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Boston in winter brings history alive

A heavy blanket of snow doesn't dampen the enthusiasm for art, culture, good food and Revolutionary times.

Snow fell in great wet clumps and stuck without prejudice to any surface it found. The cars, streets, buildings, people and dogs of Boston all bore a blanket of white.

At a busy intersection downtown, I drew a line across the sidewalk with my boot, searching in vain for the painted red line that denotes the Freedom Trail, a normally well-marked pathway connecting some of the pivotal places in Revolutionary history.

I had the idea that this painted line was going to make my job a breeze. I am, it's true, a travel reporter, but I confess I cannot read maps.

I intended to spend an afternoon in ignorant bliss, with the red line as my guide. But the snow ruined my plan, and it was fast ruining my Freedom Trail map, which I wouldn't have been able to read even if it were not stuffed in pieces into my jacket pocket. Oh, well.

My wife, Beth, and I had been in Boston for three days, during a wintry week last January, and we had found plenty of warm places to bask in the glow of fine art, high culture, gourmet cuisine and American history _ without a map. We wore warm clothes and asked directions, and it all worked out fine.

One of the beauties of Boston is its European compactness. We walked everywhere, and even in the worst of winter weather, I was glad we did.

The Old North Church, Paul Revere's House, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, a cozy bistro in the North End, our toasty bed-and-breakfast, a Schubert concert, Trinity Church _ they all were within walking distance.

Seeing the city on foot, I came to know it in a more intimate way.

"Why do I avoid the paths that the other wanderers have taken?"

The baritone's booming voice filled the capacious, tapestry-lined hall in the Italian villa.

"Why do I look for the hidden steps through the snowy, rocky heights?"

Why hadn't we taken a taxi to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum?

If there was one walk in Boston I had second thoughts about, it was trudging into an icy headwind along the Fenway to this incredibly out-of-place Venetian palazzo, which was moved, piece by piece, from Italy to Boston at the turn of the 20th century.

The museum was only 1{ miles from our bed-and-breakfast in the South End. However, it was 5 degrees outside, and the wind was gusting to 30 miles per hour.

Yet the 25 minutes of Sturm und Drang it took to get there was a minor cost for an affordable ($15) yet world-class Schubert recital.

As good as the concert was, wandering through the museum afterward was better. The Gardner Museum is a magnificent American anomaly, as was the woman it is named after.

Gardner was "one of the seven wonders of Boston," a reporter wrote of her in 1875. "All Boston is divided into two parts, of which one follows science, and the other Mrs. Jack Gardner."

A socialite who liked making a splash, Gardner declared herself a Buddhist, had an ornate carriage complete with footmen and once took a pet lion for a walk on a leash along Tremont Street.

After her husband's death, Gardner put her considerable energy into building a museum to house her art collection.

She imported the Venetian palace and had it reassembled with other architectural elements from Europe. The four-story building centers on a large interior courtyard with fountains, gardens and a Roman floor mosaic in the center. Its elaborate stone patterns frame a smiling head of Medusa, her hair a nest of wings and snakes.

Gardner poured her family fortune into the house: Botticellis, Rembrandts, Michelangelos, Flemish tapestries, Greek and Roman statuary. The walls are layered with millions upon millions of dollars' worth of art.

Gardner stipulated in her will that the museum never be changed and that no new works be purchased. It sits now just the way she meant it to sit, with its walls crammed from floor to ceiling with art she chose.

My favorite place in the museum is the Spanish Cloister, where one of Sargent's masterworks hangs in a place of honor, framed by a Moorish arch.

El Jaleo (The Ruckus) is nearly 8 feet high and 12 long, and the scene strikes the eye with the heat of a summer night in Spain.

It depicts an ivory-skinned woman dancing flamenco, her left arm arrested in flight, the fingers hooked like the horns of a bull. The light enters the scene from the bottom; her skirt glows like new snow. Guitar players, heads down, strum in her shadow. Her head is tossed back; she has abandoned herself to the passion of the music.

When I left the building, I had sweat on my brow.

Making more land

for the city

In its beginning, Boston was built on a long, narrow peninsula with a round land mass at its tip. Over the decades, the peninsula was built up. Tons and tons of earth were moved to push the sea outward and allow the city to grow.

The North End was that original knob of land, and it is where Boston's oldest landmarks rest. It is also the best place to find an Italian meal.

Before I left for Boston, I asked a friend who had lived there for many years where to go for good food. He said, "Pick any little storefront Italian place in the North End. It'll be fantastic."

A 25-minute walk from our B&B took us to the narrow old streets of the North End. We stopped outside a small storefront with a simple sign: Pomodoro.

Steam condensed on the plate glass windows; we could see the foggy shape of the waiter moving among the tables inside.

There was one open table among the nine crammed into the room. The kitchen was open; we could see three young men working in tandem behind the counter. One frantically washed dishes by hand. The other two stood behind the counter, juggling pans. There was a loud sizzle, and flames danced up under their chins. They shouted back and forth in Italian.

