A promenade on the Seine

If you can’t get out on the River Seine when you’re Paris, then take a promenade along its banks.

Life on the Seine
Life on the Seine

La promenade (the walk or stroll) has always been a favourite French leisure activity. La promenade was a feature of Louis XIV, the Sun King’s day. A retinue of courtiers, his gardener Andrea Le Notre and a full orchestra accompanied him as he promenaded the purpose built paths of his grand palace at Versailles. Old French novels, paintings and photographs are full of references and depictions of promenades. Still now, any lunchtime, evening, weekend or holiday, the streets, allees and riverbanks of Paris teem with promeneurs  – families, couples, groups and singles.

There have been countless tourists guide books written about picturesque and interesting Paris promenades, guaranteed to keep the visitor safely to a tried and trusted path, with maximum monument, cafe, charm and vista value.  But whether you follow a prescribed route or ramble at will, the promenade is the best way to explore this city and most importantly, to see it as it really is.

A walking plan for the  the Seine
A walking plan for the the Seine

One of the best routes for a Paris promenade is along the River Seine. Life on the river is endlessly fascinating. Barges piled with containers make their way out to the coast. Barge people, lines of washing strung along their decks, wave as they pass on their way up river. Bateaux Mouches cruise slowly by, crowded with tourists, while a disembodied voice counts off the monuments for them. Houseboats bob gently along the banks. On their decks, screened by potted gardens, their occupants    lounge in deckchairs.

Joggers pant past. A few fishermen doze over motionless lines. Painters dab away at their canvasses against the sunny stone walls.

Spanning the Seine are the famous Paris bridges, each quite individual, each with its own story and each definitely worth a detour for a different view of the river.

It’s also worth a detour to browse in the Bouquinistes or booksellers’ Seine-side stalls for old editions, comics, magazines and other unexpected treasures.

All along the Seine there are famous Paris monuments – the Conciergerie, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay. There are also many beautiful but unknown Parisian buildings.

If you’re strolling the Seine in summer, you might find yourself on Paris Plage, surrounded by bikinis, sandcastles, ball games, the scent of sunscreen and all the trappings of the beach, save the surf and the salt.

 

Parlez-vous francais?

It’s often said that if you don’t speak French, you’ll have a terrible time in France.

The Eiffel Tower by night
The Eiffel Tower by night

There are countless scary examples of just how that terrible time will manifest itself; waiters will ignore you while the other patrons in the cafe smirk over their cocas and croque monsieurs at your mounting discomfort and impatience; shop assistants will patronise and diddle you; taxi-drivers will deliver you to the wrong address, shout at you, then take off with your change; hotel receptionists will sneer at you, give you the room with the broken telly, next door to the one for rent by the hour, overlooking the courtyard with the rubbish bins where the dero sings all night, then shrug, mystified and uncomprehending when you complain; if you seek help or directions in the street, even pre-fixed with a humble “Excuse me, do you speak English?” you’ll be brushed off with a “Non! Désolé”  (whatever that means!) The list goes on …

It’s just as often said that the French can all speak English, they just refuse to, to make life difficult and because, “of course, they hate the English!” Examples here are rather thin, but there one or two afloat about the waiters who will take an order in English from the flirty girl with the long legs while flatly ignoring the desperate finger-clickings and thunderous glares of the middle-aged man with the short black socks under Roman sandals.

Both statements are, of course, generalisations. True, there are those who have an unhappy time in France because they don’t speak French, but there are many others who have the time of their lives in spite of it. True, many French people do speak English, but many don’t and some are reluctant to, not because they’re obtuse or detest anglophones, but because, like people the world over, they’re afraid they’ll embarrass themselves.

While competence in French is no guarantee of a fabulous séjour en France (even a few of the totally fluent have been heard to complain of some of the outrages from the list above) usually any gracious effort to speak the language is appreciated as the gesture of goodwill and respect that it is. It smooths the way and opens the door to communication.

So dust off the schoolboy or the schoolgirl French! Reach for the Lonely Planet phrasebook – it covers pretty well every contingency (and proposition!) At the very least, polish up the Oui! Oui!, the Non! Non!, the Monsieur, the Madame, the Merci, the S’il vous plait, the Bonjour! and the Au Revoir! Even a little language goes a long way.

