Neil Sowerby finds the historic Tea Party City totally intoxicating
WE’VE ridden on a swan, paid homage to a raven, downed beer with the workers at Democracy Brew Co – all within walking distance. And now we are settling down for a night in the cop shop. Welcome to Boston, Massachusetts.
A candle is being snuffed out by a skeleton and a winged Father Time holds an hourglass trying to halt the inevitable
This most strollable of American cities holds surprises around every corner. Best to begin on the slopes of the 400-year-old Boston Common, a huge swathe of greenery at the heart of its rich history. Part of a chain of green space across the city called the ‘Emerald Necklace’, it is home both to heroic monuments and to the family-friendly Frog Pond with its spray pool, carousel and, in winter, an ice skating rink.
The kids also flock to a quirky bronze statue in the adjoining Boston Public Garden, created in 1839 as the US’s first botanical garden. The mummy duck and eight meandering ducklings sprung from Make Way for the Ducklings, an illustrated children’s classic about a pair of mallards who decide to raise their family on an island in the Public Garden lagoon.
That lagoon is where we rode on a swan boat among the glorious willow trees. A trip on these 20-seater pontoon vessels is an essential summer treat in Boston. Afterwards we crossed the garden to the corner of Boylston Street and Charles Street to encounter the aforementioned raven. Writ large in Edgar Allan Poe’s best poem, it is cast in bronze with him bursting out of his luggage as he rushes along, scattering manuscripts.
This energetic public statue, erected just four years ago, is an overdue tribute to a great Boston author and outcast (he found Bostonians or ‘Frogpondians’ dull, comparing their writings to the croaking of frogs).
From here it was an easy stroll to our hotel, Loews Boston, which in a previous guise as the city’s Police HQ, played host to Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler. The holding cells were in the basement, now home to Precinct Kitchen and Bar, where we had a superb welcome meal.
Dating back to 1924 when it was the last major Italian Renaissance Revival building in the city, Loews retains external features from that time. The large lanterns on either side of the main entrance still glow police blue. Go through the 13-foot, polished brass, exterior doors into the original tiled and wood-panelled lobby; after which all has been radically transformed to accommodate 200-plus luxury rooms.
Around the corner is Copley Square, bookended by two of the city’s most monumental edifices – Boston Public Library and the 19th century Romanesque and Episcopalian Trinity Church, whose reflection shimmers in the blue-tinted glass of the 20th century Clarendon Tower alongside. Alas, the church, named as one of the US’s top 10 buildings, shuts on a Monday, the only day we could visit.
Loews is also on the edge of the upmarket Back Bay district, which for shopaholics means the chic fashion emporia of Newbury Street. Not my bag. I much preferred the leafy pedestrian boulevard along parallel Commonwealth Avenue. Again with my literary hat on, I sought out 239 Marlborough Street, where Bostonian poet Robert Lowell lived while writing his confessional masterpiece Life Studies in the late 50s. A bohemian looking pad still, but no plaque and the magnolia tree mentioned in several poems is gone or cut back, so a melancholy stop-off on our Great Massachusetts Literary Trail.
The 19th century writers, though, were very much brought to life later that day by our Hub of Literary America volunteer guide, Sally Ebeling, on a private Boston By Foot tour. This particular tour runs most Saturday mornings for the public, highlighting the homes and haunts of such prominent Victorians as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Henry James, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the touring ‘literary rock star of the age’, Charles Dickens.
Much of this novel, essay and poetry writing went on above Boston Common, up on picturesque Beacon Hill, then home to the city’s upper-class elite, known as the ‘Boston Brahmin’; these days it is unaffordable to all but the super-rich. Former US Secretary of State John Kerry lives in its leafy epicentre, the Kensington-like Louisburgh Square.
A man much given to gustatory pleasures, Charles Dickens would have loved our lunch haunt, Boston Chops, a speakeasy-like steak house. Great beef and a canny wine list in the midst of Downtown Crossing, traditional city centre sandwiched between Boston Common and Chinatown.
