See me walking down 5th Avenue
Walking cane here at my side
I take it everywhere I walk
an Englishman South African in New York – apologies to Sting
After our glorious pizza at Luzzo’s and a good night’s sleep, we were up bright and early again on Monday so that we could beat the crowds at the Empire State Building – all we had heard were horror stories about how long the queues at the Empire State Building can get, and I certainly was not in the mood to queue all day! The uptown-bound express subway onto which we hurled ourselves deposited us in the vicinity of Penn Station – which is the first Manhattan station where I ever alighted! So there we were walking along the canyon-like streets of midtown and suddenly, there was the Empire State Building. It is a little like the surprise I always get in Paris when I see the Eiffel Tower for the first time on a particular visit, a moment that’s both surreal and wonderful. Made our way along pavements already crowded with New Yorkers trying to get somewhere in a hurry, and none too impressed when I stopped and hauled out a camera! But on the other hand, the early morning light was great and how can you resist taking shots of an icon?
One of the things that struck me the first time I came to New York was how incredibly beautiful many of the buildings are when you start examining them in detail. One of my most pleasant surprises on my last trip was without a doubt the foyer of the Empire State Building – it is a truly exuberant art deco extravaganza (pictured above) and quite unexpected. After a brief gawp at the foyer we headed on up to the ticket sales desk on the second floor and discovered… amost no queue! Hurrah! After buying tickets, you are still herded through the roped-off zigzag that is obviously necessary when the crowds swell, but laughably complicated when (as in our case) you are almost the first people there. To get to the top you walk through the labyrinthine lower floors of the building and finally arrive at the elevators. These take you up to something like the 80th floor, from where you have to switch to another elevator to take you to the observation deck (or, if you are feeling gung ho, you can walk the final 6 floors and say with a reasonably straight face that you walked to the top of the Empire State Building!). I always love that first moment when you step out on something tall and gasp at a) how high up you really are and b) how beautiful things look from up here – and this visit was no exception. The crowds weren’t too bad yet and so we could walk around with a reasonably unobstructed view in every direction – north towards Central Park, south towards Wall Street and the empty space left by the World Trade Centre towers, east towards the Chrysler Building and the East River, or west towards the Hudson River and New Jersey. After much staring, much photography and some gift-buying, we made our way to a different set of elevators which took us to the viewing platform right at the top of the tower (the highest point directly below the pointy metal spire). It cost a silly amount to get there (almost double your original ticket) and it’s a small, round room not unlike a lighthouse with a view very similar to the observation deck below – but I always say if you’re going to visit a tall building you gotta get to the top. And so we went – and became only the second visitors they had had that day! This means that your viewing is far less disturbed than on the lower deck, although it is behind thick glass that makes photography almost impossible. But at least we can say we’ve been 😉
After spending probably about 45 minutes at the Empire State Building, we made our way down (through considerably larger crowds than when we arrived!) to street level again. In the rush to get there early, we had abandoned breakfast and were by this time starving. And what should we see across the road? A Starbucks, of course! I was still getting my calorie hit with a pumpkin spice latte, but this time I skipped the scone and went for a pupkin and sour cream muffin. OMG. The calories. But oh, the taste… That same wonderful gingerbread spice flavour, not too sweet, and with a big hit of gloopy sour cream in the centre. It must be the kind of thing that haunts Nicole Richie’s worst nightmares.
After a brief refuelling stop at Starbucks, we walked a couple of blocks down to take a look at the wonderful Flatiron building. This is one of the more iconic buildings in a city full of icons. Completed in 1902, it is one of the oldest and best-loved skyscrapers in New York. At the time it was built, it was revolutionary not only for its use of a steel skeleton (which allowed it to be built far taller than other contemporary construction methods would have allowed) but also for its unusual triangular shape. It is also this shape (determined by the triangular plot at the intersection of 5th Avenue and Broadway) which gave the building its popular name, as it resembled the triangular clothes irons of that time. Now over 100 years old, it remains an arresting site and coudl provide many happy hours of photography, should the inclination arise. From there, we made our way uptown again, along Lexington Avenue, to my all-time favourite building: the Chrysler building.
