Monday, April 17, 2006

Pittsburgh visit

Here's a little bit about our trip a few weekends ago to Pittsburgh. {A} has already written a bit on her blog about "Operation Snow My Mum", in which we deceived her mom in a most sneaky way and got her on a plane to Pittsburgh without her knowing where she was going. (OK, she probably knew once she saw the tickets... But she didn't know for sure what was up until then.) Even when we pulled up at the airport she was still not sure whether we had meant to go there for dessert - our excuse for driving so far south after dinner at Firenze. The flight was a red-eye,connecting through Detroit. I had not fully appreciated why these things are called "red-eyes" until this trip - you definitely feel crusty and not too fresh when you step off a plane at 7:30am after 6 hours of travelling. Detroit airport is quite cool, by the way - defintely a nice option to transfer through. We were met at the airport by {J}, got our rental car, and headed out with him directing. (It's so nice having someone that knows their way around directing you - makes driving a snap, although I can't take any credit there since {A} did all the driving for this trip, and did a brilliant job!) The airport is about an hour outside of downtown Pittsburgh (I'll call it Pgh for short), and we drove through a mixture of rolling green hills, some with forests of spindly trees (no evergreens here). We passed a mixture of urban and suburban buildings right next to the highway, some of the houses abandoned and rather sad looking. {J} said you could snap one up for $15k!

The final approach to Pgh was a tunnel through Mount Washington (really more like a big hill, heh). You pop out the other side of the tunnel, and BOOM - there's Pittsburgh! Pretty cool... (There area LOT of bridges in Pgh - it makes Portland Oregon look tame) The rest of the morning is a bit of a blur - I remember walking around downtown and getting our first look at the Cathedral of Learning. This is a very cool-looking gothic building, and despite its church-like appearance, it was in fact built originally for academic use by the University of Pittsburgh. The inside is very grand (picture Hogwarts from Hatt Potter), and has a huge open commons room in the center of the ground floor. There are also the 27 Nationality Rooms - classrooms decorated to evoke various nations, such as Japan, England, etc. The rooms were closed when we were there, but we got a small look at them via peepholes :) We also stopped outside the museum of natural history and got this cool picture of the dinosaur statue outside. (We came back to the museum too close to closing the following day, so we never got to see the interior - something to definitely do next time!)

We grabbed some much-needed breakfast and caffeine at a nice diner close to the university. (I gorgot the name - {J} will have to refresh my memory). Despite the caffeine, by this point we were all almost falling asleep where we sat, so we headed off to {J}'s apartment for a snooze. {J} lives in a cute old brick apartment building. (In fact, most of the buildings in Pgh are brick - very different to the west coast). We walked up a few blocks to a little commercial area and had afternoon tea at a cute little place called Te Tea. Very friendly owners ({J} and his friends are regulars here, so we were treated like royalty...) {A} and I realized we don't know of a comparable tea place in Seattle (which is sad), so if anyone knows good tea places, let me know. (The criterion are (a) a nice, relaxed atmosphere and (b) a good selection of tea, including good black teas.) has an impressive list of places for us to try...

Anyway, back to Pittsburgh... We joined {J} and his Economics colleagues for a barbeque party that night, which was great fun - one of his friends is Jamaican and made some amazing-looking Jerk chicken. Our band of merry vegetarians headed off to a nearby Giant Eagle to buy some goodies, and I was really impressed with the store. ({J} says it used to be pretty sad, but was recently overhauled to compete with a Whole Foods that opened nearby.) The quality and selection of cold meat, fresh meat and fish was incredible - better than the Whole Foods we have near us...

The following day we headed down to The Strip - a district dominated by a long road full of cafes, delis, gift shops, street vendors, restaurants, ... The atmosphere was very lively and there were tons of people milling around enjoying the sunshine. A great little deli provided some breakfast, La Prima provided a great cappuccino. (You know you're in an area with a lot of Italians when you ehar the customers in the coffee bar speaking Italian and there are notices from the local consulate/embassy on the walls.) The most amazing place for me was definitely the Italian grocery store we visited: Pennsylvania Macaroni Company.

A sprawling layout of rooms with old beat-up wooden floors, each room filled with an incredibly array of goodies from Italy and elsewhere. A whole room was dedicated to cheese and cold meat, another room had huge vats of olive oil waiting to be tapped-off into your own bottle (or you could buy a cheap bottle there). Tons of great bread, pasta, sauces and convenience foods. The only thing missing was a selection of Italian wine. Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania, it turns out, are even more strict/weird about alcohol sales than Washington state is. You can only buy wine and spirits in state liquour stores - no grocery is allowed to sell them. Some specialized beer stores are allowed to sell beer, but not wine of spirits. (There was one store we went into on the Strip that sold their own wine brands, but you had to buy $50 or more, and wait at least a few days for delivery).

The Italian grocery store did have one beverage that I ended up buying: Chinotto from San Peligrino. The bottle caught my eye for some reason, and I immediately thought of China Martini, an Italian amaro liqeuer that my uncle first introduced us to in South Africa. On the off-chance that this had a similar taste, I bought some. Indeed, this was amaro-flavoured soda! Yum! Now I just need to find some in Seattle. I'll check the Italian deli store in Pike Place - they are likely to be the best bet. (Anyone know of a larger, less snooty Italian grocery store in Seattle? Something more like Penn. Macaroni Company?)

Our return hike to the car took us past the Church Bew Works, so we had a late lunch here. As the name implies, this is a brewery inside an old church. They've kept the exterior unchanged, and made minimal changes to the interior too, so you sit at booths made from the old pews. The altar is now devoted (rightly, IMHO) to the production of beer, with huge shiny kettles serving as the focal point.

A great stained-glass window high in the opposite wall cast a colourful image onto the glass shielding the kettles... Their beers are yummy too, so if you like beer I'd definitely recommend coming here. (Nice food too...)
Sunday was mostly spent inside the Fipps Conservatory - a huge conservatory (that's a glass building with plants in it, fer dummies like me). They have an amazing collection of orchids, lillies, tropical fruit trees, a japanese garden with several bonsai, and a butterfly room. (The butterflies will mostly still about to hatch from their pupae). Really nice - it's a pity we left our camera in the car, but you can get a sense from these pics. (I hope they don't mind the link).

All too soon, we had to head back to the airport for our return trip. Pittsburgh was great fun, and much prettier than I had anticipated. It has a very different feel to other cities in the US I've been to (mostly on the west coast), and you definitely can see and feel the history all around you.

More pics here. (Note: You need to login as a friend/family to see all of them...)

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