Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Travel Journal #2: Boston (Wicked awesome!)

Boston is a city steeped in history.  I remember being a kid in middle school and learning about the American Revolution and all of the famous events that led up to all-out war with Great Britain.  Two of those events, the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party, cemented colonial fury against the despicable King George III.  Being a fan of history (and angry mobs), I was very excited for my first visit to this great city.  For my friends who live there, Boston is home.  For someone like me, who only read about Boston in books, this place is history coming to life.

The view from our hotel.

We didn't do much on our first day, mostly because we arrived at an ungodly hour.  United Airlines screwed up our flight, so instead of leaving Toronto at 8:50am as we had hoped, we left at 7:00am instead.  To say we were tired would've been an understatement.  A tip to my fellow travelers out there: always confirm your flight a day or two beforehand.  At least United sent me an e-mail reminding me of my flight the night before.  If I hadn't noticed the flight time change, however, we would've stayed in the land of moose and maple syrup longer than expected.  Another tip: avoid flying United if you can.  They suck.

After taking a nap at our hotel, we decided to walk around the Public Garden.  Established in 1837, this park sits right next to the older, more famous park, Boston Common.  I thought the place was very green and scenic.  There are a lot of places to sit down, relax, and watch the world go by.  During the warmer months, people can ride the famous swan boats around the giant lake.  For art lovers, there are also plenty of fountains and sculptures to admire, including one of George Washington riding a horse (an image that made many British soldiers shiver in their redcoats).

Papa Washington himself!

We also spotted the adorable (I don't use this word often, so when I do, I mean it) bronze statues of a mama duck and her ducklings, which are based off of Robert McCloskey's children's book, "Make Way for Ducklings."

And to go along with these statues, here's a picture of a mother swan nesting by the shore of the lake.  I bet there will be an ugly duckling or two in that brood!

Across the street, we spotted the famous bar from the show "Cheers."

After exploring the Public Garden, we made our way over to Boston Common.  Established in 1634, the Common is America's first and oldest public park.  This place has a lot of sculptures, memorials, and monuments that commemorate important events in both Boston's history and the nation's.  For example, the impressive Robert Gould Shaw Memorial features Colonel Shaw leading the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the nation's first all African-American military units comprised entirely of freed slaves (with the exception of Colonel Shaw).  These brave men saw active duty during the Civil War.

A shot of the Common

Volunteers and military personnel planting flags for Memorial Day

Robert Shaw Memorial, surrounded by a group of school kids

We also found the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, which seemed to be the preferred hangout spot for some rather seedy individuals.  This monument is dedicated to the men who gave up their lives fighting in the Civil War.  However, I don't think the guys sitting around the base of the column were there to pay tribute.  They were huddled together and speaking in hushed tones.  I'm pretty sure they weren't planning something nice, like baking cupcakes for orphans.  We got out of there as soon as I snapped the pic below.

Maybe they're just honoring the fallen soldiers and sailors?

Not everything in the Common refers to history or shelters would-be hooligans.  Some places, like Frog Pond, are there just for fun.  In the winter, this pond turns into an ice skating rink (or so I'm told).

We capped off our first day with an amazing dinner at Legal Sea Foods, which had incredibly fresh and tasty offerings.  It's a chain of restaurants in Massachusetts, but I believe they can also be found in nearby states such as NY, NJ, and VA.  If you live in a state with one of these restaurants around, consider yourself lucky.  It's so good, I ended up dining there twice!

Legal Oysters (AKA Oysters Rockefeller)

Nothing like authentic New England clam chowder!

Crab-stuffed sole with lobster bisque sauce

Sea bass
Day two was my busiest day in Boston, and the blisters I got from walking all over Toronto made themselves well-known by the evening.  We began, once again, in Boston Common.  This is where the Freedom Trail starts.  I wasn't aware of this until we got to the visitor's center, but the Freedom Trail is literally a trail.  I thought we would have to follow the map to make sure we were heading in the right direction.  Nope.  There's an actual red line made of brick that marks the entire 2.5 mile walk.  We purchased a map anyway for about $3, which highlighted the historic sites along the trail and provided a brief history for each one.  If visiting Boston for the first time and you're a little rusty on your American history, I highly recommend getting one of the info maps.  It'll make the walk more enjoy enjoyable.

There were so many historic places along the Freedom Trail that it would take me a very long time to describe them all (i.e. building another Great Wall in China would probably be faster).  In the interest of "making a long story short," I'd like to focus on the three highlights of the Trail (for me, anyway): The Old North Church, The Bunker Hill Monument, and the USS Constitution.  Before delving into those three, however, here are a few pictures of the interesting things you'll see along the Freedom Trail:

The grave of John Hancock

The grave of Paul Revere

The grave of Samuel Adams
The site of the Boston Massacre (in front of the Old Town Hall)
The entrance to Quincy Market

Inside Quincy Market: more food than the eye can see (literally)!

