West Virginia that is.
I departed work in the early afternoon on Friday. Heading south on I-65 it was easy driving until that ramp to I-64 east in Louisville. A few minutes lost then the long drive east. Driving through Kentucky the terrain became hillier and more tree covered as I passed several pretty horse farms. In West Virginia signs were up for construction to start the following week. With no delays there and back to 70mph speed limit I reached Charleston in 4.5 hours.
In order to beat Mapquest's 5 hour estimate I had to run 7 or so miles per hour over the speed limits of 70 in West Virginia and Indiana, 65 in Kentucky. I had a full tank of gas and didn't make a single stop either. (32mpg in my 10 year old Ford Contour with a 5 speed manual transmission and the A/C running.)
A right turn at the end of the 58C exit ramp, a couple of blocks and I parked in the Marriott garage. Time to stretch, check in, freshen up and find a drink. A nice enough room on the 6th floor with Marriott's new bedding style. I had a view to the south over some buildings and could see the wooded hill across the river. I liked it. Especially for the $55 a night bid I won on Priceline. It took me a few days bidding as Charleston doesn't have any free re-bid zones.
Equipped with knowledge from the Internet, I made it across the street and into the Town Center Mall where I found the Chophouse at the west end. A small chain out of Ann Arbor, Michigan I figured the bar would be more than adequate and I would pass judgment on the food.
A friendly bartender in a black bow tie mixed me a VO Manhattan that tasted like it should. Suddenly with little sips the stress of the 4.5 hour drive was slipping away. I started to peruse a menu. Hmmm. I'm not a chop house fan but dining options in a town of 55,000 were to be a challenge. Big chunks of beef don't appeal that much to me. The smallest steak was an 11oz. filet mignon and it went up from there. Where's the béarnaise or whiskey peppercorn sauces? Where's a fiery Cajun rub? Where's something to jazz up a boring piece of beef?
There was a basket of lovely bread slices and a big old slab of nature's perfect food, salted butter, to nibble.
I finally decided on the appetizer route. First up a seared foie gras with grilled mango and a sweetened balsamic vinegarette. It was good though sadly not great. The foie was not seared in a hot enough pan so the char marks were missing. It was not slightly pink inside either. The mango was nicely grilled. The greens on the side were undressed and way too many of them. There should have been fewer greens or dressed them to make them palatable.
At one point a lady near me asked what I was eating. She didn't seem thrilled about the goose liver part. I asked her about the plateau of fruits de mer she was splitting with her husband. She said it was the one without the oysters. They substituted more shrimp for them. Foodie amateurs. Bless their hearts though they were trying. Maybe someday they'll get there.
My next course was a carpaccio. Several thin slices of filet mignon on a plate with a line of spicy horseradish mayonnaise careening over the beef. Then in the middle another mound of dry greens. Again too many to not be dressed. Overall the food was good. I think I'd rather have them hit a lesser dish right on then shoot for the stars and miss.
I did chat with the couple as they were very nice. They recommended another restaurant I'd seen on the internet. They warned me to take the hotel shuttle there as the area was a little funky after dark. As I nearly always do with locals I ignored their advice about the shuttle and started walking towards the other restaurant. All the people I met were very helpful and friendly.
Walking along I saw the "Café de Paris." With a menu in English and French I knew I'd return here. I passed a couple of kids with tattoos, a few skateboarders and other people. Nothing I saw caused me any alarm.
Further along was the Blossom Dairy. By day a deli by night a nicer restaurant it's in a 1930's diner. The Art Deco is a prime example of the era. With only a beer and wine license I had a dessert and a glass of wine. The tart shell was made of puff pastry. It was filled with a smooth, creamy pudding and topped with blackberries. First time I've seen puff pastry used in this manner. It and the wine were delicious.
Next I headed over to the river. The Kanawha River as it's called. A band was finishing up and pleasure craft were pulling away from the shore. Charleston has a pretty waterfront. There's the boulevard, then evenly spaced sets of stairs down to a paved walking path then a second set of stairs down to the water. It's wonderful that there are no buildings or interstates between the city and the river. I asked some locals who told me the river is navigable. Barge traffic for coal is a big thing.
I wandered back over to the Café de Paris. I studied the menu. I was very surprised. The menu was correctly translated into French. Somebody must know what they were doing. I ducked in to be greeted with a "Bon soir." I inquired about the hours the next day and she said they opened at 4:00pm. Saturday's dinner location had been found.