What can I say – I adore the Chrysler building. For a pile of steel, bricks and mortar, it is as eloquent an expression as possible of sheer exuberance. I defy you to look at the Chrysler building and to resist smiling! The building was constructed at the rate of about four floors per week and no workers were killed during constriction. It was completed in 1929, amidst a heated competition to achieve the distinction of being the world’s tallest structure. The developers of no. 40 Wall Street had submitted plans for the completed building to be two feet taller than the Chrysler, but unbeknown to them, Chrysler architect William van Alen had secretly obtained permission to add a 125 foot spire to his building. As the spire was being secretly constructed inside the building, this was not apparent to anybody until, on 23 October 1929, the gloriously are deco spire steel was triumphantly raised into view and the Chrysler building became the tallest structure in the world. That is, until the Empire State Building overtook it less than a year after its completion… But to me it remains the more beautiful of the two, with its iconic spire and its gigantic steel “gargoyles” on corners of the 62nd floor, modelled after Chrysler hood ornament eagles. We also took a peek inside (you can only get as far as the ground floor lobby) and I highly recommend that any Art Deco fan does this – it is a lavishly decorated room with red Moroccan marble walls, and glorious Art Deco light fittings.
From there we walked across to Grand Central Station (or, more correctly, Grand Central Terminal as trains either stop or start there). This glorious Beaux-Arts building was constructed on the site of an older station between 1903 and 1913 As you approach it from 42nd Street, you are greeted by the glorious grand facade of corinthian columns topped by a 50-foot high grouping of sculptures depicting Mercury, Minerva and Hercules. The clock in the centre of the grouping contains the world’s largest example of Tiffany glass and the circumference of the face is 13 feet. But the best part is the inside of the building – a gigantic main concourse with a vaulted ceiling painted to look like the night sky, with gilded stars. The whole space is airy and light as sunlight pours in through the three huge windows at the end, and all you have to do is pick a corner and stand watching New Yorkers hurrying about their business. Free entertainment! There is a clock (visible in my photo in the middle, about a third from the bottom) on top of the information booth that has four faces, each consisting of a milky opal – the whole thing has been valued at somewhere between $10m and $20m! (Astonishingly, the building was earmarked to be torn down in the 1960s, until city leaders including Jackie Kennedy campaigned on its behalf and it was declared a national monument.) If you venture below the level of the main concourse, you will find a host of food outlets as well as a fresh food market, but the most famous restaurant there is without a doubt the Oyster Bar. The space is larger than I expected and rather European – tucked into railway arches – and really beautiful, with fairy lights adorning the curve of each arch. But at the same the space is not at all stuffy, filled with red and white checked tablecloths, and bustling with customers and staff. Although we looked at the extensive and almost exclusively piscine menu, and I was sorely tempted to have a restorative half dozen oysters (from their selection of nearly 3 dozen different types!) with a glass of champagne, Nick was adamant that we shouldn’t waste a sunny day in a subterranean restaurant. And so we left Grand Central to continue our whirlwind tour of midtown Manhattan.
