Saturday, 25 August 2012

... been to Boston

Boston has a reputation – in the US at least – for being a city Europeans feel comfortable in (perhaps because of its inhabitants' other reputation as being rude and standoffish). The first reputation, I can report, is well-deserved; because it's a pre-car city (unlike, say, Las Vegas or most of LA) it's built on a human scale as far as distance is concerned: it's also known as “the walking city”. The town centre is small and a bit higgledy-piggledy – not the ramrod gridlines of midtown New York (or indeed Nashville, of which more later) and many of the 18th and 19th century buildings have been preserved: in short, it feels a bit like home.

State House (1700s) with skyscrapers
The second reputation, however, is quite undeserved: Bostonians are just as friendly as any other Americans (and friendlier than nearby New Yorkers) – even though they don't indulge in the slightly alarming Southern habit of touching your arm when giving directions/advice. The people are ever so happy to help (yes, even tourists) and the general have-a-nice-day quotient is pretty high.

One of the most important things to do in Boston is find somewhere decent to stay: it's an expensive city and accommodation is at a premium. Bex did the best she could with the Rough Guide info she had, but unfortunately our youth hostel at 40 Berkeley Street was both pretty expensive ($135/about £90 for a two-bed private room per night) and a little … prisony (see below).
One night's hard labour, no parole.
Holloway-tastic! A Travelodge – if they existed over here – would have been cheaper and better, but that's Boston for you. Also, their promised wifi was down, which sent me into a spiral of withdrawal symptoms complicated by jetlag on the first night, resulting in a bout of extreme sulking: if Bex weren't used to dealing with problem teens she probably would have lamped me. Luckily we found a rather better place for the second night for only $30 (about £10 each) more.

This was the recently relocated Hostelling International Boston, a place so hip and exclusive that they didn't answer the phone and their website had no details of what they offered, room pics, facilites etc. - only a booking form. But we were pretty desperate to escape Berketraz so we booked the last room and humped our stuff half a mile across town. This is what the bedroom and ensuite bathroom looked like (it was communal bathrooms at Berketraz, before you ask):
Map of Boston tube on shower curtain!

Wow! Nice beds, a desk and a telly! Our cup runneth over ...

Swipe me! A sexy lobby full of pretty people (and Bex)
Now that's more like it. HI Boston had working wifi, a TV in the room, sleeping space for three(!) and was five minutes from downtown – the theatre district, the cinemas, and, crucially, the trolleybuses. I can highly recommend it for anyone visiting Boston with about £50/$80 per night to spend on accommodation: it's basically a hip, minimalist hotel ... although if you want bacon & eggs in the morning you'll have to go out, because the breakfast is pretty basic; self-service bread, bagels, cereal & yoghurt.

But anyway, back to the trolleybuses. These are a staple of the Boston tourist scene, and are so popular that there are three rival companies competing for your custom: OldTown Tours (wooden seats, old-timey-looking buses, Top Deck (two-storey open coaches with fully padded seats for the more comfort-seeking/obese tourist) and another one I forget. All tours are narrated by the drivers, with varying degrees of humour and success; all also include some freebies.
Inside of the trolleybus

Outside (with waving idiots)
Old Town are the most expensive at $42 per (two day) ticket – and also, be warned, they don't go to Harvard, though they do cross the Charles River into Cambridge and show you MIT. But their driver-guides were great and their service is the most frequent – every 15 minutes, which is useful if you intend to use the trolleys as a sort of supplementary public transport (Boston also has a swift and efficient five-line underground system called the T). Unlike normal buses and the T, the trolleys only go clockwise around the city, but if you're not in a hurry this won't be a problem … and you'll get to see Fenway Park (home of the Red Sox for whom Babe Ruth played), the Christian Science HQ (a mahusive domed church), the eighteenth-century State House, Boston Common (beautiful public park) and its swan boats, the Cheers bar (outside only) and more.

The Old Town ticket also includes a 45-minute tour of the inner Boston Harbour – which was great, as you can hop off to visit the USS Constitution – built in 1797, it's the oldest continuous-service warship in history – and poke around (admission's free, though security is a bit of a pain). Finally, you get into the State House (see above), from the balcony of which the Declaration of Independence was first read.
Where everybody knows you're a tourist ...

Hancock's togs
Squee! It only takes about 30 minutes to go round as it's so small, but it's a lovely Georgian building with a great gift shop and you get to see John Hancock's coat and Bible.But enough of history and culture! What about the food? Well, for that I'm going to need a whole separate blog post, so hold your horses – in the meanwhile I give you ...

Dunkin' Donuts is BIG in Boston. I mean really big – their slogan is “America runs on Dunkin'” and if you lived in Boston, where there is literally one on every street, you'd believe it. (It's less evident in the South – Nashville didn't have a branch that I saw). The great thing about Dunkin' Donuts is that it does more than just do(ugh)nuts: it does decent-strength coffee (with syrups which I LOVE) and it has the best vegetarian selection of any major chain: veggie burritos, egg and cheese muffins, egg white flatbreads and Texas Toast Grilled Cheese are all on the menu.

If you're a vegan you're pretty screwed, but that's true of much of the US. The only thing you could eat – potentially – would be the spinach and artichoke dip which appears on almost every bar menu and seems to be a local speciality. But I'm pretty sure they put cheese in that :/

Next stop: Nashville, Tennessee, where we go bar-hoppin', drive to Jack Daniel's distillery, discover why you should always carry a credit card, and Bex buys some cowboy boots. 

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