In March when the weather had pushed above freezing, but the scenery was all watercolor shades of gray and brown, I decided I needed to find someplace new to walk. If nature wasn't going to provide any inspiration, maybe a change in architecture would do the trick. So I hopped on the T and took the Red Line to the Charles/MGH stop, with the vague plan of wandering Beacon Hill and Back Bay.
Boston skyline, viewed from Rte 2
If Boston post cards are any indication, Beacon Hill is what people envision when they think of Boston. It's known for its rows of Victorian brick townhouses, and exclusive residences. I seem to remember Senator John Kerry's Beacon Hill home being used against him during his presidential campaign, as a sign he was elitist and out of touch. Personally, I can't imagine anyone who isn't financially out of touch with most Americans being able to afford to run for president, but that's a topic for another day.
The streets of historic Beacon Hill are narrow, so few cars are seen, except those owned by residents. It's relaxing to be in the city without the steady hum of car engines. A funny little side note - the persistent drone of cars on Storrow Ave. resulted in a green on the Boston University campus being nicknamed the BU Beach. If you close your eyes the sound could almost be mistaken for waves on a beach.
Actually, I find the act of walking through Boston (when I don't have somewhere I have to go) a lot like walking a beach. It's by no means as tranquil, but I experience the same sense of discovery and the desire to slow down and take a closer look at the little details so easily lost on the whole. This doesn't make me very popular with people who actually have places they need to be, especially on the narrow sidewalks of Charles Street and the like, but I just pretend I'm a tourist, set on getting my money's worth from the visit.
Charles Street is full of restaurants, bakeries, galleries (by appointment only if you please) and a wonderful assortment of expensive little shops. Most of them are the size of a large living room in the suburbs, but every inch is used to its full potential. I went in one where there was a single circular path between tables of goods. Whenever customers stopped to look at an item, everyone behind them had to stop too.
This is just a small selection of the snow globes decorating one travel agency's windows. It's such a perfect idea. Who didn't shake a snow globe as a child and dream of visiting its world?
This trend of placing cut birches in flower pots, is much harder for me to understand. I saw them all over the city and each time I felt like something cruel was being placed on display, much like animal heads hung on walls. There's no reason for it. The butchered form lacks the vitality and grace of the living one.
A dog does a little people watching from a window
Walking through Lousiburg Square and down Mt. Vernon Street, it's easy to pretend you've stepped into an Edith Wharton novel. The click of a woman's heels on the brick sidewalks echoes the long ago ring of horse's hooves on cobbles. It's easy to picture a captain, standing atop his stately home, looking out to Boston Harbor for any sign of his ship's return.
In this older part of the city, even mundane items like manhole covers are worth taking a second look at. The winter's road salt had temporarily dulled the colors, but this cover appears to be decorated with rounds of colored glass.
This elaborate doorknocker, is on a door leading to a basement entrance. I love the tiny ring on the middle finger. As I took the picture I realized I was being watched by a security camera, and hurried away feeling like I'd done something vaguely illegal.
A quick walk across Beacon Street and I was in the Public Garden. A line of tourists waited to take pictures of the admittedly adorable Make Way for Ducklings statue. I especially love how there are wear marks on the mother's back from where generations of children have climbed on as their parents snapped photos. If I were three feet tall again, I'd do the same.
It's been a while since I've been into the city, and I was stunned at 1). how close the squirrels let me get to them and 2). how incredibly fat they were compared to the ones at home. Were the squirrels in my neighborhood starving? I'd never thought so before, but for a moment I felt guilty about having a 99% squirrel-proof bird feeder (there's one squirrel who has figured out how to slip seeds out an empty screw hole).
The Public Garden is best known for its swan boats. If you've never read the scene in E.B. White's Trumpet of the Swan where the protagonist encounters these legends, get a copy from your library today. Admittedly I feel that way about most of E.B. White's writing, but this was my favorite book for many years as a child, so I think everyone should read it.
During my visit, the boats were still in winter storage, in fact the pond appeared to have frozen over.
People were out on the ice and snow, walking their dogs and enjoying the change in perspective. I spotted one woman making snow angels and trying to convince the man with her to do the same.
I joined a crowd waiting for the walk sign at Arlington Street, and headed down Newbury, the Rodeo Drive of Boston. I'm not much of a shopper, so the charms of this part of town are largely wasted on me, but I do like people watching. In a window for a salon/spa I saw a couple women chatting in robes and curlers. The scene was disquieting in that it was both intimate, and incredibly public at the same time.
I saw an Easter Bunny costume so scary it deserved to be worn at Halloween. I'm not sure which was creepier, the rabbit on the right looking like it's about to give a lecture, or the headless rabbit on the left!
Just as I was trying to decide whether I should head back to the T, I arrived in Copley Square and was reminded what a feast it is for the eyes. There's the elegant Copley Plaza hotel with it's giant golden lions flanking the entrance; the stately Boston Public Library; and the contrast of Trinity Episcopal Church's gargoyles to the glass and steel of the Hancock Tower.
I've heard that the interior of Trinity Copley is itself worth making a trip to see, but this visit I opted to stay outside. The building is a checker pattern of colored stone, with a ribbon of carved biblical figures and stories reaching all the way around. The same architect used a similar style when he designed the public library in Woburn, MA.
On one side of the church is a bit of a courtyard where there's a statue dedicated to a former priest of the church. The sculpture was strangely menacing, which I'm sure is the opposite of what was intended. The priest is standing at a dias, preaching to his congregation. This is normal enough, but behind him is a hooded figure, reaching out with a bony hand to touch the priest's shoulder. I think the hooded figure is intended to be Jesus, guiding and working through the beloved priest. To me however, that hooded figure looked like the Grim Reaper. His looming figure and the sense that he is manipulating the man before him reminded me of the evil Voldemort in the Harry Potter movies. I'd love to know what other people think.
By now it was getting late. The wind was picking up and what little warmth the sun had provided earlier in the day was fading. I decided to make just one more stop before heading home.
Whether you're looking for a book or not, the Boston Public Library is too beautiful to miss. The hallways feel like a museum, with marble stairs, statues, murals and more.
In many ways it feels like visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, with the added benefit that you're invited to pick up a book, find a comfortable seat and stay a while. The mural above is part of one that goes all the way around an ante room. The only furniture in the room are benches along the walls. Some people use the benches to observe the artwork, occasionally I've seen a tired student stretched out taking a nap there.
A lamp in the Boston Public Library
And then there's the "library" itself, which is truly a cathedral for books. Row after row of dark wood tables with individual, green domed reading lights fill the center. The books reach from floor to ceiling, with the higher ones reached by travelling up spiral metal staircases or ladders on runners. As someone who goes a little weak in the knees at the site of built in bookshelves, each time I see this room I want to stay for hours.
There are of course other more modern sections of the library which are functional and offer abundant resources (including an incredible number of books in lesser known languages like Haitian Creole), but in this older section all the potential locked in the pages of the books is palatable.
I took a different route back, including a stop at the Frog Pond in Boston Common to watch the ice skaters.
There was a young boy and his father having a silly-string fight. They raced around trees, dodged dogs on leashes and eventually collapsed on the ground laughing. The father never once looked around to see if anyone was watching; he was totally in the moment with his son. I smiled and headed for home.