Monday, April 20, 2015

An Impromptu Visit to United Nations Headquarters...Because, Well, Why Not?!

April 20, 2015
New York, NY

It was Saturday, and we were eagerly anticipating our friend John's arrival from Detroit for the weekend.  After cleaning up the apartment, we had 2 -3 hours to kill before John's flight was due in at JFK.  It was a beautiful spring day (finally!) - really more like summer - and we decided on a walking route along the East River going uptown. (We had done the riverfront path in the downtown direction together when there was still still snow on the ground, back in March).  This route takes you away from the riverfront and onto 1st Avenue in the vicinity of the United Nations headquarters, for security reasons, I am guessing.  

As we were passing by the entrance to the main UN building, we saw some other tourist-looking people talking to a guard and then entering.  So we followed them.  I handed over my snazzy New York state driver's licence to the foreign-accented, uniformed personnel and got a badge with my ID photocopied onto it for all to see.  Scott received a purple wristband (no idea why we did not get the same thing) and we went through the airport-style metal detectors with a conveyor belt for purses, backpacks, keys, watches, and the like.  In no time at all, we were in!  When we entered we were informed that very little was open since it was a weekend, and we still really don't know what goes on at the UN but here's what we saw.

After you exit the security area, you end up in a large, spacious sculpture garden fronting the East River. Unfortunately there were a lot of barricades in place and construction going on.
We made a bee-line to check out the knotted gun sculpture , a gift from Belgium
Knotted gun selfie!
We really enjoyed the mirrored brass globe...
...posed with it...
...and photographed it from all angles!
In the main space inside that was open for touring, there was a mildly interesting exhibit concerning land mines, titled "More Than Mines"
While intriguing, it was rather sobering to be confronted with the various landmines on display
"More Than Mines" exhibit
I had my picture taken in front of the wall of diplomat portraits with Boutros Boutros Ghali, for whom Scott has some unexplained (to me) fondness
Strolling the riverfront pathway in my awesome UN name-tag before rushing home to meet John.  Oops, his plane was early and we were late!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Easter Weekend: Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater and a Visit to the 'Burgh

April 8, 2015
Pittsburgh and Mill Run, PA

Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater
Today, we have been official residents here in NYC for 8 weeks(!). Thus far, it has been incredibly fun, exciting and exhilarating exploring and learning all there is to see and do here in this amazingly vibrant city.  But between the hectic pace (of the city in general and Scott's new job in particular), cold weather and the obvious challenges and adjustments required when moving across the country, it has also been pretty intense and exhausting.  Especially with the feeling of spring in the air, we were ready for a break from it all.  When Good Friday, Scott's first holiday from work, arrived on the calendar, we decided to take advantage of it by...driving to the western edge of Pennsylvania!  

We really wanted to get away, but we were nervous about holiday crowds at any of the popular weekend destinations close to the city.  Add to this that we had been wanting to visit the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Fallingwater, arguably his most famous work, for quite some time.  And now, as luck would have it, we were finally situated in a part of the country convenient enough to do so!  

It was to be our very first driving trip in the US without owning a car and the planning of the trip proved to be somewhat logistically challenging.  It is easy to rent a car in Manhattan.  However, like most other things in the city, it is also exorbitantly expensive. After a bit of research, we decided it made the most financial sense to take an airport express bus to Newark Liberty Airport in New Jersey and rent a car from there.  On Friday morning we boarded the bus at Grand Central Terminal, which is an easy walk from our apartment, even with roller bags in tow.  After a comfortable, hour-long ride, the bus arrived at airport, where we quickly picked up our bright yellow Kia Soul. While we never would have chosen this obnoxious color ourselves, it came with the added bonus of giving us the opportunity to make fun of ourselves for appearing to be driving around in a small, yellow school bus all weekend.  Rental car jokes aside, while it was a rather time-consuming process, it was smooth sailing so far, with both the bus trip and the renting of the car going according to plan.

With Scott at the wheel, we made good time on the smooth and easily navigable roads of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  At around 3:30 that afternoon, we arrived in downtown Pittsburgh and checked into the Hotel Monaco.  Yet another of our great Priceline scores, the hotel seemed quite new (or at least newly renovated) and was decorated in jewel-tone blues, greens and yellows (to go with our car, perhaps, which is also Priceline Yellow...), with black and white accents in addition to an, um, eye-catching houndstooth check. 

