The city of Boston was a mess. There were no cars in sight, only thousands of people roaming the streets dressed in black and yellow, singing and chanting. Police were blocking off public spaces. What had we got ourselves into?
Our journey into American history had brought us to Boston, Massachusetts – home of an American revolutionary named Paul Revere, and also home of the Boston Red Sox and Harvard University. We had come looking to learn more about the American Revolution, with a night out to see the baseball, but the city offered something else.
Here’s what happened when we stumbled into Boston during one of their biggest moments since America got its independence.
After a long drive from New York City, through Connecticut and up into Massachusetts, we finally arrived into the frantic traffic of Downtown Boston. Coming up from an underground highway and into the city was really hectic, and we were glad we were staying in a quieter side of town, near the Charleston Navy Yard across the Charles River. We parked up the car for the weekend, and caught our breaths in our motel room.
RED SOX AT FENWAY PARK
Now as I mentioned earlier, American history plays a big part in Boston and we wanted to learn more, but before all of that, there was a more important part of Boston we had to explore. We had been lucky enough to acquire two tickets to cheap seats at Fenway Park to watch the Boston Red Sox take on the Milwaukee Brewers that very night, so we were soon out the door.
After a free shuttle took us back over the river and into the city, we joined hundreds of other cheerful and often drunk baseball fans in catching the T – Boston’s underground tram system. At this point, we weren’t armed with any kind of map and we didn’t really have a clue where to go, so we just followed the masses and it worked out perfectly. After leaving the train and going for a short walk, America’s favourite baseball stadium Fenway Park was there in front of us.
Now this was our second baseball game we’d been to, as we’d seen the New York Yankees take on Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium, but this experience was something different. I’ll write about these baseball games and the stadiums later in a separate entry, but suffice to say that going to Fenway Park to see the Boston Red Sox play is absolutely something every visitor to Boston must do. Needless to say, the Red Sox beat Milwaukee that night, and we made our way back to the motel amongst many happy chanting Bostonians. It was a very good night.
THE STANLEY SURPRISE
The next morning, after sleeping in for a bit, it was time to get back to seeing Boston, and getting to know a bit about its place in the American Revolution. I really wanted to know who this Paul Revere guy was whose name kept popping up whenever I tried to learn more about American history. We waited for the free shuttle outside our motel but it never showed up, but as it was a short walk we headed out on foot.
As we crossed the bridge, though, we came to a large crowd of people walking out of the city, dressed in black and yellow. We fought against the flow of the crowd and made our way into the city to find it in a shambles. There were no cars around, but there were thousands of people filling the streets everywhere. Was this a social uprising? But why was it raining black and yellow confetti? I took another look around, and I began to notice the design on people’s shirts, and all the slogans on their signs. Then I looked at where most of them were standing and taking photos: TD Garden – home of the Boston Celtics basketball team but more importantly right now, home of the Boston Bruins ice hockey team. In a flash I recalled reading that the Bruins had recently won the Stanley Cup – the highest championship honour in ice hockey. I began to listen to the fans around us and heard that the Stanley Cup was being paraded through the city with the team. This explained everything.
Bostonians are probably the biggest die-hard sports fans in America, and this was their big moment. The entire city had been shut down so that everyone could celebrate to their heart’s content, and the place was set to party mode.
Suddenly, my thoughts were interrupted as a man bumped past me with his two teenage daughters. He stopped a little ahead of me to speak to a police officer on crowd patrol, and frantically asked where the Stanley Cup was up to, and if he could still make it. He seemed determined not to let his daughters down, but the officer didn’t look hopeful. He told him that the Stanley Cup had passed this area some time ago, and explained where it was going. He said it was unlikely the man would catch it, but maybe, if he hurried… then the man and his daughters were off. In an instance, Jessie and I looked at each other and decided it was a good idea – how cool would it be to see the real Stanley Cup in Boston, even if we weren’t real ice hockey fans? We rushed off after them, taking note of their brightly coloured clothes and caps.
We darted through the crazy scenes of the city, often losing the family then finding them again. We had no idea where we were going, but it was getting busier. There were people climbing lamp posts and chanting, dressed in ice hockey gear, and the crowds were getting thicker. Ambulances were even there looking after people who had collapsed. We were passing big impressive buildings that were probably famous but we had no idea – all we wanted to do was get to that trophy. After a while, we lost the family for good, but could see we were headed in the right direction from all the crowds. Unfortunately, though, as we got closer, the crowds were just too dense and police were blocking off roads to pedestrians. We couldn’t get through, and we never got to see the Stanley Cup.