La Bella Ferrara

Dinner, on Mulberry Street in New York’s Little Italy was very good, very good indeed, in fact, but it was totally eclipsed by dessert at La Bella Ferrara, just a short stroll down the block.

New York's Little Italy
New York’s Little Italy

This narrow little cake shop is one of the few survivors from the days when Mulberry Street was the centre of a large and thriving Italian community mostly from Naples. Over the years La Bella Ferrara has gone steadily about the business of producing cakes and pastries for the famous (one wall is a gallery of big show-biz faces) the infamous (from the late 1900s to the late 20th century, a string of Mafia held sway in the area) thousands, maybe millions, of ordinary New Yorkers and who knows how many tourists.

The problem at La Bella Ferrara is choice. Its menu boasts more than thirty different kinds of pastries, more than a dozen varieties of biscuits, thirteen types of “cakes for   every occasion”, in sizes ranging from the 8 person to the 100 person number as well as holiday and seasonal specials, including  Sfingi and Zeppole De San Giuseppe.

Fortunately, La Bella Ferrrara reproduces almost everything in miniature, so you can try sample a few.

Order a cappuccino, or an espresso and a plate of goodies, sit on the terrace and look out across the street to the shrine of San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples, in the front garden of the Most Precious Blood Church.

 

Café Edison, a quintessential piece of New York

Breakfast was not included in my deal at the W Hotel in Times Square. If it had been, I would never have discovered the Café Edison. To have missed this iconic Broadway eatery would have been to miss a quintessential piece of New York.

Café Edison
Café Edison

Housed in the former ballroom of Edison Hotel, at 228 West 47th Street, in the heart of Broadway, the café’s mirrored bar and booths with benches sit under a vaulted blue ceiling and between pink walls busily embossed with white. Added to this is a pastiche  of posters, homey art works that look like the oeuvres of some rising family star, fragments of menu, advertisements and framed newspaper article that proudly blow the trumpet of this theatre world landmark.

Theatre patrons, stage-hands, actors, producers and playwrights all congregate here. Plays are conceived and written here. August Wilson dashed off the notes for three of his scripts on Cafe Edison napkins. Neil Simon’s comedy, 45 Seconds From Broadway is about this café which he claimed as his second home, whose staff he embraced as his family and where he could always be found at his special, reserved, cordoned off table, just inside the front door. Big theatre deals are clinched and important Broadway decisions, like who’s up for a Tony, are thrashed out at the Café Edison’s tables.

The café is also known as the Polish Tea Room, which according to N.Y.C. lore, is a nod, or rather a dig, at the prestigious, expensive and now long-gone, Russian Tea Room. But it is also, surely, a tribute to the Café’s Polish founders Harry and Frances Edelstein and to the legendary Polish Jewish cuisine that the Edelstein family have turned out over two generations. The menu includes Latkes, matzo brei, borscht, stuffed cabbage, corned beef, pastrami, lightly fried blintzes stuffed with sweetened cheese, blueberries or cherries, giant open-faced reubens, kasha varmishkas, mazzo brei, an assortment of soups, including, according to Condé Nast Traveler, “the best matzo ball soup in town” and fabulous breakfasts with eggs “over easy” and endless coffee.

Wielding the coffee pots is a gaggle of waitresses of an appearance, age and style that strongly reminded me of an already dated sit-com called Alice which I watched every day during at 1.pm during the summer of 1983 while I breast-fed my newborn son. Other reviewers have described them as “short”, “rude”, “crabby” and “off-hand”. But to me, they had the weary, long-suffering, matter-of-fact, business-like demeanor of working mothers with jobs to do, mouths to feed and messes to clean-up before they could get off their feet. So, cups were filled, toast was replenished and extras added to meals without fuss or favour because they knew, or seemed to, what all their customers needed before they did themselves and it wouldn’t have surprised me in the slightest if they’d slapped some hands and wiped some chins into the bargain.

Don’t miss the Café Edison on your New York adventure, it’s worth it for architecture, the people watching, the exceptional (though not in the conventional sense) service and absolutely unreservedly for the food.

