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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Part of our City Sights NY 3 day package was a boat trip around Manhattan Island with the Circle Line cruise company. So, after 2 days, off and on, touring New York on a double-decker bus, on the third day we sailed.
The Circle Line is New York’s oldest and largest cruise company. It has been sailing since 1945 and has hosted over 60 million passengers. It is one of the world’s most famous boat rides and the Circle Line terminal on Pier 83 is one of 42nd Street’s most famous landmarks.
The cruise circles Manhattan Island and passes the other four boroughs – Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx – that make up the five boroughs of New York. It heads south along the Hudson River, between Manhattan and New Jersey. It sails into Upper New York Bay for a glimpse of Staten Island, then rounds the south end of Manhattan and heads north up the East River, passing Long Island, with Brooklyn and Queens on the southern tip. It continues into the Harlem River and passes the Bronx, on the mainland. At the northern end of Manhattan, it passes back into the Hudson through the Harlem Canal for the final stretch back to Pier 83.
The New York skyline looks different from the deck of our circle line boat. It is softened too by a veil of fine drizzle.
To our right, on the New Jersey shore, lies Hoboken, home town of Frank Sinatra, once struggle town but now gentrifying like the rest of the Big Apple. On the left we spot Battery Park, the mile of land reclaimed from the Hudson, where the largest real estate development in the US forms a backdrop to Pier A, the oldest pier in NYC. Behind and above Battery Park is the forlorn space in the sky where the twin towers of the World Trade Centre once stood. We cruise up to the Statue of Liberty, holding her torch 300feet above the harbour and linger at Ellis Island, once the immigrants’ gateway to the US and now home to the Immigration Museum.
We turn back between Governor’s Island, headquarters of the US coastguard and Lower Manhattan, passing the historic South Street Seaport with the Fulton Market in the block of century old buildings behind it. We cruise under the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge. We pass the United Nations Building, (looking rather the worse for wear from this side) and Roosevelt Island, fully self-contained and dubbed ‘one of the most unusual new communities in the United States’. Just across the river the lawns of elegant Gracie Mansion, official residence of the Mayor of New York, slope down to the water’s edge. We sail under the Triborough Bridge which connects the Boroughs of Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx and look into the shell of Yankee Stadium which witnessed its closing game just weeks ago.
We turn up the Harlem River and under the Spuyten Dyvil (Spitting Devil) Bridge, where, after 3 blasts on our boat’s horn, an invisible operator swings the center section open so that we can pass through. High on a hill at the northern tip of Manhattan, among the thick bush of Fort Trynon Park are the towers of the Cloisters, once a monastery and now an outpost of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Our last Bridge is the George Washington, with its little Red Lighthouse, no longer operational but preserved as a children’s playground. The tomb of Ulysses S Grant, Civil War hero, slips by, followed by the Riverside Church, home of the World Council of churches and the Soldiers and Sailors monument, in memory of those who lost their lives in the Civil War. The circle is closed.
The Circle Line brochure declares “cruises are designed to provide the best viewing opportunities, but also to be informative, comfortable and entertaining as well” Our Circle Line cruise did not disappoint. In fact it exceeded our expectations. Highlights for me, however, were not the landmarks, although I wouldn’t have missed the circle line views of them for the world. The most memorable parts of the cruise for me were the unexpected glimpses of quiet rrustic scenes; deserted little beaches and inlets, patches of forest, overhanging trees, shady parks contrasted with intensely the urban; grim apartment blocks in the Bronx where kids waved from high windows, fenced-in concrete courts in Harlem, where boys shot hoops. Lastly, there was David, a drama graduate, a history buff and an amazing raconteur, who brought landmarks, Boroughs, bridges, , islands and little secret spots along the river to brilliant life.