Paul Revere is probably one of the most famous figures from the American Revolution.  He was actually a silversmith prior to joining the revolt, and some of his work can be seen on display at the Museum of Fine Art (see below).  He is most famous for his "midnight ride," however, and many American school kids continue to learn or recite the awesome poem "Paul Revere's Ride" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (how's that for a fancy pants name).  This poem gave birth to the famous saying, "One if by land, two if by sea."  The line refers to the number of lanterns that were to be hung in the steeple of the Old North Church, which would warn the people of Charlestown (across from Boston) about the movement of British troops.  On the evening of June 18, 1775, Joseph Conrad (a leader in the Sons of Liberty movement) informed Paul Revere and William Dawes, another rider, that the British would be approaching by sea (crossing the Charles River, so two lanterns were hung in the Old North Church).  Revere rode to Lexington, warning colonialists of the invasion.  Contrary to popular belief, Revere told people "The Regulars are coming out," not "The British are coming!"  Yes, I know, very disappointing.  It's like finding out Bigfoot was just an out-of-work actor who got paid in potato chips. Anyway, with the arrival of the British, the ensuing Battle of Lexington and Concord marked the beginning of war and America's first true test in the fight for independence.

Paul Revere's house, still standing in the North End

Portrait of Paul Revere by John Singleton Copley at the MFA

Sons of Liberty Silver Chalice by Paul Revere at the MFA

Statue of Paul Revere (the candles, I believe, are commemorating Revere's death on May 10, 1818)

The Old North Church in the background

Stepping inside the Old North Church was like going back in time.  The place has been preserved very well, and it was exciting to see the church even with scaffolding surrounding the famous steeple (they were in the middle of renovations).  The interior was much smaller than I had imagined, but Boston was a small city back then.  There were plaques in some of the pews that indicated where famous people had sat during their visits (one plaque close to me proudly proclaimed that "Theodore Roosevelt sat in this pew").  It seemed a little excessive, but I suppose those plaques showed visitors how important this church is to American history.  I didn't have time to take any of the tours, but I was told that the "behind the scenes" tour takes visitors to the steeple and the crypt below, where many soldiers from the Battle of Bunker Hill are buried.  There is also a tour guide who stands at the pulpit and discusses some of the history surrounding the church while visitors are free to wander about.  I'm not sure how often that happens, but it's worth a listen while checking out the architecture.

Probably the most exciting stop for me on the Freedom Trail was the USS Constitution.  The ship launched in 1794 and was named by President George Washington.  Yes, she's that old.  The most amazing thing? The ship is still actively commissioned by the US Navy.  In fact, it is the world's oldest commissioned vessel in service.  The crew is entirely comprised of sailors from the US Navy; they're responsible for the ships upkeep as well as giving tours to visitors.  From my understanding, it's considered a great honor for a sailor to be chosen to serve on "Old Ironsides."

Getting to the ship itself can be a hassle.  There's a security checkpoint with metal detectors right outside of the visitor center.  As you can imagine, this creates a bottleneck.  The best advice I can give: don't get stuck behind a large tour group! We were lucky because we arrived right before a huge group of students (about 40 or so) came through.  Anyway, it's free to board the ship, but the number of people allowed to enter is limited.  One group can't board while another one is still on the ship.  Everyone has to wait in line, whether you choose the self-guided tour option or the guided tour option.  However, there is one big advantage to taking the guided tour: you're allowed to enter the lower decks of the ship.  With the self-guided tour, you're only allowed to explore the top deck.  We went with the guided option because I was pretty adamant about seeing as much of the USS Constitution as I possibly could.

Our tour guide

Now how did a frigate made entirely of wood manage to stay in one piece since 1794? The secret lies in the wood itself.  We learned from our tour guide that most of the ship's hull was originally made with live oak that came from the southern states; this type of strong oak grows nowhere else in the world.  During the War of 1812, the USS Constitution battled against the HMS Guerriere (once again, the British were trying to force cricket and rugby upon us).  Cannonballs from the Guerriere were seen bouncing off the hull of the Constitution, which prompted one of her sailors to proclaim, "Huzza! Her sides are made of iron!"  That's how the ship earned her nickname of "Old Ironsides."  Oh, and the Constitution defeated the Guerriere rather soundly (a pattern she would repeat with many other enemy vessels).

The top deck was impressive.  There were cannons, huge sails, ropes all over the place...  It felt like being on board the Black Pearl with Captain Jack Sparrow just around the corner.  This ship was the real deal, though.  I was standing on a 200+ year old frigate that was christened by Washington and fought in many dramatic naval battles.  If this ship could talk, I bet I'd spend years listening to her stories.  With our tour guide, we were allowed to enter the lower deck of the ship where even bigger cannons sat ready.  This is when our tour guide wove the tale of how "Old Ironsides" got her nickname.  He was very good, even managing to get some crowd participation in there (I got stuck in the group that played the part of the HMS Guerriere crew... it didn't end well for us).

