Surprising Baltimore

The city lives in Washington’s shadow. I had visited Baltimore once before so I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. On my previous visit I planned the evening activities for a conference—for a city I had never set foot in. Thanks to internet research, the activities I found were very successful, one a Duck Tour and the other a walking tour/ghost tour of historic Fell’s Point.

We stayed near BWI, mostly because air fares and hotel rates are cheaper. After we got in Thursday afternoon, we took the light rail from the hotel in Linthicum to downtown Baltimore. By sheer dumb luck (on my part—I made the reservations), the station was a five-minute walk from the hotel.

One of the things I enjoy about traveling in the East is the variety of cheap, efficient and comfortable transportation. The light rail into Baltimore was $1.60 for Gary and even less for me at the senior rate. Downtown Baltimore has a free bus called the “Charm City Circulator,” with three large looping routes that took us everywhere we wanted to go and then some. The train trip from BWI to Washington’s Union Station on Maryland’s rail system cost $6 each way, and we used the free hotel shuttle to get back and forth from BWI for our day in Washington. We didn’t even use Washington’s Metro system this trip, but we usually buy day passes and ride all over.

After exploring Camden Yards and the Oriole’s ballpark, visiting the Babe Ruth birthplace and museum (note how I skim quickly over the sports stuff), and Poe’s grave, we took the CCC green route to  Fell’s Point.

Gary and the Babe at Camden Yards

Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum

Edgar Allan and me.

Gary had forgotten to pack a hat and I said we were unlikely to find a thrift store, but there on South Broadway in Fell’s Point, amidst the pizza places and crab restaurants, he found a Baltimore Ravens hat, deep purple, for $3.

We stopped in the world’s best-named hotel, the Admiral Fell Inn (near the waterfront, of course), and peeked into the bar where, according to legend, Poe took his last drink, The Horse You Came in On, which calls itself  the oldest bar in America. 

We had a wonderful dinner at an upstairs window table overlooking the waterfront at Kooper’s Tavern,  and for dessert fabulous orange-chocolate and coconut gelato at a nearby gelato shop. The food in Baltimore is uniformly wonderful, especially seafood and pizza.

Maryland IS for crabs!

Something that constantly amazed me on this trip was how nice everyone was, from bus drivers to museum docents to waiters, clerks and total strangers. Everyone said “hello,” everyone asked how you were, and we received unsolicited kindnesses. We were trying to decipher the light rail map, having missed at least one train while we figured out whether we wanted to go northbound or southbound, and a woman came up and asked if she could help, which she did, and told us what train to take for the return trip. People think Easterners are short-tempered and rude, but we did not encounter any rudeness. The most impolite thing that happened was when I popped into a liquor store to get some snacks and wine one evening; Gary hadn’t caught up with me so I was alone, the only woman and the only white person in the store. As I was paying, a dapper young black man was singing, obviously for my benefit, “Everybody knows a white woman loves a well-dressed man,” or something to that effect. I paid no attention, and soon Gary walked in. As we left the guy came up to me and apologized, said he didn’t mean to offend me—apparently he didn’t want me to sic “my man” on him. I just smiled and told him I had ignored it and I wasn’t offended. I really wasn’t—I thought it was funny.

The MARC trains don’t run into Washington on Saturdays and we would have to take a hotel shuttle to BWI, then a Metro bus to the Greenbelt Metro station and then the Metro into downtown. We were so tired from the day in Washington Friday we slept in and decided to stay in Baltimore, again using the light rail.

Once downtown, we hopped on the CCC to Fell’s Point, and from there the water taxi to Fort McHenry,  bookending our visit to Fort Sumter in Charleston, in 2005, although the wars and the combatants were very different. But each is a historic fort on an island just outside a major city and both saw pivotal battles in their respective wars.

