Saturday, January 26, 2008

This Winter, We Live in Ski Country

This winter, for the first time in recent memory, we've had snow cover for about six weeks straight now. That's right, most of us have not seen our lawns since about mid-December. I wake up some days and think I'm in Vermont, not Framingham.

If you loathe the snow and cold this winter must seem endless. If you enjoy cross-country skiing, like me, you're in paradise. I've been out more times this winter than most, and we still have quite a ways to go until spring.

With conditions like this there's no reason to head up into northern New England, or to the tame and polished expanses of the Weston ski track.

Many local skiers who can handle narrow trails and some hills head for Callahan State Park on Millwood Street. It has a variety of terrain and enough skier and foot traffic to pack many of the main trails down even by the day after a heavy snow.

Nobscot Boy Scout Reservation on Edgell Road, featured here in a previous posting, is a roller-coaster ride of hills, guaranteed to get your heart going on both the climb up and the speed runs down. There's some flat trails, but this is not the destination for beginners. There's not nearly as much foot or ski traffic here, so you may find yourself breaking trail after new snow has fallen.

The proposed Bruce Freeman Rail Trail (featured in the above photo), aka the Nobscot Trail, is the abandoned railroad bed that runs through Framingham from Route 9 to Route 20 in Sudbury. The rail line actually runs all the way to Chelmsford, where trail construction has begun. The most popular section is the unbroken stretch of trail between Water Street and Route 20, that passes through woods, wetlands, and fields, with no street crossings. Straight and flat, this is a perfect place for beginners to practice their skills, and more advanced skiers to really crank out some quick miles. And because the terrain is pretty predictable, it's an ideal place for a night ski under a full moon, or with a head lamp. A great experience if you've never tried it!

So rather than look out the window gloomily waiting for spring, strap on some skis and enjoy the snow!

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Live Music Capital of MetroWest

Who said you have to go to Boston or Worcester to hear good live music? Perhaps, if your tastes run toward sitting in a cavernous building watching a famous band who charges way too much for tickets. But if you're like me and enjoy seeing local, regional, and the occasional national act in an intimate setting, you need never leave the Ham.

Most suburban towns have a dearth of places that feature live music. Not the Ham, since we're a big town with lots of city feel. Downtown, in fact, has plenty of happening places all within walking distance of each other.

One of the most well-known is The Chicken Bone on Waverly Street. If your last impression of "The Bone" was a parking lot full of motorcycles and blues blasting out the door, things have changed. Under new ownership, The Chicken Bone has a renovated interior and now features, in addition to blues, rock, funk, groove, hip hop, classic rock, and jazz, five nights a week. And don't worry about the crowd - it's a very laid-back atmosphere that attracts a wide demographic, and the staff is super-friendly.

Just a block west on Waverly Street is The Happy Swallow. How weird is it that there are two bars with birds in their names so close together? What is it they say about birds of a feather? The Swallow's live music schedule is not as full, generally just weekends, but they get some top-notch bands, mostly blues, to liven up the room. The Happy Swallow is a classic old-style bar with some colorful characters among its regulars, but they're harmless and the staff does a good job keeping order. Probably the cheapest beer you'll find in the Ham!

Another interesting development in the downtown music scene is the rock concert series being presented at the Framingham Civic League on Concord Street, near town hall, by Natick's own Allen Adrien Events promotional agency. Featuring up-and-coming bands with a national reputation, this is a great way for the underage crowd to see acts that would often be playing nightclubs.

Arguably the best news for the downtown music scene is the opening of the Amazing Things Arts Center at the old fire house on Hollis Street. Amazing Things has built a strong reputation and a loyal audience at its original Saxonville storefront location by offering a wide variety of musical and other cultural events, including theatre and spoken word. From Tuvan throat singers to jazz, to folk, rock, blues, world music and classical, the schedule at Amazing Things has something for every kind of music fan. If you have not yet attended an Amazing Things event, well, you'll be amazed. Better yet, become a member, to support the organization and get a discount on all events you attend.

