Road Trip: Cleveland

A new category for the blog again! Road Trip!

Last October I turned 30. Though I had hoped to do something pretty spectacular, the timing of my birthday (thankgiving weekend) is always difficult. I had work commitments and family commitments that prevented me from getting out of town for much more than a long weekend. Even missing my family's thankgiving feast (for the first time in my life) was iffy at best, but I wanted to do something different for this birthday celebration because I'd spent the last 29 having turkey.

I love going places I've never been before. A lot of people suggested I go to Montreal, but while j'adore Montreal, I've been there a handful of times already. So I started about finding places that are within a 6 hour drive of where I live. 6 hours is about a half-day's drive. If I was going only for the later part of the weekend, I didn't want to spend two of the days driving. This eliminated other condenders: Virginia, Boston, Vermont...

And so I settled on Cleveland,departing Saturday night and returning on Tuesday evening. A lot of people have said to me, "why Cleveland?" but they miss the point - it's somewhere I've never been before, and it is an industrial city with a rich history. I'm a person who loves Detroit - and people say to me the same thing, "why Detroit?" These cities - no longer in their heyday, are so interesting to me. I love corporately-sponsored art, and these blue-collar industrial towns are chock full of it. Maybe it's where I'm from but I can't help but adore the blue collar towns.

On top of that, I knew there would be some cool cultural things to see and great restaurants to eat in and thanks to Hotwire, incredibly affordable (and swank!) hotels to stay in.

We headed out early and stayed our first night in Niagara Falls.  We had some good sake and sushi and boogied and then stayed in a retro (but clean and highly rated) hotel, again for a great price. In the early hours of the morning we headed out, traveling south around the lake through Pennsylvania.

I guess it seems obvious but it had never dawned on me that PA would have such a vibrant and beautiful wine region south of lake Erie (pictured). Vineyard after vineyard whizzed by as we quickly entered and exited the state. With rolling hills to the south and a great lake to view at north, PA was more scenic and interesting than expected. It has quite the tourist feel, and the state encourages cycling vacations through the wine routes. A good idea for another time, I guess.

The drive to Cleveland is only about 5 hours from the Falls, so we arrived just in time to check into our hotel. The great thing about booking online is that they don't know how much you paid - only that you did. When we arrived, our room as booked wasn't available, so they upgraded us to a suite, which had a great lakeview. And free cookies to boot. Pretty amazing for $40USD.

Downtown Cleveland reminded me a bit of downtown Atlanta - it doesn't have a lot of residential areas and is mostly a business district, so on Sunday when we arrived the place felt like a ghost town. Literally there were no cars on the streets and no people and nothing open (save the Rock and Roll hall of fame, which is always open.) So we went out adventuring, looking for something to amuse us for the day.

There wasn't much, so we walked the entire downtown checking out the architecture and outdoor sculptures. I love outdoor art -  it is one of the reasons I love Chicago so much. Corporations need to do something to support the arts - it is even mandated in some areas - so why not decorate your own property? I love that it forces people to see art and experience art in their daily lives. Those of us who like art make the effort to see it, but so many people never do, have never entered an art gallery. By putting it outside in large scale, it's impossible to avoid. I love that.

Among the works was the well known Free Stamp by Claes Oldenberg.
The stamp was originally intended to sit face-down on an 'ink pad' in front of the Standard Oil building. Standard Oil had commissioned the piece and Oldenberg told them the word 'Free', though intended to be invisible to the viewers, was in reference to the War Memorial across the street. But before the sculpture was placed, Standard Oil was bought out by BP and executives didn't buy Oldenberg's explanation, instead insisting that the word 'Free' was actually a jab at corporate America, and the lack of freedom office workers have. So BP offered the Oldenberg to the city of Cleveland, saying the artist could place it anywhere else in the city and they would still pay for it.

The artist refused - so the stamp sat in storage in Indiana for some time. It took over 7 years of negotiations before the artist, BP and the city of Cleveland could agree on the eventual location, Willard Park.

The piece was not set 'Free' side-down as originally intended and instead was laid on its side. The artist reportedly commented that it appeared as if an angry giant had hurled the thing from BP to the park (several blocks) and it had just landed this way.  It is huge - almost 30 feet tall. It would take a giant to move it.

Monday we went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I'd recommend it to any music lover. Yes, it's full of a lot of male musicians, and it did bother me that some people, women in particular, didn't get the attention I think they deserve. That said, if you love music or history it is worth checking out. The building itself is spectacular. Designed by architect I.M. Pei, it sits right on the lake.

(Me in the lobby of the Rock Hall).

Pei is a Chinese-born American architect, lucky enough to call himself friends with the Bauhaus architects Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer.

If you find there is a similarity between this building and the Louvre's glass pyramid, it is because Pei was the lead architect on that project too. He was criticized for participating in the Rock Hall project, because some saw it as low brow compared to a prestigious project like the Louvre. In fact this is one of the reasons Pei was chosen by the project sponsors - the Rock Hall desired respectability in the museum world and they saw a great building as a good place to start.

I'm a real music lover but I have to say the building itself is worth seeing and experiencing almost as much as the contents. It's extremely impressive and nice to spend a day inside. The interior spaces the unusually shaped building creates are spectacular. And though some see the building as a garish failure, I enjoyed the physical placement on the lake and the overall feeling when inside.

We also checked out the Gordon Square Arts District, on recommendation from the Design*sponge Cleveland guide. The highlight (aside from the most intense Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich ever) was a shop called Room Service. It had giant wall maps, cool Pantone giftware, locally produced goods and rockn'rollin Thrash Cleveland t-shirts, one of which I bought for the bf.

What else did we do in Cleveland? We ate. Boy did we eat. I had deep-fried sauerkraut balls, for the first time ever (amazing). Then, when we were headed to the artsy Iron-Chef owned Lola Bistro, we ran into a guy who was from Canada and now lived in Cleveland. For some reason, he insisted that we not go there, and instead go to a small local restaurant that was really hard to find called Bruno's. Bruno's is, as I'm sure you could have guessed, an Italian joint. Because the Bf's extended family are Italian, I'm pretty picky about Italian restaurants. If I can have it better at home, why pay for it? But Bruno's was incredible.

Owned by the former chef for the Cleveland Browns, this little joint in a residential neighbourhood is a passion project of the owner. I think there were only 12 tables and the service was super friendly and home-y. I could have only eaten the appetizer and been full - everything was homemade (notably, the pasta), fresh and incredibly delicious. I don't think I've ever had a salad so memorable (it had hand twisted rotini noodles in it) nor have I ever seen portions this generous. For a starter we had fried calamari, which was the most delicious and tender calamari ever, I'd say. It melted in your mouth but was hot and crispy on the outside. I could tell from the first bite that this wasn't just a frozen bag of deep fried garbage - this was the real deal, hand cut, hand battered and hand fried. Later on the chef confirmed this.
For the main I went with a classic, veal parmesan. The dish could have fed a family of 6 and I am not exaggerating in the slightest. I would go back there in a heartbeat, but I would go back hungrier.

Which brings me to the question, would I go back to Cleveland? Absolutely. Due to the timing of our trip, I wasn't able to check out the Cleveland Museum of Art , which I would like to sometime. I love to travel to places I've never been to though, so I would schedule this on a road trip that goes through Cleveland and maybe doesn't stop in for more than a day. I've had it in my mind that I need to go to both Lexington KY and Pittsburgh PA, so it would be a good place to stop in on the way.

Cleveland. Really!

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