A City Unto Itself ~ Cambridge, MA

Knowledge is power ~ Francis Bacon, Philosopher, 1561-1626

I dedicate this post to my little sister, Katya, who started university in Sydney, Australia, this week.

Cambridge has been described as Boston’s Left Bank. Named after England’s University of Cambridge, the town is home to Harvard University and MIT.

If these prestigious institutions represent the town’s brain, then Harvard Square is the beating heart. A gathering place for authors, poets, publishers, printers, teachers, and students for centuries, it is pretty much that way today, albeit in a sea of storefronts.

The mix of bookstores, coffee-shops, ethnic restaurants, and bars evokes a bohemian vibe.

It’s not hard wishing yourself back to student life in these surroundings. Ahh, the good old days, when laborious assignments, looming deadlines, upcoming exams, and sleepless nights seemed like the biggest concerns in the world.

It’s only after graduating that you realise what real life is all about.

With MIT in the Northeast, and Harvard Business School to the South, revel in the student-filled atmosphere. Something has got to be said for osmosis – being surrounded by so much knowledge, so much brainpower, makes you feel smarter.

A River Runs Through It

After winding down Storrow Drive, drive over Harvard Bridge to Cambridge. From here, you can enjoy some spectacular scenes of Boston’s downtown.

A Literary Lineage

Visit Harvard Square, where history and the present merge.

Fact: The first printing press was carried across the Atlantic with the first American printer, Stephen Daye, and ended up here. The Daye Press later became the University Press.

the first published American poet, Anne Bradstreet, was a former Harvard Square resident, and American poetry greats of the 19th and 20th century – Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, T.S. Eliot and E. E. Cummings – were friends of the area too.

Once a mecca for booksellers, Harvard Book Store was established in 1932 and is one of the few independents left standing in the Square. Browse the well-stocked shelves and rifle through its bargain table. You might even be inclined to self-publish that novel you’ve kept filed away. In a nod to the science and technology so engrained in the area, the store is equipped with a book-making robot nicknamed Paige M. Gutenborg. Simply state your print run and consider yourself published! You might even get your book shelved in the store, or featured on their website, harvard.com

Definition: Gutenborg 3.0 is an end-to-end platform that optimizes your publishing process.

Around the corner, on Massachusetts Ave and Plympton Street, is the Grolier Poetry Book Shop. Located next door to one another, these two are a formidable pair. Standing like bookends, they live to tell the stories of a diminishing breed of booksellers.

Further along Massachusetts Avenue and across from Harvard Square Station stands the multilevel Harvard Co-op Book Building. Managed by Barnes and Noble, it is stacked with books and magazines, and has a token café wrapped in Harvard paraphernalia.Established in 1882, the Co-op is still one of America’s largest bookstores (it even used to sell wood in the winter). Membership rates have held steady at $1, but you need a Harvard or MIT I.D. number if you’d like to join.

The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker…

Meandering through Harvard Square is fun. The paved streets and alleyways are easy to navigate. You’ll pass by the old-school stationer and Planet Records on John F Kennedy Street, as well as the next-door Raven Used Books, just below The Harvard Shop…

If it’s early, peer into the windows of sleeping restaurants and bars before wandering into the gourmet food shop, Cardullo’s, to find that yes, they do stock Earl Grey Green Tea!

It’s standing room only here, and it’s not yet 11am.

Harvard Walk

The name Harvard comes from the college’s first benefactor, the young minister John Harvard of Charlestown. Upon his death in 1638, he left his library and half his estate to the institution… by vote of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.*

Harvard Yard is the historic centre of Harvard University. Established in 1636, it is the oldest institution of higher education in the States. You can enter  its imposing gates to access 25 acres of university sprawl (note that Harvard’s real estate holdings total 5,076 acres). The central Tercentenary Theater is surrounded by The Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, Memorial Church, Emerson Hall for Philosophy, and the University’s longest-standing building, Massachusetts Hall, which was constructed in 1720.

Pathways lead to dormitories, classrooms, and more libraries (together, they house 17 million volumes!). The Faculties for Fine Art, Humanities, and Visual Studies line Harvard Yard to its east, together with a number of the university’s museums.

If you’re in need of some luck, rubbing the left foot on the statue of John Harvard in the Yard’s grounds might bring some luck. (And boy, is that boot polished! … I can’t say the same for the shoe on the other foot.)

NB: The total 2011-2012 cost of attending Harvard College without financial aid is USD36,305 for tuition. Or, USD52,652 for tuition, room, board, and fees combined.*

Food for Thought

 

For a reprieve, drive 10 minutes from Harvard Square to SOFRA*, an Eastern Mediterranean bakery/cafe that produces savoury pastries spiced with aleppo, and sweet ones tinged with honey, or rosewater.

Sofra comes from an ancient Arabic word meaning dining table, picnic, or kilim; it is also a synonym for generosity and hospitality.

The Spiced Lamb Pie, Fig Almond Bisteeya, Baklava, and Date Ma’amoul are highly recommended. Grab a coffee to go if you can’t snag one of the tiny, cosy tables.

Food for the Brain

The mission of MIT is to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century — whether the focus is cancer, energy, economics or literature.***

Aftercrossing the Charles River back into Boston, you should stop by the MIT Museum, borne by the masterminds who attended this institution. The interactive displays are mind-bogglingly brilliant.

Untitled Fragile Motor, 1997 ~ steel, wire, motor

You’ll meet Kismet, one of the world’s first social robots, see kinetic sculptures, and witness the most complex homemade modular electronic music synthesizer. Called the Paradiso Synthesizer, it was built by Joe Paradiso in the MIT Media Lab, mostly between 1975 and 1985.

Before you leave, buy a souvenir “Thinking Cap”, or the extended version of the Rubik’s Cube with extra rows to unpuzzle!

STAY

For an authentic Cambridge experience, we stayed at the Irving House Inn. This is a lovely B&B, run by a friendly and helpful staff. It is located on a residential street and a short walk away from Harvard Yard, adjacent to Harvard University. Surrounded by Federal Revival homes and red-brick dorm buildings, it feels as if you’re on campus.

One of the advantages of staying in Cambridge means that you can leave your car in the lodging’s parking lot and discover the neigbourhood on foot. There’s no rush, unless you have a looming deadline to contend with…

*http://www.harvard.edu/harvard-glance

**www.sofrabakery.com ***http://web.mit.edu/aboutmit/ Note: MIT is Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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