Saturday morning was a crisp bright 60 degrees. It would be perfect for awhile until the afternoon high of 90 degrees. I was contemplating this as I realized I'd forgotten my antiperspirant. Drat. I'd have to make a stop. No need to assault the locals with an undeodorized Hoosier.
I walked west over the Elk River and saw a pretty little park area. I went a few more blocks and found the RiteAid pharmacy that would open in an hour at 9:00am. I backtracked to a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant where I had perfectly serviceable eggs, bacon and toast. Reading the local paper the time passed.
Back at the hotel I made use of my newfound personal hygiene necessities thus sparing Charleston from an olfactory attack. I'd hate to start another skirmish between the North and South.
Still a pleasant temp I walked to the water turned left and walked along the river. I passed the chili cook-off that was setting up on the boulevard. I was able to see beautiful old brick homes with big white columns. Pretty churches tucked into narrow lots, and a few modern out-of-place building too. Lots of big shade trees along the river walk.
After responding "good morning," to several walkers and a couple of miles I came upon the purpose of my trip. The West Virginia State Capitol is one of the finest examples of Italian Renaissance architecture from the 20th century in the US. The capitol has a couple of fountains in front. Made of Indiana limestone and topped with a gilded dome it's a stately and very handsome building. From its steps you can look across the river to the wooded hillside.
Being a little after 11 I was happy to escape the mounting heat and enter the cool Vermont marble interior. Walking towards the center of the building I looked to the left and saw perhaps the most unusual thing I've ever seen in a state capitol. The west wing was set up for a wedding: candles, pink flowers, programs, chairs, a flowered arch where the couple would stand. It was all there. I don't think you can rent a wing in the Indiana State Capitol for a private event.
I saw lots of paintings of former governors, a typical glass case of First Ladies' gowns in miniature, chandeliers, marble and wood works. Unfortunately both chambers were completely closed off. Sometimes the galleries are open but these were not. I was able to stand on a chair and look through an open window to see a little of the Senate chamber. (It was a modern chrome and vinyl chair not an antique. I brushed my dusty foot prints off the seat when I was finished.)
I went into the courtyard to see the pretty flower beds. There's a somber war memorial dedicated to WW I & II, Korea and Vietnam. I visited the state museum, archives and theater. It had an exhibit of quilts from around the state hanging in the lobby, some artwork by locals and the archives.
By now it was 1:00pm, hot and I had a 2 mile walk back to the center of town. I finally arrived at the Blossom Dairy for lunch. An icy cold beer hit the spot accompanied by a cheese steak on grilled focaccia bread. Lots of peppers and onions made it the best cheese steak I've had in a long time.
Against my better judgment I decided to give the chili cook-off a whirl. A smokin' hot day for eating spicy chili, I wasn’t sure how I'd do. I did lousy. Mostly I don't care for chili cook-offs. I'm not interested in food that's advertised by how many orifices it can scorch. To me the taste of hot in my mouth just for the sake of hot is not a flavor. I tried a couple of chilies, took a photo of the colon you could crawl through seeing various things that could go wrong and gave up. I felt no need to crawl through a colon.
I bailed and headed to the downtown movie theater. Two hours of sucking up cold air and water while watching Altman's "Prairie Home Companion" was exactly what I needed. I think Lily Tomlin is funny.
Upon leaving the chilled shelter of the theater I headed back to Café de Paris for the cocktail hour. No Canadian Club or VO whiskies, how very French. Lots of pastis though so I ended up with a vodka martini. I began hearing several people around me speaking French. I ended up meeting the owner who's from a suburb of France, his wife an American who had lived with him in France for 20 years, and his children including his son the chef who did his training in Poitiers. Wow! All of this in Charleston, West Virginia.
I ended up having only an appetizer of the terrine de foie gras. As fine as any I've had in France it was as buttery, rich and smooth as is possible. With toast points and a fruit confit it had all the elements of fattiness and sweetness to make my day.
A few beers at the bar discussing the city with the locals and I was ready to head back to the hotel and crash.
Overall Charleston is a pleasant little city. With a little research and a willingness to slow down most anyone could have a pleasant weekend getaway in the West Virginia state capitol.
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West Virginia that is.