America: Streets of Philadelphia

Overwhelmed. And whether in a good way I'm not sure. It's my first trip outside Europe, and the jet lag has us both on a downer, with our brains trying to tell our bodies what time of day it is but our physiologies not able to catch up. We're left cold by the welcome at the airport - threatening questions, fingerprint taking and a waste of time at customs because we had stupidly forgotten about two innocent satsumas in my handbag. There's a horrendous amount of traffic and we crawl all the way to the hotel amid fumes and angry honking...

But soon, Philadelphia makes it all worth it. We're staying downtown at the Ritz Carlton Philadelphia, an exquisite structure composed of neoclassical pillars and a soaring sky scraper. Beyond the doors, the lobby is of cathedral-esque proportions, a vast, light-flooded cavern clad in grey marble. It's fair to say that when we awaken the next day in our plush bed to a view of the mighty 1901-built City Hall, which is jacketed in a creamy white tapestry of allegorical sculptures, we feel much much better. And it helps that Philadelphia is beautiful.

We set out for the historic district, first queuing to see the Liberty Bell. An icon of local history, it was cast in 1751 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Pennsylvania's constitution, tolled on the first reading of the Declaration of Independence and, were it not for a deep crack that now gashes its flank, may still be ringing today. Afterwards we skip over to Independence Hall, where American government was born following the meeting of delegates from the 13 colonies in 1776. It's immaculately preserved and recreated with some original furniture, so it is as if the delegates have just left the room.

Opposite is Congress Hall, where America's first congress sat, and outside is an impressive statue of George Washington. We continue past the Betsy Ross house, former home of the lady who created the first American flag, to Elfreth's Alley, a cobblestone lane flanked by shuttered redbrick terraces that looks superimposed upon the modern city. It has been inhabited since the 1720s, making it America's oldest continuously occupied street, and is beautifully done up for Christmas, with wreaths dangling from doorways. Reading Terminal Market is quite the contrast: a vibrant collection of brash-looking food stalls, it is peppered with people. We jostle through and find an Amish stall selling vegetable crisps and almond butter straight from the farm - delicious - as well as a turkey sandwich joint that makes Tim very happy.

The following day the Barnes Foundation feeds our thirst for art with such a collection of Renoirs as I have never seen. A guide gives an impromptu talk on the French Impressionist painter's 'Mussel Fishers at Berneval', revealing fascinating insights into the work's backstory and technique. Perhaps most astounding about Philadelphia, however, is its 'bone structure'. As we walk, battling to keep our eyes open against the icy wind, I'm unceasingly overwhelmed by the width of the boulevards and the scale of the buildings. From the top of the 'Rocky' steps, which feature in the eponymous film and climb up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, we admire the symmetrical beauty of the cityscape - a collage of trees, shiny, glossy skyscrapers and neoclassical pillars and balustrades. But it's the ambiance of the place that will stay with me - the friendliness, the cultural depths, and the energy - the energy that has succeeded in snapping us out of our sleepy jet lag.
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