City Portrait: Covington Kentucky

Text: Christian Neuhauser • Photography: Christian Neuhauser

The slow-moving Ohio River flows by on the right and the traffic before us barely crawls through Bellevue and Newport. Eight million people live within a 100-mile radius, and it seems like almost everyone has come out at the same time to attend a major celebration. More likely, the amount of time lost on the roads here is the simple workaday cost of moving about in the sprawling urban shadow of the city across the river - Cincinnati.

Eric Jones, my riding companion, and I are rolling along Hwy 8 through the suburbs of Covington. We pass the first of the four bridges that cross the river here and then we ride up on the Newport Aquarium, a modern marvel housing some 60 marine exhibits (7,000 animals) within its one-million-gallon, 100,000 square-foot domain. By Memorial Day, a 21,000-foot, $ 4.5 million expansion is scheduled to open.

King Penguins waddle around in a snow-laced 8,000-gallon pool. If that's too cool for you, move on to another exotic site where perhaps the hot, humid wetlands exhibit swarming with American alligators is more to your liking. And then there's the 300-degree view afforded by an underwater walk through a seamless, 84-foot acrylic tunnel. In a 380,000-gallon display, sharks - Sand Tiger, Sandbar, and Nurse - and stingrays flash by, swerving in ceaseless arcs mere inches from your nose.

Newport has certainly cleaned up its act, and there was quite a lot of cleaning to do. Controlled by organized crime fifty years ago, Newport and much of Campbell County was so notorious in 1961 that Attorney General Robert Kennedy called the area "one of the largest illegal gambling centers in the US." Gambling dens and brothels didn't leave much room for family-oriented entertainment. But that's all changed.

Leaving the many G-rated attractions of Newport-on-the-Levee, we travel on to cross the Licking River and enter Covington, Kentucky's fourth-largest city.

The influences of its early German settlement are most obvious in the architectural style and the names of places, events - straße, Maifest, and Oktoberfest - the cuisine, and beer. We park in the MainStrasse Village, a national historic district, and stroll the city for almost two hours. The warm October sun has parched our throats and we find a seat for lunch at a sidewalk table. We've got more riding to do and so, much as I'd like to, I can't order an Erdinger beer from Bavaria to wash down my sausage and sauerkraut. Iced tea is a terrible substitute, and the combination tastes awful. From an Austrian perspective, eating this food without beer is like attending a wedding without tasting the cake.

Afterward we take the Triumph and Guzzi for a cruise down to the riverbank to admire the most famous connection between Cincinnati and Covington, the John A. Roebling Bridge. Roebling was commissioned by the Covington and Cincinnati Bridge Company to design a bridge to connect the two cities in 1856. The bridge he built over the Ohio River spans 1,057 feet, became the longest suspension bridge in the world, and served as the prototype for his crowning achievement, the Brooklyn Bridge. Once carrying horse and streetcar traffic, the bridge is now a segment of KY 17 providing a fast, convenient route between the two cities.

The German immigrants also invested heavily in the construction of large churches whose steeples and domes vie for prominence on the skyline with Bavarian-style buildings, once breweries, now preserved as entertainment complexes.

The evening sun is painting the horizon a pale orange when we ride through the Licking Riverside Historic District. Eighth Street and Riverside Drive bound this site, one of the original residential areas where colossal antebellum homes line its narrow, tree-lined streets. Some of the houses have been converted into convenient B&Bs offering the quiet of a peaceful neighborhood that's close to all the hustle and bustle.

We chose the Radisson Inn and get a room on the top floor. The balcony presents the Cincinnati skyline and lights dancing in the river. But that pretty view is superceded by the need for a good selection of German beers fresh from the tap, which brings us to Wertheim's Gasthaus Zur Linde. Now the combination of sausage, kraut and beer is just perfect. I don't want to leave the impression that I eat only sausage and kraut, but I don't often pass on an opportunity to enjoy this taste of home when prepared the way I like it, and the Gasthaus got it right. After our dinner, we stroll through MainStrasse Village and check out other bars and pubs until two in the morning. Take it from me, this investigative reporting business is exhausting work.

The next morning we bear down on the more uplifting aspects of our trip. First up, the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption and the Mother of God Church. The former, with its impressive 67-foot by 24-foot stained glass window and ribbed Gothic vaults rising 81 feet above the floor, was largely built on the model of St. Denis in Paris. German and Irish Catholic immigrants poured money and their exquisite building skills into erecting this beautiful, incense laden church. The Mother of God Church, a fine example of the Italian Renaissance basilica design, was built in 1870. German craftsmanship is quite evident in this church too. A pair of 200-foot-tall bell towers flanks the dome and there's a remarkable collection of religious art and sculpture to be seen inside. The stained-glass windows were fashioned in 1890 by the Royal Bavarian Establishment for Ecclesiastical Art, the Munich firm of Mayer and Company; the tiled floors were quarried in Germany and England; the oaken altars were hand-carved by Cincinnati's Schröder Brothers; and the large crucifix behind the main altar is the work of Covington sculptor, Ferdinand Muer.

Fully dosed with morning culture, we swing our behinds into the saddle and leave the old-world allure of Covington. Our suggestion: The next time you make it to Cincinnati, you shouldn't fail to cross the river and spend some time enjoying the many unexpected pleasures lying in the "shade."