THE FREEDOM TRAIL
On a positive note, however, we now found ourselves right next to Boston Common – a large public park in the middle of the city with a few scenic ponds and famous old sculptures and statues. Here, you can find tons of people, especially young students, lying about in the sun, or people walking their dogs. It also has the famous swan boats, but we found these to be a disappointment because they’re just long rafts with bench seats and a swan design at the back. They also had really long queues so we didn’t bother. However, just opposite this park you can find the original tavern that inspired the old TV sitcom Cheers. It is actually completely different inside, but it’s where the creators of the TV series got the idea for the look of the bar and the types of people frequenting it. Unfortunately, though, now it’s nothing more than an expensive tourist trap.
Boston Common is also the beginning of Boston’s Freedom Trail – a trail marked by red bricks in the ground that takes you all along the famous historic sights of the city. The trail starts at the park and quickly leads to the gates of the large and impressive Boston State House, with its golden dome roof, before taking you further into the older parts of the city. Who needs a map when there’s a set line to follow on the ground that takes you to all the best places?
First, we followed our red brick line past some old churches, chapels and cemeteries. Some of these were impressive, like the fancy King’s Chapel with its VIP pews, while others were less so. The trail took us past the Old City Hall then past the even older Old State House. Next, we were taken to the building which housed the meetings of the conspirators (including Samuel Adams) that would initiate the Boston Tea Party – the historical event where the colonial rebels threw all the imported British tea off the ships to protest against the unfair tax rates forced upon them. This was all rather fascinating but there wasn’t actually much to see.
Next, we were walking along and came across something truly magnificent. We’d been hoping to try some really authentic Boston cream pie (a delicious dessert invented in the region), but we didn’t expect to find a sign that read: Boston Cream Pie – invented here in 1867. It was the Parker House Hotel, which we’d never heard of but soon we were inside sitting in its café. Obviously we ordered a Boston Cream Pie, which was expensive for its small size, but amazing. It’s like a light and fluffy sponge cake that’s moistened with a sweet cream filling and a layer of chocolate on top (and this one had almond flakes, too). We licked our tips and headed back to the trail, happy that we can cross that item off our Boston bucket lists.
The Freedom Trail soon brought us to the Quincy Market, which is a long building (actually a few long buildings side by side) of indoor markets and food courts. If you’re hungry then this is a great place to stop for lunch, as the food on offer looks amazing in both quality and diversity, but unfortunately for us we weren’t hungry and so we continued on our journey, following the trail to our next point of interest.
We found ourselves wandering into a different part of town that looked slightly more British. The streets where narrow, winding and cobblestoned, and we were seeing a lot of old pubs and taverns. We later found that this area is called North End, and is home to hip cafes and restaurants, too. We came across one of the United States’ oldest taverns – the Bell in Hand, which claims the longest continuous operation, only closing during prohibition. Anyway, it looked old and British enough, but we didn’t have time to quench our thirst with ale, as we were on a mission.
Then we came across a decent queen standing outside a very old house. The sign read the Home of Paul Revere. We had heard the name before, but who was this man? After reading a few information boards, backed up by information offered by tours, we discovered that he was the Bostonian man that spied the British redcoat soldiers approaching with plans to take all ammunitions off of the colonials with rebel tendencies. At this sight, he jumped on his horse and began his famous historical Midnight Ride across the hills to warn his fellows so they would be ready, and ready they were, as when the soldiers arrived, the locals were hiding behind fences and trees, guns drawn. We also learned an interesting piece of trivia, stating that the common understanding that Revere cried out “the British are coming!” is false, as back then many colonials also still referred to themselves as British and this would just have confused them. He would probably have said “the Regulars are coming” as that is what the British army were known as. In fact, it’s likely that he didn’t shout anything as he depended on stealth and secrecy. A little walk later and the Freedom Trail had brought us to a big statue sculpture of the man himself, riding on his horse.
From here, the Freedom Trail took us back over the bridge to the Charleston Navy Yard and to the USS Constitution – a three masted warship from 1797, named by George Washington. It’s currently the world’s oldest naval vessel afloat. Here, you’ll find a museum about the ship and the naval history of the area, but we didn’t go in as it has an admission fee, and to be honest, naval history doesn’t really float our boats. Ha!
After this, the Freedom Trail winds its way up around Charleston and ends at Bunker Hill, where you’ll find a tall obelisk monument much like the Washington Monument in Washington DC. This monument marks the Battle of Bunker Hill, where the rebels battled the British redcoats back in 1775. Actually, the battle took place on nearby Breed’s Hill but the troops got a bit confused. Unfortunately, we ran out of time and didn’t make it to Bunker Hill but you can spot the Bunker Hill Monument from afar.
