Executing adulterers, slicing off the ears of a man who criticized the government, requiring women to wear veils? Sound like the rules of the Taliban or distant ayatollahs?
No, these were the edicts of the Puritan founders of modern, liberal and prosperous Boston.
The wretched social conditions of 17th-century Massachusetts are largely forgotten. The evangelical zeal is gone and the legal code is no longer based on the Old Testament. Instead, the Yankee town steeped in history is already buzzing about next year’s Democratic National Convention here.
The “new Boston” is proud of its shining convention facility, polished hotels, updated museums, clean parks and sophisticated eateries. It is fast becoming the favored U.S. destination of tourists from the Old Continent and Canada.
My wife, Betsy, and I flew in from New Orleans in time to catch the fall foliage in the nearby coastal towns. My daughter, Alexa, joined us, with an undisguised, single-minded goal: To drive to Maine’s low-tax chain outlets. Her husband, Mike, was planning boat trips from the harbor. I was assigned by them to find some of the Irish taverns I knew decades ago for daily clam chowder, lobster and the season’s blueberry pie.
“When I grew up in Aspen,” Alexa reasoned, “there were no national stores in town and we had to drive to Glenwood for everything important, so I am used to going to distant towns for bargains.” She wasn’t alone in Boston. Thousands drive on weekends to the 120 big-name stores in Kittery, Maine, on Route 95, about one hour north.
We arrived at Logan Airport on a stormy day. Convinced by the Boston Harbor Hotel’s Web site that the proper way to get to their gate is the “scenic seven-minute water shuttle ride from the airport,” we took the airport bus to the water’s edge.
The ornate, arched gateway of the huge new hotel at Rowes Wharf was visible in the mist. But there was no water taxi to be found.
After learning that the service was long ago discontinued, a merciful skipper appeared with a small, open boat and suggested, “I can get you near the hotel and you walk the rest.” We agreed. And as luck had it, this was the only rainy day of our entire vacation.
A slow ride in a shaky boat across the windy harbor was how I visualized the pilgrims’ arrival at the very spot where, in 1666, Bostonians built a battery to save them from invaders. In peacetime, it had only one gunner. In this modern age hundreds of security officers, the coast guard and police watch every visitor entering the city.
Even in our elegant, marble-floored hotel, grim-faced guards were posted inside and out. Wet from the unexpected port tour, we dried out in our room and watched the boats that ply the New England coast and offer tours up to Nova Scotia.
The first English immigrant to settle in the area was the Rev. William Blackstone. He came by himself in 1629 to the quiet peninsula, called Shawmut by the local Algonquin tribe. A year later, John Winthrop and his Puritan settlers of the Bay Colony arrived in Salem. Perhaps the rain and the rocky coast had been just as rough then as on our arrival, so Winthrop moved his people to Shawmut.
Today’s famously democratic city and state must have experienced a difficult start under Governor Winthrop’s merciless evangelical rule. Shawmut was renamed Boston, which hosted thousands who fled England to escape religious persecution. Ironically, they made the Massachusetts colony a theocratic and intolerant society.
Citizenship was restricted to church members until 1664. Dissidents were banished. Then came the hysteria of the Salem witch trials of 1692. Still, it was in this fundamentalist colony where many of America’s representative institutions developed.
The next day’s bright sun and warmer Atlantic winds urged us to take the inevitable walking tours of the classic Freedom Trail and the lovely Beacon Hill area.
The red brick homes with wrought-iron balconies hadn’t changed much, although many residences of patrician Brahmin families have long been converted to rental units. Less European than New Orleans, but just as Catholic, the conservative smugness has largely evaporated here and a refreshing cosmopolitan style has taken over. Irish pubs are still around, but the narrow cobblestone streets are full of newer Italian- and Chinese-run cafes.
Once a military training field and cow pasture, the Boston Common is a quiet walking area. This is where the Quakers and other condemned were executed at the gallows on a hill. Among the plaques commemorating the events here, one states that, before the Louisiana Purchase, a similar good deal was struck when the Common was bought for $150. It is the heart of a city 150 years older than the country itself.
We strolled by such landmarks as the 1754 King’s Chapel and then to the red brick domed 1670 State House. The latter, restored nicely at North Square, was the starting point of Paul Revere’s “midnight ride.” It still displays the 5-foot-long, wooden “Sacred Cod” in the House of Representatives.
A visit to Faneuil Hall, the “Cradle of Liberty,” is a must for all visitors. Rebuilt 200 years ago, with its charming grasshopper weather vane intact, the classicist building is famous for the protest meetings held here in the Revolutionary period.
A different crowd will gather here Nov. 4, when the Democratic presidential contenders face each other at Faneuil Hall for a political free-for-all. Of course, it will be televised live by CNN, even to countries that didn’t exist in Paul Revere’s time. Questions will be asked via e-mail. Even for JFK, that would be a strange new challenge.
Harvard College was already chartered by the Bay Colony when Faneuil Hall was built. Starting with one professor and nine students, it became the genesis of American higher education. Decades ago, I lived on Broadway in Cambridge, near Harvard Square, thus a nostalgic visit was called for. The neighborhood is still a true melting pot of students from around the world. With bundles of books and urgency written on ambitious faces, the scene was much the same as I remember from the ’50s ” except for the cell phones.
