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Weekend Planner

Hot times in cold towns

The Twin Cities encourage you to defy the elements

Email|Print| Text size + By Patricia Harrisand David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / January 12, 2005

ST. PAUL -- You can't miss the Vulcans at St. Paul Winter Carnival. Amid crowds of people in Michelin Man down coats, woolly hats, and scarves, they cut dashing figures in demonic red or black suits and capes. They dismiss the cold with a wave of the hand as they pose for photos and grandly survey the scene.

It's exactly what you would expect from St. Paul's superheroes, who, according to carnival legend, must overpower Boreas, the King of the Winds.

"We chase away winter and bring back summer," said Tom Barrett, who served as king of the Vulcans in 2004. "We bring back heat."

For all the Vulcans' hearty bravado and waggish attire, however, there's more than a little wishful thinking in their claim. Warm weather is still months away, but the denizens of Minneapolis and St. Paul take the season in stride. If you can't beat winter, they reason, then tame it -- or even enjoy it.

St. Paul Winter Carnival is the most extreme manifestation of this mindset.

The self-proclaimed "oldest and largest winter festival in the nation" was precipitated by a New York reporter's cutting comment in 1885, when he pronounced St. Paul "another Siberia, unfit for human habitation." Rather than dismiss the scribe as a wimp, the city fathers retaliated by launching a carnival to prove that winter can be fun. It ran sporadically until 1946, when it became an annual event.

The 2005 edition runs Jan. 28 to Feb. 6. Like all good community events, this carnival has parades, coronations, and fireworks, but many highlights are more climate-specific: ice-carving and snow-sculpting competitions and displays (no worries about melting), sleigh and cutter rallies, outdoor broomball state championships, a skijor race, speed-skating races, and an ice-fishing contest. Other events, such as 5-kilometer and half-marathon running races, auto racing on ice, and softball on ice, defy the elements.

The Twin Cities also subdue winter in more practical ways. In downtown Minneapolis, the sidewalks along the pedestrian Nicollet Mall shopping and business district are heated to melt snow and ice.

Shoppers stroll past a statue of Mary Tyler Moore as her character Mary Richards, caught in bronze as she tosses her hat in the air.

As if hot walks weren't enough, more than seven miles of elevated glass skyways snake through downtown, connecting office buildings, hotels, stores, restaurants, the Minneapolis Convention Center, and sports and performing arts venues. The route can be a little circuitous and some unkind observers have likened it to a hamster habitat. But you really can't knock a system that lets you shop at Marshall Field's, take in a Minnesota Timberwolves or Lynx game at Target Center, hear a concert by the Minnesota Orchestra in acoustically superb Orchestra Hall, or catch a musical in the intimate (and beautifully restored) 1920s State Theatre -- without stepping outdoors.

Alas, the skyways don't extend to the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome or to Milwaukee Road Depot, where athletes move indoors for the winter. November through April, the Metrodome, which is home to the Vikings and the Twins, opens the 0.4-mile circuit of its outer corridor for inline skating (5th Street and 11th Avenue, 612-825-3663, www.roller-dome.com, $6 adults). Rollerblade debuted its inline skates in Minneapolis in 1984; 'Sotans have been skating ever since.

During the same season, ice skaters can twirl on the figure-skating rink in the wrought-iron train shed of the Milwaukee Road Depot, built in 1899 and restored in 2001. The Beaux-Arts architecture makes the rink a dramatic place, with its high ceiling of exposed girders and huge windows with views of city skyscrapers. The train station development was part of the ongoing transformation of the Mill District, close to the banks of the Mississippi River.

In 2003, the former Washburn A Mill reopened as Mill City Museum to recount the city's glory days as the flour milling capital of the world. When it went into operation in 1879, Washburn A was the largest flour mill in the world -- until 1881, when rival Pillsbury built a bigger one on the other side of the river. Undaunted, Washburn A ran around the clock, milling enough wheat daily for 12 million loaves of bread. A test kitchen continues the tradition of baking bread -- still the most reliable way to test the quality of the flour. The yeasty aroma wafts through the immense complex of exposed stone walls and blocky wooden support beams.

The encyclopedic Minneapolis Institute of Arts (2400 Third Ave. S., 612-870-3200, www.artsmia.org) has especially good collections of Asian art and of modern design and architecture. It is also free. The Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum on the campus of the University of Minnesota is also free, and the exterior commands almost as much attention as the galleries. Designed by Frank Gehry, the futuristic stainless steel and brick structure has loomed high on the riverbank since 1993. The bold architecture hints at the often-challenging temporary exhibitions that complement the permanent collection, which ranges from early-20th-century painting to contemporary art.

Minneapolis has a reputation for embracing the hip. The Walker Art Center, one of the country's most adventurous programmers and exhibitors, is scheduled to reopen in mid-April after an expansion that nearly doubled its size. Meanwhile, the adjacent 11-acre Minneapolis Sculpture Garden boasts more than three dozen contemporary works. The typically giant-scale sculptures look striking in the snow, especially the popular "Spoonbridge and Cherry" fountain by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.

Another well-loved sculpture resides in balmy splendor in the Cowles Conservatory on the edge of the Sculpture Garden. Gehry's "Standing Glass Fish" rises from a pool with water lilies, surrounded by palm trees.

Locals retreat to the humid, leafy environment to pose for photos or just sit and read. It's the Twin Cities' equivalent of the courtyard at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston: a respite from winter, a setting to recall warmth and greenery, a place to flout Mother Nature.

Freelance writers Patricia Harris and David Lyon live in Cambridge.

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