fans' clothes looked like abstract paintings that reflected the sweatiest spots. No one was different, we were all together in this fight and there was not a single square meter of shade available.
Maybe that's why there were a lot of people missing at the start of the second half. There, despite losing, the Texans took advantage of the Patriots' defensive fragility and easily went ahead of the score. Tom Brady did not even start badly, with a touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks, but Houston was looking even better.
Time passed and the Patriots failed to score. Tom Brady missed the first down in two consecutive drives and next to us a fan lost his patience, demanding the team to risk the fourth down instead of punting the ball. What is certain is that the Texans were winning 33-28 and the quarterback with five Super Bowls was going to have to do magic to secure the win with less than two and a half minutes to the end and about 80 yards to go.
The volcano erupts
By that time we were not together anymore. We did not know the level of willingness to escape the traffic of our good Samaritans, and it would always be better to retrieve the backpack on the parking lot. There were a lot of people leaving. The Patriots might have won the Super Bowl in February with a miracle play, but there is a limit to luck, even in a state with so many Irish.
And, in fact, had the Houston Texans got two yards instead of one on the last play and everything would be different. It would be enough to let the clock run and prevent Tom Brady from getting a chance again. But they didn't.
The 40-year-old quarterback took the responsibility and offered us an unforgettable moment. The succession of plays, which included the chills provided by a recovered fumble and a near interception mixed with the magic downs secured by Rob Gronkowski, was waking up the volcano. Suddenly, we all began to believe. It was still very unlikely, but there it was Tom Brady, considered by many the best quarterback ever, to draw, like Picasso, another turnaround.
It was about the two consecutive plays in less than 25 seconds. First, a pass to Amendola that made the team advance 27 yards. Soon after, with apparently no time for more, Brady made a diagonal pass to the left side of the touchdown zone where Brandin Cooks jumped, resisted the impact from an opponent's arm in the helmet and still had the clairvoyance to grab the ball, set the two feet in the touchdown zone and fall out of the field.
Gilette Stadium was more alive than ever. Screams, expressions of disbelief and trembling bodies, half asleep by the heat, half excited by Tom Brady having performed one more miracle. Suddenly, everyone seemed to know each other. A hug here, a hug there. And high fives. I was not different, first with the unsatisfied woman in the front row, then with the youngest son of the family to my left.
Outside, near the car that had our backpack, the euphoria is expressed through the mobile phone. The pilgrimage towards home had been interrupted by promising noises and the smartphone screen became a window to glory. "It's already in the 27-yard line!", they warn, hinting that there is an opportunity.
Doubled… and tripled celebrations
Brady's pass to Cooks is as spectacular as it is dubious. And, of course, the referees announced that the play was going to be reviewed. Suddenly, on a day when there was no breeze to help combat the heat, we seem to be invaded by cold winds. Is it a disappointment?
As always, the ad appears: "And now, on the big screen, we'll see exactly the same images that the referees are seeing." And there it is: the pass, the reception, one foot, two feet. And the volcano explodes again, celebrating almost like the first time.
But there is a new wind. The reception was good, but the image of the giant screen now focuses on the fall: did he keep possession of the ball? There are more insecure faces, more discouraged expressions and others that did not seem to know what is happening. Anyway, by that time the referees were about to announce the decision, which confirms the touchdown. And, once again, the volcano makes itself heard.
There were 23 seconds to play and the win seemed to be in the Patriots' pocket. Or at least we wanted to believe in it. The Houston Texans were unwilling to fall without one last fight and Deshaun Watson tried a hail mary. What happened next was incredible: the ball was thrown into the middle of confusion and it became impossible to realize where it had gone. Do you know what they say about those times when everything is so fast that you can not even see what happened? There it was precisely the opposite.
For a fraction of a second, the stadium was suspended. The hearts of the 65878 people who were watching the game skipped a beat and only reacted again after, in the middle of the confusion, Duron Harmon ran out of the end zone with the ball. And then, yes, the celebrations were final.
