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A European Perspective of Pittsburgh: Part 2

When I hit the “send” button to email my friend Gabrijela Obert's and my “European perspective of Pittsburgh” to the Pop City team in April 2012, my heart was heavy.  Looking at the amazing memories of our spring trip made me miss Pittsburgh badly.  While Gabrijela continued her U.S. trip with her husband I could not help but think:  “What about going back to Pittsburgh one more time this year? Crazy?” I mean, we're talking 4,294 miles. 

When Gabrijela finally returned to Munich, she told me how much she had enjoyed her travels between Las Vegas and New York-- but none of them had touched her like Pittsburgh. The decision was made: we would return to Pittsburgh in October! 

Coming back
Emerging from the Fort Pitt Tunnel never gets old and we grinned like kids under the Christmas tree to be back in Pittsburgh.
Soon we met our lovely host Julie Ransom who owns “Briarwood," a small house with rooms for visitors to rent in Lawrenceville. If you are not a fan of big hotels we strongly recommend staying with Julie.  We liked our spacious yet cozy rooms a lot. In the morning we woke up rested and enjoyed the breathtaking sunrise over Downtown Pittsburgh from the windows of my room. We were ready to let the magic begin--again.

The Carrie Furnaces
If you come to Pittsburgh for the first time-- with the sun reflecting in the facades of Downtown, people kayaking the rivers and the colorful fall leaves contrasted against a deep blue sky—it's hard to imagine Pittsburgh as the smoky steel city it once was.  One of the best ways to experience the steel history of Pittsburgh is  a visit at the Carrie Furnaces in Rankin. The only remaining furnaces, #6 and #7, operated from 1907 to 1978 as part of the Homestead Steel Works and are rare examples of pre-WW2 blast furnace technology. 

The Rivers of Steel Heritage Corporation offers tours to the Carrie Furnaces (the season is over now and will start again in spring) and we highly recommend tourists as well as locals go.  The place is absolutely fascinating and has a special atmosphere that can't compare with anything else. 

We chose the self-paced tour where we could explore the furnaces at our own speed. While we walked around we met the fantastic volunteers at significant points of the industrial structures. A lot of them are former steel workers and they explained to us what exactly happened at that particular part of the furnace and directed our attention to especially remarkable sections of the mill.  We also had the chance to learn a bit from the team that works on preserving the Carrie Furnaces about the challenge of keeping an abandoned steel mill alive.

The tour is an essential experience for everybody who would like to understand the history and character of Pittsburgh.  Visitors should allow 1.5 – 2 hours and if there is a history buff, photographer or architect in the group – or as in our case all the above– it is better to come early and buy water, coffee and hot dogs along the way. We ended up staying 4.5 hours and I can only say that it won’t be our last visit.

No sports? No way!
When we booked our tickets back in August all was good.  While we would not be able to see the Steelers at Heinz Field due to the NFL schedule, the Pirates were tracking comfortably above .500 between wildcard and playoff ranks hinting of  baseball in October. That and the dawn of a new hockey season made this Pens girl's heart happy.

But that's not how it turned out. The Pirates collapsed in epic manner and the ongoing labor dispute between NHL and NHLPA caused a lockout and the cancelation of all games for at least the first weeks of the hockey season.

But Pittsburgh without sports?  We searched --successfully as it turns out--for alternative options.

The Roberto Clemente Museum
The Pirates may have just finished their 20th losing season in a row, but the fame of Pittsburgh’s #21 – the legendary Roberto Clemente - will never diminish.  His statue at the beautiful PNC Park, right beyond the bridge named after him, is one of the most beautiful in town. A small museum in the old Lawrenceville fire engine house tells his story.

Photographer Duane Rieder is the owner of the engine house, a big fan of Roberto Clemente and collector of baseball memorabilia.  When he had the chance to meet Clemente’s widow Vera, a few years ago, he convinced her to open her Clemente collection to him and then to bring it to Pittsburgh to help form the Clemente Museum. Lucky for Pittsburgh.

What we liked about the museum was the perspective on the legendary star of the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Instead of an overdose of heroic baseball pictures and trophies, the collection introduces the visitor not only to the baseball player but also to the multifaceted person and engaged humanitarian that Roberto was, a true hero.

