Going Underground

Living in the sprawling swamp that is Houston, there’s little chance to take advantage of public transportation, mostly because we’re so big and hopping routes takes too much time. Years ago when I lived and worked inside and near the downtown loop, I occasionally took the Metro buses to work, thinking I would be doing my part to help pollution, ease the traffic, etc. Unfortunately, since it took three times as long to get to the office as by car, it proved highly impractical. It was interesting, however, to go downtown on a bus filled with fellow office workers only to transfer to an outgoing bus filled with white-uniformed maids and caretakers on their way to their “offices” in the affluent neighborhoods outside the loop.

nysub_stairs.jpgVisits to the Northeast provide an excellent chance to experience effective mass transportation, namely the subways of New York and Boston. We bopped about New York fairly freely by using the subway system, although it takes some time to get the hang of how it works and how to connect several lines to make as straight a line as possible to where you’re going. I’m sure some people make an art out of figuring out the best connections. A recent fire (originally reported to take five to six years to repair) shows to how dependent New Yorkers are on their subway and what happens when a major line goes down. We rode both the A and C lines mentioned in the article, and had we visited The Cloisters after this fire our trek out to see the Medieval goodies would have been tough, if not almost impractical, to pull off. No doubt we would have gotten lost trying to change buses and would have ended up somewhere we shouldn’t have.

boston_subway.jpgEven though we spent only a day in Boston, we used the T there a couple of times to quicken the journeys (translation: give Gary’s legs a break) and it brought back memories of years ago when I spent a week in Boston and used the T extensively, even making my way into the city from the airport on the subway (not the best place to first try the T from, but I had no choice). While Boston’s subway system is not as extensive as New Yorks, it makes up for size by being a little easier to understand and navigate. Using colors instead of letters and numbers makes some sense, but then, any system works well once you adapt and the two systems are more similar than they are unique.

A lot of people’s (translation: folks who live outside the east coast) first impression of subways is one of danger. Sure, the stories abound from years ago when it wasn’t as safe, and I suspect there are still parts of the NY and Boston subterranean trains that even locals avoid. But in both trips I found the subways to be as safe as the streets (some would argue that’s not necessarily a comforting thought), and once one gets the hang of how they work, amazingly efficient.

subway_sign.jpgThere is a whole culture defined by the subways from the vendors selling trinkets/pirated software and movies (on one connector tunnel we hurried along, my eyes spotted a DVD for Lemony Snicket, which was just released that week…hmmm…authentic?), to the for-a-donation entertainers, the subways become a city under the city. I can imagine in winter there are frequent riders who do so merely for the chance to stay warm or deal with boredom. And of course, people watching is exquisite (provided you’re carefully about avoiding eye contact). The subways move a wide range of people from the down-and-out to the well-to-do and all the druggies, free spirits, and poor souls who aren’t quite right in between. But that’s part of what makes subway rides interesting. Consider it your on-board entertainment and you’ll enjoy the ride.


I’ve always held to a dream of living somewhere without the need for a car. That dream usually takes the form of working in a small town and walking to everything, but I could easily see myself living/working in Beacon Hill in Boston or the Upper West Side in NYC (yeah, right…how’d you do in the Lotto last night, Gar?). The subway systems make this a real possibility (excluding the obvious need for lots of money, but we’re focusing on the conceptual here, right?).

Anytime I visit a city I try to take in what’s unique about the place, eat local food, take in places the locals haunt, etc. And part of learning about any big city is to get in sync with the energy that flows from people moving about. The subways are, to both cities but probably more so to NYC, the real conduits of energy running beneath the obvious but whose existence is so vital to that city’s well being. Nothing will remove the feeling that “TOURIST” is tattooed on one’s forehead more than conquering the subway system. At any rate, it beats walking, especially this time of year.



The Cloisters, Part Deux

As promised in a previous post, I hope you’ll enjoy these art and artifacts images taken inside the ornate rooms, chapels, and passageways of The Cloisters. Viewing these salvaged relics and inspiring works from the middle ages within the confines of a period-styled building is a much better way to experience how the stained glass windows, tapestries, and other artifacts were enjoyed by residents of long-ago monasteries and estate homes.

Although the evidences of a modern building were everywhere (including ever-present guards within each room or area, as well as warning signs about touching things which of course I did, and of course I got yelled at), one could still quietly slip back in time if only for an afternoon.

The Cloisters

As a medieval history buff I usually have to be content with seeing a bit of sculpture here, a painting or two there, and occasionally a bit of architectural chunk on display against a stark and modern museum wall. Even when there is a museum program or special featured showing it’s rare that examples of medieval anything are shown in a setting that attempts to emulate the place and setting that the original pieces were created for or existed in so elegantly.

