See Twain Home, Then Sugar Off

Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section.

Let's take a fantasy Christmas walk through the old New England streets of Connecticut's capital city.

We'll begin at the homes of Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe, then go on through a Festival of Lights that creates angels in flight, sparkling trees and glowing fountains around Constitution Plaza.

As our Christmas walk rambles on through historic and contemporary Hartford, we may be tempted to pause for "sugaring off," which at this time of year means a bit of warm, bubbling maple syrup over a scoop of fresh snow.

The walk could end at one of the Nutmeg Bed & Breakfast houses, perhaps an 18th-Century family home with its original peg floors and a fireplace decorated for Santa Claus.

Long before this, anyone on a Christmas walk will have discovered--or been reminded--that this city of nearly 140,000 is much more than the modern skyscrapers that house what has been called the "insurance capital of the United States."

Home of Literary Circles

Mark Twain's first visit to Hartford was for a pragmatic reason. By the early 1870s the Nook Farm heart of the city had become a centerpiece of stately Victorian homes, a social and literary circle that drew editors and publishers, financiers and stars of the stage from Boston and New York. The circle often attracted such notables as William Dean Howells and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Mark Twain came here to discuss "The Innocents Abroad" with a New York publisher. He liked Nook Farm so much that he decided to build a home here. That was in his years of affluence when the wealth from his writings could be supplemented by at least $5,000 a month from the East Coast lecture circuit. Hartford knew him as Mark Twain, the famed writer and lecturer, not as Samuel Langhorne Clemens.

Next to the comparatively modest Harriet Beecher Stowe house, he built a mansion with 19 rooms, 18 fireplaces, five baths and quarters for seven servants. The best designers of the day blended American, Turkish, Oriental and Indian architecture along with interior styling.

When the showplace home was completed in 1874, Twain moved in with his wife, Olivia, their three daughters and the full retinue of servants, who could be summoned through speaking tubes.

The rooms are decorated now for the Christmas walking tours of the Twain and Stowe houses. Without their holiday decorations, both houses are open to visitors all year.

Every room in the Twain home reflects his love of opulence and grandeur. They seem light years away from the Mississippi River and the gold-mining country of California, yet it was here that he wrote about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

The library, open to Christmas season visitors, was where he not only entertained world celebrities but also read to his family, and where his daughters often acted out scenes from his writing.

When extravagant living and a bad investment made it impossible for him to maintain the Nook Farm home, he closed it and went on a world lecture tour to start rebuilding his fortune. He finally sold the home in 1903 and over the years it became a boy's school, an apartment building and finally a branch of the Hartford Public Library. Since 1955 it has been restored as a historic building.

Victorian Stowe Home

Harriet Beecher Stowe's home is likewise a careful and complete restoration, decorated into a more subdued but inviting Victorian setting for Christmas visitors. Her "Uncle Tom's Cabin" sold more than 500,000 copies and became a powerful voice for the abolition of slavery.

Her husband Calvin's bedroom study on the second floor is where he wrote his widely studied "Origin and History of the Books of the Bible." The Stowes came here after Calvin retired from Andover Theological Seminary.

The Christmas walking tours enter the spacious front parlor where Harriet wrote and painted, continuing a career that produced more than 30 books. She also had an active role in women's suffrage and the anti-slavery movement.

At both the Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe homes there will be a special Gaslight Open House from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Dec. 20 and 27. The invitation to the public begins: "Although Professor and Mrs. Stowe and Mr. and Mrs. Samuel (Mark Twain) Clemens regret they will be out of town, they have arranged for the Camerata Ensemble and Chanterelle to provide entertainment in their parlors. . . ."

The visitor center in the Old State House on Main Street furnishes information on walking tours, including your own self-guided walks from Nook Farm through the restored Plaza, Civic Center and state buildings to the Old State House, which served as state capitol from 1796 to 1878 and is the oldest state house in the country. The neo-Gothic State Capitol that has been the seat of government since 1879 has many statues and works of art recreating highlights of Connecticut history.

The day after Thanksgiving this year, a child flipped a switch to turn on 150,000 small white bulbs for the Festival of Lights that will continue to sparkle into the new year.

In Congress Street Historic District, more than 50 historic buildings, built between 1860 and 1900, have been restored and will add to the mood of a Victorian holiday.

The first snowfall brought a foot of snow Nov. 11. It didn't last long, but lighter snowfalls began in early December. Elizabeth Park, where more than 900 varieties of roses bloom during the summer, will offer cross-country ski trails during the winter, as will Keney and Goodwin parks.

Winter in Connecticut

Walking along the banks of the Connecticut River may remind you of the Mississippi, as it often did Mark Twain, even in winter. The University of Hartford's Lincoln Theater is increasingly important in the cultural and entertainment life of the city, bringing in professional theater companies from off-Broadway, London and many regional theaters.

The Nutmeg Bed & Breakfast story is one that would have delighted both Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Nutmeg was started by Maxine Kates, who was born in Connecticut and became a teacher. She had been living for more than three years in the Culver City area of Los Angeles, where her husband was working, when they returned to Hartford in 1982.

She had seen the growing popularity of bed and breakfast accommodations in California, and decide to try her own organization in Hartford, opening a door to "everybody who had ever wanted to be an innkeeper."

Now more than 130 homes throughout Connecticut are booking guests through Nutmeg Bed & Breakfast, which protects their privacy by not listing them by name or location. Prospective guests simply call Nutmeg and describe what kind of home they would like, along with their budget range.

Many of the Nutmeg homes date back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries. All prices are based on double rates, including breakfast, and start as low as $40 a night. The highest-priced Nutmeg bedroom is in a 200-year-old home with a queen-size, four-poster bed, fireplace and antique furnishings at $95. Gourmet breakfasts are served.

The master bedroom in one suburban home has winter cross-country ski trails and summer walking paths right outside the door. The Nutmeg telephone number is (203) 236-6698.

Dishes of Northern Italy

Major hotels in the heart of the capital city include the Sheraton Hartford ($98 and up) and Parkview Hilton and Summit (both $86 and up), each of which includes restaurants, plus entertainment and spa facilities.

A popular downtown restaurant is The Brownstone, in a Victorian brownstone house decorated with antiques, brass and mirrors. At the family operated Carbone's Ristorante, specialties of northern Italy are served.

The Wadsworth Atheneum art museum on Main Street, where the Festival of Trees began on Dec. 4 this year, has a collection of close to 40,000 works of art, from contemporary to ancient Egyptian. The Connecticut Historical Society on Elizabeth Street houses more than 100,000 items of state history in nine galleries and the Research Library.

Telephone number for the Greater Hartford Convention and Visitors Bureau is (203) 728-6789.

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