We also loved the little room honoring Honus Wagner and the late 19th and early 20th century Pirates. The awesome quality of the historic black and white pictures  helped in the overall feeling of stepping back in time. Tours to the Clemente Museum are available upon request.

The Gridiron Glory
The Heinz History Center in the Strip District should be one of the first stops for every Pittsburgh tourist  to learn about the history of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania and have fun doing it. The center also hosts the Western Pennsylvanian Sports Museum on the upper floors where you can dive into the sports history of the City of Champions.  But that’s not all: until January 6 the traveling exhibition “Gridiron Glory – The Best of Pro Football Hall of Fame” is also here.

The exhibition is really fun. In addition to a lot of information about football, an impressive collection of memorabilia and interesting media presentations, you will find a lot of items to “play” with.  We put on a helmet to hear the audio commands of the coaches like the player would do and tried on some shoulder pads (heavy!). I also figured out that I fit almost shoulder high into a negative imprint of Jerome Bettis’ leg. 

Neighborhood Cruising
One of the most fascinating things about Pittsburgh are the many unique neighborhoods. It's like a dozen cities in one.  On our lists of neighborhoods to cruise, in addition to our usual hot spots:  Lovely Squirrel Hill, the rocking South Side and lively Oakland.

Gabrijela was  especially fascinated by Oakland with all its students, schools and universities.  We visited on  the only really gloomy and rainy day of our trip, when Pittsburgh was showing off its Gotham face.  The Cathedral of Learning looked menacing against the dark sky, just the right atmosphere for a “where Batman fought Bane” shot  at the Software Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

As you may know from our earlier article, we are big fans of Pittsburgh food tours and this time we crossed the Monongahela to meet with Sylvia McCoy, owner of “Burgh Bits & Bites”, and tour guide Jennifer Berg in Dormont. The great thing about these tours is that we always learn a lot about the history of the neighborhood and its small hidden gems.  In Dormont we loved the mural "Dormont, 100 years young" and the awesome local bookstore, Beyond Bedtime Books. Our favorite food included the fabulous hot dogs at Dormont Dogs and the sweet treats at Sugar Café, but the highlight of the tour was a real surprise especially for us:  Fredo’s Deli on Potomac Avenue! 

Gabrijela’s mother is from Croatia and her dad is a Croat born in Bosnia (and I love Croatia) so we started a happy dance when we found a REAL Cevapcinica right there in Dormont!  Cevapi are small skinless beef sausages which are best served hot in fresh baked bread called lepinja.  As Europeans, we are careful to refer to something that is served in the US as“authentic European food” because usually it’s not, but Fredo’s is an exception.  The food is amazing and tastes just like it  does in Bosnia. 

The Strip District
I wrote about the Strip District quite a lot already in the spring, but need to pick it up one more time.  I would recommend visitors not only come on a Saturday morning when the Strip is buzzing, but also during the week when it's quieter. It's a great time to walk around, learn about the goods offered and talk to shop owners who have time to share some stories about the neighborhood.

Besides enjoying all the wonderful traditional businesses on Penn Ave and the various local vendors at the Public Market in the Produce Terminal, we were amazed by the young entrepreneurs who chose this neighborhood to start businesses like Marty’s Market at 23rd and Smallman Street, Bar Marco across the block on Penn Avenue and Wigle Whiskey, the Strip’s new but already highly appreciated distillery of high quality spirits.

This neighborhood is as alive as a neighborhood can be and definitely a must see. We love it so much that we spent a lot of time there working on an art project featuring the Strip District that will hopefully have its public debut sometimes in 2013. (Stay tuned!)

Side note – St. Nick’s across the river
When we were unpacking Gabrijela’s photo equipment one day at the parking lot behind the Produce Terminal, we walked closer to the Allegheny to have a last look at the former St. Nicholas Church on East Ohio Street which will likely be demolished soon. While we understand that the reunited St. Nicholas Parish alone is financially not capable of saving the building and needs to focus on preserving the incredible Vanka Murals at their Millvale church, it's sad that all negotiations about restoring and reusing the building under a new ownership failed.

The first Croatian Catholic parish in the United States ever was established 1894 at Pittsburgh's North Side. When it split in 1900 two churches were built - the one in Millvale and the one on East Ohio Street. Both churches are cornerstones of the history of the Croatian immigration to the USA. With our special interest in Croatian culture and heritage, we regret to see an important piece of the Croatian heritage go.