Greenwich Village Today

When I headed down to Greenwich Village on a grey October day, this was my quest; I was looking for that 300 year old village with a hodge-podge of streets and Washington Square as its green heart. I was searching for that cultural enclave where Gertrude Whitney had made a space for American art and where Isadora Duncan had danced as no-one had before. I was looking for those streets where Bob Dylan had walked, that club where Jimi Hendrix had played, those places and those characters from the beat generation that I had found in the Kerouac novels I’d read a lifetime ago and a world away. And did I find it?

Greenwich Village today
Greenwich Village today

Greenwich Village streets are still old village streets. Anomalies in Modern New York’s grid of numbered roads, they are narrow, mismatched and named for village fathers – Mercer, Bleecker and Leroy. Nor have the skyscrapers of Midtown and Downtown Manhattan colonized the landscape. Restricted development has safeguarded the mid-rise apartments, criss-crossed with iron fire-escapes, the terraced housing and the one-family walk-ups. However behind the façades, many vast condominiums have swallowed up whole blocks. Greenwich Village is now more the domain of celebrities and millionaires who have made it, like actress Uma Thurman and Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue Magazine, than unknown artists and rising stars.

Historic Washington Square Park is still the centre and heart of the neighbourhood. Students lounge on its lawns. Ideas are thrashed out on its benches. But a new age has seen the rise of new leisure pastimes and new playgrounds, like “the Cage”, the basketball courts above the sixth Avenue subway station where the New York street ball competition takes place.

The village is still a cultural enclave. Theatre and music are thriving. The Astor Place Theatre lives on, now as the home of the Blue Man Group. The Village Vanguard and The Blue Note still feature the big names of jazz. At Café Wha, The Bitter End and The Lion’s Den new legends are born.  And now Greenwich Village has its own orchestra.

The New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture still remains, on that hallowed ground on West 8th Street. Galleries and exhibition spaces abound.

The Oscar Wilde bookstore is still trading and around it the Gay community has blossomed. The Village Voice is still strong, still putting the alternative view, still keeping watch on the system, although it speaks now from pages padded with ads for call girls and phone sex.

The golden ages of bohemians and hippies have passed and their abandoned costumes hang in a host of Vintage fashion shops in Bleecker Street. They are picked up for startling sums by a new generation of non-conformists – neo-beats, born again hippies and Hendrix look-alikes. They come out in force for the annual Village Halloween Parade where the spectrum of the village’s diversity is displayed through the streets in a mile long file.

So although, old villagers would claim that much as been lost, much has been saved, at least for the outsider, (the tourist, in fact) like me. The village is still emphatically a village. The streets are vibrant. The people are colourful and if not revolutionary they are at least non-conformist. Billboards and posters show that things are happening here – creative, artistic things. There’s an air about the place that suggests that anything is possible. And to me it looked like a great place to live and work.

A short history of Greenwich Village

New York, they say, is a series of villages, each with its own distinctive character. This is what makes it so diverse and endlessly fascinating. But of all the villages in the Big Apple, none is more famous and interesting than Greenwich Village.

Greenwich Village
Greenwich Village

The American Indians called the patch land which lies between 14th Street, Houston Street, Broadway and the Hudson River Sapokanikan, or tobacco field. In the 17th century, the Dutch arrived and the farmers settled at Sapokanikan named it Noortwyck. In 1664 the British invaded, ousted the Dutch and established their city of New York nearby. Noortwyck became the site of the city cemetery. Still the former Dutch hamlet continued to develop until it officially became the village of Grin’wich in 1713. In 1822 a yellow fever epidemic in the city brought a new wave of settlers to Greenwich Village. It grew. At the same time New York was advancing to meet it and within a decade had absorbed it – the burial ground along with the narrow, oddly angled streets whose names remembered early villagers. The old burial ground became Washington Military Parade Ground and by the 1830s the surrounding streets were some of New York’s most desirable addresses, lined with respectable terraced housing. A few years later the parade ground was developed as a public park and to mark the anniversary of George Washington’s death the landmark arch was built. Soon Washington Square became the heart and centre of the village.