So you can imagine my delight to finally be able to soak in a more proper medieval atmosphere when we eagerly ventured last Saturday to Upper Manhattan to visit The Cloisters, a rare example of period art existing in and exhibited within period-authentic surroundings.

As a part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and thus subject to the Met’s vast resources, The Cloisters is a unique example of one man’s vision to bring the best of European Medieval art and architecture within reach of the everyman in America. Designed and built in 1938 as a representative structure to hold medieval works of art, The Cloisters provides a unique setting transcending the usual experience one gets from viewing such relics from the Dark Ages in cold, generic museum rooms. We can all thank John D. Rockefeller Jr. for providing the generous gifts of land, building, and initial collection of medieval art and architecture, as well as tapestries, ceramics, metalwork, stained glass, and much more. The Met has continuously built on the initial collection through the years developing a unique experience for anyone interested in art and architecture of medieval Europe.

We arrived at the site after a long and somewhat confusing subway ride. That Saturday being our first full day in New York after our long bus ride from New Hampshire, we weren’t quite subway savvy enough to get there quickly. As great a conveyance as the subways of NYC are, there are equally confusing to a newbie rider. We confused the express trains with locals and exited what would have been a quick ride out to Fort Tryon Park and The Cloisters only to wait for train after train until we figured out the right train to take…which was the exact same run we hastily exited earlier while fearing we would overshoot our destination. After finally arriving at the 190th street exit and taking an alarmingly long elevator ride to the surface (one forgets how far underground some of these subway tunnels really are), we exited into a bright and brisk blue sky ready for our short walk to The Cloisters.

Fort Tryon and The Cloisters sit on the end of a high cliff overlooking the Hudson River on one side and Inwood on the other side far below. We were suprised by the views because it all looked so flat on the map! Our subway adventure made us hungry though, and although the cafe at The Cloisters was seasonal closed, we discovered the delightful New Leaf Cafe, a Bette Midler/New York Restoration Project providing a gourmet treat to park and museum visitors. A welcomed lunch of butternut squash soup followed by a duck and wild mushroom panini was capped off by a New York cheesecake topped with fresh raspberries. Thus sated, we finally made our way up to The Cloisters.

Some of you who’ve had the chance to visit medieval-period monasteries in France or England may scoff at what essentially is a man-made replica of a typical monastic compound, but the results of what Rockefeller and the Met have accomplished is still a delightful way for a continent-locked American to experience the period. Whether walking the cobblestone drives or climbing the small twisting staircases, viewing the iron-barred stained glass windows set into massive stone walls several feet thick or working along archway-guarded outside porticoes, The Cloisters provides a thrilling journey back in time to another age that fascinates us with its disjointed combination of beauty in craftsmanship and violence in lifestyle. I could go on and on, but as you might suspect, I took a few pictures (about 125!), so I’ll verbally step aside and let the images continue the story. The pictures in this post concentrate on the architectural elements. In a future post I’ll focus on the art and artifacts contained within this magnificent monastic facsimile. (For reference to the locations mentioned here’s a map of The Cloisters’ floor plan.)

Christmas Moments

Before nodding off for a well-deserved post-Christmas feast nap (it’s a tradition, or at least it should be!), I wanted to post a few Christmas images from last weekend’s New York trip. While there was much to see in NYC of a holiday nature, the crowds were impossibly thick thus eliminating a lot of good photo ops. We even overheard locals exclaiming that they’ve never seen so many people on the streets.

Hope your day went well and Santa rewarded you properly for being good all year! I’ll be posting a lot more on the NYC trip soon, but for now, I’ll post these and nod off to my cinnamon-raisin-bread-pudding induced slumber.


Rockefeller Plaza tree and mob (we never got to see the ice rink…too many people with the same idea!)


Times Square holiday ad


Shop window elves from…Saks? (we couldn’t get near the Macy’s window displays…as in, didn’t want to wait in line…which looked incredible from the little we did see)


Rockefeller Center Atlas statue


Cartier’s big wrapping



Today was spent leisurely recovering from the abuse I inflicted upon my body over the long weekend. We walked…and walked…and walked our way back and forth on that amazing island called Manhattan (both on top of the earth and in traversing a myriad of subway routes deep within the bowels of the island). I’m pooped, and this teddy bear is definitely broken. But I’ll live to blog again. Just wanted to toss up a quick post to say I survived as well as a few pix out of the 400 or so I took over the last 5 days. Sometime during the remaining days before Christmas I’ll post more details about the trip, but for now one word sums up my reaction to New York City: wow.