Who remembers that in the late 19th and early 20th century about 40,000 people came from Croatia to Pittsburgh to work in the mills? As returning Pittsburgh visitors with Croatian and German roots, we would love to see the planned museum of immigration representing the history of the Croatian immigrants in the Pittsburgh area together with the one of other ethnical groups like the German, Irish, Slovak, Polish,  Italian and more.  These people and their descendants turned Pittsburgh into the city it was, now is and will be in the future and their story is worth telling.

Food lover’s paradise
Pittsburgh has an incredibly fast developing food scene.  New places are opening almost every week and it's hard to keep up especially when you only have a limited time in town.

In the morning hours we were mostly hitting our favorite places.  On our way to Rankin we stopped at the Square Café to treat ourselves to the superb bacon, eggs and toast goodness topped with a delicious slice of French toast. The rest of the week we visited Espresso A Mano in Lawrenceville for perfect coffee and toasted pastries while enjoying great talks with owner Matt and his staff. In addition, an espresso doppio at La Prima kept us upright when the jetlag kicked in, and a stop with friends at Pamela’s Strip location and a meatless but tasty breakfast at Quiet Storm in Friendship / East Liberty rounded up our yummy morning tours.

After our Carrie Furnaces tour, we crossed the Monongahela for a lunch we were really excited about--all our friends raved about the amazing tacos at Smoke Taqueria. When we arrived we found a beautifully painted and furnished small restaurant with great music and a friendly service.  And the famous tacos? They definitely did not disappoint!  All of them were very good and my personal favorite, the pork taco, was simply fantastic. 

In the Strip District we  tried a tasty chicken quesadilla at Chicken Latino and just around the corner on Smallman Street we fell in love with Marty’s Market. We enjoyed the excellent coffee, shopped for great snacks and chatted with the lovely owner Regina Koetters.  

Good Mexican food is really hard to get in Germany and so we continued our quest with friends at Las Velas in Market Square for chips with an amazing Queso dip and great fish tacos, not to mention the diverse and delicious desserts.

Our Kevin Sousa stop this time was at the new Union Pig & Chicken in East Liberty. We opted for the double platter with ribs and chicken. It was good, but the highlight, besides the bite of brisket I stole from my friend’s plate, was our delectable dessert – an apple cobbler with smoky almonds. Extraordinary! We finished the great night out with an interesting seasonal cocktail composition upstairs at Harvard & Highland.

After spending a lot of time in the Strip at daytime we returned one night for dinner at Bar Marco.  The four owners --Bobby, Kevin, Michael and Justin --invested a lot of work, ideas and money into the old Enginehouse No 7 at 2216 Penn Avenue, creating a unique and wonderful space for enjoying the extended cocktail menu and wine selection in a relaxed atmosphere.  Although the food menu offers several entrees we decided to do it the Spanish way and ordered several dishes from the snack menu to share like tapas. All of it—from the meat balls over bacon-wrapped dates to the cheese fries with lamb--was great. The energy and creativity of the foursome makes Bar Marco a special place and we can’t wait to return.

The last night in town we spent in our “home neighborhood” Lawrenceville.  We met with friends at the Thai restaurant, Pusadee’s Garden. My own noodle dish was delicious and what I could see and smell (nothing smells better than good Thai food) on the plates nearby was great as well.  After dinner we spontaneously crossed the street for a stop at the Allegheny Wine Mixer, where you can train your taste buds with spontaneous, late evening wine tastings in a nice and comfortable bar atmosphere.

We would like to thank our lovely friends, all the amazing people we met along our way and the team of Neighbors in The Strip, from the bottom of our hearts for the incredible support and the many hours spent with us sharing information and stories and the fun times.

We'll be back.

Christina Kapaun lives in Munich, works as an online marketing specialist and loves to write and to travel. This is her third visit to Pittsburgh. Gabrijela Obert also lives in Munich, works as an architect and photographer, loves to travel and enjoyed her second visit to Pittsburgh.  To see all the stories from their trip along with photos, click here:http://slopinginthesky.blogspot.de/

Photographs by Gabrijela Obert.
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