Thanksgiving week found my husband, Antun, and I back in our old stomping grounds, Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts. Yes, we were a bit mad to have made the trip at this time of the year. The Friday morning of our departure, the temperature at the San Francisco airport was a balmy 60 degrees and by evening on our arrival to Logan airport in Boston it was a frigid 25.
Once off the plane and with luggage in hand, we grit our teeth as we faced the cold. Thankfully, there was no waiting line for a taxi. We jumped in the first one in the queue and $45.00 dollars later found ourselves at the front door of the Charles Hotel in Cambridge. Taxi fares are expensive, especially from the airport where a hefty $7.50 in airport and tunnel fees gets added to the fare.
The hotel was buzzing with excitement. How silly of us not to have known that the next day, Saturday, was The Game, the annual football match between Harvard and Yale. This year marked their 125th meeting. The hotel was sold out and its public rooms were overrun with fans from both universities. (Luckily, we had booked well in advance and had a confirmed reservation.)
By the time we checked in it was 9PM. We were hungry, so once in our room clothes flew out of suitcases and onto hangers and into drawers. Downstairs in the Rialto bar, we quickly ordered. I love the sophisticated yet welcoming informality of the bar with its breezy ceiling to floor curtains that create comfort without stuffiness and with total access to the restaurant’s full dinner menu.
A champagne toast celebrating the start of our vacation set the tone for the evening. For our first, we shared potato gnocchi with celery, apples and walnuts. Then for the second, I opted for pan-roasted quails stuffed with fried olives, pine nuts and raisins while Antun indulged in one of Rialto’s classics: Slow roasted Long Island duck with braised escarole, roasted fingerlings and Sicilian olives. The quail were delicate and savory. I wanted to pick up the bones in my fingers but remembered my manners. Dessert was a shared Chocolate semifreddo with orange and candied fennel. We were full and happy. I looked at my watch. It said 11PM. We sat a while longer, looking at each other and chatting about the food, the cold, and the week to come.
Suddenly a woman in a swaying brown wool coat with a parsley shawl draped over her shoulders swooped down on the table.
I was startled as she asked, “May I clear?”
Recovering enough to say, “Oh, yes, of course, thank you.” I wondered who is this person and why is she clearing our table?
But before I could figure it out, she continued, “Did you enjoy everything?”
“Yes, yes, it was lovely,” I stammered. Then she was gone.
It was only the next morning that it dawned on me who she was as we walked by a poster for the restaurant outside the hotel and I smiled with pleasure with the realization. The brown-coated woman was Jody Adams, the chef and owner of Rialto. No wonder I was dazed. One expects the chef to be in kitchen whites not coat and shawl. But, of course, it makes sense. It was late, especially for Boston standards, and the bar was in a raucous what with the crowd of fans gearing up with food and drink in anticipation of The Game the following day. What chef/owner wouldn’t roll up her sleeves, figuratively speaking, to help the wait staff clear tables and take care of guests at that late hour, even in her winter coat and shawl?
Saturday morning was very cold and gray. Our plan was to catch a quick breakfast followed by a 4 mile or so fitness walk. No matter about the cold we thought. We’ll bundle up and go with it. We dressed in our warmest clothes and headed over to Burdicks Chocolates. Coffee, hot chocolate, croissants, pastries such as the brown butter apple tart, and a delightful yogurt, rolled oats, honey, and berry treat called the breakfast parfait make for a heavenly start of the day, not to mention afternoon respite.
We ordered lattes. How we needed that coffee, really hot and delicious. These were serious lattes with plenty of strong espresso and rich foam. Now armored against the cold, we headed up Brattle Street with the idea to make a big figure eight that would bring us through our old neighborhoods as well as along the banks of the Charles River.
No more than five minutes into the walk, my face was frozen and painful. I tried wrapping my scarf higher over the bridge of my nose and around my head mummy style to no avail. I was miserable. Turning to Antun I confessed, “I can’t do this. I can’t believe it. I am too cold. Let’s just go to the gym.”
Turning to me, his smile broadened into a chuckle and he said, “Ya, let’s go to the gym. I’m frozen too.”
For the rest of the week we did our fitness routine inside in the warmth of the Wellbridge Athletic Club where Charles Hotel guests can workout for free. The gym never felt so good as it did that week. During the trip we mixed alone time with seeing old friends and family. Thanksgiving and Friday was reserved for family. Saturday for our dear friend Erica and Sunday for Vera and Sergey. The rest of the time we were on our own.
>Monday we headed in different directions: Antun to Boston to scour the few remaining CD stores and many wine shops for bargains, and I to the spa. I invited my sister to join me for some pampering. Le Pli, next to our hotel, is nothing fancy but I have had many good massages and facials there. This time, I have to admit, I found both services OK, not great. But my sister was thrilled for a day for herself and that she could squeeze a brow wax in after her facial. A pleasure well worth its weight in gold.
