Lucy Barnard takes the Freedom Trail in Boston.
Freedom’s long march
A year after the tragic events of the Boston Marathon, the US city is drawing more tourists than ever to sample its historical attractions and to walk the city’s famous Freedom Trail.
As the bells of the Park Street Congregationalist Church chime the hour, a tall gentleman dressed in a 17th-century costume gathers a crowd of about 40 people around him on Boston Common.
“All citizens on the Freedom Trail stand forth and be counted,” shouts the man who introduces himself as Barzillai Lew, an African-American who fought in the 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill, as he collects our tickets and makes sure that we have secured Freedom Trail tags to our coats.
Boston’s famous Freedom Trail, now in its 63rd year, continues to pull in the crowds. The 4km walk which connects some of the United States’ oldest and most historic monuments is a big draw for Americans of all ages keen to learn more about their country’s founding fathers. A growing number of international tourists are also attracted to the trail, since events in 18th-century Boston shaped much of modern world politics as well.
Most of the visitors today are American but from all over the country: Oregon, Maryland, California, Nevada, Washington DC, Texas and Kansas to name but a few. And then there are the rest of us; several couples from Canada, a smattering from Ireland, and myself originally from the UK. “You can’t have the colonies back,” Lew quips.
The tours are nothing if not interactive. First off we get a talk about the Boston Common, which was originally used for cattle grazing, capital punishment and training the militia.
Lew asks a little boy of 9 to stand at the front. “In two more years you would be able to join the militia, son,” he says, pointing his stick at the smiling child. “God help us all.”
Next it’s a gentle stroll through the Common to see Boston’s famous gold-domed New State House and to get a talk about life for the Puritans who founded Boston in 1630.
“What games do you like to play, young man?” Lew asks another small child. “Tag? Hangman? There were NO games under the Puritans.”
He then pulls a tall smirking teenager out from the crowd and gets him to demonstrate in graphic detail how people would have stood in the stocks on the Common for punishment of minor offences while we all throw make-believe rotten vegetables at him.
Around 3.2 million people walked the Freedom Trail last year, a number that has been boosted by a wave of American patriotism after Boston’s tragic marathon bomb blasts – the worst terrorist attacks to take place on US soil since 9/11 – which took place just a few blocks away from the trail last year on April 15.
“Boston is a very popular destination for Americans all across the country, especially with school groups who come to learn about our nation’s history,” says Patrick Moscaritolo, president of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“In the first couple of weeks after the bombing last year, attendances were down by around 25 per cent as people stopped coming. But very soon after that we started to see this amazing resilience among young people today that ‘we want to be there and to make a statement and to raise money for a fund to help the victims’. Now we reckon that our revenue per available room for 2013 ended up at its highest rate ever.”
Now that Emirates Airline has started flying a direct route from Dubai to Boston, the bureau is hoping to attract more visitors from the Middle East to sample the city’s unique heritage.
The walk is marked throughout Boston by either a thick red line painted on the pavement or by a line of red bricks concreted into the floor. It runs from Boston Common in the south, through the city centre, through the North End neighbourhood, and then over the Charlestown Bridge into the town of Cambridge, culminating in a steep climb up the Bunker Hill Monument.
Boston weather can be brutal with winter temperatures falling to well below zero and rain and snow commonplace, so it’s best to check the weather before you start and dress appropriately.
The trail itself and access to most of the monuments is completely free with signs clearly describing the historic events that took place and their significance. However, guided tours, books, audio guides and iPod apps do carry a small cost.
The tour continues to the Granary Burying Ground, where we learn about the founding fathers who rest there. These include Paul Revere, a silversmith, dispatch rider and jack of all trades, who was made famous by the poet Longfellow for riding his horse from Boston to the nearby towns of Concord and Lexington to warn the rebels of the colony that British soldiers were coming to seize the weapons they had stockpiled in the countryside.
And this is no one-sided propaganda tour as one might have feared. Lew points out that John Hancock, another of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence, also buried here, is just a few feet away from one of his slaves.
It’s an easy walk past the Omni Parker Hotel, where Ho Chi Minh once worked as a pastry chef and Malcolm X once waited tables, to the Old South Meeting House where at a packed debate in 1773, crowds argued about how to react to the hated tea tax imposed by the British on tea shipped into Boston Harbour. The result at the time was for settlers dressed as Mohawk Indians to force their way aboard the ships and throw 30 tonnes of tea into the sea, in an event known to history as the Boston Tea Party. From there it’s on to the Old State House, the site of the infamous Boston Massacre.
The guided tour completes at Fenueil (pronounced fan-you-all) Hall, Boston’s oldest market place and lecture hall. It’s only about a third of the way through the route, but it’s a great place to grab a snack and watch the street theatre – or simply to warm up.
From here there are further guided tours you can take covering the next leg of the journey, but most people tend to follow the trail independently through Boston’s North End district past Paul Revere’s house and through Boston’s oldest Italian neighbourhood where one can stop off for a meal at one of a plethora of tiny restaurants or pop in for a traditional Sicilian pastry in shops that have over the years become a Boston tradition.
Next, the trail leads up to New North Church, the chapel where lanterns were famously placed at the top of the steeple warning the rebels that the British soldiers were coming to seize the weapons in Lexington and Concorde. Then onwards past TD Garden to the city’s historic shipyards, where the famous ship USS Constitution, otherwise known as “Old Ironsides”, is permanently docked. Then up the 300 odd stairs of the imposing grey stone obelisk of the Bunker Hill Monument.
If nothing else, it’s a great way to get your bearings in a city which, unlike many American destinations, is most pleasantly explored on foot. And, with a thick red line to follow at nearly every turn, it’s easy to find your way back again should you ever take a wrong turn or when the line occasionally disappears or appears to lead off and suddenly stop.
It’s a good starting point to explore Boston’s numerous other attractions, most of which are handily located just a few blocks away, such as Fenway Park, the famous home of the Red Sox, the internationally famous colleges of Harvard and MIT and Boston’s wide collection of art galleries, theatres and delicious seafood restaurants.
And as you continue along the increasingly strenuous route, the best thing of all is that there is a tremendous camaraderie with your fellow trail pilgrims. Many are willing to take photographs of you and generally encourage you along the way.
“Now you’ve seen how the country started you’ll have to come back and see what happened next,” one old man quips to me as I limp exhaustedly back towards the city centre.
I hope he’s right.