Some Boston Highlights

Why did I not know what a beautiful city Boston is? As I prepared for my trip, I realized that I had no particular mental picture of Boston. Not only had I never been there in person, but I know hardly any books set there, or movies or TV shows set (much less filmed) there : there’s Cheers, of course, but we almost never get any shots of the city, and there’s Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series, and The Bostonians, and Death in a Tenured Position for Harvard…and as far as my own reference points go, that’s about it. Of course, now that I’ve said that you’ll probably all be able to point out other obvious examples, including ones I do know but have forgotten! But compared to New York, Boston was unfamiliar territory for me, so I approached it with a real sense of discovery and enjoyed it thoroughly. This is not the place for a detailed travelogue (and I have no Eat, Pray, Love-style revelations to make!), but here are a few of the highlights.

My favorite place was definitely the Public Garden. We have a Public Gardens here in Halifax, which is smaller but also more formal and ornate than Boston’s. Both are lovely oases in the middle of the city bustle. My B&B was just down Commonwealth Avenue from the gates, so I was able to visit the Garden often; if only the weather had been a bit less drizzly, I would have spent even more time roaming around enjoying green thoughts in the green shade. Of course, I had to pay my respects to my oldest Boston literary friends:

Another thoroughly delightful place, one that I might not have thought to visit if it weren’t for my host, is the Boston Public Library. Completed in 1895, it is a monument (as all public libraries should be) to the value of reading, with an elegant marble vestibule opening into this spectacular entrance hall:

The main staircase is “ivory gray Echaillon marble,” my flyer tells me, and the walls are “richly variegated yellow Siena”:

Here’s the beautiful reading room, Bates Hall:

Shouldn’t being in a library always be this much like being in a temple? The library also has a pretty courtyard with a fountain, a peaceful spot to enjoy your coffee and your book.

Of course, I had to visit Harvard. I kind of wished I had worn my Cornell sweatshirt, as a small gesture of resistance to the overwhelming, well, Harvardness of it. But Harvard Yard was very leafy and pretty in the sun:

Even prettier, though, was the Esplanade along the Charles River, the perfect place to spend the one really bright sunny afternoon I had on the trip:

Other places I enjoyed (besides the bookstores mentioned in my previous post) included the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, two very different museum experiences, the first a glut of beautiful things, the second more orderly and managed but just as full of provocation and beauty. At the Gardner, the building itself is nearly as remarkable as what it houses. At the MFA, I was particularly compelled (and, in part, repelled) by Turner’s Slave Ship, which is grimly spectacular–and also smaller than I somehow imagined it would be. I enjoyed the Mary Cassatt paintings at the MFA but sadly Mrs Duffee Seated on a Striped Sofa, Reading (see blog banner, above), though in the collection, did not seem to be on display. I am always especially interested in any needlework on display; there was a spectacular example of needlepoint, as big as a tapestry, inthe Dutch room at the Gardner, which I would in fact have mistaken for a tapestry if I hadn’t mentioned my fondness for embroidery to one of the attendants, who then pointed it out to me. At the MFA, one of my favorite items was also pointed out to me by a helpful guide, who understandably identified this serene couple as two of his most cherished friends in the collection:

As many people told me before my trip, Boston is a very walkable city, and I had fun puttering around Back Bay and Beacon Hill, as well as taking a soul-soothing stroll through parts of Forest Hill Cemetery. Of course, I stopped at the corner of Boylston and Berkeley where Spenser has his office, and I took a classic tacky photo of the entrance to Cheers. Finally, on my last day, after a deliciously over-indulgent brunch at Amrheins and a quick tour of the North End, I played tourist at Quincy Market.  With all this and the important Open Letters Monthly summit meetings that were the occasion for the trip in the first place, it was a full five days, and though I certainly didn’t see or do everything, now I feel I know at least something about this lovely historic city.

One final trip-advisorish note for anyone who might be headed to Boston themselves any time soon. I stayed at the College Club of Boston, on Commonwealth Avenue. It’s a charming old building and the rooms are decorated to suit (if a little shabbier than they look in the photos–in my little quarters, I felt a bit like a Victorian gentlewoman fallen on hard times but keeping up appearances, like one of the older Madden sisters in The Odd Women). The location is amazing, and the prices are reasonable, especially if you’re willing to share a (nicely renovated) bathroom. However, I have never experienced such creaky floors in all my life, and every door stuck and therefore had to be tugged open and slammed shut. It’s not a good place to come back to if you’ve been out a bit late (say, drinking wine and talking books in Jamaica Plain, just hypothetically)–not, at least, if you’re the type to feel awkward about waking everyone else up. And it’s a terrible place to stay if it’s really important to you to sleep well–for the same reason. That said, I might well stay there next time. After all, sleep is hardly a top priority when travelling, right? And being a stone’s throw from the Public Garden and walking distance to the Brattle Book Shop is awfully nice.

7 thoughts on “Some Boston Highlights

  1. Annie May 19, 2011 / 5:00 am

    I am so green with envy that I can’t speak. I would love to go to Boston, but it is not to be. I am doing my best to be glad for you. I’m afraid we do not have quite that grandeur awaiting you if you manage to get to Birmingham in September, but we’ll do our best.

  2. JoVE May 19, 2011 / 10:05 am

    It sounds lovely. My only trip to Boston was for a meeting which then happened by conference call even though all of us were in the city because of a terrible blizzard. Extreme snowfall is not conducive to exploring the city though one of my hosts worked at the Science Museum so I spent half a day there before flying home (a day later than planned). As I recall, it was also very good.

  3. Colleen May 19, 2011 / 10:14 am

    I might have to take a trip to Boston for that library alone.

  4. Melissa May 19, 2011 / 11:12 am

    Oh, I’m drooling over that library! I’m officeless in Toronto, and I’d love a library like that to work at. Not to say that UofT doesn’t have some good options, but nothing like that.

  5. Greg May 19, 2011 / 11:30 am

    And you haven’t even seen the courtyard! Here are some pics:

    There’s a cafe with decent food only steps away, inside the building, and you feel completely isolated from the bustle of the city outside. Le sigh.

    Rohan, I’m sure Steve could recommend more, but good Boston novels to start with are The Rise of Silas Lapham and The Late George Apley. Glad you had a good time!

  6. Rohan Maitzen May 19, 2011 / 11:32 am

    Annie, it’s a lovely city indeed, and of course rich with historical sites as well as pretty parks. The trees are mostly deciduous, though, so I bet it changes character a lot as soon as the leaves fall. It’s looking pretty promising for Birmingham! I’ve got 2/3 of my conference funding confirmed and am just waiting to hear about the rest. I would be arriving in Birmingham the day before the conference, so August 31, and it would be great to have dinner or something! (I wonder: how far is it from Cambridge? Might litlove join us?)

    Jo: I think extreme snowfall would ruin any city, but the Science Museum is one of the (many) spots I didn’t get to. Next time!

    Colleen and Melissa, it is truly a spectacular library, and I love that it is a public library. I believe it was the first publicly-funded city library in America. I think there’s a duller, more functional part where the ordinary business of borrowing books goes on, but this part is inspiring–nothing at all like the seventies bunker that was the old downtown Vancouver Public Library (they have a wonderful new one now, of course).

    Greg: Thanks for the recommendations–as if I don’t have enough to read already. 🙂

  7. Annie May 20, 2011 / 4:34 am

    Rohan, I’ve just blocked August 31st out in my calendar. That would be wonderful. Cambridge is quite a stretch and I know Litlove doesn’t travel particularly well, but if she wanted a bed here for the night she would be very welcome to stay over and go back the next day.

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