Our plan for Tuesday was to walk the neighborhoods of Back Bay Boston, have dinner at B & G Oysters in the South End, and attend the Boston Symphony at Symphony Hall on Huntington Avenue. When we woke in the morning, it was pouring rain. Typical Boston: Freezing one day, raining the next, and undecided the third. We pulled the covers up, and rolled over for another hour’s sleep. Then it was off to the gym and later breakfast at Burdick’s. Do you see a pattern here?
Mid-afternoon we decided to head to town on the T as the subway or metro is called in Boston. From Harvard Square access is fast on the Red Line. We changed at Park taking the green line to Copley Square. As we waited for our train at Park, we marveled how little the subway had changed in the fourteen years since we had moved away. In truth, it felt like it had changed very little from 1897 when it, the first subway in the United States, opened at the very place where we were standing. Of course there had been many changes but seemingly not to the old twisting tunnels, bulky cars, and station decor.
The persistent rain drove us indoors to a shopping mall at Copley Place, just steps from the beautiful Beaux Arts architecture of the Boston Public Library designed in 1887 by Charles Follen McKim. Even in the rain and cold, the Copley Square facade of the library is particularly handsome exemplifying the ideals of the American Renaissance.
As we crossed the west side of Copley Square, it was sad to see how unsightly the square itself was. At its center was a patch of grass surrounded by a high chain linked fence. Although a farmer’s market was in operation on the south side in front of the Copley Plaza Hotel, the square looked forlorn and empty and certainly did not invite people to congregate or walk there in any kind of weather. So, to enjoy the square, just cast your eyes above and around to the architecture.
B & G Oysters is a small wonder on the corner of Tremont and Waltham Streets. The waiter described it as a neighborhood establishment, so how did we out-of-towners end up there? Word of mouth. A few weeks earlier a friend from California had been in town on a business trip staying at the Lenox Hotel at Copley and had stumbled upon it. Lucky for him and us. I ate oysters from the cold waters off Maine and New Brunswick Canada; Antun ate scallops. The food was fresh and delicious; the service solicitous, and the dining crowd interesting.
Later in the evening, we arrived to Symphony Hall. I have such fond memories of this place. As we took our seats I remembered the many concerts we had attended here including those of our favorite pianists Claudio Arrau, Annie Fischer, and Rudolf Serkin. They are all gone now, but the music lives on in this acoustically magnificent hall. On this night I was delighted by a curiosity–the orchestration of Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme for piano by Handel, written in 1861 and dedicated to his friend, Clara Schumann. This is one of my favorite pieces of piano music. Years ago at ballet class, my grand battements were always higher when the pianist played this piece as accompaniment.
Next came the Elgar’s 1919 Cello Concerto. It was also beautifully played by the cellist Lynn Harrell. If we had left then, the evening would have been perfect, but we were gluttons for more and stayed to hear the after-intermission offering of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. This dragged on and I could make nothing of it except that I didn’t care for it. All the time, I kept wishing that I could just flip time back to the playing of the Brahms’ Variations. But, as this was impossible, being a good Bostonian, I stuck with it, and at the end clapped politely before making a fast dash. Once on the outside, the rain felt good.
Wednesday was a busy day of picking up a rental car, shopping for our contributions to the Thanksgiving dinner, and visiting friends. Thursday and Friday we gave thanks and hung out with family. Saturday, was the finale–the last day of sleeping in, breakfast at Burdick’s, and workout at the Wellbridge gym. After packing we checked out, meandered around Harvard Square, and spent an hour at Harvard’s Sackler Museum. Then it was back to Logan where we gave up the car we had rented in town and went on to catch our flight home.
A few more Boston favorites:
Walk along the park that used to be the wastelands under the elevated Boston Expressway before the Big Dig put the expressway underground. I had thought that the park would be one long continuous mall but it isn’t. No matter, it successfully knits the waterfront to the rest of the City. Now, people can really feel like they are in a seaport city. Venture over to the nearby waterfront walk, too.
Order a Cappucino at Caffe Vittoria in the North End. They have expanded the place but it hasn’t lost its wonderful kitschiness or great coffee, espressos, cappucinos, and lattes.
Have a drink at the bar at the Four Seasons Hotel. The bar is popular, but if you get there around 5:30PM, you can get a nice perch, listen to some live piano, and have a quiet drink. If you get a seat by the windows or the bar, the people watching is fun.
Take in a museum–The Museum of Fine Arts, The Isabella Stuart Gardner, and the Harvard Museums are my favorites. No overkill though. Take an hour’s stroll through any one of these and you’ll be delighted.
Walk the Audubon trail to the North River. This final favorite thing to do isn’t in the city at all. It’s in Marshfield Massachusetts in the woods and along the North River. No matter what time of year the water, marshes, and woods are magical. After taking the Audubon Trail walk back to route 3A and head down to the bridge across the river for more spectacular views.
All original content copyright Mary E. Slocum 2008