Union Station, Portland OR

This weekend, while Les Boys were off in the mountains snowmobiling with friends, I took a solo trip to Portland, OR. I could have driven down, as we have done in the past, but I thought it would be fun to get reacquainted with American-style train travel. After all, my last trip with Amtrak dated back to the late 1980s when I traveled alone from Atlanta to New York City, a long, overnight train ride – a true adventure! – I remember fondly to this day. 
When you live in Europe, and travel on TGV-like high speed trains on a regular basis, you become a bit spoiled. You expect speed, timeliness, and comfort, all at reasonable prices. I recalled Amtrak had met just one of the three requirements (affordability,) during my last trip. Still, like millions of air travelers, I have grown tired of flying over the last ten years. All things considered, a 3.5 hour train ride between Seattle and Portland – I splurged on business class tickets – sounded more than appealing. The appeal grew exponentially when the weather channel announced it might snow in Seattle and in Oregon over the weekend.    Driving in the snow? The horror! 

I.d.o.n.o.t.d.o.s.n.o.w.I.d.o.n.o.t.d.o.s.n.o.w.I.d.o.n.o.t.d.o.s.n.o.w… not if I can help it, anyway.
I was not prepared for the “cool factor”  awaiting me at Seattle’s King Street station on Friday morning. Built in 1906, and with a beautiful clock tower inspired by the San Marco bell tower in Venice, Italy, King Street station has undergone an extensive remodel over the last few years. When it is completed, the venerable old building, once a joint venture of the Great Northern Railway and the Northern Pacific Railway, will be restored to its former glory and modernized to meet the needs of modern travel. I felt I was transported back in time as I waited with fellow passengers in the grand hallway, looking at old black and white pictures posted around the room. “If only these walls could talk,” I mused. 

King Street station, Seattle WA
A remodeled section of the station

The ride was uneventful, but comfortable, with competent and friendly service on board and at the station: The French SNCF could take a lesson or two from Amtrak employees. The Seattle to Portland route includes five or six brief stops, mostly in Washington state. I kept expecting the train to build up speed, like the French TGV, but it never happened. It just kept a steady pace. There was time to enjoy the sights especially while we followed the Coast. Thanks to free Wifi onboard, I was able to keep busy until the train pulled into Union station in Portland, 3.5 hours later. There I found another historical building, built in the 1890s, and I admired its high ceilings, marble walls and floors, reminiscent of days gone by. The winter air was crisp, but the sun was shining, and I felt excited to be in a city, free to do as I pleased, for the next couple of days. 

Inside Union Station, Portland, OR

The free light rail service, MAX, took me to my downtown hotel in less than 30 minutes. Imagine that: I was still in the United States but had not needed to drive a car for several hours.  I immediately fell in love with European-flavored Hotel Monaco, its lively colors and welcoming lobby. The friendly receptionist instantly upgraded me to a top-floor king size suite. Quelle chance! Then I realized the pet mascot, Timmy (a retired guide dog,)  had left a note for another important guest, Otis the giant German Shepherd (Hotel Monaco is a pet-friendly hotel.) Otis proved a well-behaved guest as he sat at his owner’s feet during the complimentary wine reception in the hotel’s living room that evening. I could not believe my luck. A cozy and elegant hotel room. In the heart of a fun city. Surrounded by dogs… Heaven!

Timmy the Lab is a great host!
Otis loves Hotel Monaco…

… as do I.
More room than I needed… 

One of my purchases is somewhere in the room. Can you spot it?

Well, mes amis, Portland did not disappoint. The weather could have been better, that’s true. It was cold, and damp, and I had to carry an umbrella most of Saturday. Seattle and Portland have at least one thing in common: Locals do not use umbrellas. Northwesterners had rather walk around, bundled up in fleece jackets, looking like wet rats. That’s all good, but I wear glasses and until they figure out a way to set them up with wipers and a defogger, I will have to keep using my parapluie. 
Instead of jumping right in; exploring neighborhoods; sightseeing; people watching; and shopping, I did things a bit differently this time. At 10:00am sharp on Saturday morning, I met a group of fellow out of town visitors and for the next two hours, we followed our friendly tour guide, Michael, around the city. I highly recommend it. It taught us a lot about “the Little Big City’s” history, and it’s easier now to understand Portland’s appeal.

Friendly Michael in full Northwest garb:
Fleece and weather-resistant apparel by Portland-based Columbia  Co.

Some of the highlights of the tour: Liberal, granola-loving Portland ranks high in sustainability and liveability, and the city knows how to make the most of technology. Portland is big on recycling for example. 

