St. Louis – the Arch is only the gateway

By | Category: Travel destinations
some of the mosaics at the St Louis Cathedral basilica

some of the mosaics at the St Louis Cathedral basilica

I’ve seen the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the gold-encrusted Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán in Oaxaca, and Notre Dame in Paris, among many other churches all over the world, but none took my breath away like the St. Louis Cathedral Basilica did on a recent trip to the city and environs. Pope John Paul II visited in 1999 and said it was one of the most beautiful churches he’d ever seen.

I was captivated by the red brick city (still some brick streets in certain areas,) nicknamed “Gateway to the West.” Before my visit, I knew little of St. Louis, beyond the iconic Gateway Arch, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The mindboggling sculpture is 630 feet high, and is still the tallest manmade monument in the United States. It commemorates the very “gateway to the west” theme of the city, where so many pioneers set out to seek their fortune and future.

Beyond the Arch, there are more free attractions here than anywhere else in the United States, outside of Washington, D.C. Many of St. Louis’ sites date back to the 1904 World’s Fair, which took place in the city’s magnificent Forest Park.  The so-called “quilt” of neighborhoods is colorful, diverse and fascinating. Cuisine – well, come hungry – from the Italian food of The Hill to the German restaurants of Hermann, to the downhome Southern barbecue (with a locally produced Fitz root beer, of course!), St. Louis is renowned.

Fitz Roof Beer and a root beer float

Fitz Roof Beer and a root beer float

With recent history threatening its image, I was delighted to find that the area seems well-integrated, friendly, safe and socioeconomically diverse as well as being progressive, sophisticated and just all around lovely – with dense green woods and pretty rock gardens, well kept homes in a wide variety of architectural styles, and of course, the lushness brought about by being in the basins of both the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

St. Louis boasts such native sons and daughters as playwright Tennessee Williams, author Maya Angelou, athletes Stan Musial, Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola, musicians Chuck Berry (still performing monthly!) and Josephine Baker, celebrities Redd Foxx, Phyllis Diller and John Goodman, and poet T. S. Eliot, to name but a few. There are those Cardinals, second only to the Yankees in World Series Championships and their outstanding Hall of Fame, considered second only to Cooperstown for baseball lore. It’s also where the Old Courthouse stands and is run by the National Park Service.

stan Musials exhibition at the louis Cardianls Hall of fame

stan Musials exhibition at the louis Cardianls Hall of fame

This was where the famed Dred Scott anti-slavery case was argued in 1847 and 1850, hastening the start of the Civil War. The decision of Missouri courts supported the doctrine of “once free, always free,” liberating the former slave, but the decision was later overruled by the Supreme Court. The Old Courthouse is also where Ulysses S. Grant, native to St. Louis, freed his only slave, and where young Samuel Clemens (before he became Mark Twain) got his steamboat pilot’s license.

I challenge anyone to find a weirder, more whimsical place than the very humbly misnomered (in my opinion) City Museum – a wacky, real life, beyond description place somewhat akin to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. This former International Shoe Company 600,000 square-foot building is now a sort of funhouse — home to a widely disparate array of discarded construction materials and architectural remnants, gargoyles galore, along with wildly configured tubing and chutes making slides up to ten stories high (and yes, I slid down the highest one!) along with fantastical mosaic floors, giant sea creatures, spinning chairs, an insect display – and on and on.

yes, a school bus "falling" from the museum

yes, a school bus “falling” from the museum

I walked through, not believing what I was seeing, especially at the real yellow school bus hanging precariously (but actually stable) on the edge of the roof, adjacent to a huge Ferris Wheel – on the roof! There is no where I can think of where one can truly find his or her “inner child” better than the City Museum – the dreamchild of a mad genius, the late Bob Cassilly.

It’s all here – in St. Louis, along with one of the best zoos in the country (yes, free of charge,) a spectacular 79-acre Missouri Botanic Garden, the renowned St. Louis Art Museum (free,) and nearby delightful day trips to places such as historic St. Charles, (founded in 1769 as Les Petites Cotes – The Little Hills) by French Canadian fur traders. Just 25 minutes from downtown St. Louis, known since the early 1800’s as St. Charles, this town’s is adorned with red brick-paved streets and beautifully maintained historic homes of brick and stone. Just a block or two from the Missouri River, the streets are lined with independent shops and restaurants, flower-bedecked parks and patios. St. Charles is also where the 237-mile scenic Katy Trail begins. More than half the trail follows Lewis and Clark’s path up the Missouri – it’s popular for hiking, running or bicycling (with rental bikes from the Bike Stop Café, which also offers delicious healthy breakfasts and lunches.) Its Christmas festival is renowned for its many street performers in costume.

the main street in St Charles

the main street in St Charles

Back to my favorite – the Cathedral Basilica. This gem’s Romanesque exterior was built in the seven years between 1907 and 1914, but the Byzantine interior took some seven decades to complete, by twenty different artists and multitudes of workers. It is adorned with a staggering 41.5 million (83,000 square feet) of mosaic tiles, set in such a way that they reflect the sunlight coming through the stained glass windows and the sparkle of the 38 shades of gold. Indeed, on my recent visit, I was mesmerized. I am not Catholic but this place made me feel awestruck – I’d attend services here just to feel the sensory richness of beautiful music in such a gorgeous venue. It’s over nine stories high with a dizzying number of domes, the largest collection of mosaic in the Western Hemisphere, one of the largest pipe organs in the nation, and stained glass by Louis Tiffany and Emil Frei Associates of St. Louis.

I was so busy looking all around me at the intricate mosaic depictions of Old Testament stories as well as St. Louis and Missouri history, it was hard to pay attention to the excellent and witty, guide, who peppered his speech with fascinating anecdotes.

The basilica’s evening concert series takes advantage of the superb acoustics, with such world class performers as the Vienna Boys Choir and Nathan Laube slated. I was told confidentially by the guide that the light is best from late October to mid February – but at any time, the Basilica is exquisite.

Mark Twain, Tom sawyer and Huckleberry Finn at the Mark Twain Museum

Mark Twain, Tom sawyer and Huckleberry Finn at the Mark Twain Museum

There is so much to do right in St. Louis, that one might be hard pressed to drive for two hours up to Hannibal. But for those of us who adore Mark Twain, it’s well worth it to visit then-Samuel Clemens’ boyhood home and museum buildings. This riverside town is where young Sam started riverboat captaining, and visitors can still take a riverboat ride past the island on which he based the adventure tales of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Hannibal rejoices in its Twain lore, with a very well-designed multi-building museum, July 4 Becky Thatcher and Tom Sawyer costume contests, etc. The town itself is quite charming and worth a few hours exploring time.

Let the “Show Me State” show you itself. It’s so much more than you might have expected!

For more about St Louis, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

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