Early for our booking, we had a restorative pint in Chops’ neighbour, newly opened brewtap Democracy. Smartly decked out like a Central European beer hall, it is co-owned by its workforce, proclaiming on its website: “The brewery’s interior will celebrate Boston’s rowdy revolutionary history from the 1700s to the present. The walls will pay homage to Boston’s long fight for freedom, with paintings and photos of the Sons of Liberty, abolitionists, the fighting 54th, Knights of Labor, suffragettes, the police strikers of 1919 and contemporary community leaders.”
In the Trumpland constituency I can’t see that going down well, but the hoppy ‘Consummate Rioter’ Double IPA certainly did.
Beer in Boston is synonymous with Samuel Adams, named after one of the US’s Founding Fathers, who is buried in the city centre’s Old Granary Graveyard alongside fellow Revolutionary hero Paul Revere. The family brewery is very much alive, offering free tours with beer, though note it is a trek out, south of the centre. Since the beer, especially Boston Lager, hardly hides its light under a bushel worldwide I’d suggest hunting down the cult Bostonian craft stars of the moment such as Backlash who, after ‘gypsy brewing’ have just opened their own taproom in a former piano factory, and the cutting edge Trillium with two sites. At their original base in Fort Point their new restaurant is due to open before the end of 2018.
If you don’t want to stray far from the waterfront for your beer fix we’d recommend the buzzing Hopster’s brewpub down at Seaport, which combines great charcuterie platters with exquisite, cloudy New England style IPAs – plus you can book a ‘kettle’ to learn how to craft your own beer.
From here head north up Atlantic Avenue, taking in the exemplary New England Aquarium (access via your Boston City Pass – see Factfile) and enjoying the liveliness of Long Wharf, boarding point for Harbour cruises.
Eventually, if you don’t take a left to check out the delights of Boston Public Market food hall, you’ll reach North End, the city’s oldest neighbourhood (Paul Revere’s house is here plus the Old North Church with its atmospheric graveyard).
But it’s the restaurants of Little Italy that really bring the crowds. We loved the stuffed zucchini flowers and osso buco a la milanese at Trattoria il Panino on Parmentier Street.
Or if you don’t fancy the passeggiata up there, Nebo Cucina & Enoteca at 520 Atlantic Avenue combines the Pallotta sisters Carla and Christine’s take on classic family recipes against an industrial meets marble backdrop. Oh, and the Italian wine list is terrific, too.
Boston really is a place to eat Italian. Until recently the main reason to visit the Prudential Center was to take in the Skywalk panoramas from the 50th floor of its Tower (jaw-dropping, by the way). Now, way below, there’s Eataly Boston, the most comprehensive emporium of Italian food I’ve encountered outside the ‘Old Country’ What’s great is the variety of casual eating counters and restaurant spaces within the full mega-deli experience. We relished proper wood-fired pizza accompanied by a terrific Puglian red.
It set us up nicely for a visit three stops along the MBTA subway line (overground for this stretch) to the Museum of Fine Arts. With 450,000 pieces in the collection, albeit only a fraction on show, we had to be ruthless in our planning (the Puglian red not helping). In the end all passages led to Gallery 252 and their collection of Monets, one of the largest outside France. Highlight? Works related to the painter’s life-long appreciation for Japanese art and culture anchored by La Japonaise, a full-length portrayal of his wife Camille in a lavishly embroidered kimono. Don’t miss too the fascinating ‘Art of the Americas’ wing designed by Norman Foster a decade ago.
If that covers the creativity of two continents, then the historic sites of Boston concentrate very much on its own moments in history – its role in the European settlement of North America and the later War of Independence sparked by the ‘Boston Tea Party’. Down near Congress Bridge you can visit replica boats and take part in a reenactment of that incident, when patriots dressed as native Americans threw a cargo of English tea overboard. Their protest against the punishing 1773 Stamp Tax Act. We didn’t bother.
Nor did we quite get the glorified theme park/souvenir shop that is Faneuil Hall, though the neighbouring Quincy Hall’s street entertainment was fun. Both buildings are on the city’s Freedom Trail, a 2.5 mile city street ‘living link’ between key colonial era sights.