Throwing an old piece of gum in the trash might require a PhD here!

The solar trash compactor sends a signal to the city
 when it reaches full capacity

Parking meters are powered by solar energy. There are electric car charging stations on every block (and if not, there will be soon.) The streets are immaculate, as in very, very clean, for city streets. 
With its village-like neighborhoods, beautiful parks, and pedestrian-friendly waterfront, Portland is eminently walkable. It offers large sidewalks for pedestrians. Traffic is regulated in one-way streets, shared by car drivers, buses, bicycles and the light rail system (one lane for each, no argument there.)  For a big city, it feels surprisingly bright and… quiet, especially in the morning. I noticed there is hardly any honking. Building height and store marquee size are strictly regulated to bring in more light. This is apparent on an overcast winter day spent downtown, where streets do not feel claustrophobic. 

Which one is the old building? Which one is the new one?
New building codes prevent the mistakes of the past

Tree lined street in the Yamhill district

The mass transit system is clean and efficient. It is also free downtown. Locals are proud of it, and they can be. The city has invested heavily into public transportation to encourage Portlanders to give up their cars. It worked. Many people ride public transit or bicycles to go to work. They walk, walk, walk – European-style. No wonder I feel so comfortable here when I visit.

Portland knows how to have fun too. Art and culture can be seen in the self-proclaimed “cultural district” downtown, where theaters and museums abound, but also everywhere else in the city, if one knows where to look (merci, Michael!) 

Whimsical art on street posts

Portland Art Museum
Wildlife is never far away in nature-loving Portland

“Portland is a city of makers,” a craftsman proudly said to me. Locals make beer (the city has more microbreweries and brew pubs than any other in the nation;) they make coffee (the giant Starbucks competes with many local roasters and coffee houses;) they create amazing dishes in a wide range of eateries, including the famous Portland’s food carts (about 300 of them,) organized in “pods” (clusters.) Most do not serve fast food, but healthy and tasty dishes at affordable prices. When asked, locals are quick to mention their favorite food carts and their exact location.

Euro-Trash serves fish and chips, escargots and foie gras!

City officials understood a long time ago that promoting foot traffic is a smart business move. It is easy to spend money in this town. There is a gigantic mall downtown, Pioneer Place, where high end retailers attract huge crowds, including this French Girl, on a rainy day. How can you resist their wares? There is no sales tax in Portland. Serious damage can be done in those boutiques. 

Two buildings, four floors each, but it’s never claustrophobic:
Look at all that light!
Kate Spade urged customers to “step out in stripes” —
I listened. 

My favorite shopping – and people-watching – has always been in the Pearl District, in the Northwest section of Portland. A converted industrial area, and a fine example of urban renewal, the Pearl is a trendy neighborhood (think Le Marais in Paris or Soho in NYC.) Loft apartments, eclectic boutiques, art galleries, bars and restaurants await at every street corner. 

Landmarks include the aptly-named Powell’s City of Books. A book lover’s paradise, Powell’s fills an entire city block, on several levels, and is the largest independent bookstore in the nation. Looking for a rare, out-of-print book? You will find it here, and if not, Powell’s will locate it for you. On a rainy day, one can spend several hours there (there is a café on site for sustenance.) 

You have arrived chez Powell’s: Don’t forget to pick up a map!
Have your picture taken in front of Powell’s!

A favorite find of mine on this trip: Atelier Entermodal. There I met Larry, the bag maker. Larry creates unique leather bags made entirely by hand. It takes him up to 2.5 weeks to complete one. I had not seen such craftsmanship since I visited the Hermes Festival of Crafts in Bellevue, WA last spring. Oh, and Larry is a nice guy too. He interrupted his work and invited me to join him in his workshop where he answered my questions; showed me his impressive tool collection and some of his creations. Larry fits right in, in this friendly city. 

Larry, l’artisan, hard at work

Like Michael the tour guide, who left California six years ago to move to Portland, many are attracted to the “Little Big City” one day, and fall in love with it. With good reason. I am happy I was able to learn more about it on this trip. I will return, hopefully in the spring, when the famous Portland outdoor market reopens. But that, mes amis, is another story. 
A bientôt

So long, Little Big City!
Pioneer Courthouse Square
Timmy the Lab is going to be busy over the next few days!

Véronique - France with Véro
Véronique of France with Véro

Véronique of France with Véro

Vero shares her homeland weekly on social media with virtual tours, photo essays, live events and other publications at France with Vero. Learn more.

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