I leave Cuernavaca every May to return to Western New York to visit family, friends, and former colleagues, and to celebrate Mother’s Day. Mom is 104 and still living independently. In the past I have usually taken advantage of being in NY to connect to JFK and fly to Europe, but I wasn’t ready for that yet given the Covid situation. Departing from JFK, I would usually spend several days in Manhattan to attend theater or a dance concert. I am still playing it safe on Covid and not entering large auditoriums with hundreds of people. I decided to make a long overdue visit to Philadelphia. Having taught American History, I should have visited the historic sites long ago, but what really tempted me was the proximity of Longwood Gardens and Winterthur, long on my wish list. The New York Times travel pages have featured the Brandywine Valley in several articles including this one in 2013: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/01/travel/36-hours-in-the-brandywine-valley-pa.html?searchResultPosition=6.
Due to location, I chose the Marriott Old City, adjacent to the waterfront and to Independence Mall with its museums honoring American independence. Knowing that arrival and departure would limit touring on those days, I booked five nights, May 16-21. I prefer to book directly with the hotel, but their online reservation system offered only non-refundable reservations, I went to booking.com which has a generous cancellation policy.
The flight on American Airlines from Rochester NY to Philly took just over an hour, followed by a long walk from the landing gate to baggage claim. There was no huge line of cabs waiting like that at JFK but I had to wait only a few minutes for a tax. I later learned that Uber dominates local transportation in the city and taxis are sometimes hard to come by. I was at the hotel in less than half an hour.
I had a spacious room with excellent internet but a long walk from the elevator. The ice machine was inconveniently on another floor requiring another walk. The hotel offers a breakfast restaurant with prices a bit lower than I usually pay in Manhattan. The other option is a coffee bar with just muffins. There is no meal service in the afternoon or evening, just a pantry with refrigerated fast foods one can microwave in the lobby. But the historic district has numerous excellent restaurants in various price ranges.
I had time after check-in at the Marriott to walk to the nearby Museum of the American Revolution, open until 5 pm; timed tickets bought online are not required as they are for the art museums. Hours and ticket prices are posted at https://www.amrevmuseum.org.
Frankly, I was a bit disappointed with the collection which tends more to graphics than antiques, and I was in and out in 90 minutes. It was nice to see large groups of grade-school students led by their teachers and escorts. It made me wonder why so many U.S. schools send groups to Washington DC but not many to Philadelphia which can be combined with Valley Forge and Gettysburg.
That evening I walked to a restaurant on the Penn’s Landing waterfront, forgetting my umbrella and getting wet in a surprise shower. Many restaurants close in Philly on Monday, and I passed several that were shuttered. I had hoped to dine on the deck of a three-mast schooner, Moshulu. The rain forced diners inside and it was fairly crowded requiring a 20-minute wait for a table, not bad for lacking a reservation. I had only a porthole view of the Delaware River. The large menu offered plenty of variety at fairly steep prices, no surprise given the venue. The weather had cleared by the time I walked back to the hotel, assured by the staff that the area was not dangerous.
The most famous museums in the city are closed on Tuesday: The Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Barnes Foundation, and the Rodin Museum. That made Tuesday the perfect day to visit the historical sites, and the weather was perfect, sunny but not too hot. It was a five-block walk to 5th and Walnut where the multi-block mall begins at Independence Hall. This is not a site where one may wander freely; all entrances are in groups. I had failed to do proper research and discovered that timed tickets had to be purchased online. I approached a National Park guide in the garden and begged for an exception, claiming old age and a long trip from Mexico, and she kindly let me join the next group. There were about 50 people of all ages in the group, including a child in a stroller. It took about twenty minutes to listen to the guide in the room where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 and the hall where the constitutional convention was held in 1787.
Just across the street from Independence Hall sits the Liberty Bell Center. I had no plans to stand in line to see the famous bell, but there was only a short line moving quickly, and I was in the center within ten minutes. The only delay was for those lining up to be photographed in front of the bell or to take a selfie. I could take a photo over their heads. As expected, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
Next in line of buildings is the Visitor’s Center where I got a map superior to what the hotel receptionist gave me. And then the National Constitution Center. Alas, the museum opens only Wednesday through Sunday with timed tickets from 10 am to 5 pm, so I was out of luck on a Tuesday. Judging by the photos on its website, I’m not too disappointed. https://constitutioncenter.org.