 

In 1831 New York University was established at the edge of Washington Square. It was the brainchild of Albert Gallatin, secretary of the Treasury under President Thomas Jefferson. His aim was to found “in this immense and fast-growing city …a system of rational and practical education fitting for all and graciously open to all”. The new university attracted scholars and intellectuals, many of them from outside the upper classes who had traditionally filled the universities and furthermore free of their social. Around them gathered the artists, the actors, the musicians, writers and the avant garde set who were to forge Greenwich Village’s fame.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Greenwich Village was an enclave of culture. In 1914, Gertrude Whitney opened the Whitney studio Club, where emerging artists could exhibit their works at 8 West 8th Street. In 1931 it became the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1936 abstract Expressionist Hans Hoffman set up an art school in West 9th Street and taught there until 1958. In 1964, when the Whitney moved to its present location, 8 West 8th Street became home to the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture, founded by artist Mercedes Matter.

The performing arts thrived. Isadora Duncan, the matriarch of modern dance, lived and worked from the Village. Iconic New York Theatres opened, like the Cherry Lane and the Astor Place. Music flourished. Jazz took root here in its early days and by the 1950s Greenwich Village was New York’s centre of underground jazz. With the 1960s came folk music and the truly great names of the genre all seem to have got their start in Greenwich Village. The Mamas and the Papas met here. Peter Paul and Mary, Joan Baez and Tom Paxton found fame here. Bob Dylan wrote and debuted most of his first, timeless greats in Greenwich Village. Nina Simone, Barbra Streisand, Simon and Garfunkel, The Velvet Underground and the legendary Jimi Hendrix were all talents “born” in the Village. Then, of course, there were the Village People. Music clubs proliferated – the Village Vanguard, the Blue Note, Café Wha, the Bitter End and the Lion’s Den.

Many writers, too, made their homes in Greenwich Village, including the playwright Eugene O’Neill. Dylan Thomas lived here and collapsed while on a bender at the Whitehorse Tavern in 1953. Works of literature were set in the village, most notably those of poet Allen Ginsburg and novelists William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. Village bookstores and publications reflected the diverse and (for those times) tolerant character of the community. The Oscar Wilde bookshop, established in Greenwich Village in 1967 is the oldest gay and lesbian bookstore in the world. The news weekly, the Village Voice, was the counterculture mouthpiece, the watchdog and critic of stale, stuffy old Middle America.

From the beginning, Greenwich Village had been a haven for a Bohemian set who disregarded conventional values and mores. One such was the French painter Marcel Duchamp struck a revolutionary blow by launching balloons from the Washington Square Arch and declaring Greenwich Village an independent state. In the 1950s a new and different kind of revolutionary, on the run from mainstream society and its oppressive conventions, sought refuge in the tolerant streets of Greenwich Village. These were students, writers, artists, musicians, idealists and free thinkers who would soon come to be known as the Beat Generation, then the Beats, then Beatniks. They prepared the ground and sowed the seeds of the great cultural and social revolution which was to follow in the next decade – the hippie movement. And following that, Greenwich Village became the epi-centre of Gay Liberation.

So, what is Greenwich Village like today? Find out in Travelstripe’s next post.

 

The Empire State Building

Like the Rockefeller Centre, the Empire State Building was a depression era project. But while Rockefeller’s comparatively down to earth dream was to create a city within New York City, the sky was the limit for the men behind the Empire State building. They wanted to create the tallest structure on earth! The building was designed by architect Gregory Johnson and constructed by a company named the Starrett Brothers and Eken.

The Empire State Building from the NY City Sights bus
The Empire State Building from the NY City Sights bus

Work began on the site of the former Waldorf Hotel on the corner of Fifth Avenue on St Patrick’s Day (March 17) 1930.  The 3,400 labour force was made up mainly of European immigrants and Mohawk steel workers from Montreal. 60,000 tons of structural steel, 10 million bricks, 1,8886 60 kilometres of elevator cable, 200,000 cubic feet of Indiana limestone and granite façade and 6, 4000 windows went into the 86 floor, 331,000 ton structure. On May 1, 1931 President Herbert Hoover pressed a button in the White House which turned on the lights and the Empire State building was officially opened. It was 6 weeks ahead of schedule and $5 million dollars under budget.