The waiter stood by our table, shoulders slumped, pad and pencil ready. "No cold drinks," he announced. "Wine, beer, water. That's it. No dessert, either. You'll have to get that somewhere else."

We ordered. I got veal scaloppini and risotto with green olives. Beth had salt cod and tiger shrimp tossed with bow-tie pasta.

We noshed on warm, crusty bread dipped in virgin olive oil, then dug into our meals.

Flames continued to dance behind the counter. The air reverberated with the conversation of our fellow diners, the clatter of silverware and the back-and-forth negotiations of the Italian staff.

For a couple of hours, the icy world outside the steamed-up window ceased to exist.

Walkabouts

and a blizzard

We started each day at our B&B, the Clarendon Square Inn, a magnificently renovated four-story row house in the South End, just off Tremont Street.

Every morning, the breakfast buffet _ cold cereal, fresh-baked rolls, orange juice and coffee _ greeted us in the formal dining room.

Then we set out on walks that took us to some of Boston's landmarks. We spent an afternoon on the Harvard campus, among the throngs of students.

There we looked at the collection of American Indian artifacts at the Peabody Museum and marveled at the collection of the world's flowers at the Botanical Museum. Lying in row after row of cases, the flowers were perfect replicas made of hand-blown glass. The purple irises, for example, looked as if they'd been picked moments before and gently laid on the counter.

We admired the John Singer Sargent murals at the Boston Public Library and the William Morris stained glass in Trinity Church.

At the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, we reveled in Van Goghs, Monets and Gauguins, as well as a huge collection of Egyptian, Greek and Roman statuary.

We also looked straight into the eyes of Paul Revere, who grasps his chin wisely in a portrait by John Singleton Copley.

Revere was a silversmith, and in the portrait he's holding a teapot. His engraving tools are scattered on the table before him. In the same room, many pieces of Revere's elaborate silverware are on display.

On my last day in Boston, a blizzard struck. Beth had already gone home; it was my day to explore the town's Revolutionary history sites.

Because so many of the key events of the war happened within Boston's city limits, the town painted a red line connecting them all on the sidewalk and labeled it the Freedom Trail.

Tourists can pick up a brochure that connects the dots with historical context and trivia. That's what I did, walking to Boston Common, stepping into the visitors' kiosk and setting out into the falling snow with the map in hand.

The flakes rendered the skyline a ghostly gray and swept the grime of the city under a brilliant white rug of snow.

At the Old State House (built in 1713), I stood on the site of the Boston Massacre, where a confrontation in 1770 between Colonial protesters and British soldiers ended when the Redcoats panicked and opened fire, killing five men.

From where I stood on the street, I could look up at the balcony from which the Declaration of Independence was read.

I trudged by the statue of Paul Revere on my way to the Old North Church, which, thanks to the blizzard, was utterly empty. The silence allowed me to install my own set of voices, faces and sights.

Standing there with the snow from my boots melting on the floor, I looked over the ancient boxed pews, the soaring ceiling, and wondered at the people who had been there before me.

In the 1750s, Revere was just a neighborhood boy who rang the bells in the church, and in 1775, he was the patriot who asked the sexton to hang two lanterns in the 191-foot tower to alert the Americans that the British were approaching Lexington by sea.

As I left the church, I realized I was getting wet and a little cold, but I also found myself in the grip of a Revolutionary fervor.

I was only a mile or so from the Bunker Hill Monument, and I decided to press on. I crossed the Charlestown Bridge in an icy wind. There was a good 8 inches of wet snow on the ground when I finally got to Bunker Hill. I savored the idea that I was seeing the battle site under the kind of trying conditions the patriots endured. But I did not remember my history well:

I determined from a scrap of my soggy Freedom Trail map that the battle was actually fought on June 17, 1775, and that the monument stands on Breed's Hill, not Bunker.

Further, the battle was a defeat for the Americans, who were overrun by the British after a pitched battle. Still, it was a rallying point for the Colonists: Two Redcoats died for every patriot.

There, too, I was alone, save for a couple of city workers clearing the stairs on one side of the hill. A giant obelisk rises from the center of the mount, and a snow-draped statue of Col. William Prescott, sword drawn, defied the storm in front of it.

It was Prescott who cried out, encouraging his troops, "Don't one of you fire until you see the whites of their eyes!"

I could feel icy water squishing in my boots, and I was tired and cold. Somehow, that helped make the place come alive with the voices and sacrifices of the past.

It made me glad that a little snow hadn't kept me from getting out on the town.

+ + +

Paul Revere's house, which sits at the end of a long row of more modern apartment buildings, has been preserved as a museum.

Old pew boxes and soaring ceilings mark the inside of the Old North Church, whose two lanterns alerted Revolutionary patriots that the British were coming by sea.

One seeking culture might end up at the rotunda of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which houses Van Goghs, Monets and Gauguins, as well as a huge collection of Egyptian, Greek and Roman statuary.

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