Among the most popular tourist sites in the city is the Reading Terminal Market, in a historic building on Arch Street since 1893. I remembered how much I enjoyed the Pike Place market in Seattle, and it was nearing lunch time, so I set off on a 15-minute walk from Independence Mall. With over 80 merchants displaying fresh produce, flowers, and prepared food, I was not surprised to find the aisles crowded with hundreds of people. The cheese and cold cut stalls and the fresh fish and seafood would tempt me to return often if I lived here. It was hard to decide what to eat, and the pastrami and Philadelphia cheese-steak sandwiches were especially tempting. The latter is so huge I knew I couldn’t finish it and had no place for leftovers, so I never got to taste the iconic sandwich. Instead, I chose one of my favorites, a lobster salad sandwich for 23 dollars. It was hard to find an unoccupied seat in the food court at lunch time but I found a place next to two Brits escaping from a convention. The convention center is across the street from the market. I was tempted to ingest more calories at the famous Bassett’s Ice Cream stand, but the line was too long.
Despite the market, convention center, and several hotels nearby, I walked around for 15 minutes, unable to find a taxi. I could have called an Uber, but instead I walked to a nearby Marriott hotel and waited for an arrival by taxi. During the drive back to the historic district, I negotiated with the driver to take me the next day to Longwood Gardens. I did not want to rent a car, face traffic and unfamiliar exits on a beltway, navigate construction warnings I’d read about online, and use the car only part of a day. The garden web site offered no advice on public transportation for the 30-mile trip from the city. I had phoned the central taxi office and was quoted one-hundred dollars each way and 25 dollars per hour wait time. The taxi driver said he would take me for 200 dollars total including a several-hour wait time.
Longwood Gardens is one of several former estates in the du Pont family heritage. The area was populated by Native Americans, then by Quaker farmers. George Peirce established a farm there in 1700 and his heirs added an enormous tree farm. The heirs lost interest in the farm and arboretum and were going to sell the timber to a lumber company in 1906. Instead, Pierre S. du Pont (1870-1954) purchased the land and farm house, expanding both over the years and adding formal gardens where he could entertain guests during his weekend visits. His wealth came from his management of the du Pont chemical company of which he was president 1915-1919. The company was founded in 1802 and prospered from the sale of gun powder, especially during World War I. Pierre also became manager and later president of General Motors.
Pierre du Pont opened his gardens to the public in 1921. In 1937 he put it in the hands of a foundation, to which he left a huge endowment when he died in 1954,
The property of over 1000 acres includes the seven-acre Peirce old-growth forest, numerous out buildings, an enormous conservatory, an open-air theater, and a water-fountain park with spectacular shows posted on the daily schedule. Over a million visitors a year traverse its lengthy paths.
The driver, Muhammed, picked me up at the hotel at 9:30 am Wednesday May 18. He followed the verbal instructions on his dashboard device to take me to Kennett Square, PA, and we were at the Visitor Center of Longwood Gardens by 10:15. My timed ticket, purchased online, was for 11 am, but I was allowed in early. If one arrives without a timed ticket, admission depends on how many people are in the gardens. It was very crowded when I left at 1:30 p.m.
The conservatory is one of the largest I have visited in many gardens in many countries. It houses 4600 types of flowers and trees with rooms devoted to different species, like the large colorful orchid collection.
After walking for three hours, I would not have had the energy to visit nearby Winterthur on the same day. Pleased with Muhammed’s driving, I contracted him for a drive the next day to Winterthur Delaware near Wilmington, about 35 miles from Philly.
The Winterthur Museum, Garden, & Library
The museum is alleged to be the largest collection of American decorative arts in the world with about 70 thousand objects. The property covers close to one thousand acres, 60 devoted to gardens. The furnishings in the museum hold works from 1640 to 1860. The property was purchased by E.I. du Pont, in 1810. He and his heirs added to the sheep farm and enlarged and embellished it over the years. Henry Francis du Pont (1880-1969), antique collector and horticulturalist inherited the property in 1927. Having accumulated so many antiquities, he turned his home into a museum in 1951, moving his residence to an adjacent building. Another large gallery was added during the 1960s. The library with 87 thousand volumes is used for research and college classes.
