Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Summer Vacation - Salem

Grams and Grandad moved from Worcester to Arlington today. We checked out of the hotel in Worcester and drove about an hour and a half to Salem.

Upon arriving in Salem I was surprised to discover how little I knew about Salem. I knew that it was the site of the infamous Salem Witch Trials in the late 1600s and I knew that the House of The Seven Gables was located there. I was expecting an ancient seaside village of old decaying structures. That is not at all what I found. Salem is a thriving city of more than 40,000 people. It is also the home of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. 

Upon arrival in Salem, we again made a pit stop at Dunkin' Donuts (clean bathrooms) and asked for directions. The employees were helpful and friendly. They were also highly entertained by Grams' and Grandad's "Texas Twang" and asked us to say several things so they could hear how we sounded. I explained to them that we don't have accents, they do. We also decided it was time to try Dunkin' Donuts coffee ... all I can say is Starbucks has nothing to worry about. I'm not switching.

Salem has truly embraced the "witch culture." There are references to witchcraft and magic at almost every turn. When we were pulling out of Dunkin' Donuts' driveway we saw this house right across the street.

We drove down into the historic district and went straight to the National Park Visitor's Center where we were greeted by Bob, a very enthusiastic National Park Service Senior Volunteer. I so regret that I did not snap a photo of Bob. He was great and had the best diamond jewelry I've ever seen! He opened our map and made helpful notes about which sites were "must sees" and which were a waste of time and/or money. He also told us that we should not waste our money on a tour trolley because we could walk to all the sites that were on our itinerary and it would be less than a mile. Later in the day I went back into the visitor's center because we could not find one of the attractions we wanted to see. I pulled out my map and asked for clarification. The National Park Service Ranger said "Someone wrote all over your map!" Another Ranger who was standing nearby said, "She had Bob." I smiled and told them that Bob had indeed helped us that morning and he was great.

The first attraction we came to was the Salem Witch Trial Memorial. I must say that at first it was not too impressive as memorials go. But the explanation of its design makes sense of the whole thing. "The memorial is surrounded on three sides by a granite wall. Inscribed on the threshold are the victims' protests of innocence. The testimony is interrupted mid-sentence by the wall, symbolizing society's indifference to oppression. Locust trees represent the stark injustice of the trials. At the rear of the memorial, tombstones in the adjacent cemetery represent all who stood in mute witness to this tragedy. Stone benches within the perimeter bear the names and execution dates of the victims."

It's important to note that those who were executed for witchcraft are not buried in this cemetery. It was not deemed appropriate for them to be buried in hallowed ground and they were denied Christian burial.

Next up as we followed the red line down the sidewalk (a guide for tourists) was the Maritime Historic Area which includes a museum, the tall ship Friendship, and several historic buildings. The history of Salem is better told in this district than it is in the tale of the witchcraft hysteria. In early America, Salem was one of the premier ports, handling many tons of cargo for years, until Boston took its place. The historic buildings are extremely well preserved and beautiful. There are a number of Park Rangers available to answer questions and there is a video you can watch to learn more. 

Still following the line we passed a row of shops and restaurants which included the oldest candy store in the United States. They actually make some of the candy they sell there and they have several antique candy pressing machines on display. The cases were full of every kind of candy you can imagine -- lemon drops, licorice whips, bon-bons, truffles, sour candies, divinity, and fudge, just to mention a few. But, it was lunch time, so I resisted the urge to buy some of the delicious, but pricey, candy they had in their cases.

Moving on down the street we came to the House of the Seven Gables. It was built in 1668 and is the oldest surviving wooden mansion in the USA. There are a lot of references to Nathaniel Hawthorne in the Salem area as well as a number of other literary figures. This is the house that inspired Hawthorne to write The House of the Seven Gables, but he never lived in it. It was owned by a member of his family. 

At this point, we backtracked down the red line and stopped for lunch at the Witch's Brew Cafe, which Bob had recommended for lunch. I had a delicious plate of freshly made hummus with raw vegetables and pita bread. It was delicious.

After lunch we went down to the Salem Witch Museum. According to Bob, there are several witch museums in Salem and each of them is a little different. We chose the one he recommended.  Admission is $8 per adult. You should be aware before you go that they use the word "museum" very loosely. There are no surviving artifacts from the Salem Witch Trials. The "museum" is actually a 30-minute audio-video presentation that tells the story of the Salem Witch Trials. It utilizes mannequins dressed in period costume and posed in various displays. The displays are lighted in sequence as the narration tells the story of the witchcraft trials and the accompanying hysteria. As you can see in the picture on the right, the exterior of the museum is currently covered as it undergoes renovation. By the way, the statue is of Roger Conant, the founder of Salem, who was not a witch. Honestly, I was a little disappointed in this museum and would not recommend it. My advice is save your $8 per person and rent the movie The Crucible before you go to Salem. It's a much better telling of the story.

The highlight of the day in Salem was definitely our walk down Chestnut Street. Again, directed by Bob, we drove the short distance to Chestnut Street and parked on one of the side streets. Bob had told us that Chestnut Street is widely considered to be the most perfect example of federalist architecture anywhere. He was not wrong. This is truly the most beautiful street of houses I have ever seen. This street is where Hollywood goes to film any movies that call for this look. The curbs on Chestnut Street and throughout much of Salem are actually granite. Many of the driveways and sidewalks are also paved with granite bricks.
These houses were built in the early 1800s. I want to point out the house that was built by a merchant, Thomas Saunders, in 1810 for his daughter, Mary Elizabeth, and her husband. The house is three stories and has 24 windows on each side. These are not museums.  Most of these houses are still homes. There are even a few that are for sale. Asking prices start around $1,750,000.

I find it ironic that Salem now makes its name and its reputation on the infamous Salem Witch Trials, but at all of the attractions they acknowledge that there were no witches; what happened was the result of hysteria. There are a number of theories about what caused the hysteria, everything from mold in stored grain which caused hallucinations and twitching to simple boredom among a group of young girls. 

Here is a sampling of signs I spotted around town, including a statue of that famous TV witch, Samantha. There may not have been any witches in early Salem, but today Salem is a hotbed of magic, fortune telling, and modern witchcraft. 
Salem is so much more than witchcraft and magic. I heartily recommend a visit to Salem, but the best part of Salem is not to be found in the witch trials.  The best part is the architecture and it's maritime history.

We left Salem and drove to Arlington-Cambridge and checked into our hotel which was right on Massachusetts Avenue where Arlington and Cambridge meet. We arrived at the hotel just in time to grab dinner at their dinner buffet, which is free for guests Monday through Thursday.  It was just spaghetti and meatballs, but it wasn't bad.

After dinner we settled in to our hotel room and discovered that our suite had its very own jacuzzi tub.  Woo hoo!  Grams filled the tub, grabbed this month's Book Snobs selection, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and settled in for a long soak.  It was heavenly.   

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