The complete relief
The state of euphoria went on outside the stadium. From the nosebleeds to the parking lot, we have to go down seven floors, each with two ramps of about 30 meters. You can hear everything and most of the conversations circle around Tom Brady.
Already on the floor level, two policemen from different organizations are teased by some supporters. "And you missed it!" they shouted with a pointed finger, referring to the unbelievable moment they had just witnessed and which the police had not been able to see because they were working. They react with smiles. After all, the workday is much better when a full stadium is happy.
Together again, the clock starts ticking: the train returns to Boston half an hour after the end of the game. The car of our good Samaritans is still there. But how long will they take? After exchanging feelings about how those last minutes were lived, in the background, they appear. Anthony laughs. He says we are lucky and says he made a bet: "I told him that she [Sarah] would be so afraid we left that she would come to the car at halftime."
We thank them again and again. What may have been a simple action for them, for us had a greater meaning. And now, with the backpack in her possession and the win in our hands, the relief was complete. We were back on the train and the conversations had a common denominator. We were all Brady's witnesses.
It's stronger than me. Even before buying a trip - or even before deciding what trip I'm going to do - I like to check which sports events fate has for me. I don't always watch them, but I always like to have all the information when I get somewhere new.
This will not strike you as a surprise, but Malta is no big destination for sports tourism. Still, for someone born in the mid-80s, there is a certain romanticism of a football in which the Maltese teams often met the Portuguese clubs. In addition, Malta is one of UEFA's weakest country teams. Everything helped fuel my curiosity.
Unlike other city destinations, where you need to be fortunate for the team to play at home that weekend, Malta doesn't have that problem. Whatever happens, there are always two games in two stadiums: the National in Ta'Qali (about 35 minutes from Valletta by bus) and the Victor Tedesco in Hamrun, practically at the gates of Valletta (about a mile for those who like to venture on foot).
The hardest part was convincing Sarah because she was not completely thrilled with the chance to see a game, or even two, in a row. I understand. It was a short trip, of only three days (or two and a half, to be more exact) and the time of the games - 14.00 and 16.00 / 16.15 - did not help. Still, we went to see Pembroke-Floriana (14:00) at the Victor Tedesco.
The curiosity was big. As a relatively deep knower of the senior leagues in Portugal, I wanted to see what division Floriana, one of the most historic teams in Malta, would fit into.
First, the tickets. The stadium is at the level of our Portugal Championship - or even some more comfortable of the regional divisions - and there were two ticket offices: one for Floriana or Hamrun Spartans fans and another one for Pembroke or Hibernians fans (there was a Hamrun Spartans- Hibernians at 4:15 pm).
The price, seven euros, was not a deterrent, especially if we consider that it was for both games. Moreover, the experience was not much different from a game of secondary grades in Portugal. With a very distinctive detail: with seven minutes played into the game, the police identified a fan who - it seemed to us - insulted the referee. Punishment? He was expelled from the stadium. I know this might be something usual in the USA, where taunting can be punishable, especially in basketball arenas, but in European football, it was a complete first for me.
The dynamics are very similar. Most of the supporters - maybe 200 on our stand - seemed to be family or friends of the players. In one corner there were the ultras, with about 15 supporters who sang little but didn't give rest to a drum.
At half-time, running to the bar is a tradition. In our case: a lemon Ice Tea, a Snickers, and a Twix cost 3.50 euros. Doing the math, by 17.50 we both saw a game, fed ourselves (unhealthily, let's say) and added a Maltese league game to our experience.
How many can proudly say they saw Floriana, the first ever Malta champion, beat Pembroke 2-1 live?
As I told you before, our three days in Malta were shortened to two due to one hell of a storm (with a thunderstorm that, if I was afraid of them, would have made me hide under the bed).
And from those two days, an afternoon was spent watching the brilliant Pembroke-Floriana (for those who aren't aware, we are talking about the Maltese Premier League), that classic of European football.