While I enjoyed the museum, I had really gone to see more gardens and I was disappointed to discover that it holds no annuals, just perennials, and not many in bloom. The 3000 azaleas are spread over 25 miles of paths on which the tram covers only a small part. The peony garden was beautiful but many plants had already dropped their flowers, and a later variety had not yet bloomed. Different flowers bloom in different months and one could contact the office for more information. https://www.winterthur.org.
After the drive back and lunch near the hotel, I was too tired after to consider a late entrance to one of the city’s famous museums. After a siesta, I went online and bought timed entry tickets for the next day, 11 am for the Barnes Foundation, and 1:30 pm for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I figured I could rest and have lunch between museum visits, and both places have cafeterias. I knew I could not include the Rodin Museum as well. I had been to the large Rodin Museum in Paris, and I had enjoyed the sculpture collection at the Soumaya Museum in Mexico City, including many works by Rodin.
Both Museums are a 15-minute cab ride from the historic district and I got to The Barnes Foundation several minutes before my 11 am entry ticket. I had never before put a ticket receipt on my cell phone and was pleased at how well that worked out at both museums.
Despite what I had read online I was overwhelmed by the size and the spectacular beauty of the collection. There is no point in trying to paraphrase this description from its web site:
The Barnes is home to one of the world’s greatest collections of impressionist, post-impressionist, and early modern paintings, with especially deep holdings in Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso. Assembled by Dr. Albert C. Barnes between 1912 and 1951, the collection also includes important examples of African art, Native American pottery and jewelry, Pennsylvania German furniture, American avant-garde painting, and wrought-iron metalwork. https://barnesfoundation.org.
The 4000 piece collection includes numerous antiques in addition to the 900 paintings whose value is estimated at 25 billion dollars. Amazing that Albert Barnes earned a fortune developing a treatment for gonorrhea, among other achievements described in this article in Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barnes_Foundation.
I was shocked initially to discover that none of the paintings have the usual small plaque to identify the artist, title, and date. There are docents in every room, and a kind young woman put the museum’s app on my cell phone. One holds the phone up to each painting as if to take a picture, and a screen appears on the phone with all the information, including a brief history. Later in the day, the foundation sent me an email with a small copy of every item I pointed my phone at.
Reading about every painting took much more time than a usual museum visit and I skimmed rather rapidly through the ten rooms on the second floor, leaving the building at 1:00 pm. It was about a twenty-minute walk to the Philadelphia Art Musuem, passing the Rodin collection on the way. The entrance at the top of the “Rocky steps,” made famous in the 1974 film, was closed temporarily so it was another five minutes to the north entrance. There I let reception scan my ticket, then I collapsed at a table in the cheerful cafeteria with a sizable menu at reasonable prices. One could also go through a cafeteria line in another room and choose already cooked items. I needed a leisurely lunch to rest my legs for the enormity of what was to follow. One could easily spend the entire day here and not do justice to the entire collection. It is closed on Tuesday and Wednesday, requiring good planning for a visitor’s calendar. https://www.philamuseum.org.
As usual, it’s hard to beat the history and description of the collection available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philadelphia_Museum_of_Art.
Already quite tired and saturated, I moved rapidly from room to room and didn’t even attempt to read many of the descriptive plaques. It was foolish on my part to think that I could do two treasure houses in one day. But flying in and out of Philadelphia takes up two days and with museums closed for a day or two, you can’t do both gardens and all the museums in a five-day trip. I certainly got to do much of what I had come for and departed knowing how much more there was to see in the delightful city of Philadelphia and the nearby Brandywine Valley.
A Brief Note on Dining in Philadelphia.
There are scores of great restaurants in the city, and many good ones in the historic district. One can find descriptions, web sites, and menus online. My favorite is the formerly famous Bookbinder’s, now under new ownership and called The Olde Bar. It’s on 25 Walnut Street, just around the corner from the Marriott. I had expected to dine alone during this trip but was delighted to learn that two expat friends in Cuernavaca spend part of the year in their apartment near Rittenhouse Square. John & Joan Markovitch met me two nights for dinner, including a nice evening at The Olde Bar. http://theoldebar.com.