200 miles to the southwest of Connecticut lay the city of Philadelphia, which, on first sight, sent us catapulting into a parallel world.
As a touch of winter still hung in the air, we entered the premises of the historic Eastern State Penitentiary that, incidentally, in the 1900s, was the most expensive prison in the world. Wandering through the bewildering maze of narrow pathways of this high-profile correctional facility, we were guided, in an audio tour, through the inmates’ cells. As we explored and learned stories of their lives, sexualities and activities, it was the attempted escapes that fascinated us!
This brought us to the rawly-lit quarters of ESP’s most famous convict – “Scarface” Al Capone. Saying he had more luxuries and privileges than his fellow jail-mates was putting it mildly! He possessed, in his room, superior furniture with swanky upholstery, expensive Asian rugs, detailed paintings embellishing the walls, and even a fully functional radio. We also listened to the gooseflesh-inducing tales of Willie Sutton’s prison breakout.
At the far end of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway rested the Parthenon-esque Philadelphia Museum of Art. While we browsed through galleries laden with tapestries and contemporary paintings and South Asian sculptures and Paul Strand photographs, it became evident that we didn’t expend nearly as much time as we would’ve liked to!
It was also a perfect hour, under the clear cerulean sky, to dawdle by the “Rocky” Steps (made famous by the movie) that led into the building, and watch the world transcend.
Symbolic of America’s freedom and justice is the State House Bell now known as Liberty Bell. We ambled along the exhibits leading to the iconic structure, and noticed the very obvious crack through its midst, which in fact, was a failed repair (for a tinier crack) in 1846! As a fine drizzle gradually picked up speed, we couldn’t help but spend a few more minutes honoring the moment, the people and the monument that marked the end of slavery in the country.
Right by this was Independence Hall, the sacred place where the adoption of the United States Constitution and Declaration of Independence occurred. This dates back to a summer in the 1700s when men gathered and rebelled against the King of England! Legend goes that the instigators risked “their lives, their fortune and their sacred honor”.
With temperatures dipping into the low 50s (10-deg C), it was Reading Terminal Market that drew us into its warm embrace. Safe to say, we burned calories (or did we really!) darting between melty chocolate cannolis, mixed fruit smoothies, explosive Thai curries and farm-to-table produce. The air was impregnated with the sweet scent of blossoms, particularly of the roses and also of the exotic fruits we spotted on our way out. For the road, an exceptionally fragrant bunch of tulips, a locally-made applesauce and soft, Philly mini-pretzels were packed.
The Wanamaker Organ, the largest working pipe organ in the world, located at the Macy’s superstore in downtown Philadelphia plays a musical interlude for its shoppers, twice a day. We happened to be around for one of the mega-orchestral recitals, and oh, what a melodious union of sounds!
As if our food exploits weren’t enough, four hours later, we ended up at a semi-upscale restaurant on 12th & Filbert St, Maggiano’s Little Italy – crisp bruschettas, a gooey four cheese ravioli and an optimally baked ziti was had! As the evening wore to a darker night, walking under the enormous sky, around Franklin Square, seemed right, and it was cathartic.
A whimsical vagary landed us in the bucolic setting of Towanda in the northern part of Pennsylvania. We rented a campervan-turned-cabin in the thick woods, got a bottle of Australian Cabernet, takeout burgers from a fast food place, and all.
Nearby, along the Susquehanna River rests the French Azilum. In the 18th century, this site provided shelter to a group of French refugees who escaped a horrific revolution. Ironically, it looked like a land touched by the light of the heavens!
The next day, as the morning light melodramatically scattered across the horizon, we rode home.