A stone’s throw from its capital, Baltimore is, technically, the United States’ largest ‘independent’ city and, as Anna Selby discovers, ‘Charm City’ has a character all of its own…
Baltimore is one of those US cities that most people think has got left behind – a blue collar, down at heel kind of place with danger on every corner. Or at least those people who haven’t visited recently or get their information mostly from The Wire. If you go, what you actually find is a thriving high-rise downtown, a manicured historic area, a harbour full of life and a museum that is surely one of the most innovative in the US. And did I mention sport? Not my thing really, but it’s hard to escape it in Baltimore: MLB Orioles, NFL Ravens, soccer. And even I’ve heard of local hero Babe Ruth who has his own museum here.
Baltimore is undergoing huge change. The harbour, for instance, is not the ship building centre and major port it once was (sugar, fish, tobacco). Instead, it’s surrounded by gardens, shops, restaurants, swanky waterfront apartments and a handful of great museums. It is criss-crossed by every kind of pleasure boat – people sailing and kayaking, harbour tours and water taxis. It’s a good way to spend a hot summer’s day. And it does get pretty steamy in Baltimore in the summer.
To escape the heat (and this was only May) I started my day on the water by the historic ships in the Inner Harbour and took the water taxi to Fell’s Point, named after a Lancashire ship builder who started the industry here because of the natural deep water harbour. There are Victorian cobbled narrow streets and rows of houses, theatres and converted industrial buildings that now house stylish shops and restaurants. It’s a far cry from when Billie Holiday was brought up here in her father’s “low smoking lounge”.
The next water taxi stops off at Baltimore’s most famous – and furthest – spot. Fort McHenry was the place in 1812 where the locals held out against the dastardly Brits’ bombardment of the base in 1812. Francis Scott Key wrote The Star Spangled Banner to commemorate the sight of the flag still waving in the dawn the next day above the devastation. The song’s popularity in the days of sheet music spread like wild fire and, of course, it eventually became the National Anthem. Just to underline the importance of the banner, I discover a class of schoolchildren holding a gigantic flag out on the grass and a man in uniform explaining its significance to them. It just wouldn’t happen in the UK.
I couldn’t resist Fell’s Point, though, so went back to Aliceanna Street (Baltimore’s coolest) for dinner at the remarkable Argentine restaurant, Bar Vasquez. This vast warehouse space with its industrial wooden beams and 40ft ceiling is nothing if not airy. Downstairs, there’s a stage for live music, drinks and casual dining. Some 20ft up, a gallery circles the walls and this is where you go for the fine dining experience. The perfect beef obviously came from Argentina, there were local softshell crabs, salmon ceviche, empanadas and a delicious poached shrimp salad, all with thoughtful wine pairings most from south America. Decidedly fine dining.
Mount Vernon is a must-see in Baltimore. One of the best preserved historic areas in the States, its palatial 19th houses face small parks and the area is full of galleries and museums. In fact, Baltimore generally is full of museums – art, history, industry, shipbuilding, children’s museums and one I’ve never seen the like of before.
The American Visionary Art Museum has emblazoned on its outer walls “O say can you see” – partly a nod to the birthplace of the national anthem but also a very different take on the word “seeing”. While I was there its exhibition was called “The Great Mystery Show” and featured such mysteries as the moon, the human heart, near-death experiences, murmurations of starlings and a life-size sculpture of local author Edgar Allan Poe made entirely of Peeps marshmallow candies. I went in sceptical and came out entranced.
Baltimore has a surprisingly compact centre so it’s easy to find your way around all of these in a couple of days. You can go by water taxi or the free bus, the Charm City Circulator (did I mention Baltimore’s tag line is Charm City?) that stopped just outside our hotel, the Monaco. This was just a few minutes walk to the Inner Harbour, too, so ideally situated and with its own inherent charm, housed in a historic building that used to be the headquarters of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad company, and filled with period detail (a beautiful listed stairway, stained glass windows, chandeliers).
It seems all towns and cities in the US have a tag line. When I got to St Michael’s a couple of hours’ drive on from Baltimore and across the Chesapeake, it turned out to be “The Town that Fooled the British”. Hmm, seems to be a bit of a theme here…
This part of Maryland is mostly wood and water, a place of forest, estuaries, islands and inlets. To get to St Michael’s you cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, an extraordinary five-lane structure that runs for over four miles. And, literally at the end of the road, you find St Michael’s.
This is a town that’s as cute as a button, all galleries, craft shops and antiques. There are some very good restaurants and two ice cream parlours (I can definitely vouch for those). But the main draw here is the water. Pretty much all of the houses out on the Bay have jetties and St Michael’s harbour is full of boats. The Maritime Museum has a history of them from the basic (but often surprisingly big) log canoes to the fine lines of the Baltimore schooner.
There’s an original lighthouse here too. It wasn’t the lofty beacon you see on the UK coastline, but a three-storey circular that sat miles out from the coast in the vast Chesapeake Bay. The biggest danger was the ice that would attack the metal pillars on which the lighthouses stood. Ice in the Bay? Hard to believe on a sultry summer’s afternoon. But, no, I was assured by a local. It was often a foot deep by his jetty.
St Michael’s was mostly a fishing town. Captain John Smith of Pocahontas fame was so amazed by the numbers of fish surrounding his boat he felt they should really try to catch some. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a net and his frying pan didn’t really seem to work too well. The oyster beds here were at one time so huge they were marked on the maps as a hazard to shipping. Now, they’re much depleted but the crabs, lobsters, scallops and oysters are all still going strong and you can have them high end (linen napkins and champagne at Restaurant 208) or the messy way (paper tablecloths and a bucket at the Crab Claw next to the Maritime Museum).
But back to that tag line. In 1813, there we were again, the pesky Brits bombarding the town. The locals were, however, forewarned and put lights up in the trees on the edge of town. The foolish Brits, mistaking these for the lights of the town fired all night, but succeeded in injuring only the local flora…
For more information about Baltimore, including ideas for your visit and details about Artscape, America’s largest arts festival (20-22 July), visit the official tourist site at www.baltimore.org. Further information can be found at www.capitalregionusa.co.uk.
For more information about the Monaco hotel, visit www.monaco-baltimore.com.