What images come to mind when you hear the name of the Midwestern city, Saint Paul? Do you envisage this capital city of Minnesota carved into existence by the majestic Mississippi river? Do you think of a land crafted by a litany of steadfast people who constructed the network of railroads? Is your mind ridden with images of notorious gangsters, literary masters, native American settlers and architectural giants - all of whom, at one point or another, called Saint Paul home?
Intrigued by the reputation of a place that has successfully managed to balance the pull of competing people and philosophies, I make the journey to Saint Paul. The obvious starting point of any exploration here is the Capitol building. Utilised as the centre of government in Minnesota since 1905, here's a place that will possibly have the architectural editors of any design-institution, with their eyes at the edge of their stalks.
Vaulted ceilings, decorated with hand-painted arabesques and highly stylised drawings of local grain and fruit command immediate attention.
Equally appealing to connoisseurs of fine architecture are the 20 types of stone surfaces used in the halls, on the stairways, and in the very ornate chamber. Murals and paintings, remarkably conserved, depict historical events. No detail here is innocent of accompanying thought. For instance, the skylights through the building are designed to let in as much natural light as possible. From the rooftop (festooned with golden horses), amid grand views over the city, another building in size XXL beckons. The Cathedral of Saint Paul, with its copper dome, overlooks the downtown area. Worth popping into for sheer scale and grandeur. I quickly become acquainted with human-sized carved angels and angelic choirs featured on stained-glass windows amid the extravagant religious art on display. But despite these larger-than-life structures that distinguish Saint Paul, everything else about the city is built on human scale, and it's possible to walk almost everywhere.
A particularly good walk, we discover, is around Summit Hill - studded liberally as it is - with mansions and Victorian-style residences. The home of F Scott Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby fame, on 599 Summit Avenue, becomes an obvious halt as much for its famous resident as for its distinguished architecture. If you want to get closer to the homes, you can actually visit the James J Hill house.
In this city where pilgrimages are made to the homes of great writers, and all manner of creativity continues to flourish, I'm unsurprised to find a bronze statue of F Scott Fitzgerald in Rice Park, only a few paces away from characters from one of America's most famous comic strips -Charles Schulz's creation, Peanuts. Here I sit next to the statue of book-lover Marcie. There - Peppermint Patty - has a group of adults taking photographs around her, with all the abandon that comic strips can sometimes encourage.
Like a fairy tale
Nearby, the Landmark Center offers more stories. The building itself - with its turrets and gables, steeply-peaked roofs and cylindrical corner towers - is a fairy tale. Inside the enormous light-filled courtyard, one learns quickly that there's something here to satisfy every taste. If you have a predilection for art, it could be the Gallery of Wood Art. If music moves your cheese, then the Schubert Museum ticks all the boxes. But even more idiosyncratically, the Landmark Center forms a stop on the Gangster tour (a popular guided trail around Saint Paul).
The guide - with the clear emphasis of a person who's repeated these facts to story-hungry travellers many times, says, "In the 1930s, Saint Paul was a favourite place for crooks. Alvin 'Creepy' Karpis - a ringleader of Ma Baker's gang, was tried in the third-floor detention room here." Said Karpis famously, "If you were looking for a guy you hadn't seen for a few months, you thought of two places - prison or Saint Paul's."
Although there's plenty of food-for-thought, my tummy starts to rumble. I feel the need to leave any notion of a diet behind, in a country where the portions are vast. Mickey's Diner comes recommended - not just for its substantial shakes and juicy burgers, but because it was designed to resemble the railroad dining cars. While this art-deco-style place - that's featured in several movies - including The Mighty Ducks, is popular for obvious reasons, there's always something novel unfolding in the city.
Trucks for tummy
Seventh Street Truck Park, home to several food trucks and a central bar in an 8,000-square-foot space, sweeps our vote. There's all the great American road-trip food on offer: pizza, fried chicken, tacos. But here, too, creativity stirs up the scene. Think of a 20-pound ice-cream cookie sandwich or rabbit as topping on a pizza - on offer.
The more you get to know Saint Paul, the more in personality it seems to mirror the Mississippi river that is always in flow, accommodating all the disparate currents that make their home here. I have only a few minutes by the riverside.
My mind empties of thoughts of the popular Science Museum, of shopping in the nearby temple of consumerism - the Mall of America, of discussions with the very friendly locals over a variety of local beer. Boats cruise by, but I'm even removed from the thought of what a cruise down this sinuous river - with its cornucopia of history - would entail. All I want to do for the next few minutes is to stand here, watching the Mississippi, and let the easy-flowing energy firmly in.