Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Ticket to Ride Brings OverArching Enjoyment: Recapping a Rockin' Weekend in St. Louis -- Travelogue

An aspect of my life that makes me proud and happy is having had the opportunity to travel a good deal--to great places.

To illustrate this quickly, I would probably cite destinations like London, Paris, Vienna, Venice, Barcelona, St. Petersburg, numerous other European cities, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Australia, San Francisco, New Orleans, some great national parks and several trips to New York.

But though the locales may sound far less glamorous, my existence has also been considerably enriched by 50+ aggregate visits to cities within a 6-hour driving radius of my home near Chicago:

Indianapolis, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Cleveland, Columbus (OH and IN), Cincinnati, Dayton, Green Bay, Toledo, Canton, Louisville, Minneapolis/St. Paul, St. Louis, Springfield (IL), Madison, Des Moines, the Quad Cities, Dubuque, Galena, Hannibal (MO) and Champaign/Urbana (where my best friend has long lived).

(This doesn't include more than 50 trips to Milwaukee alone, which unlike the above doesn't typically include an overnight stay.)

And if I can exude a bit of self-esteem, one of my favorite things about myself is that I can find as much fun and fulfillment in a mid-sized Midwestern city as I can in European capitals.

Such was the case, again, on a quick weekend trip to St. Louis.

In a couple key ways, this excursion was a bit different than most prior:

1) Instead of driving, I went by train and 2) I was accompanied by a friend, Paolo, rather than traveling solo.

But it also hewed to many regional treks in that it involved a rock concert, baseball stadium, art museum, history museum, local monument, appreciation of architecture and good food with a local flavor.

The impetus for this trip was a concert by the legendary Paul McCartney at Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals. In my previous post, I reviewed the show, which was phenomenal.

This was my 7th time in St. Louis in the past 20 years (most recently in 2011) so some of the other things we did--and didn't--over roughly 25 hours in the city, I had done previously.

Still, starting with the decision to travel by train, pretty much everything about the trip was acutely enjoyable.

Although I have taken several long-distance trains in Europe, I only recall going from New York to Boston in 2000 as involving a U.S. train ride of more than an hour or so.

But with the concert on Saturday night, there was no reason for me to take an unpaid day off work on Friday or Monday, and driving roughly 5 hours in each direction on consecutive days didn't hold much appeal.

I suppose I could have explored flying or taking a Greyhound or MegaBus, the latter of which I used to go to & fro St. Louis in 2011 around a Foo Fighters concert, but without explicitly comparing options or schedules, Amtrak just seemed like a good idea. This was probably exacerbated by sentimentality for the Beatles' movie A Hard Day's Night, which largely involves the lads on a train trip and whose title song Sir Paul has been opening with on this tour.

It was interesting and enlightening for me simply to wait for the train after getting a ride down to
Union Station and discovering that the old, classical structure is now really just an empty husk with some out-of-the-way benches; the train tracks and passenger lounges now being under a building on the east side of Canal.

We were taking the 303 Lincoln Service, which stops in Joliet, Pontiac, Normal, Springfield and a few other locations along the way to St. Louis, so in the waiting area--along with three pigeons that kept flying around inside; I imagined eating a donut and getting Tippi Hedrened--included a mix of students, farmers, Amish folks and Cardinals fans (the Cards played the Cubs at Wrigley Thursday-Sunday).

I learned that having reserved seats on the train didn't mean assigned seats, but there was enough room in the Coach cars for Paolo and I to each have our own pair of seats in front of one another.

Over the roughly 5-1/2 hour ride, I mostly dozed and fiddled around on my phone, while Paolo engaged in a long conversation with a man across the aisle from him, who was a farmer formerly in the Black Ops. He wasn't from St. Louis itself, but corroborated a BBQ tip Paolo had received from a friend, which we followed.

Lincoln, IL
There weren't many amazing sights to see along the way, but I enjoyed noticing the quaint downtown of a city named Lincoln, going right past the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, catching glimpses of old Route 66 alongside much of the train route and seeing the Gateway Arch in the distance as we came upon and across the Mississippi River.