The piece de resistance of the finished building is the magnificent five story art deco lobby lined with granite and marble and highlighted with brushed steel. It is decorated with a metal mosaic depicting the Empire State building as the centre of the universe and hung with giant bronze medallions portraying the master craftsmen who worked on it. The metal tower at the summit was originally intended to serve as a zeppelin port. But the age of the zeppelins was brief and only one craft ever moored there. Still, since it opened, more than 117 million people have come to enjoy the magnificent views from the observation deck on the 86th floor. Over 1,000 businesses are housed in the Empire State building which has its own dedicated zip code.

From 1931 until 1972, when the World Trade Centre was raised, the Empire State building was the tallest in the world. With the tragic events of September11, 2001 it became, once again, the tallest building in New York but by this time, out in the world, it had been surpassed.

The Rockefeller Centre, a city within New York

It was in the dark days of the depression when John D. Rockefeller set about building his ‘city within a city” in the centre of mid-town Manhattan. The New York Stock Market had crashed, the US economy was crumbling, credit was tight and investors were nervous. Rockefeller had two choices; either he abandoned the project altogether, or he built it himself. He took the latter path. With his own funds and with a line of credit from the Metropolitan Life Assurance Company, he began work on May 17, 1930, on land which he had leased from Columbia University. It was the largest and most ambitious construction project ever undertaken by an individual.

The courtyard of the Rockefeller Centre
The courtyard of the Rockefeller Centre

The project was underpinned, not only by Rockefeller’s fortune, but also by his profound philanthropic convictions. He believed in the supreme worth of individual and in their “Constitution-given” right, among others, to the pursuit of happiness. By the time Rockefeller drove home the final ceremonial silver rivet on November 1, 1939, his project had sustained over 40,000 people – architects, engineers, tradesmen, labourers, sculptors and artists – through the dark depression years. He had also created a centre point, a community in mid-town Manhattan and begun traditions which survive in New York even today. Rockefeller also believed that public art was a matter of good citizenship. In the Rockefeller Centre he created one of the most significant pieces of architecture and one of the best and most important collections of public art in America.

Stretching across 22 acres, between 5th and 7th Avenue and 47th and 51st Streets, the centre’s 19 buildings are interwoven with gardens, paths, and plazas and studded with wonderful art and sculpture. The centre piece of the complex is the GE tower, originally the RCA building, which was completed in 1933. Stories of death-defying feats during the construction of the 70 story tower are legion. Breathtaking photographs show workers standing, eating lunch and even taking a nap, un-harnessed and without safety helmets, on girders in mid-air. At the top of the tower on the 70th floor is the famous Top of the Rock observation deck. Since it opened, millions of visitors have scaled the rock to drink in its spectacular vistas or to witness historic moments. In 1945, a crowd of 8,000 people watched the American fleet sail home. These days, visitors enjoy a brilliant multimedia exhibition on the history of “the Rock” before soaring skyward in high-speed elevators to enjoy the view. The GE tower has long been the home of broadcasting. The first Today show was recorded her in the 1950s. Today it is the headquarters of NBC. Most of the network’s New York studios, including the legendary Studio 8H, home of Saturday Night Live are located here. On the 65th floor, is the famous Rainbow Room restaurant which opened in 1934 with Noel Coward as one of its first patrons. Fittingly, the top floors, between the 65th and the 70th house the Rockefeller family offices.

The other great star in Rockefeller Centre constellation is Radio City Music Hall. This was the brainchild of S.L.Rothafel, known as Roxy. Commissioned to create a concert hall for the centre he said “Don’t give the people what they want, give them something better” He did – the great neon extravaganza on the corner of Avenue of the Americas and 51st Street, promoted at the time as the largest and most opulent theatre in the world and declared a New York landmark in 1978. All the greats of show business have played Radio City. Its shows and spectacles have delighted generations of New Yorkers and visitors alike

The Rockefeller Centre traditions began early. The first Christmas tree was raised in 1931. In the same year skaters took to the ice in Rockefeller Plaza. The first Autumn Festival took place in 1941. By the end of the decade the Centre had become a Manhattan social hub. The decorations on the Christmas tree have become more amazing with each passing era. Today, the Rockefeller Christmas tree is one of the world’s most famous. The opening of the ice-rink in the Rockefeller Plaza and the autumn festival are both big on the New York calendar and the Radio City Christmas Spectacular is a highlight.

