PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA – For those who would like to experience the Christmas holiday season outside their home town, and would prefer a winter setting over a tropical one, many set their sights on New York City as their winter wonderland. Which is fine. But what about Philadelphia?
After a recent whirlwind weekend press tour, I discovered you can enjoy an equally wonderful urban Christmas holiday experience in the City of Brotherly Love, the home of the Phillies, Flyers, Eagles and Sixers, and the birthplace of American Bandstand and W.C. Fields, not to mention the United States of America.
And the best thing is that you can concentrate your Philadelphia Christmas experience within its bustling downtown core and nearby surrounding neighbourhoods (and it’s only less than two hours from Montreal by plane).
First of all, I highly recommend a visit to the city’s Christmas Holiday Village, where its 12th edition takes up LOVE Park (home of the famous “Love” sculpture), located on Arch Street near City Hall. Filled with gift and craft kiosks and countless food and drink stands, the Christmas Holiday Village is the place where residents and visitors gather every day until December 24 to get their share of the Christmas spirit (not to mention Christmas cheer). Our delightful, amiable guide Leah gave us a special look at the Village, which recreates an Old European-style way of celebrating the holidays.
One place that caught our attention was the large indoor Christmas boutique that sold a wide selection of crafted holiday gifts, decorations and tree ornaments. Speaking of the latter, we saw a large display of pickle-shaped tree ornaments for sale, which was quite an unusual type of ornament to have on any Christmas tree. Leah then explained that the pickle ornament is longtime holiday tradition in her native Germany. On Christmas Eve, the pickle ornament is the last one to be hung on the family tree (but is well hidden deep within its branches). The children are then tasked to search for the hidden pickle ornament, and the first child who finds it receives an extra gift courtesy of St. Nicholas.
As well, the Christmas Holiday Village has an outdoor public skating rink and a tall ferris wheel in front of City Hall that when you reach the top of the wheel, you feel like you’re face-to-face with the statue of William Penn, the founder of Philadephia, which stands atop the building. And if you need some hot liquid refreshments during your visit to the Village, may I highly recommend the mulled wine, or the rich, marshmallow-topped hot chocolate, both served in their own souvenir ceramic mugs that you can take home.
One Philadelphia attraction that has a Montreal angle to it is the Philadelphia Orchestra, which makes its home at the breathtaking Verizon Hall of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. The orchestra is led by its Conductor and Artistic Director, Montreal native Yannick Nezet-Seguin, who also serves as the Music Director for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, not to mention Principal Conductor and Artistic Director for Montreal’s Orchestre Metropolitain, where he recently signed a lifetime contract.
We got to see Mr. Nezet-Seguin in action on two separate occasions. First on Saturday afternoon, as he led a “String PlayIN”, a rehearsal-style concert that combined members of the Montreal and Philadelphia orchestras, along with several young aspiring string musicians in the mix. Then the following afternoon, at a special concert with the Orchestre Metropolitain at the Kimmel Centre, where mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato dazzled the audience with her powerful interpretations of three operatic selections by Mozart.
Following the “PlayIN” concert, myself and four other local journalists who participated on this press tour got the chance to do some brief tete-a-tete interviews with Mr. Nezet-Seguin, and his passion for his job as conductor and music in general was well expressed during the interviews just like how he puts his full body and soul when he conducts his orchestras.
When it came to my turn to ask him some questions, I wondered what it was really like to be a symphony orchestra conductor, and was it more than just waving a baton. He responded by saying it takes two things to be a good conductor: develop yourself as a highly skilled musician, and then as a communicator.
“A conductor is someone who understands music because in essence, they are interpreters of the great composers,” he said. “And when a conductor leads an orchestra, they communicate with their eyes. As for me, I communicate with my whole body, and people think I’m dancing! I also communicate by words, because when I rehearse with the orchestra, I have to explain to them what I want musically, and what I expect from each orchestra member.”
And I couldn’t resist asking Mr. Nezet-Seguin who was his favorite conductor: Arturo Toscanini or Leopold Stokowksi (who also conducted in Philadelphia). “I admire both of them. They were different musicians and in their own way, they developed and formed the idea we have today of what a modern conductor should be,” he admitted.
Of course, a visit to Philadelphia is not complete without visiting its impressive selection of museums that cater to anyone one who wants to get their fair share of culture and history.
For art lovers, you can’t miss the Philadelphia Museum of Art (where you can personally re-enact Sylvester Stallone’s running up the steps from “Rocky”) or the Barnes Foundation (which boasts one of the largest private collections of Impressionist, post-Impressionist and modern paintings); for lovers of the truly bizarre, there’s the Mutter Museum, with its collection of deeply disturbing medical oddities, such as the post-mortem plaster cast of Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese Twins.
For history buffs, there’s no shortage of museums to visit, such as the Penn Museum, Independence Hall, the Benjamin Franklin Museum, the Liberty Bell, and the National Constitution Center. I decided to check out the Museum of the American Revolution, the most recent addition to the Philadelphia museum scene, which chronicles the six-year conflict (1775-81) that ended British rule in North America and led to the birth of the U.S. And while you’re marveling at its impressive collection of artifacts, check out George Washington’s actual headquarters tent, which is one of the highlights of the museum’s historic collection.
And now, a word about the food: I have to admit, after my weekend in Philadelphia, I discovered that Philadelphia has quite a flourishing dining scene that appeals to all kinds of foodies.
Let’s start with the cheese steak, the sandwich that made Philly famous. There are three restaurants that are automatically associated as being the best cheese steak purveyors: Geno’s Steaks, Jim’s South Street and Cleaver’s (which caters to a younger clientele). Once upon our arrival in Philly, we headed towards the always-bustling Reading Terminal Market, the foodie’s haven in which there are several cheese steak places among its 80 merchants. I decided to satisfy my cheese steak craving at the first place I saw, which happened to be By George. Made fresh on the premises, and heaped with plenty of steak, sautéed onions and provolone cheese, By George’s cheese steak sandwich can easily compete with the city’s top three places, and you will inhale it with delight.
For a not-your-average Sunday brunch, check out Oloroso on Walnut Street. It has a delicious Spanish tapas buffet brunch (including three types of paella) and chefs who are always happy to describe dishes along the buffet that maybe unfamiliar to you.
If you want a great steak dining experience, go to Alpen Rose on 13th Street. Formerly a computer store, the steakhouse was rebuilt to resemble a 1920s speakeasy and offers an intimate dining atmosphere. Our waiter Jonathan was the perfect host, as he guided us through Alpen Rose’s menu, which included a variety of appetizers (including my favorite, the bone marrow toast) and tomahawk cut steaks and veal that were grilled to perfection (and Jonathan personally carved the meat in front of us, which is a service that every server does when customers order such enormous cuts of meat). And the dessert menu offers some classic items, including one dessert that I have always wanted to try for years … Baked Alaska (which Jonathan gave a little show as he flambed the dessert with a great deal of flair and flame).
A special thank you goes out to Jerry Grymek of LMA and Deirdre Hopkins and Arturo Varela of Visit Philadelphia for putting this tour together and for their extraordinary hospitality. For more information of what to see and do in Philadelphia during the holiday season, go to www.visitphilly.com.