Tuesday and Wednesday in Boston see a return to warm, sunny weather but having planned to take advantage of what was a better forecast for the middle of the week the first day is largely spent inside. The city’s travel passes represent excellent value and at less than the price of two separate day passes, a seven-day pass for subway and buses is a bargain for a three-day stay, especially with a subway station just a short distance from the hotel. The XV, on Beacon Street, is within walking distance of the harbour and many of the sights, is very comfortable and has an excellent and very popular linked restaurant, Mooo.
A ride out to the Northeastern University area on the subway takes you to the Museum of Fine Art. My goodness, America does these museums well, and here again there was space, light, great facilities and a tremendous amount to see. In a three-storey covered courtyard area there is a large glass sculpture, the lime green icicle, by Dale Chihuly, who currently has a number of works on display in London’s Kew Gardens. Fortunately, this runs until October and is now on our list to see. Having missed a recent Frieda Kahlo exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, it was a real bonus to find a special exhibition on her life and work here in Boston. There was also a wonderful and extensive exhibition, ‘Toulouse-Lautrec and the Stars of Paris’. It was fascinating to see not only many of his famous posters but also earlier works, including one painting, ‘The Hangover’, that was very reminiscent of one of Manet’s paintings seen last week.
The Museum of Fine Art gives new US citizens a free, one-year family membership and city initiatives like this tell quite a different story about the local welcome given to people from overseas settling in America compared to the rhetoric coming from the White House about immigrants. Much the same contrast is seen in Europe, between the individuals and communities giving aid and hospitality to refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean from North Africa, and some of the European governments who want to close their borders to immigrants.
There is no Big Bus tour in Boston but the City Trolley Bus runs frequently throughout the day, taking a two-hour route around the city and up to Charlestown where the Bunker Hill monument can be seen nearby, and then back over the Charlestown Bridge giving a great view of the Bunker Hill Bridge, with its pillars that reflect the shape of the monument and cables that represent ships’ sails. The bus also goes out as far as Cambridge, over the Longfellow Bridge. Municipal encouragement for reducing plastic bag use can be seen on the pavements – which is something, if rather too little.
The driver gives an almost non-stop commentary and, incredibly, manages to navigate a fixed route through busy city traffic as well as giving a fluent presentation of a vast amount of information. Passengers learn that health care is the biggest single sector in Boston and that its principal hospital was the location for the first use of ether as an anaesthetic for surgery, the first successful appendectomy, the first successful severed limb reattachment and, in 2011, the first ever face transplant. Then there was the story, as the bus passed the site, of the Union Distilling Company’s molasses disaster in 1919, which prompted a large legal action after the destruction of property and loss of life. Boston has approximately one tenth the population of New York but has a string of city parks designed by the same landscape architect who designed New York’s famous Central Park. Boston also has the oldest public school, the oldest public house and the oldest restaurant in the United States, and on 18 July 1776 the Declaration of Independence, signed two weeks earlier, was read from the balcony of Boston’s old State House, which has really interesting displays about Boston’s history leading up to independence. It also wants everyone’s stories to be told. The new State House, with an easy-to-spot golden dome, is just along the road from the XV hotel and opposite a stop on the trolley bus tour.
With the weather as good as had been forecast, it was back to the harbour for a whale-watching cruise. This trip lasts around four hours and if you are very fortunate, as we were, then having travelled out for ninety minutes or so to the Stillwagen Marine Sanctuary, humpback whales can be seen quite close by. Individuals are identifiable by their unique tail fins and two groups totalling eight whales were accompanied by a number of playful grey seals as they repeatedly sent water spouts up into the air, swam in close formation and then, one by one, dived beneath the surface with dramatic flicks of their tails. Seeing these majestic creatures was such a treat and a reminder of just how important it is to preserve their habitats and protect them. Even here, in a marine sanctuary, half of the whales seen are reckoned by the experts to have been entangled in fishing nets at some time.
There is something rather fitting about the change to bad weather right at the end of a holiday, almost as if this rain is signalling that it is time to go home. The last full day in Boston was also the only day of non-stop rain in a month of travelling, so indoor activities were the obvious choice. Trinity Church is of national importance – but apparently funded only by parishioners and tourists, the latter charged an entrance fee although it is fortunately made clear that if your purpose in entering is simply to pray then there is no charge. The church contains some striking examples of stained glass from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, including four windows designed by Edward Burne-Jones and made by William Morris & Co in the UK. Looking down from the west end, over the ranks of pews towards the altar, is a window depicting Christ and described in the guide as either ‘Christ preaching’ or ‘Christ in majesty’. Flanked on either side by windows of bright blue stained glass, each with simple central columns, visitors are invited to think about the position of this window and what it might convey. To me it seemed as if the three could represent the Trinity, with only one of its three persons fully visible in human form, overlooking the Church.
Over the square outside – Copley Plaza – is Boston Public Library, a huge pair of internally linked buildings, with wide open spaces and a magnificent staircase leading up from the main entrance. On the second floor there were lots of people using the impressive, double-height Bates Hall reading room and there are a number of other reading rooms fully equipped with computers, all also being well used. The library has both an informal cafe, where use of personal reusable drinks cups was rewarded with a discount – and where a live local television broadcast was in progress in a pop-up studio in one corner – and a restaurant. The latter was a delightful space near an outdoor courtyard and, had it been later in the day, the afternoon tea looked extremely tempting. Access to the library is, and always has been, free, as proclaimed above the main door. On the older building’s top floor is the Singer Sargent gallery, which has twenty-six years of the artist’s work in large panels around the walls, depicting religious themes. A large empty panel is a reminder that he died in England before completing this large body of work.
A subway and shuttle bus ride out from the centre of the city to JFK/UMass was fraught with delays so that there were only about thirty-five minutes left before it closed in which to look around the John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Having read a biography of JFK’s sister, there is no doubt that he was an extremely ambitious and flawed individual but nevertheless he does seem to have been a real international statesman and a politician of vision, a seeker after peace and having a real desire for justice and for harmony between nations. I was only nine years old when he was assassinated but it is one of those few world events for which I can clearly remember exactly where I was when the news came through. His youth and energy had made him a hero to many around the world. The layout of the museum’s exhibition space, with a timeline through the campaign trail, the presidential victory, highlights from key speeches and significant achievements from his term of office, is really well done. From his election onwards, display areas are set on either side of a wide, carpeted central ‘White House’ corridor, leading into a dark-walled space with screens showing the events surrounding JFK’S death. Ending with a section of tributes to the legacy of his time in office, and those things which he would surely have been pleased to see – including the presidency of Barack Obama, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the continuing work of the Peace Corps, this was a very moving visit and an interesting and positive way in which to close our trip to the United States.
An early morning departure from Boston’s airport, coupled with a flight east and a time shift of five hours, mean that our arrival back home is in the evening of Day 31. Having left during the evening of Day 1 this will have been a trip in which we have travelled right around the world, visited four countries and passed through fifteen states of the USA, all in thirty days.