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City: Baltimore / Country: USA / World Region: North America

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      08.08.2009 09:47
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      Been there, done that, wouldn't recommend

      Baltimore is not an exotic place. It's not the type of place most people would cross an ocean or even a country to visit. It is, however, the place I lived while based in the US, so for a while it was home. I chose the job rather than the location, and I loved the fact that they paid me handsomely to sit at my desk and write all day, but Baltimore itself still took some getting used to.

      For those who don't know (and until I got that job I fell into that group), Baltimore is a city in Maryland, and Maryland is a state on the east coast of the United States, surrounded by Delaware (as Elle Woods would say: "No sales tax!"), Virginia, Pennsylvania and Washington D.C. Baltimore is perhaps the most well known place in the state, though Annapolis, some distance to the south, is the state capital. Chesapeake bay on which the city sits means there is always water nearby, though this is all harbours and rivers rather than nice oceans with beaches. Baltimore has its own airport - Baltimore Washington International - and is also easily accessible from the Washington Dulles and Reagan airports. There are 2 Amtrak train stations, and 2 Greyhound bus ones. In other words, getting to Baltimore (or away from it if that's what you are intent on doing) is not a problem. Neither is finding somewhere to stay - the inner harbour area has hotels in all price ranges from 3 Marriotts to the less extravagant Days Inn and Comfort Inn near the convention center.

      Because I lived here, I didn't see myself as a true tourist. I worked all week and did mundane stuff like going to the gym, going supermarket shopping, doing my laundry in the evenings and on the weekends when I was in the city rather than off gallivanting somewhere else. But, because it was a new city to me, I made an effort to trail round some of the guidebook stuff, and actually saw more of the city than most of my colleagues, or so they say.

      Baltimore claims to have been the first for lots of things - it was the place the first stars and stripes flag was made, the place the Star Spangled Banner was written and first sung and so on. So when I heard the National Dental Museum in town was a first, I was a little concerned - surely the locals aren't so deluded they believe that the first person with teeth originated here? In fact, it was more the dentist side of things they're claiming origination of - the world's first dental college was here, they say, and to commemorate it, they now have a small, odd-smelling museum dedicated to all things teethy. The entrance fee isn't much - $4.50 for adults, $2.50 for the old, the young and the studious, so I figured it was worth a trip. The museum is a strange mix of things. They have very old tools and chairs on display, along with case after case of "through the ages" stuff - toothbrushes, toothpaste and so on, dating from years gone by right up to the present day. They also have a huge tooth shaped TV that plays old commercials, and another screen showing cartoons about teeth, bacteria and toothpaste. There are a few button-press things on display, but most of the space is taken up with written wall displays about the history of dental practices throughout the world. Up on the second floor they have some kids corners, mainly for children coming on school trips. They can dress up as dentists, hygienists, patients and so on, and act out a typical scene from a dental surgery. They also have a book corner with dental inspired stories from around the world, including the inspiringly titled book "My tooth ith looth" and my own childhood favourite "Dr DeSoto".

      The Inner Harbour is probably one of the more famous bits of Baltimore, and this is where a further few attractions are located. The Maryland Science Center is a lot like the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, or London's Science Museum. The majority of the displays are hands on ones, and themes include dinosaurs, the human body, space and more. Live science shows are put on several times daily at weekends - the one I saw had this really bratty kid experience static electricity and burst into tears: it was excellent! They also have an Imax theatre showing several different shows each day, and the travelling exhibits on the top floor at the time included one about Jane Goodall's work with chimps. Entrance is not cheap - up to $20 for adults depending on which ticket combo you go for - but you can spend a long time there.

      Along the harbour front a bit is the National Aquarium full of fish (which I hate) and dolphin shows (which I love) - I went only because, as with the Science Centre, it's somewhere for which my company offered free entry passes. It is, however, probably the most popular attraction in the city, and as such fills up very quickly at weekends. A few more steps along the waterfront and you end up at the PowerPlant, a collection of cafes and bars and attractions, including Passport. I did this on a wet, rainy Saturday, not quite sure what to expect. Basically, your $12 buys you 40 minutes of entertainment including a 15 minute interactive quiz and a 25 minute 3D show/ride thing where your seats move and they blow wind at you to make you feel like you're on a rollercoaster. The show is not particularly good - I saw Time Elevator America whose inventors seemed to think the history of the country could be summed up in just 4 events over the last few thousand years - and I probably wouldn't recommend it. Other downtown attractions include Fells Point, a "quaint" neighbourhood slightly classier than the city centre, the Star Spangled Banner House and Museum and of course the sports fields / pitches where the Ravens and the Orioles play.