Lucky for us, there was still a lot of sun left in the sky so we decided to make a trip out to Harvard to see the famous Harvard University. We caught the T and made it to our destination around 30 minutes later we had reached our destination. We emerged from our underground tram to find ourselves right in the centre of Harvard Square connecting us to all the main streets of the area.
Immediately we noticed the crimson ‘H’ flags hanging from everywhere, and the student cafes, restaurants and book stores. For a place that caters to what are supposed to be some of the smartest minds on the planet, it sure did seem like a standard university hangout. I was almost expecting stores that sell the latest abacuses or microscopes, but instead there were Mexican fast food places and Starbucks. I guess deep down even the smartest people eat the same stuff that we do.
We walked along until we found ourselves at the edge of Harvard University, with big arched gates welcoming students in. We wandered inside and I immediately felt a bit smarter. Well, maybe not smarter, but I definitely felt more pompous and entitled.
The campus was a bunch of big old red brick buildings amongst grassed squares with connecting pathways. There were a few students hurrying past as if they were late for a potions class, but otherwise it was rather dead. I was expecting geniuses debating quantum theories in the quad, or kicking around a hacky sack whilst discussing physics, but there was nothing. It seems even Harvard students go home and do their own things on the weekends instead of putting on displays for tourists.
After a bit more exploration of Harvard and a cheap student dinner, we headed back to our hotel for the night.
BOSTON DUCK TOUR
While wandering about Boston the previous day, we had heard various in-jokes that we didn’t quite understand about tourists quacking throughout the city. The meaning of this came clear to us when we saw a large open-top vehicle drive past that seemed to be a cross between a boat and a truck, carrying a bunch of tourists. It was a DUKW vehicle – an amphibious military truck that can drive on land and sea that was used during World War II, and is now a popular part of tourism as cities use these to provide “duck tours”. In fact, Boston is famous for its duck tours and has a whole fleet, so they’re a common sight in the city. As they drive around, tourists are instructed to quack at people and familiar Bostonians will quack back. We’d seen a bit of the city along the Freedom trail, but a duck tour seemed the perfect way to see the rest of it, we headed towards the Boston Museum of Science where the duck tours begin and got ourselves some tickets.
All the different duck trucks (there are at least 17) have individual names and decorations, as well as characters for drivers – ours was Extreme Eddie Airtime: a motorcycle stuntman with bad luck. After boarding, we noticed black and yellow confetti on the seats and floor, and were informed that the previous day’s Stanley Cup parade was held on duck trucks, with our one carrying the Boston Bruins and their trophy. The ducks were also part of the Boston Celtics and the Red Sox had also celebrated championship wins with duck truck parades, so it seemed that the vehicles truly were an iconic part of Boston.
The tour took us all around the city, with our great driver and guide Eddie Airtime giving us insight into all the places we were passing, as well as a bunch of jokes. After driving around on the city roads for a while, it was time to hit the river so we went down a ramp into the water and our truck became a boat. We floated around, hearing about the history of the bridges and nearby MIT, and we even got a turn at driving! Photos were taken and then we were back up and out of the water and dropped off where we started after a fun and informative tour of Boston.
When we had finished up with the duck tour, we still had a bit of time before we had to head home so we made our way over to the harbour and decided to try whale watching. We bought our tickets and boarded a big boat and before we knew it we were headed out towards Cape Cod.
The seas were rough and I actually felt a little queasy for a bit as the boat bounced upwards then crashed back down on the waves, while we stood on the bough and held on to the railing like it was a theme park ride. It was a very long journey out into the Atlantic but all the nausea was gone by the time we spotted our first whales. We were informed that they were humpback whales, and we went in for a closer look.
I’d never seen humpback whales before so even though they weren’t jumping out of the water and putting on a show it was still exciting just to see them swim by, wave a flipper then splash their giant tails before diving back down. Overall, we saw probably around six or seven humpbacks all together before it was time to make the voyage back to Boston.
The whale watching tour was late to get back to the harbour so we were pretty rushed to hit the road and head back to New York City before it got really dark. It turned out that we had no chance of beating the setting sun, though, as we hit big traffic jams most of the way home and arrived back after midnight.
While I had thought Boston would be a huge lesson in history, the city had shown us something else altogether. We learned about the American Revolution and Paul Revere, but all of that was overshadowed by the Bostonian love for sport. We felt the intimate unity of the Red Sox winning an easy game against Milwaukee and then got to experience the entire city come alive during the Stanley Cup victory parade. On our trip to Boston, the city put on a display of all its achievements and claims to fame and definitely showed us that it has a lot to be proud of.
Jessie and I went to Boston from Friday, November 17th to Sunday, November 19th, 2011 staying at the Constitution Inn near the Charleston Navy Yard, which is more like an extension of the YMCA hostel than an actual hotel.