Wednesday, 20 April 2011

19. Denver – The Mile High City

Departures Board at Union Station

Rockies v the Cubs at Coors Stadium

A moonlit Denver Capitol

Capitol Hill Mansion

Breakfast at Capitol Hill Mansion

Great Divide Brewing Company

16th Street Mall

Gus the ballon guy at the Old Spaghetti Factory

With what is claimed to be a lot of money at the Federal Reserve Bank

Sensational sandwiches!

Root Down's Devils on Horseback

Squirrel having breakfast

Tableware in the Burlington Rail Road President's Car

The repair shed at the Colorado Rail Road Museum

Denver Capitol

Representative's Number Plate

Denver Light Rail

Denver Light Rail approaching County Line Station

Tattered Cover Book Store  LODO

Park Meadows Shopping Mall

Arrival at Denver’s impressive airport is painless and there’s only a short walk to get the bus downtown. It takes an hour and I get a transfer for the local service, although I just miss one and rather than wait half an hour, I take a taxi.
As I stand trying to hail one, I am approached by a beggar, one of many people on the streets as a result of the economic downturn in the States. It’s something that happens half a dozen times a day throughout my visit.
Visit Denver has booked me into the 120 year old Capital Hill Mansion B and B, which is very much to my taste. There’s nobody at home, but I find a note on the front door telling me where I am staying. Shortly after I have lugged my fifty kilos of luggage up one flight of stairs to the spacious Gold Banner suite, owner Carl Schmidt appears. He is a larger than life Texan tax accountant who has lovingly restored the listed building and learned to craft sensational breakfasts as well as running a hugely impressive Inn.
My room has a sitting area with recliners, a huge brass bed and an enormous spa bath, although I only ever have time to take a shower.
Carl and his daughter Bailey run the place which has the atmosphere of being in a country house rather than anything else. With apologies to all the lovely accommodations I have had on this trip, Capitol Hill Mansion really is the most splendid place I have stayed in since I left England nearly two months ago.
My programme says I have a free evening, but attached to it is a ticket to go to Coors Field to see a baseball game tonight. Panic!
I rush about getting ready and discover that the thin air a mile high is not conducive to rushing, certainly not in the first few days. I have been here before, but I have forgotten just how much your body struggles to cope at this altitude.
So I make my way to the 16th Street Mall, where a free shuttle bus gets me to within a few blocks of the stadium.
The game is between the Colorado Rockies and the Chicago Cubs. I enjoy the spectacle, but, as someone who is used to the pace of Premiership football, find the game itself as dull as ditchwater. But the spectacle of the fans constantly grazing on popcorn, burgers, hot dogs, pretzels plus the razzmatazz and hype generated by the public address announcer is well worth the rush.
Nearby,  I join a tour of a few of Denver’s microbreweries, which involves signing a bizarre and complex legal document agreeing that I will not sue them for and that everything that happens is all my fault. Even if it isn’t. Bloody lawyers! However, after only two small glasses of the products of the Great Divide Brewing Company, the lack of oxygen and the alcohol makes me really light-headed, so I decide to opt out.
I go into Union Station, a wonderful temple to the great days of Rail Travel, but where only one Amtrak train a day, the California Zephyr, now calls. But there are plans for a new fast link to the airport and an extension of the impressive and fast-expanding light rail network to outlying towns such as Golden and to the airport. So there’s a nearby temporary station while the great building lies open but mainly empty.
The last time I was in Denver was to attend the wedding of the younger daughter of my old BBC boss. Emma, her husband Britt and their two daughters join me for dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory. We dine in a booth beside a splendid old tramcar, are entertained by a very forgetful server and by ‘Gus the balloon guy’, who skilfully creates a very impressive turtle and a mermaid for the girls.
It’s been a long couple of days, so I take the shuttle along the Mall and after a short walk back, clamber into the giant bed and fall quickly asleep.
In the morning, Carl produces another gourmet breakfast involving a bacon nest with egg and mushrooms. At the adjacent table, a mother from Seattle and her two teenage sons, in the area to select a college for the older boy, join me in Spanish banter. We are joined by James and Deirdre Nalven, who live locally, but are combining some family celebrations with a short break in the city. James, who is a geologist specialising in mining, has spent time in south America, so all of us are now talking Spanish at breakfast time!
