Fairmont Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

August 1999

On an August weekend, I set out to experience the West part Philadelphia, a large part of that being Fairmont Park, the world's largest landscaped urban park consisting of over 8,500 acres, two million trees and at least a dozen historic sights. The park creeps East over the Schuylkill River and into the city. On the Southern side, the transition is quite natural, while on the Northern end it is quite clear when you have left the boundaries of the park and entered an urban residential community.

Tree in Fairmont Park I arrived in the area on Friday night and spent the night at Chamounix Mansion, which has been converted into a HI hostel. My first encounter here was with a gray haired man who asked where I was from. I explained that I was from only the next state over and that this was the start of a trial run for a potential journey across the ocean. He expressed an interest in doing this "someday" and wished he would have taken the time to do so at a much younger age. Immediately I saw myself standing in the same place, saying the same thing in 30 years if I don't eventually move beyond my proverbial backyard. On the other hand, what's common and near to you is far and exotic to someone else.

A short ride away from your hometown (or perhaps right in your 'hood!), there's bound to be an overlooked backdoor to explore. It's the way we travel and look around ourselves that makes all the difference. Are you going to see something specific, just see what you come across, study the history or experience the everyday life and local culture? Visiting a city on a business trip is much different than spending a romantic weekend with your sweetheart, which is a sharp contrast with taking a solo walk about the city walls.
That night I enjoyed hearing about the means of travel which the other guests had employed to see the world, or at least a part of the East Coast. Travelers from Israel, Chicago, Japan, England, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada were all eager to share stories, plans, and food. Some had free use of cars for a week as long as they got them delivered to their destination a few states away. Others seemed to have no hard-set plan in mind and would end up going to the next city because it was easier to jump in the back of a mini-van with a newly made friend than to take a cab to the train station. Ah, yes, they enjoyed freedom. The questions you hear over and over again: "Where are you from?" "Where are you going?" I forgot to ask the more interesting, "Why?" If someone asked me, I don't think I could answer clearly. Some of us have been bitten by the travel bug. You either get it or you don't. For most of my life, I was one of those who don't.

While most of the hostelers had smaller bags or packs than I, there were still a few items which I would definitely need to execute travel in the backpacking manner. For example, I painfully learned of need for ear plugs as my bunk rattled from the snoring and other bodily noises from a large creature below me. I spent a good amount of the night in a carpeted area outside of the room where I was joined by most of the others in the room who testified this was an expert in administering sleep deprivation. They went to play ping-pong in the basement while I looked at the pictures in the hallway and laughed at the rumble coming from my door.

Phildelphia is bicycle friendly In the morning I set off to explore Fairmont Park by bicycle (free for hostel guests). The city was more bicycle friendly than I had guessed with bike lanes on the major roads. Fodor's Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Dutch Country was an excellent guidebook that mapped out "a Good Drive" in Fairmount Park to follow although I somehow whizzed by Fairmount Waterworks, the Japanese House, Laurel Hill and Lemon Hill without noticing.

Woodford Mansion My first two stops were the Strawberry Mansion and Woodford. Unfortunately, despite guidebook and well posted signs, these two homes would not be open for tours at 10am...
Finally someone emerged from Strawberry Mansion (I think the caretakers live in the basements) and said, maybe at 12. It was time to move on, but waiting around awhile gave me a chance to realize my surroundings. Here I was, on one side of the street with historical mansions in a park and directly across the street were boarded up buildings. The streets were alive though and most or all of these structures were occupied. Strawberry Mansion
Fuck White Power The Secret Garden at Strawberry Mansion For a moment, I feared my safety and certainly there was some writing on the wall to confirm some of that. There was definitely a clash: the monuments of fair skinned historical figures and people of the present appear to mock each other just by proximity.

At least this time to stroll around led me to find the secret garden at Strawberry Mansion.
My next stop was Mount Pleasant. I knocked on the door and someone answered! The guide was already half way through giving a tour to two women, so I caught the last half of the house with them and then continued with the guide for the last half. Mount Pleasant I'm really quite ignorant about history, but this is definitely way to learn about it. Did you know that piracy was legal? This Georgian mansion was built by the privateering wealth of Captain John Macphereson. 50% of a captured ship's wealth would go back to the ruler. In this case, the Queen of England made it legal to raid French and Spanish ships. Of the remaining 50% of the cargo, 40% was to be distributed among the pirate crew and 10% to the captain. It is believed that the captain always ended up with more than his share.

