Archive for September, 2011

Ironman City

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

Pittsburgh surprised us. Neither of us had ever been to the jewel of Western PA (sorry, Erie, your turn will just have to wait), so when a family marriage celebration beckoned us, how could we resist?

Southerners used to joke that Pittsburgh was the Birmingham of the North, but both cities have recently cleaned up their act, so to speak. Yet our preconceptions lingered, and they weren’t helped by our initial airport experience. We had a last minute gate change to the far end of a far terminal, the display screen at the gate never showed any content, just a blank screen saver, and the gate was manned by a single, earnest, hard-working, but ultimately lonely fellow. The jetway looked dingy, the plane felt dingy, the seats seemed dingy. It all seemed calculated to reinforce our Pittsburgh stereotypes.

Of course, the fact that it was already after our bedtime, with an arrival time projected for the wee hours of the night, probably skewed our perceptions somewhat. And I was encouraged that the pilot and flight crew seemed literate and mostly awake.

Our perception of Pittsburgh started to change when we arrived at their international airport and were greeted with Favorite Son displays of both Andy Warhol and the beloved Fred (a.k.a., “Mr.”) Rogers, and a reminder that Pittsburgh is home to Carnegie-Mellon. Oh, and some organization known as the “Steelers.” Outside of a few nomenclature oddities (airside terminal?, land side terminal?, commercial curbs?) the airport arrival process was smooth, the crisp air was enervating, and the hotel shuttle got us to our nearby destination efficiently.

In order to get a King bed (instead of two doubles, which would have been much less fun), we opted for an “accessible” room. Since the Leader Of The Band is wheelchair-bound, I am pretty observant about handicapped accommodations, but I have never actually stayed in an accessible room. Perhaps it was because I was also in the middle of a Terry Pratchett fantasy with his customary cast of non-human characters, but it felt like it had been designed for a gnome, or perhaps a dwarf. (But not a gargoyle – the smooth hotel exterior would have given them no place to perch.)

Anyway, the clothes rack, shower head, door peephole, tissue box, and thermostat were all at waist level for me. Seriously, it was quite a thoughtful implementation, and the profusion of grab bars was an opulent treat at bath time.

We slept in the next morning, and awoke to find a lovely, hilly countryside, inlaid with a 3-digit interstate and crisscross-crossed by a tangled collection of local streets, including Cliff Mine Road which wound up the hill behind the hotel.

I have alluded before to the elegance of the grid of streets laid out in the flat burg of Chicago with Lake Michigan as its Eastern border. Pittsburgh is the antithesis, through no fault of General Pitt, for whom the city, and the original Fort, were named. (There’s also a fascinating story about the loss and eventual recovery of the “h” which terminates the city’s name.)

The Point at night

Pittsburgh is centered on a point, the aquatic convergence at which the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers unite to form the Ohio River, which eventually flows into Lake Erie. There is a tall ridge on the southern side of the point, which I’m sure General Pitt selected because of its eventual commercial real estate potential. The ridge features a couple of inclined railways that carry travelers between the top and bottom of the ridge for a nominal fee.

As a result of the three rivers, the many bridges which span same, and the hilly terrain, a grid-based road system is mathematically impossible. In fact, it appears that the road planners intentionally embraced chaos and randomness, with which a sufficiently motivated driver quickly learns to cope. Want to go right? Turn left. “I need to head East.” “Find a road that appears to go West.” Odds are, it’ll get you there. It’s not really that bad, but learning to be One with the Improbable is a useful driving skill in Pittsburgh.

Snack at The Regatta grill

We really enjoyed our stay. The food, always an important factor for me, was good, including:

  • The rehearsal dinner at Buca di Beppo family-style italian restaurant;
  • My brunch at Panera of Greek Salad, Asiago Roast Beast, and strong coffee;
  • The sit-down wedding reception at the Hyeholde Restaurant, a castle in Moon Township, built in the 30s, and definitely worth visiting;
  • Post-wedding appetizers back at the hotel, featuring a tasty hummus platter, a salad with a lovely spread of mixed greens, and yummy sautéed pierogies (don”t tell the Chicagoans we were cheating on them), washed down with the cheapest wine on the menu, our favorite;
  • And breakfast at a British-themed airport restaurant, whose English Breakfast consisted of eggs, toast, rasher (bacon), banger (link sausage), grilled tomatoes and mushrooms, and baked beans. It was even better than I expected.

    British Breakfast

The weather was ideal for an outdoor wedding, cool and slightly overcast but with no danger of rain. The sky cleared enough so our trip to Mount Washington that night was extremely pleasant, overlooking the three rivers, the illuminated bridges, the riverboats, and the night skyline.

All told, it was a great trip. I heartily recommend Pittsburgh if you are looking for an unexpectedly delightful destination.

Famous People on Mt. Washington