The usual entrance fee is $7, and we were going to use my national parks pass, but for some unexplained reason this day it was free. (I later stumbled across the fact that it was National Parks Week and all national parks were free.) We watched the film that described the history of the battle that made the fort famous: how the British shelled it to break through and attack Baltimore, and the fort held out, while Francis Scott Key, watching from a British ship where he had been negotiating the release of a war prisoner, was inspired to write the words of what became “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Ranger and Bluecoat

I’m a pretty cynical person and don’t care for mushy patriotism, but when the film ended with a gorgeous rendition by an all-male chorus—probably one of the military academy glee clubs—of the song, which is so often mangled and desecrated by warbling and screeching pop singers at sporting events, first the kids, many of whom were scouts, and then, slowly, the adults, began to stand, and then—well, I won’t tell you the grand finale of the film because it’s such a surprise. I hope you go and visit for yourself. I was truly moved, and sang along in my best voice. I will never hear, sing, or think about the national anthem the same way again.  I was also impressed with the fact that the scouts led the way in standing.

After the film we explored the fort, got a picture of a Bluecoat re-enactor in a very stylish bicorn hat, and then a ranger called out for people to come and help unfurl the flag, a replica of the one that flew over the fort. (The real flag is in the  Smithsonian’s Museum of American History.) So everyone, including many of those scouts, lined up in two rows as the ranger passed the rolled flag down the rows. Then the two lines stepped apart, unrolling the flag, and she told us in great and lengthy detail the story, most of which we had heard in the film, of the battle and the flag. It was impressive and very heavy. The dimensions are 30 X 42 feet. It has 15 stars and 15 stripes—for awhile stripes were added along with stars. It wasn’t flying that day because there wasn’t enough wind for it to fly; they have different size flags for different conditions, but a flag flies at the fort night and day. As we stood holding it and listening to the very long talk, the flag becoming heavier and heavier, and not wanting it to touch the ground, I kept reminding myself of the misery experienced by the men who defended the fort that night, being shelled with British mortar and loading and firing cannons in a cold September rain.

Eventually the ranger gave a little “quiz” and we rolled up a stripe with each answer and then passed the rolled flag back up to the ranger.

By this time it was starting to rain. We headed back to the landing and saw a water taxi loading. By the time we got there the gate was locked, but we waved and the nice man we had chatted with on the ride over about his hat (covered with buttons people had given him from all over the world), whose dream of visiting Texas was to go to the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, came off the boat and unlocked the gate, saving us a chilly and wet wait for the next boat. Someone on the boat told us he said he was going to make us sing a sea shanty. He didn’t, but if he had I would have sung “OOOOH, Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS.”   That’s the best I could have done.

Our water taxi savior

At Fell’s Point we took another water taxi to the inner harbor, then the CCC purple route to Federal Hill, where we just walked around. If Savannah and Pittsburgh got married, you’d get something like Baltimore, with its narrow row houses, some with fake-looking brick facades.

Inspired by the street photos from the National, Gary spent this time shooting at random. I just plodded along, thankful I had the little umbrella I keep in my purse (Gary had a waterproof jacket and hood). I don’t think the temperature ever exceeded 50F.

Some of Gary’s street shots.

Catching another purple CCC, we decided to ride its whole loop, a free way to be warm, dry and seated while seeing more of the city’s charms and attractions, including a Washington monument that pre-dates the more famous one.

Sunday morning we were back on a plane at 5:45 and home by 9:30 a.m. CT. All our flights were more or less on time and it was a pretty hitch-free though intense 2 ½ day excursion.

I seem to have some sort of luggage malfunction when I travel. On our South America trip I was plagued by a white paste formed by a combination of leaking Listerine and cracker crumbs on my black concert skirt. This time, the purse I had carried all over Uruguay and Argentina last summer began coating everything with a fine black powder, like soot. At first I thought it had picked something up, perhaps from the plane floor, and I kept emptying it and cleaning everything, and it just kept getting worse. I couldn’t reach in without my hand coming out filthy, and I couldn’t fix it. After I got home I cut the lining apart and found that some stiffening material inside the lining had deteriorated and was shedding this horrible black stuff  through the lining. I have never experienced anything like it. The purse went straight into the trash and I was thankful it happened on a short trip rather than in South America (although leather is cheap there and I might have snagged me a nice leather bag).

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