One of my grandchildren hopes to end up at Harvard for her studies, so we walked around the busy campus, passing the legendary law school, the library and museums. We were reminded that the Harvard legacy includes seven U.S. presidents.
In the adjoining streets, filled with ethnic restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops, I couldn’t find my old favorite pubs. Instead, noisy street performers, tattoo shops and tourists filled the area. But we found a newly opened French (or was it more Italian?) restaurant for lunch on Winthrop Street, appropriately called Upstairs On The Square. Full of young professor types and Oriental businessmen, it was a departure from our “chowdah” routine. Betsy praised the fresh crab dish in avocado and arugula, washed down with a vintage Zinfandel for $25.
We found prices, particularly around the Quincy Market stalls, quite reasonable and certainly way below the cost of Aspen’s better eateries. However, the hotels, such as Boston’s two Ritz-Carltons and the Beacon Hill Hotel, are overpriced. We paid $355 daily, plus high taxes and breakfast, for standard rooms with great views at the Boston Harbor Hotel.
I love to drop in at the old Union Oyster House near Faneuil Hall. It still caters to the same Boston patrons that it did when it opened in the 1820s. The waiter recommended the lobster stew. “JFK used to come to get it on Sundays, but now we serve it to Senator Kerry, who pulls up his own lucky chair on election night,” he said.
But the in-crowd has discovered new venues as the town attempts to add gastronomy to its scholastic and historic attractions. A Hungarian acquaintance, Adam Tihanyi, designed the chic Boylston Street restaurant, Excelsior. One doesn’t know what comes first here: The view of the Common, the well-served food or the overdressed clients. Alexa and Mike’s perennial favorite, however, remains the less formal Legal Seafood at Long Wharf, arguably serving the best lobster and fresh sole in town.
From the central business district, we drove to the campus of MIT. It was established in 1865 as an “independent educational institution relevant to an increasingly industrialized America.” It succeeded in being just that, and the 56 Nobel prizes won by its alumni prove that much of America’s know-how is rooted in this famed technological institute.
Together with the other 45 colleges in the metropolitan area, more than 160,000 students come here every September. Walking around Boston, it looked as if they had, in addition to Cambridge, taken over much of the city of 600,000 people.
Not to be missed, we toured the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, celebrating its 100th anniversary. Creating a believable Venetian aura, with a lush, sky-lit courtyard and a fine collection of mostly renaissance artifacts, the once private home is one of the country’s most remarkable small museums.
Impressionist paintings hang in the company of Titian, Velasquez and Chinese scepters. A couple of Degas canvases were missing, their places kept empty in a dark corner. “They were stolen over a decade ago, but we hope they will return one day,” an optimistic guide told us.
Mike didn’t give up on his boating plans, so we drove one day to the hilly coastal area with trees about to turn colors. But we skipped the Bostonians’ popular escape, the Harbor Islands. They are now part of a new national park, with rustic walks and seagulls hiding between rocks from the omnipresent roar of Logan’s air traffic.
Leaving the metropolitan area, the seventh largest in the country, we drove to the coast near Salem, just 15 miles to the northeast. The romantic vistas of Cape Ann start here. Scenic side roads took us to rustic Magnolia and, for an excellent lobster lunch, to The Barnacle at Marblehead, packed with tourists.
Mike found good sailing boats to nearby islands at Rockport’s sheltered harbor as the rest of us were offered kayaks to go out to sea. The beaches were inviting to the eye, but we hadn’t brought swimsuits. Declining, Betsy remarked: “This water is for polar bears, not for Southerners.” We didn’t see any local takers for a swim or the kayaks.
Rockport’s quaint main street, white church spires and seaside houses with 19th-century shingles, turrets and wraparound porches were shining in the bright sun. Although some newer structures had invaded the coast, the ambience remains that of traditional Massachusetts. Even the weekend’s heavy traffic on Bearskin Neck, a protrusion of land that surrounds the harbor, didn’t ruin the friendly, relaxed air in the tiny cafes and craft shops.
There are still remnants of original commercial fishing fleets in some hamlets, such as Gloucester (of “Perfect Storm” fame). A few fishermen’s cottages still stand, as do the lighthouses. “This is real New England here,” an antique dealer on Cape Ann told us, “but the other Massachusetts cape [she meant Cape Cod] is for the effete urban elite.”
Following her advice, we continued to Halibut Point Park on Route 127, ignoring suburban developments and overbuilt second homes. Though this area is no Cape Cod, the tradition of social upgrading through real estate is still practiced on the Northeast coast. Still, we saw no monster homes of the type that dot Aspen’s hills.
As the sunset turned the pink granite shores a fading gold, we were ready to turn back from the day-trip. There was much more to see in metropolitan Boston, but our week soon came to an end.
Preparing to fly home, we meditated. Did we visit a popular tourist destination, a city of unusual intellect, a great national monument or a provincial New England town? Perhaps all four. We all agreed that the combination was irresistible.
Paul and Elizabeth Fabry travel extensively from their New Orleans base, but spend the best winter and summer months at their West End Victorian in Aspen.
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Renters in Aspen are facing rent increases this year but there are resources and COVID-19 relief available on the local, state and federal levels.