Much more captivating is another stop-off on the route – King’s Chapel on bustling Tremont Street, the first Anglican chapel in Puritan Boston, founded in 1686 to serve British Army officers. After the British fled, it became the first Unitarian Church in the New World. Inside, during our visit a mezzo was atmospherically rehearsing Bach arias up in the organ loft (it is a prime classical music venue).
Many of Robert Lowell’s ancestors lie in the Chapel burying ground under slate-skulled tombstones and, in his disturbed moments he communed with his legacy there, notably in his poem, At The Indian Killer’s Grave: “Behind King's Chapel what the earth has kept whole from the jerking noose of time extends its dark enigma to Jehoshaphat.”
Note the elaborate mid-18th century gravestone carvings, especially those marking the demise of three (unrelated) Rebeccas, Gerrish, Sanders and Sprague. Look closely at the symbolism on the Gerrish grave – a candle is being snuffed out by a skeleton and a winged Father Time holds an hourglass trying to halt the inevitable.
By this time Harvard University had already been in existence over a century, named after its earliest benefactor and originally created to train priests. It soon extended its intellectual range en route to becoming one of the world’s most prestigious centres of learning. Women were excluded until the late 19th century and amazingly it wasn’t until 1963 that students at the allied women’s college Radcliffe were awarded Harvard degrees.
This isn’t fake news but the one-time ‘requirement’ that all Harvard students should pass a swimming test is. Blame it on the Titanic. It claimed the life of Harry Elkins Widener, whose book collection was the foundation of the university’s monumental Widener Library, 3.5 million books and counting. His mother, who bequeathed books and cash, was supposed to have stipulated the sink or swim test.
Our sophomore student guide round the Harvard Yard campus and beyond was happy to slip in the odd shaggy dog story. Entertainment was the name of the game on this walk run by Trademark Tours. So it was fun to be shown where Hollywood stars Matt Damon and Natalie Portman lived when they attended the non-collegiate university; and then there was a certain undergraduate called Mark Zuckerberg who came up with an idea for something called Facebook. After dropping out whatever happened to him?
The centre of Cambridge, home of Harvard, is a mere 20 minute subway ride from Downtown Crossing. The rest of Cambridge and joined-at-the-hip Somerville rather sprawl over a series of different neighbourhoods, notable for eating out, coffee or shopping with a plethora of museums. Excellent book shops and student bars abound as you’d expect.
Boutique hotels it doesn’t seem remarkably blessed with – the kind of base for a cooler graduation celebration. The recently opened 120-room Freepoint Hotel looks to fill that hip gap. It’s a shuttle bus ride out to the west from Harvard Yard, among malls but also next to the gorgeous green lung that is Fresh Pond park. It’s laid-back and relaxed and at this out-of-town lodging there’s no chance of running into the ghost of the Boston Strangler over basement cocktails.
Read the next leg on Neil’s road trip, ‘Cape Cod and Nantucket – the New England of your Dreams’ and follow his further literary adventures across Massachusetts, ‘A New World of Words’.
Neil Sowerby flew to Boston from Manchester with Thomas Cook Airlines.
Travel with Thomas Cook on a Boston city break in June 2019 from £1,440 pp. Price is based on two people sharing, includes one day or car hire with Alamo Rent A Car to visit Wrentham Village Premium Outlets for a day of shopping, return transatlantic flights and four nights in Loews Boston. Holidays operated by Thomas Cook Tour Operations Ltd ATOL 1179, ABTA V6896. To book call 08448716650 or visit www.thomascook.com.
Did you know? With Alamo Rent A Car, travellers can expect award-winning service, a range of products and coverage to make their road trip across the USA easy and stress-free.
He made use of a Boston City Pass, enabling him to save 45 per cent on four of the city’s top attractions, including the New England Aquarium, Museum of Science, Skywalk Observatory, Harvard Museum of Natural History (or Boston Harbor Cruises). Adult £48.49, child £38.63. Learn more at https://www.citypass.com/bosto...