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Water fire and music revives a capital.

Costa Rica

Compact little Providence is one of the America’s oldest cities. A visit to New England’s hidden gem, under an hour from Boston, to find a magical fire and water festival, a lively Little Italy, some of the best city shopping around, a perfect imitation of Washington’s Capitol, and the President from the dollar bill. Picture, State House: Gareth Huw Davies.

Take the train.

You folks need help? enquired a friendly porter in Boston Central Station, as we made our way to Amtrak’s crack Acela Express for the 40 minutes dash to Providence. Trains are much improved in the US, a pleasant alternative to driving and flying. And standards are high. In the quiet car the ticket lady insisted on a strict hush - as you would in a library. We kept the bargain, but she wouldn’t multiple-punch our tickets, as Tom Hanks does in Polar Express. We whizzed through pleasant, leafy suburbs, trees ablaze with gold and red in the late Fall, and slid into Providence. First thing we saw was a scaled-down version of Washington DC’s Capitol, the Rhode Island Statehouse. It’s the proud statement of the America’s smallest state, the first to break away from Great Britain.

WaterFire wonder

In the 1970s this city was in a mess, its jewellery and silverware industry in decline, its streets a peril. Then came the great make-over. They re-routed three rivers scenically through the city centre, bordered by promenades and parks, then launched WaterFire, a festival worthy of medieval Venice. The centrepiece of WaterFire is a line of 100 braziers, afloat on the water. Whirling sparks and flickering flames light the night. Music delivered over a state-of-the-art sound system switches randomly from Satchmo to Vivaldi. Fix a picnic, find a good spot and bask in the free spectacle (it runs spring to autumn). Founder Barnaby Evans told us he had parties of nuns alongside Hells Angels, gazing in wonder with never a hint of trouble. Now they want Evans to stage this symbol of Providence’s renaissance elsewhere: Dubai could be next.

Billion-dollar face

It’s found in pockets around the world, that famous likeness of George Washington, currently portrayed on the dollar bill. And you can see the original here. Rhode Islander Gilbert Stuart’s portrait, called the Athenaeum, hangs in the majestic State House. The building itself is a minor miracle of architecture, topped by the world’s fourth largest self-supporting marble dome. There are more paintings by Gilbert Stuart, (he’s also in the National Portrait Gallery in London) in the nearby Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design He shares space with French masters Renoir, Manet Monet, Cézanne, Rodin and Matisse, as well as John Singer Sargent and Picasso. I liked Georges Lemmen’s View of the Thames, in the pointillism style. Don’t miss the hallway of Andy Warhol wallpaper.

Shop easy

Unlike many American cities, where the car rules, and shopping is out-of-town, Providence placed its main mall dead centre of downtown, packing in enough retail buzz to even tempt people staying in nearby Boston out on a daytrip. The three floor Providence Place Mall is anchored around Macy’s, JCPenney and Nordstrom, and includes Abercrombie & Fitch and Apple. But the city’s shopping roots go much deeper. The Biltmore and Westminster Arcade is America’s oldest enclosed shopping mall. It was built in 1828 in the Greek Revival style. 21-foot granite Ionic columns grace its entrances. A glass skylight on wooden beams runs the length of the building and floods the walkways with natural light. The city’s third retail highlight is spruced-up Federal Hill, one of the five best Little Italys in the U.S, with some of the finest Italian eating around.

Feast under the stars

Gracie’s restaurant had a neat way to say our splendid five course taster menu was finally over. Eating our way around a circle of home-made chocolates in the recommended order, we came to a salty one. Time to stop. It had been a memorable two hour performance, under a ceiling of stars made of little pinpoint lights. The taster menu is a simple formula: you leave it all to the ingenuity of the chef, and the skill of the sommelier who matches each course with a wine. Long Island duck breast, and date and pine nut ravioli with melted leeks stand out in a whirlwind of tastes. Next day to CAV, housed in a former Jewellery District warehouse, a mix of restaurant and antiques shop. The owner fills the dining room with West African carvings, Asian Bronzes and other items she collected in her travels. The tables are set with Turkish kilims, under glass. And it’s all for sale.

Born again hotel

Once the wrecker’s ball ruled in the USA. Now they recycle those fine old buildings they used to destroy. The brand new Renaissance Hotel, dazzling in white stone on a city centre hill, sums up the new thinking. An unfinished Masonic temple stood derelict here for 75 years. Marriott completed its makeover as a hotel in 2007. Lavishly decorated in a rich 1930s style, in distinguished browns, blacks and reds, it has many references to the secret order, and famous masons such as Beethoven and Mozart. The rotating arrows above the lifts pointing to the floors are a fine old touch. The architects even found space for the original graffiti from the abandoned building. From our 9th floor bedroom we had a splendid view of the shining State House, and the neat small city beyond. 001 401 919 5000.

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