As Bailey efficiently juggles orange juice coffee, marmalade et al, she tells me that Latin Americans are Denver’s biggest growing population. Later, I discover a whole range of Spanish language newspapers and that many of the official signs in the city are bilingual.
United Airlines has sent me a very bland response to my complaint of yesterday, totally ignoring all the points I made. I reinforce my views and copy it to their smiley President and CEO, Jeff Smizac.
I take the tour of the Denver Mint, which involves frustratingly tight security. It surely would be much better to make the tour route itself a secure area. In the event, it’s a rush through, with no real time to read and see the many interesting things on display. You see, at a distance, machines pressing coins and collectors sets, hear a little about the process and are back on the street within 25 minutes. It’s all very disappointing, especially to someone like me, who’s been a numismatologist since I was 8 years old. I am sure they will cite security as the reason, but you are not allowed to take photographs, even of the splendid marble hall at the exit. They make sure you don’t sneak one by having armed policemen watching your every move. My guide couldn’t answer the questions I asked and now, three days after my visit, my email requesting information and photographs hasn’t even been acknowledged.
But I cheer myself up by visiting the Federal Reserve Bank museum, just a few blocks away. It only opened this year and, again, the security to get in is among the tightest I have ever experienced. No surprise there, the Fed is the banker’s bank and below my feet are billions of dollars and gold bars, with a super-efficient computerised system to move it about.
While I am being screened in minute detail, some staff members sweep past with bulging suitcases. I suggest to the security guard that this is crazy. What if their families have been kidnapped and they are being held to ransom and their cases are full of arms and explosives? She agrees with me but doesn’t seem about to be reporting it to her boss. So I find out the email address of their Public Affairs people, will send them this blog, and hope they both read my thoughts on the matter and get their security people to do something about the issue.
A single gold bar as a token of your appreciation would be acceptable, thanks.
The museum has an interesting video on the work of the Fed, but it’s trying to appeal to too many diverse audiences, commercial visitors, potential recruits, school groups and business partners, so it doesn’t really work for any one of them.
The little museum is worth a look, with displays on the history of American bank notes and the chance to supposedly stand beside 30 million dollars. But it’s a bit of a con because you can clearly see that the notes are only printed on one side. (I started looking more closely, because the case simply didn’t look secure enough for that sum of money). So I shall sue them for thirty million dollars (a drop in the ocean for the Fed), and when the cheque arrives, I promise to share it among the three thousand readers of this blog!
There’s also a fascinating section on counterfeit notes. But the best bit is that, just as you leave, they actually give you a bag containing about $165 just for visiting. Unfortunately, it has been shredded into tiny bits, but it’s a really nice touch.
But, just as in the Denver Mint, it would be a lot better if the museum could be accessed via a separate entrance, thus avoiding the need for the tight security.
In 1908, local miners donated 200 ounces of gold to gild the copper-clad cast iron roof of Denver’s Capitol building. But 100 years of water, heat and cold have taken their toll and there’s currently a $12M fundraising effort to get the dome back to pristine condition. The richly marbled interior of the building is still splendid but the observation deck, where, on my last visit, I took wonderful photographs of the views towards the Rockies, has been closed for the past four years due to the danger of falling cast iron.
In the car park, personalised number plates identify members of the legislature and I am delighted to see that one sensible representative drives a Jaguar.
Debbie from Visit Denver takes me to the Root Down restaurant, housed in a former petrol station, a short drive from the city. It’s Monday night and the place is packed. I remark to Debbie that they are clearly doing something right. Our server produces the menu, but, before we can order, Justin Cucci, the chef and owner stops by on his day off to say hello. His concept is simple. The menu features what is fresh and local and thus changes frequently. He listens to what Debbie and I like, then announces that he will organise a special sampler menu for us. It turns out to be sensational. From devils on horseback and organic risotto, to buffalo burgers, sustainable scallops and the most tender beef. I thoroughly enjoy local beers and listening to Debbie’s happy memories of her time as a student in Seville. Reflecting Denver’s diversity, I have fun discovering that almost nobody is local and that Ian, the CEO, studied Political Science at Michigan State University in East Lansing, where I will be in a week.