The Rockefeller Centre was one of the first buildings in the United States to incorporate a program of public art. The works throughout its buildings and plazas are some of the country’s most impressive and memorable. Contributing artists were both local and international. Sculptor Lee Lawrie was responsible for the friezes above the RCA building and the magnificent Atlas on 5th Avenue. Paul Manship created Prometheus in the Rockefeller Plaza. In 1932 Diego Rivera was commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller to paint a color fresco in the lobby of the RCA building. Tragically, his work, Man at the Crossroads which contained the figure of Lenin, was considered unsuitable and when Rivera refused to change it, he was paid off and the fresco destroyed. He was replaced by the Catalan artist Jose Maria Sert. His large mural, entitled American Progress, wraps around the west wall of the Grand Lobby. It depicts men constructing modern America and contains the figures of Abraham Lincoln and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

John D Rockefeller’s “city within a city” is a place of great beauty and wonder. It is both a vibrant and restful place. It hums with life, yet, at the same time offers shelter from the busy, exposed streets and avenues which surround it. Garden beds and flower boxes brighten its walkways and plazas. Sculptures, frescos, friezes and murals soften its walls. The colourful flags of the United Nations fly overhead. What a great gift, not just to New York, but to the world.

Now wouldn’t it be wonderful, if out of the rubble of these uncertain times, some philanthropic entrepreneur would emerge to employ thousands of jobless to create his great vision and architecture and art?

A Day at the Met.

Just to the east of Central Park’s great lawn lies the mighty Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of the largest and richest treasure houses on earth, it runs for four full city blocks, from East 80th, to East 84th Street and houses some of the world’s most prized booty.

At the Met.
At the Met.

Outside, the Met is a classical colossus of grey stone slabs, thick Doric pillars, tall veiled windows, heavy fascias and wide sweeping stairs. Inside, it’s a labyrinth of cavernous halls, long corridors, endless galleries – great and small, shadowy or blindingly bright –  and more sweeping stairs.

It was a damp, grey autumn day when I followed the lengthy queue through the Met’s revolving door, past security and up to the ticket office, where I paid my entrance fee and received a tiny metal badge, painted with a bold white M and colour coded (purple) for the day (Friday). It was wonderful weather for art galleries. Thousands of others obviously thought so too and my heart sank as I shuffled shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of them towards Greek Antiquities.

However, so vast is the Met, that I was easily able to find a free bench beside an armless marble deity, then to wander uncrowded among her stone brothers and sisters, through the ruins and spoils of their palaces and temples. I spent undisturbed hours mesmerized by the Modiglianis and other modern greats. I ambled through galleries, discovering American painters like Edward Hopper. I lost myself in rooms full of furniture and furnishings, including stained glass by Tiffany whom I knew only from his famous lamps. I wandered stunned and dumbfounded, among the magnificent Lehmann collection but couldn’t help speculating on how far it would have gone towards pulling the company he founded out of the economic abyss into which it had crashed in 2008.

Unfortunately, too, so vast is the Met that it is impossible to see all of its treasures in one visit, or even, I suspect in a hundred. I missed dozens of rooms and collections along with all the special exhibitions. I didn’t have time to queue for the fabulous ground floor restaurant overlooking Central Park. After a short break in the mezzanine café (perfect for people watching) and a cursory browse in the Met shop (brimming with great books, posters, toys and souvenirs) my day had gone. But I’ll go back to the Met, again and again and again if I get the chance!

Central Park, the green heart of New York

Central Park is the great green heart of New York. It runs up the centre of Manhattan Island from 59th to 110th Street and across from 5th Avenue to Central Park West. Twenty five million people take a walk in Central Park every year. Millions more enjoy it from lofty towers all over the city.

DSC02774

Like many other 19th century parks around the world, Central Park was inspired by the Municipal Park in Birkenhead, across the Mersey River from Liverpool, England. Re-interpreted for the Big Apple by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, its 843 acres are a blend of gloriously untamed nature, beautifully cultivated garden, playgrounds and monuments.