The Battle of Bunker Hill Monument is across the Charles River and within Charlestown.  Once an independent city, Charlestown is now part of Boston.  The monument resembles the Washington Monument, but on a smaller scale.  It's also older; the Bunker Hill monument was completed in 1843, whereas the Washington Monument didn't even begin construction until 1848.  Why do they look alike? I'm not sure.  I tried to Google the answer but found no real explanation.  I have a gut feeling that Free Masons were involved (someone call Dan Brown).  The battle itself began on June 17, 1775 and took place mostly on Breed's Hill; with all the fighting going on, I'm sure no one really cared about being geographically correct when naming the battle.  This point in history gave us the famous quote, "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes."  General William Prescott is usually given credit for uttering that phrase, but there is no solid evidence to support this theory.  Some sources attribute the quote to John Stark (no relation to Tony) or Israel Putnam (if you believe the events of Assassin's Creed 3).

The location is actually kind of pleasant.  The grass is very green, and there are a few benches scattered around to rest on (a great idea since most visitors will have walked almost 3 miles by the time they reach Bunker Hill at the end of the Freedom Trail).  It really feels like a neighborhood park, which makes it difficult to remember that this area was a battlefield hundreds of years ago.  If you're willing to spend a little cash and wait in a potentially long line, you can go inside the monument and climb the stairs to the top.  I bet the view is spectacular.  My feet hurt, so I didn't get a chance to confirm my assumption.  Additionally, the Bunker Hill Museum is located in a building near the edge of the park.  We were sent in that direction when we asked a park ranger where the restrooms were.  He looked nonplussed by that question.  We were probably the 678th group to ask him that day.

Statue of Colonel William Prescott

I returned to the monument later in the evening with my good friends, Luis and Eugenio, to enjoy some world-famous cannolis from Mike's Pastry.  Rich, creamy, crunchy, and just a little sweet, they were the perfect snack to mark the end of my second day in Boston.


Day three was my last day in Boston, and as luck would have it, a storm was rolling in.  I spent the morning at Trinity Church, which is a prime example of American gothic architecture.  There is an admission fee of $10, which I thought was rather pricy.  But hey, the money goes to the church, and they does good things with it.  I hope.  Anyway, the stained glass windows inside are really impressive, intricate pieces of art.

Nearby, the finish line for the Boston Marathon was still on the ground.  This was about a month after the bombings took place, and the area still had a police presence.  We saw the makeshift memorial nearby that honored the three victims, Krystle Campbell, Lu Lingzi, and Martin Richard, and the police officer who was fatally shot, Sean Collier.  That day was a dark moment for Boston, and a dark moment for the whole nation.  I'm glad those responsible have been killed or caught.  May the younger brother never see sunlight beyond prison bars ever again.  Boston is healing, though, and I know that next year's marathon will be one of the greatest in the event's history.

I then had lunch with another friend, Lenny, a native Bostonian.  We took a drive to B&G Oysters.  The place was really small, but the huge flavors more than made up for it.  The food tasted fresh and delicious.  I had fiddleheads for the first time.  They're edible ferns whose taste reminded me of asparagus or snap peas: mild sweetness with a bright finish.  And cucumber gazpacho! That was a first for me as well.  It was cool and refreshing.  I also had a raw oyster for only the second time in my life; I was really grossed out the first time I tried one.  Lenny had to campaign hard for me to give it another shot.  After some hesitation, I went for it.  And I'm glad I did! These oysters were a million times better.  The texture is kind of unsettling, but the taste was incredible.  My opinion on eating raw oysters has changed, though I probably won't be eating them again unless I'm in a trusted establishment (preferably close to the ocean).  This place is highly recommended for anyone visiting Boston.  Just come early or risk a long wait!

Cucumber gazpacho

Fried oysters



Raw oysters

The rest of my day was spent at the Museum of Fine Art.  The MFA is huge, with art from all over the world.  I highly recommend the American wing, as it features artwork from the colonial period as well as portraits of famous early Americans (such as George Washington and Paul Revere).  While I was there, the MFA had a special exhibit on Samurai, which had complete sets of armor, helmets, swords, and other artifacts related to the quintessential Japanese warrior.  It was a great exhibit that I spent a good chunk of time in.  Unfortunately, this is one of the priciest museums I visited on my trip.  At $25 per adult, visitors should dedicate at least a couple of hours to get their money's worth.  There is an alternative option, though.  If you happen to be visiting on a Wednesday, come after 4pm.  Admission is free!

Appeal to the Great Spirit by Cyrus Dallin

Ravine by Vincent Van Gogh

Washington at Dorchester Heights by Gilbert Stuart

Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley

A very eerie modern art installation

I had an awesome time in Boston.  History is all over the place, the food scene is fantastic, and the people were friendly (contrary to popular stereotypes).  I wish I had more time to explore the city and surrounding areas further, but I guess that's something I can do on my next visit.  I really did have a great time.  Thank you for everything, Boston! Stay strong.

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