July 31, 2007

Philly weekend: Saturday

I headed to Philly this weekend for a much-anticipated three-day trip, the main focus of which was to see Chris Cornell perform at the Electric Factory on Sunday evening. I had also figured on taking my bike and getting in a ride along the Schuylkill River Trail on Saturday, but the weather forecast was iffy and my bike was filthy, so that plan was scratched at the last minute. I threw a bag of clothes, my camera, and myself in the car Saturday morning and headed off into traffic that felt like a weekday rush hour. An accident on the bridge over the Susquehanna River and a whole freaking lot of cars on the road ended up stretching the 2.5 hour drive to 4 and putting my mood on edge.

Driving into Philly, though, things began to turn around. Once on the city streets, I began seeing bicycles everywhere. The streets of downtown Philly have a dedicated bicycle/bus (what a safe combo!) lane during rush hour, and the narrowness of the streets seems to keep auto traffic at reasonable speeds. I could easily see myself cruising those streets, and immediately wished I had taken the time to clean my bike and braved the weather report.

Ah well. Instead, after checking into the excellent Club Quarters hotel, I set out to explore.

I ended up wandering around for as many hours as I had driven, from Center City over to the Old City and back, stopping to chill out in a few great parks here and there. The parks in Philly really are refuges, with tall, very old, amazingly healthy trees. It was surprising to see such majestic sycamores in the middle of a crowded city. Of the parks, my favorite was Rittenhouse Square, which is a wonderful place to sit and soak up some atmosphere. The square is obviously a popular hangout for the local hippie/yuppie crowd. People were painting, playing guitar, having Saturday evening picnic dinners, even getting married over in a corner of the park. I sat for a long while watching an older gentleman wade around in one of the fountains creating huge iridescent bubbles. He was so intent on what he was doing, and it was cool to watch people approach and break into smiles as they saw the bubbles floating and bursting over the pool of the fountain.

A group who sat down near me and pulled out great looking carry-out dinners directed me what turned out to be the perfect spot for dinner: A teeny little hole in the wall @ 21st and Walnut called Tampopo. On the way there, I was able to catch up on the Tour de France individual time trial stage that had taken place that day when I overheard a guy explaining it to his girlfriend and joined their conversation as we walked down the street. After ordering the Tuna Bi-Bim-Bop (sashimi tuna over brown rice, cucumber, jicama and avocado, with a sweet/spicy sauce- very tasty) I settled down at a table next to three guys who were deep in discussion of the intricacies of Dungeons and Dragons. It was a bit easier to refrain from jumping into that conversation, though it was a kick to listen to. After dinner, on the way back to the hotel, I found a great little used book shop called Whodunit? and picked up a few irresistible finds. It wasn't at all the day that I had originally planned, but turned out to be a string of nice little individual moments that left me a very happy camper.

Philly really has what I consider to be true diversity. There's the typical inner-city, hip-hoppie, African-American contingency, there are business types, yuppies, hippies and punks, and sprinkled over them all are tourists from every culture imaginable. There are high-tone, very chi-chi restaurants just a block over from dollar stores and human-hair wig shops. There's a strong artistic bent, as well, considering the place is chock-full of art schools and museums.

And there's the tremendous history of the place, which really is amazing when you look below the veneer of tourist schlock. I found that I feel much more at home in Philly than I do in DC. DC's all business, from tourism to banking to politics, and the false polish allows scant space for anything edgy or gritty. Philly's more like Baltimore in that it's found a way to comfortably blend polish with a rougher edge. It's got history, character, beauty and flavor in spades. Just gotta find a good tea shop there...

Sunday's tale to follow--

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