In downtown St. Louis is an old Union Station that I knew had become a popular shopping mall years ago, but I figured trains still arrived there (or essentially there) and had booked a nearby hotel called the Pear Tree Inn by Drury through

Turns out our train came into the Gateway Transportation Center about 4 blocks away, which wasn't a big deal as we'd packed light for an overnight trip, but caused a bit of initial directional confusion.

After checking in, we walked about 15 minutes west to the recommended barbecue joint, Pappy's Smokehouse, where we both got a half-slab of ribs with a side portion of brisket, a fried ear of corn and sweet potato fries for me and potato salad for Paolo.

With a quartet of BBQ sauces on the table to try, we both found the ribs to be fantastic, loved the corn and potatoes but found the brisket (sliced not chopped) to be somewhat dull. Burnt Ends probably would've been better than the sliced brisket, but was sold out for the day when we got there around 4pm.

I also enjoyed two bottles of locally made Fitz pop, in cream soda and black cherry flavors.

We took an Uber to the main riverfront area of downtown, and as with four other St. Louis Uber drivers utilized, we enjoyed chatting with the guy behind the wheel. It's always fun to gain the perspective of locals, from how Cardinals fans feel now that the Cubs are dominant, to whether or not St. Louis denizens consider themselves part of the South, and the Uber rides were consistently enlightening.

Downtown we saw (externally only in both cases) the beautifully domed Old Courthouse dating to 1828 and the Wainwright Building, designed by Louis Sullivan with his trademark resplendent terra cotta adornments.

With the McCartney concert ticketed for 8:00pm, on the train down I had purchased a pair of Gateway Arch "Journey to the Top" tram passes for 5:50pm. I had ridden to the top of the Arch previously, and knew it wasn't that brilliant an experience, but Paolo never had and I felt it something he should do at least once.

With much of the tourist area of St. Louis a construction zone--including major renovations at Union Station and a downtown plaza completely torn up--the Museum of Westward Expansion under the arch is also undergoing a wholesale re-creation. I don't know when it will reopen, but it looks like it will be awhile.

So all of the beautiful riverside grassland that surrounds the Gateway Arch as part of National Park Service's Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is currently obliterated, making for getting to the arch more cumbersome than normal.

But in arriving by 5:30pm given airport-like security procedures, buying tickets in advance was proven wise as we sped past many waiting patrons.

Until we didn't.

Having gotten in line based on a signboard telling us to do so, we were barked at by an Arch associate that only those with tickets for 5:10 tours should be in line, as they were running behind due to too many people being clustered at the top of the arch.

With no ready waiting area, benches or indication about when we should check back, the yelling lady was really pissing me off.

We were able to get into the free movie about the building of the arch halfway through--the feats of architect/engineer Eero Saarinen and dozens of planners & workers was really rather amazing--and got back in line around 6:10, still officially too early but thanks to a cool employee who listened to our rationale about having to get to the concert

We were able to move to a subsequent queue for the tram about 6:30, and finally got on one--in a tiny, claustrophobic compartment--about 20 minutes later.

Once atop of the arch, we took photos for about 10 minutes through long rectangular windows, and then had to wait to come back down.

So even with a timed ticket, we wound up spending about 2 hours at the Gateway Arch for only 20
minutes of being inside it, including the rides up & down. Especially given the annoying yelling lady--who would have delayed us even 20 minutes longer than her kinder colleague--it was much more stressful than it needed to be, and though a St. Louis staple and gloriously beautiful structure, it wasn't really worth the hassle.

Though it was only a 15-minute walk to Busch Stadium, it was about 7:50pm before we got in and to our seats in Section 447. An A/V presentation including recorded versions of Beatles songs by other artists started by 8:00, but Sir Paul and his band didn't take the stage until 8:27pm.

The next 2 hours and 40 minutes or so was pretty damn phenomenal, and you can read my review of the show here.

We walked about a mile back to our hotel afterwards, but stopped at an open-late restaurant we happened to pass called Maurizio's Pizza & Sports Bar.

Paolo got Chicken Wings and declared them among the best he's ever had, while I ordered Toasted Ravioli, vaguely recalling that it had first been created in St. Louis. (This was later corroborated.)

