Rhode Island capital beckons with history, food – and fire.
BEAUTIFUL MUSIC rises from hidden waterfront speakers as a procession of boats glides through the water, parting the reflection of a shimmering sunset. They carry a fire dancer among other performers, but the main attraction is the solemn lighting of the waterway’s firepots — 100 in all — as >> Several restaurants back on to DePasquale Plaza. Here, in daytime, it is just a pleasant city square, but in the evening, it comes to life. (See photo, page 150)
>> the boats go by.
WaterFire could easily be cheesy, like an overwrought scene in a movie. But somehow Barnaby Evans, the artist who designed this performance-art, fire-sculpture installation 20 years ago in Providence, Rhode Island, carries it off.
The massive crowds that gather on footbridges and the cobblestone pathways of Waterplace Park are hushed and respectful as the event begins, as if witnessing some ancient ceremony. From there, the torch flotilla lights up the Woonasquatucket, Moshassuck and Providence rivers that flow through the centre of the city.
Of course, there are other reasons why the crowd is in a co-operative mood. Although parking can be a challenge, the event, which is run by an independent non-profit arts organization, is free. And because it is held a couple of times a month between May and October, the crowds for each date are not overwhelming. The music
and nuances of the performances change throughout the summer. When visitors tire of the fires, they spill into nearby streets and parks where fanciful art displays, food vendors and street performers create a night-carnival atmosphere that sends everyone off with a smile.
WaterFire is just one of the reasons to visit Providence, R.I., a state capital that feels manageable to first-time visitors. About a 10-hour drive from Waterloo Region (allowing for stops and the border slowdown), Providence makes a wonderful side trip as part of a vacation to historic Boston, about 80 kilometres to the northeast, or the opulent mansions of Newport, about 60 kilometres to the south. Like most large urban communities, Providence is a combination of wealthy sections, scrappier areas and up-and-coming neighbourhoods. The central sections — just south of the State House with its neoclassical architecture and dramatic dome — have much to offer tourists.
For example, Waterplace Park, where the fire festival begins, is also charming by day, with its network of pathways, bridges and parks inviting visitors to relax before heading to nearby cafés or to the downtown shops.
It’s hard to believe that at one time large sections of the city’s rivers were covered by roadways and parking lots that became known as the “world’s widest bridge.”
Thank goodness for urban renewal. In the 1990s, an extensive redevelopment project uncovered and rerouted the rivers as well as creating everything from parkland and a summer amphitheatre to the mammoth Providence Place mall. The mall towers behind Waterplace Park like a seductive siren for shoppers, with today’s stores ranging from Macy’s and Swarovski to Nordstrom and Abercrombie & Fitch.
And don’t miss the park’s Wall of Hope in the pedestrian tunnel underneath Memorial Boulevard. This 9/11 memorial, still intrigu- ing despite an ongoing battle with thoughtless graffiti artists, is composed of 10,000 colourful tiles painted by Rhode Islanders of all ages, races and religions.
It’s about a 20-minute walk from Waterplace Park to College Hill to the east, home of the Ivy League Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design. Several bridges, open to vehicles as well as walkers, link the downtown and College Hill.
With its wealth of historic buildings and tree-lined streets intermingling with university properties, the area feels more like a gracious neighbourhood than a campus.
Benefit Street’s “mile of history” is a major draw, its restored homes and other buildings lined up like a pristine historic postcard.
Visitors will admire the stately NightingaleBrown House, built in 1792, and home to five generations of the Nicholas Brown family. Situated at Benefit and Williams streets, it is now part of Brown University. A block >>
Crowds pack Waterplace Park as the WaterFire festival begins at sunset. Below, daytime visitors check out the park’s 9/11 memorial. At right, on College Hill, Benefit Street’s “mile of history” is a perfect place for a stroll.