The Pittsburgh Winery on Penn Avenue is decorated like a vampire bordello, with blood-red walls and portraits of naked women with actual animal skulls for heads. Downstairs there’s a performance space, vast and cavernous and dim, decorated with jars full of Christmas lights and tables made out of wine barrels. The Chardonnay is both light and rich, and it’s quite possibly the equal of anything I’ve ever tasted out of California. I want to sit at one of those wine barrels and drink Pittsburgh Chardonnay in the dark until the bar upstairs sells out. If I stay long enough, I might even be induced to buy a painting.
We’re in Pittsburgh for just three days. The weather isn’t terribly hot (it’s mid-June) but it’s hot enough. When we leave the winery the street is quiet the way it gets when the sun is beating down and the light from the pavement sears your eyes and everyone else is wisely staying inside waiting for the sun to drop just a little bit and the evening breeze off the river picks up.
Our hotel is right near the spot where the Ohio River neatly divides itself into the Allegheny and the Monongahela. We walk over to that exact place and find an enormous fountain lit by pink and blue lights. Joggers, cyclists, skateboarders, and a double amputee operating a reclining bicycle with his arms whizz by. For some reason, our hotel key cards feature a picture of Kristofer Hivju, who plays Tormund Giantsbane on Game of Thrones. He’s dressed to the nines and appears to be dancing. Pittsburgh: Home of the random and the strange.
Billboards are everywhere. They’re full of Jesus and beer, mostly. You also see a lot of banners celebrating the Penguins’ recent Stanley Cup victory, but overall everyone has moved on to baseball. Our first night in town we have dinner at a pub that sits literally in the shadow of PNC Park, and every time the Pirates score we hear the crowd cheer twice — once from outside and once on the big-screen t.v. They’re playing a series with San Francisco, and the next morning we see the SF pitcher, Jeff Samardzija, buying a coffee at Starbucks. We don’t talk to him, but he seems friendly and maybe even a little shy.
In fact, everyone we meet seems pretty nice: Not effusive, for the most part, but friendly in a hey-we’re-all-in-this-together sort of way. We don’t encounter a lot of attitude in Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh claims 446 bridges – three more than Venice, Italy. The bridges are stunning — many of them are — and a lot of them are named after famous people: Roberto Clemente, Rachel Carson, Andy Warhol. There’s also something called the Hot Metal Bridge, and my one regret is that we didn’t drive across it. You could spend a day or more driving back and forth, going into and out of the heart of Downtown on these magnificent bridges.
One day, we actually do have a bridge-related adventure. Samardzija and his team have left town and there’s a new group of opponents taking on the Pirates. We’re in the car, trying to get around the stadium after a 12:30 game and the traffic inches along at around ten feet per hour. A police officer stands by and occasionally clicks something in his hand. A bunny rabbit frolics on the median. We finally fight our way out of the traffic and swing around to try to cross another bridge near our hotel. It takes us 45 minutes. The stoplights last for about 30 seconds in our direction (not an exaggeration). At least the bridge we were on — Rachel Carson, if memory serves — was lovely.
One night we meet friends for an art show and dinner. We end up at the Night Market, which is a group of tents, stalls, and games in a parking lot. The kids play cornhole next to a vendor selling African carvings, and our friends’ toddler helpfully collects the beanbags and hands them back. “I love it here,” the toddler’s dad tells us. He ticks off the reasons why: It’s affordable. It’s friendly. The culture is second to none. While he’s talking, several people we met at the art show wander by and stop to chat. We’ve been in town for 48 hours and we’re already meeting people we know on the street.
The toddler moves over to an oversized chessboard set up near the other games. He runs through the rows of pieces, almost as tall as he is, knocking them over with anarchic joy faster than his dad can pick them back up again.