I found my room at the Pear Tree Inn to be perfectly comfortable--Paolo was in the room next door but I presume he felt likewise--and have written a brief review for

In the morning he utilized the Fitness Center and me a whirlpool, before we enjoyed the complimentary breakfast together.

Though a bit disappointed there was no bacon, I was delighted to find DIY Belgium wafflemakers, and we both felt it quite classy for the hotel's GM to stop and chat with all the guests at breakfast.

Max Beckmann, Acrobats, 1939.
Outside, we encountered something I have almost never experienced on vacation going back 16+ years: Rain.

But it's not that I've never seen rain while traveling, just that for as long as I can remember it hasn't
ever interfered with my plans for a given day. And this held true in St. Louis. On Saturday when I was going to an outdoor concert, it didn't rain; on Sunday when we were planning to be inside museums much of the day, there were some showers that didn't affect us much.

Within the vast Forest Park, which also contains the Saint Louis Zoo, the outdoor MUNY theater and a golf course, we went to the St. Louis Art Museum and the Missouri History Museum, both excellent and free of charge.

Jean-Leon Gerome, The Sentinel at the Sultan's Tomb
Even in both being thoroughly acquainted with the wonderful Art Institute of Chicago, and having visited dozens of other acclaimed art museums, we found the SLAM collection to be world-class.

Particularly striking was a roomful of paintings by German expressionist Max Beckmann--SLAM is said to have more of his works than any other museum--and four stupendous Van Goghs hanging next to each other (and another nearby).

There was also great stuff by Picasso, Chagall, de Chirico, Modigliani, Renoir, Degas, El Greco, Rodin, Chuck Close and many others, as well as excellent Chinese and Egyptian holdings.

I also found myself wonderfully bemused by a painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme (shown nearby) in which a decorative chest reminded me of the Louis Sullivan's Wainwright Building that we'd seen the day before.

The rain precluded us from walking across the park to the Missouri History Museum, but an interpark
trolley took us there for a $2 fare.

I knew from their website that special exhibitions currently include ones on Little Black Dresses and Route 66, both proving enjoyable to peruse.

We also walked through the permanent collections covering the history of St. Louis, and a gallery pertaining to the World's Fair held in Forest Park in 1904 (incredibly, the Olympics were also held there concurrently).

There was also a replica of Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis plane--plus a newspaper gallery commemorating his famed transatlantic flight--and a large statue of Thomas Jefferson, tying to his facilitating the Louisiana Purchase that brought the U.S. acquisition of Missouri.

A particularly engaging Uber driver enlivened the ride to Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, a local institution several people had pointed us to. I ordered a "Concrete" with caramel, pineapple and pralines, which was great but not so much more so than similar concoctions I had elsewhere. Paolo didn't quite get the concept of "mix-ins" and wound up simply with chocolate custard.

Still needing an actual lunch-type meal--around 3:30 at that point--we were going to check out an Irish pub called Maggie O'Brien's near Union Station, but logistically deferred to eating at Syberg's in our hotel, where we had returned to retrieve our held bags.

After a Reuben for Paolo and fish 'n chips for me, we Ubered back to the Gateway Transportation Center, caught a 5:30 Amtrak back to Chicago's Union Station and Ubered our respective ways home.

We didn't get to the Budweiser Tour, but both have done so previously, and were told by multiple Uber drivers to check out the City Museum, an outdoor playground at which architectural remnants are supposedly gathered for kids of all ages to climb upon. The Missouri Botanical Garden was also cited, but I've visited it before.

Someday I'd like to check out the ornate interior of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, and though
I've been to largely Italian community known as The Hill and seen the houses where Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola lived across the street as boys, given that both have passed within the past year, I wouldn't have minded another pilgrimage. (I remain unclear on the ability to call Uber audibles.)

But for the most part, it was a weekend rather perfectly spent: riding the rails, savoring food, history, culture, architecture, a few minutes in the Arch and a Beatle, in the company of a good friend.

Though it was just a quick weekend visit, I feel it was a pretty satisfying (re)exploration of St. Louis.

Still, I imagine at some point I may even "Get Back."

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