Sunday, November 11, 2012

Twin Cities: History, Art & Beer

Last week a bit of business took me to the Twin Cities.  I had never been there before so was determined to fit as much sightseeing (around my work of course) into my brief trip as possible.  I have to say, it was really neat.

My perspective and general gladness was probably shaped by two key factors.  First, Minnesota's winter is fierce, but this early November temperatures during the day were in the 40s and 50s, downright comfortable.  Second, my hotel happened to be next to Townhall Brewery - an excellent brewpub.  I'm pretty into beer and Dogfish Head is one of my favorite places so I particularly like interesting, but delicious beers (I have no interest in novelty for novelty's sake when it comes to beer.) Townhall Brewery did some really neat things.  They made an IPA with mango that worked and a yummy stout made with coconut milk.  I flew in on Election Day and went over for dinner and to watch the returns.  A couple told me they had specifically come to Townhall Brewery because that evening they were tapping a keg of Russian Roulette (so cute, a couple going to their favorite bar to drink a specialty seasonal beer and watch election returns - kind of like my wife and I...)

Russian Roulette was a Russian Imperial Stout made with Belgian chocolate.  It really nailed the concept of chocolate beer. Suffice to say, the last thing I did before heading to the airport was swing by for another glass.  No doubt this colored my attitude towards everything I saw in the Twin Cities.  So be it.

Art & Architecture
The Twin Cities are home to some terrific architecture and (I'm sure this is a travel writing cliche) the two cities are distinct.  St. Paul is home to older buildings, such as the endless row of Victorian mansions along Summit Avenue or the imposing and beautiful St. Paul's Cathedral.  Minneapolis, on the other hand, features work by renowned modern architects such Frank Gehry and Cesar Pelli.

There are a number of first rate art museums, I only had time to browse through the small and eclectic Weisman Art Museum, which is in a fantastic Gehry-designed building.  The collection included modernist paintings, ancient pottery, and Korean furniture - not kidding when I said it was eclectic.  Small and eclectic is often good in a museum - spending hours tromping through an enormous collection can be overwhelming whereas half an hour of casual looking can be mentally invigorating (admission to the Weisman is free - facilitating this browsing approach.)

Crossing the Mississippi at Mill City
I don't know quite how I learned of it but there is a famous Stone Arch Bridge across the Mississippi.  Originally built for trains it is now a pedestrian walkway.  I wanted to walk across the Mississippi and when I saw the bridge from my hotel window, I knew the Stone Arch Bridge was my path.  As it happens, this bridge sits at the locus of Minneapolis history.  Just above it are St. Anthony's Falls, the only falls on the Mississippi.  In the mid-1800s the falls were harnessed to run lumber and grain mills.  Minneapolis became the grain mill capital of the world.  I thought, someone should write a book about how these falls made the city, and sure enough someone did.

On both sides of the river are old mills (these aren't cute little fairy tale buildings, but instead are enormous factories.)  Some have been converted to condos, there is also the neat looking Mill City Museum.  But the city is doing something pretty neat, converting the area to a giant archeological park the Mill Ruins Park.

I am a sucker for ruins.  Anyone can fall for the romance of a ruined abbey or the remains of an ancient temple.  The giant mills are not so old and they were built for efficiency, not beauty.  Still, they too harnessed massive power and were in their sphere a pinnacle of achievement.  People's lives and dreams were shaped within and around these walls as surely as they were in the Parthenon or at Machu Pichu.

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