Travel: The state of the union in Baltimore and Washington DC

The Museum of American History in Washington features the 200-year-old flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the US national anthem. Picture Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images
The Museum of American History in Washington features the 200-year-old flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the US national anthem. Picture Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images
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Baltimore and Washington DC have a special place in the heart of every American, as Neil Geraghty discovers when he visits the twin cities of the US east coast

Nothing arouses such fervent patriotism in the USA as the Star Spangled Banner and for both the flag and national anthem, the twin cities of Baltimore and Washington have a special place in the nation’s heart.

An aerial view of Baltimore's historic harbour area. Picture: Visit Baltimore

An aerial view of Baltimore's historic harbour area. Picture: Visit Baltimore

I’m visiting Fort McHenry, a star-shaped 18th century fort bristling with cannons that stands guard over Baltimore’s bustling Inner Harbour. It was here on the night of 14 September 1814 that the Americans withstood a heavy British naval bombardment during the protracted war of 1812. As the British withdrew at dawn, a giant Star Spangled Banner made by local seamstress Mary Pickering was raised over the fort and a visiting American lawyer Francis Scott Key was so moved by the sight that he penned a patriotic poem The Defence of Fort McHenry. Ironically, the lyrics were then set to a popular British song, To Anacreon in Heaven, which was later renamed The Star Spangled Banner. Over the following century it became hugely popular and in 1931 became the USA’s official national anthem.

Although the 1812 war rumbled on for several months and was inconclusive, the defence of Fort McHenry is hugely symbolic as the place where Americans finally gave their former colonial masters a decisive bloody nose. As I wander around the fort, I spot a group of American tourists unfurling a flag by the cannons and making V for victory signs for photos. At midday a 19th century clipper sails past the fort and some jolly guides in vintage top hats and stripy trousers let off a salvo of cannon fire. It’s great fun to watch and vividly brings to life the history of this fascinating National Monument.

For fans of the gritty TV crime series The Wire which is set in Baltimore, the city has a surprisingly genteel face. The city centre and harbour districts are home to some of the most charming and historic neighbourhoods of any US city. The five-hour time difference between the UK and the east coast always leaves newly arrived British visitors with lunch sized appetites at breakfast, and this is when America’s famous brunches really come into their own. Up early, I take a leisurely stroll to the harbour where Miss Shirley’s Café serves up some of Baltimore’s favourite breakfasts. Baltimore lies on the tip of the Patapsco River, an inlet of Chesapeake Bay which is renowned for its shellfish and crustaceans. Looking at the menu I can’t resist the crab cake and fried green tomato eggs Benedict and when it arrives, I sprinkle it with traditional Old Bay seasoning, a savoury blend of celery salt, paprika and herbs that is an essential addition to any seafood dish in Maryland.

After the delicious breakfast, I set out to explore the city. Across the road from Miss Shirley’s, a fine collection of historic ships lies moored on Baltimore Harbour’s quayside. These include the USCGC Taney, a coast guard vessel which is the last surviving ship from the attack on Pearl Harbour. Handy free tourist buses run on four circular loops from the city centre and after visiting the ships, I hop on one to Mt Vernon, Baltimore’s showpiece historic neighbourhood. Here on a hilltop, America’s original Washington Memorial, a 178ft Doric column topped by a statue of George Washington, gazes out over the city. Dating from 1815, the monument is set amidst beautiful gardens and is overlooked by graceful Georgian townhouses with intricate latticework fanlights above their doors. Elegant wrought iron tables are dotted throughout the gardens which on sunny weekdays become Baltimore’s favourite al fresco lunch spot. I grab a bagel and coffee and take a seat in the warm autumn sunshine. In amongst the animated chatter and bubbling fountains, Baltimore really does live up to its nickname of Charm City and the crime-ridden streets depicted in The Wire seem a million miles away.

The following afternoon, I jump on a train to Washington DC. Just 40 minutes away, stately Washington has a totally different character from more down to earth Baltimore but in their separate ways, both encapsulate the history of the USA. I check into the imposing Mandarin Oriental Hotel overlooking the Potomac River’s beautiful Tidal Basin and from my window I have a magnificent view of the Jefferson Memorial. Washington’s famous cherry trees are in their first flush of autumn colours and it’s such a beautiful afternoon I head straight out to visit the memorial. With its white marble iconic porticos, graceful rotunda and towering 19ft tall bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson, I feel transported back in time to ancient Greece. Extracts from the Declaration of Independence are inscribed on the walls and visitors stand in hushed reverence as they read the uplifting words.

Further along the Tidal Basin the more recent memorials to Franklin D Roosevelt and Martin Luther King are more low key and consist of sculptures and intimate landscaped spaces that force visitors to pause and reflect upon the 20th century’s epic struggles. Especially touching is a seated bronze statue of Roosevelt with his beloved Scottish terrier Fala sitting by his side. The Tidal Basin leads into the National Mall, Washington’s magnificent two-mile-long showcase park flanked by some of the world’s most iconic buildings. Although 24 million visitors flock to the National Mall each year, this vast park can easily absorb the numbers, and for such a world famous tourist attraction the atmosphere is surprisingly relaxed. At the White House, a garden party is in full swing and the jazzy strains of a military band waft over the National Mall’s lawns. I stop to watch a Sunday afternoon baseball match and the sunlit white dome and fluttering Stars and Stripes of the US Capitol provide an impossibly scenic backdrop.

The next morning I pull back the curtains and leaden sheets of rain are drenching the Jefferson Memorial. In most other cities such dismal weather would be disheartening but with dozens of world-class museums, the majority of them free, Washington is the perfect rainy day city. I stroll over to the nearby National Air and Space Museum and in the foyer I’m thrilled to stumble across an old childhood friend; the original studio model of the USS Enterprise. The museum is a treasure trove of human achievement and I join crowds of admiring visitors standing in awe in front of the 1903 Wright Flyer, the world’s first aeroplane, and the LM2, the test prototype of the Apollo Lunar Module.

Across the National Mall in the Museum of American History, similar crowds let out gasps of delight as they stumble across Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz and the original Muppets. However, pride of place goes to Fort McHenry’s Star Spangled Banner, now tattered and torn but proudly displayed in a softly lit room.

An early recording of the national anthem begins to play and as I look around I notice an elderly lady taking out a handkerchief and dabbing away the tears from her eyes.

Fact box

WOW air is now operating year-round flights from Edinburgh to Baltimore via Reykjavik. Prices start at £129.99 one way, www.wowair.co.uk

For more information on Capital Region USA visit, www.capitalregionausa.co.uk

Rates at Hotel Indigo start at $119/£97 per night. Lock in special offers by booking early, baltimoreindigohotel.com or call 0800 389 8100 to receive rate guarantees, late checkout and free wifi.

The Mandarin Oriental Washington DC offers rates from $265/£216 per night, www.mandarinoriental.com/washington/