The (Ohio) River ran through it

So, here’s how our quick Covington/Cincinnati getaway started: Half way across the Ambassador Bridge, I realized that in a few minutes someone was going to ask “Where you going” and the answer was, legit “We’re going to Kentucky”, but it behooved me to not follow that up with “We’re going to the fair”. Also probably behooved me to not grin like an idiot when Mike said “We’re going to Kentucky”. The border can be fraught with obstacles, indeed. So I had to get it out of my system on the bridge. I feel like perhaps Mike actually didn’t know what he signed up for all those years ago. Surely not highspeed singalongs over the Detroit River.

So yes, I accompanied my gentleman associate to Covington Kentucky for a 3 day getaway. He was attending a course, and I was left to my own devices (read: No Adult Supervision).

Friday:

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Friday morning I did the Cincinnati Top 10 tour.

Once that was done, I returned to The Banks (the area between Tiger Stadium and the Reds Stadium, right on the Ohio river).

I spent the afternoon at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

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Once runaway slaves crossed the Ohio river, they were in a free state. That didn’t mean that they were safe – the laws indicated that a slaver could “recover their lost property” if they could catch them, regardless of whether it was a free state or not. The Museum faces the river, like a welcome. Outside, there is a 12 foot piece of the Berlin Wall. One side, stark white so that you could be more easily spotted and shot for trying to escape over the wall; the other side, covered with graffiti. And the dedication:

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Everything in this museum was poignant and difficult to see, but wow powerful. Part of the reason I wanted to go was because they had a Nelson Mandela exhibit. I remember watching the Free Mandela concert in 1988, and it marked the first steps on my social justice journey. Seeing more about Madiba at the museum was a gift.  At the very end of the exhibit, there was a box of stones, and a glass jar. Above it, a call to action:

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The museum also covers other, modern slavery (such as child slavery in 3rd world countries and sex trafficking). This wasn’t a joyful fun museum, but it was very well laid out and it was a good experience. It was Madiba that got me in the door, and I didn’t have quite enough time to get through the whole thing at a pace that I was comfortable with, but I’m glad I went. If you’re good with feeling uncomfortable (for all the right reasons) with the material of some exhibits, you should absolutely go. They had a Slave Pen – a two story barn (kind of) that someone less than 100 miles from the museum had inside another barn on a property he purchased. He heard “from local legend” that it was a Slave Pen – basically, the place where slaves were collected and held until they were marched west to auctions.  I didn’t take pictures because it felt disrespectful. There was a memorial wall in front of it with the names found on a manifest belonging to the owner of the property before slavery was outlawed. Just single names in a list. Matthew. Mariah. And it was dedicated to all the slaves who were moved through this actual building. I mean, you know that slavery was a terrible horrifying thing. And I watched, sick to my stomach, Django Unchained (I know, I know… it’s Tarantino). But this slave pen brought it all into sharper relief than I was prepared for.

Also, I don’t make a secret of the fact that the ONLY way I like to hear Amazing Grace is on bagpipes. I usually have (at best) uncharitable things to say about any other delivery. They had a version playing as ambient music that kicked me in the feels as hard as massed bands does.

Saturday

I’m a dedicated reader of the Atlas Obscura website/feed. Before I even decided to go to Cincinnati, I read about the American Sign Museum. This was the museum around which the rest of the trip was organized. They take you through the history from shaped signs (so even if you couldn’t read, you could find the cobbler). Then, flat wooden signs, sometimes gilted or carved (or both) to make them more fancy. Then,  to the “electric” era, with lightbulbs in the letters or marquees around the letters. Then neon. And lastly, the molded plastic and combinations of more than one type.

 

They had a streetscape set up with a few giant signs, and there were some really interesting blueprints for how signs were constructed (from the concrete footings to the tubes for the neon). You can wander through their workshop where they restore (if needed) the signs they get.

This museum is a spectacle. So good. You could just take in the glow of the lit signs, or you could read about the paint and brushes, look at blueprints, learn how neon tubes are coloured to make infinite colours with only two types of gas.

Next, I went to the Cincinnati Museum Center. This center houses several actual museums (some of which are still being refurbished and spun up) in an Art Deco-era train station. I love that era of architecture, and the museum(s) make excellent use of the features of the existing space.

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The center of the space, where one might buy tickets in a train station perhaps, there was a round (museum) ticket box office where they had maybe 10 tills. The lineup snaked all the way around it three times. Since I had such good times at the Sign Museum I arrived a little later than I had expected. I got a discovery pass, good for the Dinosaur exhibit, the science museum, the Cincinnati local history museum, and the Children’s museum (which, as I didn’t have a child, I couldn’t enter anyway). I decided that I didn’t want to run through the exhibits, so I edited the Holocaust Museum off my list. Turns out, as the museum is still filling in its exhibits, so while the ones they had were pretty great, I would have had time for the Holocaust museum (add on) as well. After my visit to the Freedom Center on Friday, it may have been a very heavy weekend had I gone. Still, the Holocaust museum in Toronto was so beautiful and well done that I would have liked to have seen what Cincinnati did in their amazing exhibit space.

First up: Dinosaurs! So, there’s not much novelty that a museum can wrap around a dinosaur exhibit. Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to go Every Time. They create these giant metal skeletons and attach cast bones to them and people are awed by the spectacle. There were the bird and dino comparisons. There was fossilized poop. All the things that one would expect were there. But what this museum had that made me stop in my tracks was a whole herd of dinosaur shadows walking the length of the gallery. I watched it for 20 minutes at least. The star of the show truly was how they’re using the space to create great exhibits.

 

The science part had fun hands on experiments like how levers work to lift heavy loads and stuff like that. Not as good as the superlative Toronto Science Center, but had definite development potential.

The Cincinnati History part had the sanitized (read: not slave trade related) parts. You enter the exhibit on a riverboat dock, and explore the village. Beautifully done from the lighting to the cobbled floor. This part of the museum is one level below the art-deco dome (or wings, where the Dinosaur exhibit is located). The parts that were open were smaller than I expected though. Turns out, I would have had time to do the Holocaust museum, had I purchased that add-on to my ticket. Ah well.

Sunday

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The local RC church was the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption. This church ranks right up there with the most beautiful churches I’ve ever been in. Like Notre Dame in Paris or St. Patrick’s in New York, St Paul’s in Toronto. There were over 80 stained glass windows. Not like window panes, panels. There were beautiful carvings around all the statues. The Stations of the cross are intricate mosaics. Two rose windows, two massive pipe organs. The top towers at the front have over 30 gargoyles. I spent an hour and a half walking around in awe before mass started.

The mass was attended and celebrated by a bishop and a monseigneur, as well as a handful of deacons and a priest. And oh, Lord, there was incense.

After that, I went to the Newport Aquarium. It had all the things an aquarium should  sharks and rays and a giant octopus and some albino alligators in their simulated bayou and some seahorses and All The Fish. And, a 35 year old loggerhead turtle. There are 9 sharks in the reef tank. The turtle has bit them all. Heh. The turtle is the alpha of the reef. Heck yeah, he is. I sat and watched them all moving gracefully through the water in the blue-tinted gloom for an hour.

And that was all. I picked Mike up from his course and we drove home into the snow. It was a good weekend. A very good weekend. Mike and I each got the kind of vacation we wanted for the mini-getaway we took. Mike spent the weekend in Covington, Kentucky, and I (mostly) spend the weekend over the river in Cincinnati, Ohio, and they both were exactly what we wanted.

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