Sunday, February 19, 2012

Tourist St. Paul

One of the under-appreciated benefits of living in the Twin Cities is that on any given winter weekend, if you’re hungry for vacation or escape, you can simply take a drive across the river to your sister city—whichever direction that might be.

Yesterday we hopped into the car at 9:45 and were pulling into one of those coveted street-side parking spots near the Como Park Conservatory by 10:10. A few minutes later, having slipped a fiver down the donation slot, we entered the steamy glass confines of the place. Ferns and bromeliads and banana tress everywhere in the central court. The moisture and heat hit you immediately. It’s like stepping off the plane in San Diego.

Like everyone else, we made a bee-line for the south wing, where all the colorful flowers are now in bloom. Lilies and cyclamens. Coy in the pools, lily-pads, parents with their toddlers, and huge SLR cameras everywhere!

I whipped my Canon PowerShot SD1200 out of my shirt pocket, and not to be outdone, I switched to the “macro” programmed setting for a few close-ups of the blossoms. That was a mistake. The camera also happened to be programmed for tungsten light. Well, let’s settle back and enjoy the blooms themselves.

Hardly less interesting, in my view, is the opposite wing of the conservatory, where spice-bearing plants from the East Indies and South America, Borneo and Brazil, are on permanent display. All-spice, black pepper, ginger, all of which conjure thoughts of lunch: Indian? Thai?

We moved on to the brightly-colored frogs in the tropical rainforest, and then the anaconda. Lovely ferns, dripping springs, yellow and orange birds flittering in the rafters, and a wonderful exhibit of intimate black bear photos by long-time local expert Lynn Rogers.

As we departed the building Minnesota suddenly felt very cold again. We returned to the car and circumnavigated Lake Como in a clock-wise direction—not as easy as it sounds. Then we headed down Como Avenue toward downtown St. Paul, through semi-industrial neighborhoods that I hadn’t traversed in ages. Spotting a spire to our right, we veered down Western and pulled up in front of the notoriously conservative St. Agnes Church just as some characters were emerging with violin cases in tote. We stepped inside and caught the tail end of a Mass from the lobby. Rather airy paintings on the ceiling. I grabbed a brochure on the way out; it might be worth attending an evening Monteverdi service someday…in Latin.

Our thoughts were of neighborhood spaghetti for lunch—was Costello’s on Snelling still open, or maybe a joint on Payne Avenue?—but we ended up in the Wild Onion on Grand. I thought it might be a “family” place, they had spaghetti and meatballs on the menu—but when we stepped inside it looked like Chammps. I asked the hostess, “Is there anywhere we can sit where a TV won’t be visible?” Her frank response was, “Actually, no.” She gave us a booth by the window, which was the best she had…but we were out of there in no time.

We wandered across the street to Brasa, and I’m glad we did. I like the food at the Minneapolis Brasa, but find the interior unpleasantly cramped and drafty. The St. Paul Brasa is warm and spacious. Same tasty soul food. I’d go back in an instant.

Re-energized by the pulled pork and huevos rancheros, we took that long drop down Grand Avenue to West Seventh, then snaked past the hordes heading to the Wild hockey game, and arrived at last at Mounds Park, where the view is superb and the artifacts are 1500 years old. (But I forgot the shovel.) Mounds Park is one of the few places where you can see St. Paul and Minneapolis at the same time.

We arrived back home five hours after having set out, and felt like we’d been on a vacation. We took a nap on the floor with the sunlight streaming in from the west and woke up to find a flock of wild turkeys wandering through our back yard.

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