Aside from learning about who lived and visited this house, the expert guide knew all the details of the furniture and architecture in the home. All furniture was moved to the outside edges of the rooms each night so you wouldn't bump into it at night. No one was trusted completely and locks were everywhere: on dressers, desks with hidden compartments, bookcases and even the tea box.

Even though you may have little interest or knowledge in history, taking a brief tour of a historical home can be a treat. The advantage of being naive is that you'll almost certainly learn something. Be humble and let the guide share their own expertise and enthusiasm. It just might rub off on you!
the forbidden zone Entrance to this "public" building in the middle of the park is only open to persons with a child of age 15 or less. It was pointed out to me that no bicycles were allowed near this building either (although 15 year olds on go-karts seemed OK). I couldn't justify having a child just to see what was inside, so I took a sip from the water fountain and split.
There really isn't much I can say about Boathouse Row. It's stretch of old fraternity like buildings that house boating clubs. I have read; however, that the night view from the river is "splendid." Boathouse Row
The new recreational center near Boathouse Row had a basket ball court looks like one you'd see on one of those motivational posters. They also had a great cover band playing in back of the building near the river when I stopped and the best tasting water fountain (inside the gym) I found all day.
Free stuff for cyclists? Traveling by bike yielded an unexpected benefit. I drove toward a bunch of other cyclists and was handed a bottle of water and was told to help myself to the energy bars on the table. Wow! Philadelphia really is bicycle friendly! As I pushed the rusted hostel bike with only half it's gears past futuristic looking cycles, I asked one of the spandex covered creatures what this was all about. Apparently, it was an open entry bike race. He seemed annoyed that I was enjoying the benefits but didn't know there was a registration fee. Oh well, I learned a lesson I might not have otherwise: the cookies and cream Cliff Bars are far superior in taste to their chocolate chip counterpart!

The Philadelphia Museum of Art The Philadelphia Museum of Art, who's front steps were made famous in the movie Rocky III and reappeared in Rocky V is at the Southern tip of Fairmount Park in the city. The museum is open free on Sunday.

The Rodin Museum [collage] I spent a good amount of time in the Rodin Museum; however, it is not a part of Fairmont Park. This collection of large Auguste Rodin sculptures (his most famous being The Thinker), were collected and cast for Jules E. Mastbaum who made his money in the early motion picture business. There are 124 sculptures to admire. If you've got the time, I'd suggest taking a look at each of them and see what you see in the faces and figures, then take the self guided audio tour (well worth it) and learn what Rodin was trying to portray. Inside the Rodin Museum

Closing time had swung around, but still plenty of day light. I crossed back over the river to visit a few more stops listed in my guidebook. By this time, I was really just enjoying the bicycle ride and not much was sinking in. Visiting a museum and knowing your day is coming to an end will do that. After seeing half a dozen old houses, it's time to move on for the day. I forgot what this was.
I forgot what this was too. There's definitely a limit to the number of historic sites one can take in in a day. Once museum burn-out sets in, try to finish the day doing something different.

Memorial Hall The glass topped Memorial Hall is the only remaining building from country's Centennial Exposition in 1876. Before the Philadelphia Museum of Art was opened, this building served as the city's gallery. It is now closed to the public, but is available for receptions from time to time. I hear that the basement holds a complete scale model of all the other buildings that were there during the 100th birthday of the United States.

View from Belmont Plateau From the Belmount Plateau Philadelphia is the backdrop for a sprawling park. It reminds me of a movie set where there's a painting hanging behind the stage to give an impression of depth.

Horse mounted cops The police in Fairmont Park also looked like a posed monument. Police are always more friendly when they work in a park.

I highly recommend this trip to any other solo traveler looking for something both mentally and physically stimulating. I'm looking forward to my next eurobackpacker style trip next month already!

Table of expenses:


Part II of Philadelphia to come later this year.

Fodor's guidebook from libraryfree
Ben Franklin Bridge toll$2.00
one night at Chamoix Mansion$11.00
soup dinner from pack$1.30
cereal breakfast from pack$1.50
bicycle rentalfree
Mt. Pleasant tour$2.50
pecan roll and chocolate milk$2.50
Rodin museum "donation"$3.00
Rodin self guided tour$4.00
soda and pineapple from pack$2.00