Monday, October 19, 2009

Boston: Great Chowder and Dead People

The Washington Monument in Boston Common
Note: This is the first of a series of three posts regarding our vacation to the Boston area.

Jennifer and I recently returned from a four day vacation to Boston and Concord, Massachusetts. It was our second trip to the area. Way back in 2000, she attended a business seminar up there and I tagged along for the ride. While she spent most of her time in meetings I scouted out the environs, venturing as far westward as Concord to visit Walden Pond and Henry David Thoreau’s grave. She didn’t get to make the trek outside the city but I knew she would just love the atmosphere of Concord. So, this year we went back. And this time it was all pleasure.

Unlike our Alaska trip last year (see July 2008 entries), I was more actively engaged in the planning of this trip. But, our best laid plans were affected by the weather forecasts. Rain was predicted for the last full day of our trip, forcing us to rearrange our schedule, making things less relaxed than they might otherwise have been.

Our flight arrived in Boston late morning to give us basically a full day to venture out. We knew this would be our only sunny day there, so we took full advantage of it. We did not rent a car, choosing instead to walk and use public transportation to get around.

Boston is a terrific town to walk in. It is a comparatively compact urban area. Just walking 4 or 5 miles allows you to cover a huge chunk of the city. After checking in to our hotel, we immediately headed toward Boston Common, a large, beautifully landscaped public park more or less in the center of town. It is the oldest public park in the America.

It was a gorgeous sunny day. We passed people speaking all sorts of languages, reflecting the international character of the town. But, wherever people might be from, Boston itself is very much an Irish Catholic city. A patriotic Yankee flavor. Culturally it is not quite as diverse as the many different national origins of its tourists and citizens might indicate.

This is the military birthplace of the American Revolution and that very much controls the style and expression of this great international insurance and financial center, the intellectual haven of New England.

After enjoying Boston Common we came to the Freedom Trail, a two and half mile walk from the Commons, winding through the older part of downtown Boston and ending across the river in Charlestown at the Bunker Hill Monument.

We didn’t do the entire trail, only bits and pieces which were of particular interest. We spent a long time at the famous Park Street Church cemetery (known as the Granary Burial Ground). Here is the final resting place of the victims of the Boston Massacre, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, “Mother Goose”, and Paul Revere.

The lighting in the cemetery was perfect. Large maples and oaks filtered the sunlight as it descended on the aged headstones, making for some nice photo opportunities. It was a strangely tranquil feeling, being there with famous people from the Revolutionary era laid to rest, the way the soft shade of the autumn leaves filtered the sunlight, knowing this was a place acknowledged as sacred by human Being in a time long before the first white men began to settle the area of the south where my home resides.

As macabre as it might sound, connecting with the feeling of time drifting back so far has a unique, inspiring quality.

We ventured on along the trail until we reached one of my goals for the trip – the Union Oyster Bar, the oldest restaurant in America. The restaurant serves some excellent Clam Chowder among many other delicacies. We were served upstairs, our old-fashioned, straight-backed, booth nested under a softly lit oil painting of Daniel Webster.

At first we tried The Bell in Hand Tavern. The oldest tavern in America. It’s nice, corner architecture reminding you of horse drawn days. But, they have turned the place into a sports bar with loud music and flat screen televisions everywhere. Jennifer and I immediately left. That’s when we chose the Oyster Bar, a place I had eaten at in our 2000 trip. Nice, rich and thick Chowder with a Red Brick Sam Adams on draft. With Daniel Webster looking over me. Come on, how much more cliché could it have been? But, that’s what happened.

The whole day was in a nice groove like that. The sun and the open park, the satisfying photo shoot, now great chowder exquisitely experienced. Every time we came to an intersection the crosswalk lights all changed to walk. We didn’t have to wait on traffic. It just worked out that way. Amazing. Maybe once were we caught in a “no walk” situation. It was one of those easy karmic grooves.

Across the street from the Oyster Bar, immediately across, is the New England Holocaust Memorial, a fascinating and poignant piece of modern art and architecture. Several square glass columns with numbers etched into the glass. The numbers represent the ID given to Jews who died in concentration camps at the hand of the Nazis. Each column chamber would occasionally emit some mist that drifted through the height of the column and enshrouded anyone standing inside. Apparently, the mist - while no doubt refreshing in the summertime - actually represents the gas of the chambers that killed millions of human beings.

So, strange to find this monument in the oldest part of the Boston, across the street from the oldest tavern and bar. The Holocaust is truly in the heart of Boston, its most international cultural expression.

Jennifer was amazed by the monument and took some great pics.

We ate under Daniel Webster's gaze after she took the pics. Then, we walked back. The shadows were getting longer. The Common had more business suits in it as we returned to our hotel. The work day of which I had so rarely been oblivious was over. That was something else, happening to other people. A few beggars hit us up along the way. We gave to no one.

The Lenox Hotel downtown is a terrific old Bostonian style hotel. Nicely attired bellhops await you with white gloves at the door. They carry your bags. By chance – as was the general groove of the day – the hotel’s restaurant had completed a recent renovation and was reopening the night of our stay.

We dressed up a bit for dinner and decided to have drinks. I chose a single malt from a massive list of about 40 different kinds of scotch. An Irish whisky for Jennifer. Her choice was limited to 12-15 labels. The servings were generous. I had two, Jen only one.

We talked about how contemporary and urbane the remodeling effort felt. I had no idea what the restaurant looked like before but the subdued lighting and dark wooden interior had an old hotel feel with a jazz flair. Really very nice. Even better with two single-malt scotches chosen from a very long list.

The highlight of the meal was the Caramelized Potato Gnocchi with braised veal and small potatoes in a heavy plum and tomato sauce with chunks of pear and portobello mushrooms. It was an epicurean triumph and we complimented our short, plump Portuguese waiter who pleasantly conversed with us over the remodeling and even details of how the Gnocchi had been prepared. I gave him a huge tip.

1 comment:

The romantic query letter and the happy-ever-after said...

I stopped for the photos stayed for the content. It's a passion expressed well. Thanks for sharing.
All the very best,