      Further up town is the Walters Art Gallery, a museum with an odd mix of paintings and other art works from various time periods. This museum is free every Saturday, and free tours run both weekend days. Again, I went because I had a free pass but though it was good, I could only pass an hour there before I'd seen everything.

      Washington has a monument (the Washington Monument) that is nice and tall but impossible to get entry tickets for. Baltimore has a monument (confusingly also called the Washington Monument) which is a smidge shorter, but a lot more accessible, so this is where I found myself one Sunday. I lived less than 3 minutes walk from this place, but since all the buildings round me were fairly tall, I don't see it unless I walked down a certain road. So I walked down that road, paid my $1 donation and began to climb. The guide books had warned me that this was something best attempted only by those in top physical condition, and equipped with supplies (snacks, drinks, a flashlight and whistle, something to read during your rest periods) so I was quite surprised when after a few hundred steps I was emerging into daylight at that top. The people who wrote that guide have obviously never climbed any European cathedral towers. Still, less work than expected is always good, so I didn't let it worry me too much, and began to explore. My first observation? This place is just a lawsuit waiting to happen, and not something I would have expected in safety conscious America: there were no safety rails, no hideous barbed netting, no glassed in sides. Had I been in suicidal mode, I could just have hopped over the mini-wall (barely 1m high) and plummeted to my death. Ignoring this, you could have fun up the tower. The views are great - you can see down to the Inner Harbour and beyond - and the breeze that hits you at that height is refreshing and light after the generally thick air on the ground below.

      Baltimore centre has very few shops as most have now relocated to out of town malls. You can buy the odd thing downtown, but big supermarkets, a selection of clothes shops and similar are a definite bus or tram ride away. In fact, the only thing I managed to buy down by the harbour was books, because they have a huge Barnes and Noble on the water's edge, where I also had a first date one day, with a guy I met on a plane. It's slim pickings in Maryland, y'know. There is a small shopping centre - the Gallery - a few minutes walk away, and while it has some ok shops (Bath and Body Works, the GAP, Ann Taylor, Claire's Accessories) most are pricey and relatively small compared to what you'll find out of town. Though Baltimore has public transport in the form of busses, commuter trains and trams, some places only 20 - 30 minutes from the centre are not served, and those which are do not always have continuous links. I generally got out of town at weekends because it was easier and almost as cheap to fly somewhere miles away than try to navigate to somewhere closer to home on the ground.

      The weather in Baltimore took some getting used to. I had pouring rain for my first week. After that it varied on a day by day (sometimes hour by hour) basis, switching from hot but very thick, sticky temperatures, to flash floods and sudden thunderstorms. Case in point: one night when I left work for the gym it was so hot I longed for a beach and a bikini. When I left later that night, it was raining so hard that in the 3 minute walk home, my clothes became soaked through and were still drying out the next morning. There were constant weather warnings on the news there - and when storms came they can be powerful enough to knock out the electricity, or flood the streets to knee level. After the mild if slightly cold summers I was used to in England, this was a very strange change. Winters here get cold, but being on the coast they don't quite hit the depths of Germany or mainland Europe in general.

      Would I recommend Baltimore? Not really. If I had been working in a neighbouring state, it is very unlikely I would have come to see this place. I may have made it sound like there's a lot to do here, but there's not. The museums they do have are poor compared to those in the major cities - D.C., Chicago, New York. The downtown places are extremely crowded, and apart from the bustling harbour, there are very few places to be outside here: parks near me are constantly full of homeless people sleeping on the benches, and as I said earlier, there are no beaches down by the water. I think the biggest reason I would not choose to recommend it is the people. I've been to the USA before, and so had ideas of what to expect. But unlike the people of NYC and southern California, those from Baltimore were not always the happy clappy customer service oriented Americans you might expect. In shops here, people do not wish you a nice day. They grunt answers to your questions, and are generally unhelpful. Aside from in my office (where in actual fact most people don't come from Baltimore city), people do not hold doors open for you. They do not smile as they give you change, or generally go out of their way to be polite. The only people who seemed nice to me are those who wanted something - usually the homeless guys a few streets over from my flat who have figured out that smiling and being friendly are more likely to get them the money they're begging. This is not what I really expected from the USA, stereotypical though my views may seem. I thought I would be living the American dream here, but that is not something that seems to be alive and well in the city of Baltimore.

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