Room 224 at the Hotel Monaco
The rooms and the public spaces had a rather unusual birdcage motif which the designers managed to pull off so as to seem somehow charming, and not just weird.

I admit it. I fell a little bit in love with the bright yellow birdcage chandelier...
Our room was very spacious and probably bigger than some NYC studio apartments.  We were pretty excited at the thought of luxuriating here for the weekend.

Fallingwater, the primary reason for our trip, is located a good 70 miles outside of Pittsburgh and we could have stayed somewhere closer. In fact, basing ourselves in Morgantown, WV would have cut our trip to Mill Run and back almost in half.  But we had both been to Morgantown before in our travels together (believe it or not), although admittedly mostly just passing through on our way to somewhere else.  (In addition, I was there as a teenager on a Christmas holiday visit to my Aunt Mary, who was living there in the mid-80s.)   And so we decided that we'd use the opportunity to see what was going on in this former steel and railway town located on the eastern edge of the Midwest that seemed to be successfully reinventing itself.  

Interesting architecture in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh
After dropping our bags in our well-appointed room, we hit the streets to see what "the 'Burgh," as the local PR people apparently like to call it, was all about.  It was an unexpectedly balmy afternoon, the rain being just barely held at bay.  We started walking toward the Strip District (no, not strip club district) from our downtown location.  Pittsburgh has several pockets of commercialism, separated by stretches of nothingness so walking is not the most efficient way to see this town.  

Pittsburgh's Strip District was quiet late on Friday afternoon. And yes, we loved the giant rooster above DeLuca's...
However, we enjoyed examining the various shops and restaurants doing business in the area and - oh, happy accident! - we stumbled upon a local whiskey distillery with a charming tasting room.  Of course we had to go in!  The room was busy, as it was Friday afternoon (and a holiday for some workers, at that).  

Wigle Whiskey's fun, colorful tasting room
After a short wait, we were greeted by a pleasant, young staff member, who informed us that Pittsburgh is where whiskey was invented.  

Of course, we decided to take a selfie to pass the time while we waited for a server to become available
She explained the various whiskeys and other spirits that Wigle distills (they also do a gin and a rum) and we shared a flight of 5 small tastes for $10.

Our tasting flight. Our thoughtful server even gave us each a free sample of her favorite whiskey since we had to wait for bit for her attention.
Ten dollars seemed expensive for the very tiny tastes.  We thought it might even be free when we inquired how much we owed.  But the spirits were tasty as well as unique (in addition to packing a punch!) and the staff was friendly; we considered it a win.

Scott considers his tasting notes...
That evening, we enjoyed cheap drinks on the large upstairs bar-balcony at a Strip District seafood restaurant to recover from our long walk.  

Sometimes cheap beer served at the wrong temperature still hits the spot.
The service was surly and the place seemed to attract a bit of a rough-and-tumble crowd. But hey, we got to sit outside and I guess that's what you get when you pay $6.75 for a decent-ish glass of sauv blanc.  After checking out a few restaurants for dinner that failed to interest us, we decided to return to the hotel for a light meal at the Commoner restaurant, 
which adjoined our hotel.  The Hotel Monaco reception lobby overlooks the bar and dining room of the restaurant, which has a very warm and inviting atmosphere, along with a pleasant din and an intriguing menu of updated pub classics.  Unfortunately we were seated at the very end of the bar all the way in the back corner of the restaurant and the food and cocktails were hit or miss.  Scott's gin and tonic, prepared with their house-made elderflower tonic, was very tasty and refreshing and I really enjoyed the salad we shared of grilled radicchio, kale, shaved Brussels sprouts, pine nuts, and avocado in a lemon vinaigrette.  The steak and ale pie was good, although perhaps not worth the way I feel after eating too much enriched white flour and I found the wood oven charred cauliflower with walnut pesto to be a fail, being undercooked and lacking in any real flavor.  All in all, though, it was an enjoyable meal.  And of course, the best part was being able to stumble right upstairs into our bed!