A labyrinth of rustic paths and horse trails wind through overhanging trees and thick bushes, past stony streams, waterfalls and outcrops of dark schist, the bedrock in which New York’s skyscrapers are anchored. There is a vast paddock of uncultivated grass, the Sheep Meadow, which was once actually a sheep pasture. Squirrels forage unconcerned for food under the trees. There’s that distinctive, woodland smell of leaves and damp vegetation. Birds call overhead. The ubiquitous New York traffic noise is a distant hum.

Broad avenues, lined with sculpted trees, cut through and across the park. There are stands of manicured bushes, giant beds layered with flowers and great expanses of lawn. While the lush and exotic 6 acre Conservatory garden is the most spectacular of the park’s formal gardens, Strawberry Fields is certainly its most memorable. Dedicated to the memory of John Lennon, the small enclosed garden is ringed with benches where devotees keep a constant vigil. A central parterre of fresh flowers depicts a peace symbol. The roof top of the Dakota building where Lennon was shot is visible above the treetops.

Central Park boasts 35 children’s playgrounds, all strictly closed to adults unaccompanied by kids. There is a Carousel, which dates back to the beginning of the 19th century and which is open every day in all seasons. The Tisch children’s Zoo contains an enchanted forest with earthen paths and native plants, where birds fly free in an invisible overhead net. TheThe Central Park Zoo, a playground for people of all ages, features tropical, temperate and polar environments and a fair representation of their inhabitants. The Delacorte Theatre is the venue for the summer New York Shakespeare festival and the Swedish Cottage Marionette has puppet shows for all ages. Last but not least of Central Park’s playgrounds is the beautiful, old world Wollman Rink where New Yorkers take to the ice in their millions every winter.

Central Park’s monuments are many and varied. There are the follies, like whimsical Belvedere Castle which completes a fairytale picture just south of the Great Lawn. The elaborate Victorian stone Bethesda Terrace, with its wings, porticoes, tunnel, sculpted façade, 1 acre esplanade completely overshadows the pretty little lake. An avenue lined with busts of great bards, pays homage to literature. Dotted all over the park are statues of the great and famous of US history. There are plaques to mark the spots where the rich and celebrated have planted trees. But the most fascinating monuments in Central Park, each with their own special story, are the park benches, some bearing famous names, others with the names of complete unknowns, some with messages of love and others with messages of loss.

A message of love on a Central Park bench
A message of love on a Central Park bench

There was a time when Central Park was a dangerous place. Visitors were cautioned against it. It was the scene of muggings and murders. But not any more. Since Rudy Juliani took the helm as Mayor of New York, the Park, along with the city has become a safe place for a stroll both by day and by night. It remains open until 2. a.m. and Park Rangers patrol 24/7. The same Park Rangers, along with teams of volunteers and Central Park Conservancy Staff lead Central Park Walks and Talks which include geology, bird-watching, ecology and park history.

There are three centres in Central Park dedicated to informing and educating visitors. The Dairy, a vintage Victorian Chalet houses the main visitor information centre and gift shop. The Henry Luce Nature Observatory, in the Belvedere Castle is an interactive display which explains how to observe, identify and record the plants and wildlife in the park. The Charles A Dana Discovery Centre provides environmental education programs  such as bird-watching, fishing, ecology and horticulture explorations as well as workshops, performances and events highlighting the park and its neighbourhood.

While Central Park’s grid of broad tree-lined avenues and labyrinth of winding rustic paths are made for walkers and ramblers, it seems that at every gate, around every bend and behind every tree, there lurks some temptation to ride – horses and carriages, bicycles, trishaws and rickshaws, there are even special little perambulators designed to take the weight off canine paws. We set off from the 59th Street entrance, determined to stay on our feet. But it wasn’t long before we succumbed to the persuasions of a gaunt Romanian trishaw operator. He showed us the Central Park of film and television – the fountain where the Friends cast took the plunge, the Boathouse Restaurant which featured in Sex and the City and the lake where Carrie and Big went under.

Central Park is many things to New York; a playground, a quiet retreat, a soft oasis of green amidst the harsh grey and a cherished piece of natural beauty in the concrete jungle. It is one of the world’s great parks, more so because it sits at the centre of one of the world’s great cities.