Saturday, November 12, 2011

It's a Great Place to Live, But I Wouldn't Want to Visit There.

National Geographic Traveler Magazine Photo

Cara, Leighton, Michael and Stanley, I have bad news.  National Geographic Traveler Magazine (NGT) has officially declared its twenty “Best of the World Trips for 2012,” and your spots didn’t make it.  London and Greece did, and Thailand’s Koh Lipe came in at number two, second only to—drum roll please—the land of the scourged sheep’s head, Yrsa’s Iceland.  So, to half my MIE mates, congratulations, and to the rest better luck next year.
Iceland's Snaefellsnes Peninsula (NGT photo)

Thailand (NGT photo)
London's Tower Bridge and City Hall (NGT photo)
Hmmm.   I’m not sure if I should share the balance of the news, because I don’t know if it will make my slighted brethren feel better or worse, but here goes.  Paris, Rio, and Cape Town weren’t just overlooked, they were stomped in the ratings by the home of Monongahela River water, pickle pins, and French fries served inside your crusty Italian bread sandwich and on top of your salad.

Pittsburgh's Duquesne incline
The list of the twenty best included three from North America: Muskoka, Ontario; Sonoma, California; and—triangle tinkle please—Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Yes, “da ‘burgh” as it is known to locals is now considered one of the Best Places in the World to Visit, and the photo from NGT at the top of this piece is of its convention center. 

Muskoka (NGT hoto)
Sonoma (NGT photo)
Yes, I hear the punch line coming, “but I wouldn’t want to live there.”  Funny thing about that is Pittsburgh was ranked in 2011 as the US’s most livable city, a ranking it’s achieved a half-dozen times, along with placing near the top of those rankings for most of the last three decades.  So, the line most often heard in self-deprecating Pittsburgh is the title to this piece.  At least until this month’s NGT came out.

On a personal level, the article has made me rethink several things.  For example, living as I do half the year on a Greek island, but being born and raised in Pittsburgh, you’d be surprised how often I get an interview question along the lines of, “So, how do you compare Mykonos to Pittsburgh?”

When the question is asked live, it’s invariably followed by “ha-ha,” and if in writing by a smiley face.

My stock answer had been, “In Pittsburgh the gyro is made out of ground, pressed lamb but on Mykonos it’s made with shaved lamb.  Otherwise the places are identical,” followed by the obligatory “ha-ha” or :-).   

What had I been missing?  I had to learn what led NGT’s editorial board to propel Pittsburgh from the town I’d known in my youth to the ranks of its top twenty—other than perhaps a few too many sips of its river water.

Vathia, in Southwest Mani
I figured I’d start as if evaluating a new guidebook: read what it said about a place I knew well and see if I agreed.  On Greece, NGT wrote that to discover the true “fierce beauty where traditions run deep” you must abandon “the instant gratification of its seaside resorts” and explore Greece’s mainland.  Then it went on to single out as special the rugged Mani peninsula in the southern Peloponnese.  I couldn’t have agreed more, except in the sense of more south, into the deep Mani part of the peninsula closer to where the Ionian Sea meets the Aegean.  I love that area (to visit) and wrote about it a year ago.

But I digress. 

Now that I knew NGT and I were on the same page, it was on to Pittsburgh.
Old Pittsburgh Steel Mill
I left right after college and though I return several times a year, I admit to having lost a bit of my native feel for the place.  Still, the opening lines of NGT’s description did not surprise me.  Pittsburgh’s transition from its heavy industrial history into a modern medical and high tech metropolis is a well-known international success story, so it wasn’t unexpected for NGT to describe Pittsburgh as “a reinvented city…with a transformation…[that] qualifies as revolutionary.”

But then came the line that should be the cover blurb for Pittsburgh’s City Charter: “A natural setting that rivals Lisbon and San Francisco, a wealth of fine art and architecture, and a quirky sense of humor.”
A Pittsburgh City Councilman

Wow.  And to think I left all that to live on an island of instant gratification.

I can’t wait to be back in da ‘burgh for Thanksgiving—after a quick panel appearance next Saturday (November 19th at 3PM) at Miami Book Fair International (along with my MIE tee shirt and authors Sharon Potts, Neil Plakcy, and Ian Vasquez).  I need to get back to my quirky roots…no matter how famous the t(h)ree rivers may have become :-).

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!



  1. Hi Jeff - the papers here have yet to mention this no. 1 ranking which is really out of character. I can see a healdine looming...Lovely photos and every one of the places a great destination of course. Not to mention those that did not get a meniton (the ones that wuz robbed). Too bad we don't write travel books instead of crime novels.

    And happy Thanksgiving, a really nice celebration if there ever was one, Christmas without the presents and the hassle they entail.

  2. Yins aughta know d'ems da breaks.

    And, yes, Yrsa, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is also the #1 busiest travel time of the year, embracing the single biggest shopping day of the year, the now notorious "Black Friday."

  3. Every time, the SFGiants visit Pittsburgh they rave about the Ball Park, and the setting. The food looks luscious, if forbidden. The pictures are breathtaking. Every time you show pictures of Greece, it seems almost too much for me-it is so beautiful. There is so much richness there-art, history, and mythology-and I imagine it all.

  4. Is "yins" the colloquial for "youse"? Boston escaped the dangers of heavy industry; what passes for industry here is churning out of graduates who come from far and wide to spend a fortune on an education that they hope will recoup that fortune.

    As to the medical field, Boston has the edge on that if only because its reputation in medicine has deep roots and continues to grow through the work of students at the two universities just over the river.

    Now, to continue the analysis of education in the two cities, if I recall correctly you passed up on Duquesne to attend BC. Would you care to share your reasons?

  5. What a dilemma. Do I respond to the Bostonian or San Franciscan first? Their towns are truly two of my favorite, but as SF has honored me twice, is home to one of my favorite Greek restaurants (Kokari) and my nephew is there at this very moment celebrating his engagement to a SF lady, I think I'll thank Lil first. And yes, I miss the beauty of Greece very much.

    Now, on to Beth's Boston. There is no doubt about Boston's world class medical credentials. Having said that, in just a couple of decades the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center has become an acknowledged international model for efficiency and profitability, so much so that I understand the Chinese have turned to it for guidance on structuring their system.

    As for how I ended up in Boston, the choice was actually between the University of Pennsylvania (in Philadelphia) and BC. I settled on BC Law because my fiance was from Boston. I thought it only fair that she be near her family, because I knew my time would be consumed by studying...something I'd scrupulously avoided in college thereby giving me no chance of attending that school across the Charles.:) And yes, "yins" is "youse" to be obtuse.

  6. Hmmm Pittsburgh or Capetown. It's a dilemma. What are those Pittsburgh vineyards like Jeff?

  7. They're like fantastic, Dan. Beyond imagination. Which is where you'll have to go to find them. Stick to the beer. It goes better with the indigenous cuisine.