As the weatherman had predicted, Saturday morning was cold - in the low 30s - and a bit misty but at least the forecasted rain appeared to be holding off.  After a quick stop for coffee and a light bite in the car, we arrived at Fallingwater in plenty of time for our scheduled 10:30 tour.

The entrance at Fallingwater
Our tour guide, Nathan, was excellent and the house was quite beautiful, containing enough art and artifacts to be worthy of a tour in their own right.  

Living room at Fallingwater
Despite the grey day and leafless trees, Scott and I both agreed that it was our favorite of the three Frank Lloyd Wright designs we've now toured and I was quite intrigued and impressed by some of the clever design concepts Wright employed in this project.

The house has access, through a retractable glass panel, to the stream that forms the famous falls just beyond and over which the house is cantilevered.
Iconic view of Fallingwater
After the tour, we returned to Pittsburgh for a delicious hot dog lunch at Essie's Original Hot Dog Shop, simply known as "the O" and which is located in the middle of the Pitt (University of Pittsburgh) campus.  

The "O" in all it's splendor
There's nothing like being "on vacation" to justify eating a hot dog with all the fixin's!
We passed the remainder of the chilly, breezy afternoon by taking in some of Pittsburgh's lovely views and mildly interesting sights, including the city's many bridges, the Fred Rogers (of TV's popular "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" fame) memorial statue and waterfront pathways.  

Two of Pittsburgh's many steel (of course!) bridges
Meeting up with Mr. Rogers on Pittsburgh's North Shore
Fred Rogers has pride of place on Pittsburgh's waterfront
View from Mount Washington of the picturesque Golden Triangle that is downtown Pittsburgh 
There were certainly areas of Pittsburgh that we did not have the opportunity to see but our overall impression was that it was a bit of a gritty and hard-scrabble kind of town, perhaps a remnant of the city's steel town past, although not entirely unpleasantly so. (And it deserves to be said that the Wigle Distillery & Tasting Room, Hotel Monaco and the adjoining Commoner restaurant certainly do not meet this description.)  We enjoyed our visit and 
would welcome a reason to return, if only to properly visit the Andy Warhol Museum (we had time only for the lobby photo op) and the Mattress Factory modern art museum, which sounds like a unique experience we would have liked to see for ourselves.

Having a little fun at the Andy Warhol Museum
Although a tad rough around the edges, the 'Burgh seems to be making a comeback and makes for a pleasant and reasonably affordable weekend excursion.  It was certainly time well-spent and a pleasant break from the hustle and bustle of NYC (it was a bit jarring to return to Manhattan after such a quiet and tranquil visit to PA)!  And now, on to Memorial Day Weekend planning... 

More photos:
Our bathroom at the Hotel Monaco had 'Priceline Yellow' houndstooth check wallpaper.  How apropos!
I noticed that the building across the street from our room at the Monaco with the funky windows was featured in a Pittsburgh architecture book for sale in the Fallingwater gift shop!
Pittsburgh's Strip District
Tasting at Wigle Distillery

Pittsburgh really seems to love its hot dogs!
Pittsburgh: home of Heinz ketchup.  Maybe that's what all the hot dogs are for?
The view of Fallingwater as you approach is relatively unassuming
The piece that looks like the top level is actually set back from the main house and contains the one-bedroom guest house
Head-on view of Fallingwater
Happiness is...the anticipation of eating a hot dog at the O!
The old-school, no-frills interior - order counter at the O. I like it!
The view of Pittsburgh from the Duquesne Incline overlook

Creepy Mr. Rogers statue. Creepier Scott. 
Pittsburgh's North Shore walking/cycling path

We waited in line and exchanged taking photos on the couch with all the other silly visitors at the Andy Warhol Museum
Andy Warhol Bridge
We enjoyed a complimentary happy hour in the pleasant Mezzanine level lobby at the Hotel Monaco before heading out for dinner
The exterior of the Church Brew Works remains largely unchanged from its church days
Let's go inside and check it out!
Interior of the Church Brew Works.  Note the distilling tanks occupying the former alter.
The food was rumored to not be very good but we had to check it out for the interior.  This is the view from the bar area into the dining room.
We sat in the bar area and enjoyed the spinach and cheese dip and an order of pierogies - a Pittsburgh specialty.  I am not typically a fan but they were the best pierogies I've ever had!