From there we continued our gradual journey up through the streets towards Times Square. This is at the famously crooked intersection of Broadway and 7th Avenue and if you are expecting an actual square (along the lines of Trafalgar Square), be prepared for disappointment: it’s just an intersection! But still, it’s one of the places I’d always wanted to see, since reading about how New Yorkers gather there on New Year’s Eve in their thousands to watch a giant Waterford crystall ball atop the 1 Times Square building drop and signal the start of the new year at midnight. Up to 2 million people swamped the area to see in the new millenium! It was also famously seedy up until the late 1980s but former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s famous clean-up of Manhattan put paid to that – it’s now a collection of multiplex theatres and big chain restaurants. I can’t say I’d recommend it, unless you are a rabid fan of Disneyfication… Yes, there is still a lot of neon and you can see the giant ball, but apart from that all you see is tourists and tat for sale. There’s not even a frisson of the excitement and danger that Anthony Bourdain so eloquently describes in The Nasty Bits, just sanitised Corporate America-style shopping and entertainment venues. Moving rapidly along. Our meander finalyl brought us to the corner of 5th Avenue and Central Park South, where the Plaza Hotel stands guard over the southeast corner of Central Park. The one thing I remember about Central Park from my last visit is that it is big. Very Big. If you are actually planning on exploring it properly, set aside the better part of a full day, and more if you plan to see the zoo. However, we had no such aspirations – all I wanted to do was take a little walk, see some Autumn colour and grab a bite to eat. The autumn colours were somewhat disappointing as there hadn’t really been a cold snap yet, but the park was as impressive as I remembered it and impressively full of New Yorkers using it to run, walk, exercise their dogs, exercise themselves, read, meet friends, play with their children or ride in horse-drawn cabs. Oops, no, those were just the tourists, not actual New Yorkers 😉 After a lovely walk we ended up at The Boathouse – a building housing a coffee bar, formal restaurant and cafeteria-style restaurant. Since we still wanted to do wome more walking, we decided to grab an informal bite and I was pleasantly surprised to find that your view from the “cheap seats” is pretty much the same as from the more expensive tables (the picture on the left was taken from our table). The food is very reasonably priced considering where you are and comprises your usual cafeteria selection. I think there may have been some warm dishes, as well as sandwiches, paninis and the like, but feeling a little vitamin-deprived I opted for a Cobb salad. This was a Very Generous Bowl for $6.50 and the salad was lovely – full of good stuff like avocado, chicken, egg and the most succulent tomatoes I have had in a long time. But the star of the show was undoubtedly Nick’s ham and cheese wrap, over on your right. It was GIGANTIC! and completely stuffed to capacity with (you guessed it) ham and cheese and crispy lettuce. Now if only London sandwich places could learn to make wraps like THIS!
After our rather late lunch we made our way a little further north and walked out of the park somewhere in the 80s (the streets, not the decade ;-)). I wanted to show Nick Frank Lloyd Wright’s truly gorgeous Guggenheim Museum but alas – it was undergoing restoration and was completely covered in scaffolding. All my plans for beautiful black and white photographs of its snail-like spiral totally dashed! Having reached the end of our capacity to walk for the meanwhile, we hopped on a bus to head back in the general direction of downtown. Well, all I can say was that we had a place to sit – it wasn’t as if we were moving any faster! I do recall that traffic down 5th Avenue is something to behold and my memory served me well – kids on tricycles in the park were overtaking us. Still, the endless bus ride did provide ample people-watching opportunities and when we finally hopped off near 57th Street we were somewhat refreshed.
A friend had recommended sundowners at the New York Peninsula Hotel which has a roof terrace and seeing as we were in the neighbourhood we decided to give it a try. Nothing like a restorative glass of wine on a rooftop terrace, I always say! On our walk there, though, we were inadvertently caught up in another iconic activity: being shooed to one side by walkie-talkie-wielding people who were clearing an intersection for a shot in a new Will Smith movie. Apparently the scene didn’t feature Will himself but was being shot in the Hugo Boss store on 5th Avenue and inexplicably required the fire hydrants and drains to be concealed with fake grass. Quite surreal! Anyway, we finally arrived in the very plush foyer of the hotel (glad I had my silk scarf on!!) and made our way to the rather unimaginitively named Pen-Top terrace bar. But hey, we weren’t there for the name! The view is really rather unusual because unlike the Empire State that towers over everything, you are kind of halfway up a forest of tall buildings, seeing people in offices more or less at eye level. Plus you get a gorgeous view of the chippendale-top AT&T (now Sony) building as well as up and down 5th Avenue. I had a rather fabulous glass of Esser Vineyards chardonnay from California (a “steal” at $14 per glass, hahaha!), and a place that provides a giant bowl of excellent salted nuts always gets my vote.
From there we took the subway home and, rather disappointingly, collapsed in an exhausted heap and made a few calls regarding the next leg of the trip. By the time we were ready to have dinner, it was late and all the restaurants I wanted to go to were a long subway ride and a chily walk away. So… I’m afraid we chickened out and returned to our “neighbourhood joint“, Bubby’s. It’s that kind of place – you just feel comfortable there and you know there will be something you like on the menu. This time around Nick had a garlic burger and I had excellent spinach quesadillas but, sadly, still had no room for pie.
Well, I guess Bubby’s pie is as good a reason as any to start planning a return visit to New York!