We’re in Providence, the capital and most populous city of Rhode Island. It’s the first place in our plan to make short trips to explore the Northeast. We’ve picked it because it doesn’t take long to get to from East Hampton, although it does require hopping on three ferries, along with a drive, but we’ve especially scheduled this “quick trip” to be there during one of the city’s acclaimed WaterFire celebrations.
Providence is one of the oldest cities in the United States. It was founded in 1636 by Roger Williams, a staunch proponent of the separation of church and state. His views on religious freedom got him banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for sedition and heresy for his “diverse, new, and dangerous opinions.” He and his followers established a colony dedicated to religious liberty, and named it in honor of “God’s merciful Providence.” Williams, only 33 at the time of his banishment, would see his influence wane by the time he died at 80, but nearly 50 years after his death, his ideas on a “wall of separation” between church and state became part of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Providence sits at the mouth of the Providence River at the head of Narragansett Bay. It was one of the first American cities to industrialize and became known for textile manufacturing, jewelry, and silverware. A real highlight of our trip is our visit to the Museum of Art of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD, pronounced Rizdee by locals). The featured exhibit is “Designing Brilliance — 1850-1970,” starring masterpieces by Rhode Island’s renowned designers at Gorham Silver. It continues through December 1. On display are a solid silver dressing table, an adorable turtle tureen, gorgeous ceramic pitchers trimmed in silver, and far too many other astonishing uses of silver to mention.
But what amazed us even more was the scope of the RISD Museum. We agreed it struck us both as a “mini-Met,” with an exploration of art from nearly as many periods of history as those covered in NYC’s most famous museum. We spent three lovely hours there, discovering its many rooms with art ranging from art of today’s RISD students, reaching back to Old Masters, and, even further, to ancient Greece, Egypt, and the Far East. Its contemporary galleries featuring clothing and furniture design, and the Donghia Costume and Textiles Study Center were especially impressive. There’s even a “house” created to authentically display period furniture.
We next wandered Benefit Street, filled with handsome historic houses, including The Governor Stephen Hopkins House, a National Historic Landmark at the corner of Benefit and Hopkins Street. Built in the 1700s, it was home to Stephen Hopkins, a Rhode Island governor and signatory of the Declaration of Independence. The free tour, led by a knowledgeable instructor from one of Providence’s many colleges, is a great introduction to Rhode Island history.
Our food choices Saturday were a bit limited by the fact we were in the business district on a weekend. Not many restaurants were open during the day, but all were busy gearing up for that evening’s WaterFire celebrations, and food stands and vendors were lined up along the waterside. On Friday night, after we first arrived, we ventured to Federal Hill, home to what some claim to be “some of the best Italian food in the world.” Our choice from many possibilities was Costantino’s Venda Bar & Ristorante, in DePasquale Plaza, where we were happy to find some dishes more often found in Italy itself than in most Italian restaurants in America. And the square features live entertainment most weekends, so we enjoyed a musical background as we strolled along Atwells Avenue at sunset.
But WaterFire is why we were in Providence on this particular weekend. As many as 20,000 people gather, and everybody is there to have a good time. Eighty braziers loaded with wood dot two converging rivers, and lighting the fires is an integral part of the night’s revelries. So were the kayakers, who floated around the fires bearing illuminated, multicolored fishes that looked like inflated windsocks. They continuously circled the flames in an unexpectedly ethereal water ballet. We recommend taking a blanket or chairs and claiming space early at Waterplace Park, where a changing roster of performers entertains — it’s the best view of WaterFire. It’s also great to wander around the lively scene of food vendors and performers that line the streets near the rivers.
On Sunday, we drove around and walked through some of the residential streets of the city and were mightily impressed by the beauty of a wide variety of centuries-old homes. Not to mention the institutions of higher learning — eight to be exact — including RISD, Brown University, Providence College, and Rhode Island College. Many of the city’s liveliest neighborhoods are clearly geared to college students, with lots of restaurants and enticing shops.
We recommend Providence. If you’d like your own quick trip, there are many more WaterFire celebrations scheduled this summer and fall. You can find the calendar at www.waterfire.org.