We then ended up with one morning, one late afternoon and one full day to enjoy Malta. The first point to address: what do we want to see? The country is known for its spectacular natural and coastal landscapes, with marvelous waters and fantastic caves. But despite the good weather (20-something degrees Celsius, 68 Fahrenheit), we are in November and no one is keen to show some skin. Also, we tend to favor a more urban approach to travel.
We decided that the lost day meant we had to cut Gozo from the itinerary: the bus trip, plus the ferry, plus another bus trip, plus an equal way back, was going to take us a full day. So we decided to explore the cities: Valletta, next to our AirBnB, was the introductory spot and the ideal place to spend the afternoon. Marsaxlokk was visited on Sunday morning, the Victor Tedesco (stadium) was the destination of the afternoon. On Monday we set plans to Mdina and Birgu (Città Vittoriosa), where we enjoyed the opportunity to see the sunset over the bay.
If you have little time to visit Malta, you can not be better situated than in Valletta, or in neighboring Floriana (literally at the gates of the capital), from where all buses leave on the island. Besides, the city is ... spectacular.
Good shoes are fundamental, and, if it is not much to ask, muscled legs, because it goes up and down a lot through the hills, but it's worth it. The narrow alleys, with their bulging red-painted windows and statues that surprise us at every corner, make the atmosphere charming and are the ideal place to stroll at any time of the day. The view of the Three Cities (to the east) is brilliant, and the mini-city turned out to be a recurring destination for us.
Enjoy the small kiosks with crepes, wraps, and sandwiches and you will have excellent meals for a bargain. Or stay on a terrace, more or less touristy, and eat good Italian food.
Marsaxlokk is an ever-present destination in guides and itineraries for Malta, which speak of the "Sunday fish market" as if it was the most wonderful thing in the world. Tip: it is not. It's cute, yes. But it does not compensate the queue of 80 people to enter the bus (of these, only 40 will be able to enter and the bus won't reopen its doors until arriving at the terminal station), the pushes of the old Britons and the lack of civism that you'll put up to until the arrival.
The normal market, without the fish part, works every day and it might compensate if you choose another day to visit, therefore avoiding the risk of being trampled to get there - because yes, it pays off to go see the bay, the traditional colorful boats, the environment.
Enjoy a morning or afternoon stroll, sit on a terrace eating anything (forget about Costa Coffee and its UK prices, please) and do the best thing possible when you are on vacation - people watch.
Mdina, or the Silent City, is a fortified medieval town that served as the capital of Malta. Today, it is a magnet for tourists who get lost in its cobbled streets and explore the churches and museums of the area. From the walls of the city, you can see the whole island and distinguish the different settlements that dot the island with Italian-style churches in the middle of Arab or North African style dwellings.
When we visited, the dome of the Cathedral was undergoing refurbishment (and full of scaffolding), but it wasn't problematic. The charm of the city is in its yellowish and serene tone, which seems to chase us through the streets. On a Monday morning, it is possible to walk for some time without encountering hordes of visitors and one can see why it is nicknamed "Silent City".
The area of the Three Cities (Birgu, or Vittoriosa, Senglea, and Cospicua) was probably the less touristy, and more "local", we visited - exception made to the Victor Tedesco Stadium (go figure...).
Seen from Valletta, they look like a cluster of fortifications interspersed by domes of reddish color that reminds us of Italy. Curiosity was stronger and, after a short ferry ride, we reached Birgu and started our biggest climb.
When disembarking from the Valletta ferry, there are two options: follow along with the water line or climb the city, towards the War Museum. For some reason, we thought the best view of Malta would be up there (thinking about it, it makes sense, right?) and decided to go up. We could have looked at the map and realized that the tip of the city, where lays the Fort of St. Angelo, has only access by a road, and is not up there.
Eventually, and after a walk through the streets of Birgu (which are well worth exploring, because they have the charm of Valletta but with the added interest of having, in fact, residents), we have reached our destination. Cheap as we are, we decided to put aside the entrance to the fort itself and follow a precarious path around the wall. We were rewarded with a natural "observation deck" that allowed us to overlook Valletta and enjoy a marvelous sunset.