Well, there are plenty of other live music venues in town, including Brazzille, The Rat Pack Cafe, Bruburger's, Firefly's, Nobscot Cafe, and Pepperoncini's, but that's enough for now. Look for more reviews in upcoming posts. And if you have a favorite place that's not mentioned, leave a comment and maybe it can be featured in a future post. Happy listening!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Nobscot's Treasured Open Space

With a prominent sign just as Edgell Road crosses the town line and becomes Nobscot Road in Sudbury, Nobscot Boy Scout Reservation is hardly an off the beaten path secret. With over 400 acres of forested trails over rolling hills straddling both Framingham and Sudbury, with the summit of 602 foot Nobscot Hill looming in the background, the reservation is an oasis of open space and natural beauty.

Sure, there's also the largest public open space in town, Callahan State Park, but if you're looking for more solitude to walk in, and prefer not to be outnumbered by dogs and their sometimes incautious owners, Nobscot is a good bet. On some visits you won't encounter another soul the entire time you're there.

Nobscot is an ideal place for hiking year-round, and during a snowy winter like this one, a perfect spot to hone your snowshoe and cross-country skiing skills without even leaving town. Keep in mind however, that you're a guest visiting private property, and be sure to obey the rules, which are prominently posted on a sign in the main parking lot. Dogs must be leashed at all times, and no mountain biking is permitted.

Ten minutes into the woods, you'll find it hard to believe you're still in Framingham, and not a remote corner of northern New England, were it not for the whisper of traffic from Edgell Road to the east or Route 20 to the north. The only traces of civilization are the old stone walls from long-ago farms, and the cabins and lean-tos that the scouts use for their camping excursions here.

The steep ascent to the summit of Nobscot Hill, a hike of about a half hour or so from the parking lot, has the ultimate reward of a sweeping view to the east, with both the Blue Hills and the Boston skyline visible in the distance. Pause for a rest and enjoy the view before descending. And be thankful for this oasis in an increasingly-developed and densely-populated town, and the generosity of the Knox Trail Council of the Boy Scouts of America to allow the public access to it.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Coffee Shop Talk

Framingham has plenty of chain coffee shops -- Dunkin' Donuts, Honey Dew Donuts, and of course, that symbol of 1990s gentrification, Starbucks. Depending on your viewpoint, they can be either comfortably consistent, or bland and boring. But what about the charm and intimacy of a single location, locally-owned and operated coffee shop?

Framingham's Nobscot village has the privilege of having just such a place, in the form of Espresso Paulo/Annie's Book Stop, at 774 Water Street in the Nobscot Shopping Plaza. Owner Paul Ashton transformed what was originally an ordinary used book shop into a vibrant community gathering place with top-notch coffee (from Hopkinton's Red Barn Coffee Roasters) teas, and baked goods.

The walls are hung with art from local artists, and jewelry is on display from area artisans. The shop also holds receptions for the artists, as well as appearances and book signings by local authors. How's that for a community orientation?

Espresso Paulo is open at 7 a.m. to cater to the work-bound commuter crowd, and stays open until 6 p.m. So bring your caffeine habit to the local guy, and let the big operators fend for themselves!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Buddhist Monks of Saxonville

Framingham has long been known as a town of racial, ethnic, and religious diversity. But did you know it's now home to a Buddhist temple with resident monks?

The New England Buddhist Vihara and Meditation Center has been located in an ordinary-looking 19th century house on a quiet street in Saxonville for over a year. Staffed by resident monks from Sri Lanka, the center primarily ministers to Sri Lankans living in the New England region, but also has a small following of Americans of other backgrounds who meditate and study Buddhism with the monks on Wednesday evenings.

The three resident monks, led by Bhante Dhammajothi, practice and teach Theravadan Buddhism, which is the dominant form of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and throughout Southeast Asia. While the monks live an ascetic lifestyle at the temple, they are also integrating themselves into the community, take English lessons at a Saxonville church, and are seen walking around Saxonville in their distinctive rust-colored robes. So if you see any of them in your travels around town, say hello and give a hearty welcome to the Buddhist monks of Saxonville.