New Yorker Justin, who is already spinning several catering plates, is about to open another in Denver – in an old funeral home. I warn him of the dangers of spreading himself too thinly, a problem of which he is well aware.
Outside the gent’s loo, there’s a feature about the restaurant from the New York Times. It talks about the problems that chefs have to face when cooking at altitude, something I haven’t even considered.
Root Down has an open plan kitchen, but there are no obvious chef tantrums and a total lack of profanities, which says a lot about the ethos of this sensational restaurant.
In the morning, after another of Carl’s amazing breakfasts, I set off on a trek to find the Colorado Railroad Museum at Golden. As I wait at the stop, right beside the Capitol Hill Mansion, a family of red squirrels busy themselves in a tree close by
The trip involves three separate bus routes, 10, 16 and 17 and takes me over an hour. But my $2.25 RTD bus transfer ticket gets me the whole way, which I think is amazing value.
Originally founded in 1948, the museum moved to its current 15-acre location in 1959. There are now 100 exhibits on display, including locomotive 191 which, was built in 1881 and, incredibly, is still regularly put in steam. Another jewel in the collection is the beautifully fitted out former personal carriage of the President of the Burlington Rail Road, dating back to 1894.
Volunteer Rex tells me that one of the founders, Cornelius Hauck, who made his money from brewing in Cincinnati, is still very much involved today.
You can see locomotives being repaired in the roundhouse with its’ adjacent working manual turntable and, on two days a week, enthusiasts with their model railway layouts.
Eighty thousand people visit each year, with an amazing five thousand alone for the special Thomas the Tank engine day, clearly as popular in the US as it is in the UK.
Back in Denver, Bailey recommends I visit Snarfs, which, she says, does the best sandwiches in town. She’s not wrong.  On the recommendation of their friendly server, I order a 7” pastrami and Swiss cheese, which comes with all the trimmings. Really, really tasty and just $5.25. I hope Snarf’s gets as big as Subway, their product is so much better.
Oh joy! There’s another, even blander, response from United Airlines guest relations, again ignoring the issues I originally raised with them. I send another Soutergram in words of very few syllables to help their inability to communicate. I am really surprised Jeff can smile. His staff has largely forgotten how.
I devote my final day to using a $14 day pass on the Denver Regional Transportation District (RTD). The local transport has impressed me hugely. All buses and trains are designed to allow easy access to people with disabilities and, of special interest to me with 38 years in the Naval Reserve, all military personnel travel without charge. Why is it that America recognises its service personnel so much better than we do in the UK?
But there’s an altercation on the Number 10 bus. A woman complains that another woman has touched her and is loudly discussing the matter on her mobile phone. The bus is packed and I have probably been ‘touched’ by 15 people on my way through to my seat. Sometimes you really do despair.
I take the free bus to the light rail. Bailey has recommended a visit to Park Meadows, a giant mall on the outside of town. She tells me the ride is about 20 minutes, but it takes the better part of an hour. But I am delighted to experience the modern, efficient tram cum train service. (I love that they have klaxons just like American mainline trains and bells like street cars).
I generally don’t do shopping malls, but Park Meadows, which claims to be ‘Colorado’s only retail resort’, is stunningly designed and a real pleasure to explore.
Mind you, with four department stores and 24 shoe shops, I still don’t manage to find a pair that I like, to replace ones that really need to go in the bin after two months on the road!
My final port of call is in LODO, Denver’s Lower Downtown. I discovered the Tattered Cover Book Store on my very first trip to the city 15 or so years ago. As a book lover, it is my dream palace. Tattered Cover has many nooks, crannies, comfortable chairs and tables at which you can enjoy a read with no obligation to buy. There’s a really good café which serves me an excellent pot of tea and a toasted muffin. They even know to give you cold milk separately; not very common is this country that threw the tea into Boston Harbour!
It’s a splendid and relaxing end to a wonderful visit.
There’s so much more to see and do in fast–developing Denver which, as has been stated in my Trip Advisor profile for some years, firmly remains one of my top five cities to visit anywhere in the world.
Tomorrow I need to change my wardrobe yet again as I head from slightly chilly Colorado to very warm Florida.

My Denver pictures are at

A selection of images from all the destinations visited in ‘Around the World in 60 days’ is at