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Hiking in Norway – green mountains, silver fjords

Standing on a Bergen street

Bergen

A suggestion from Diane – a friend I met on a group hike in the Cinque Terra – that we try a group hike in Norway sounded appealing, as it is currently hot hot hot in Houston!

So…I arrived in Bergen after switching planes in Amsterdam, and took a taxi to the Hotel Neptun. The taxi driver, a surly sort, leaned from the cab to spit every few miles, which of course, placed him high on my list of attractions. Diane was waiting at the hotel with a bowl of fresh raspberries…how great it was to see her after our brief meeting at Martha’s Vineyard! After planting the luggage, we walked into town for a light supper, and caught up on the news. Then to bed to try to get some sleep, so we will be fresh for the group tomorrow.

The Fishmarket of Bergen and the Funicular

We finally got to sleep after surviving a heat wave in the hotel room, and the screeching of traffic until the wee hours outside our third story window. Even with the window open wide, it was almost unbearably hot…in the 90s, not exactly what I expected! By 3:30 we finally dropped off, and woke up about 9AM for breakfast.

Bergen’s main street

After breakfast, we rambled over to Bergen’s fishmarket…just down the road and on the edge of the fjord, where fishing boats, cruise ships and ferries all dock. The open-air market had it all, including whale steaks (black!), t-shirts, an immense variety of wonderful fresh fruit (more raspberries and cherries), postcards, sweaters, cheese…and much more.

Next on our list was a restored area of Bergen: old wooden buildings, once housing traders, now are home to shops and boutiques. A variety of beautiful things was on display: wonderful pottery, ceramics, lace, antiques… The flower gardens glowed with roses, daisies, dripped with honeysuckle, while the homes were quite austere architecturally, constructed of wooden slats, many covered with concrete and painted bright light colors. These homes, we were told, are vulnerable to fire, and Bergen has suffered through many conflagrations in its past.

View from top of funicular down to Bergen

At 2PM, we joined the rest of the merry band (three couples and our guide Beate) back at the hotel. Again we walked through the market and town, then rode the funicular to the top of the mountain. We spent a little time looking over the remarkable view, then hiked back down the mountain through lovely ferny woods and huge oak and birch trees – beautiful!

After showering and changing for dinner, we listened to a brief talk by Beate about the history of Norway, ate, and then it was back to our rooms to pack for Sunday’s hike – a 15-mile day to look forward to! And so to bed!

From Myrrdahl to Flam

Up at 6:30 as we needed to be on the road by a quarter to eight. With little time to spare, we washed our hair, packed our luggage, carried it downstairs, grabbed a bowl of cereal, then it was on through Bergen to catch the train to Myrrdahl. Arriving at the station, we took various detours through other trains, in one side and out the other, finally finding “our” train only to discover it had engine trouble. Many solemn announcements later, in three languages, the train finally got rolling.

The splashing and rushing of the waters throughout the land

We disembarked at Myrrdal two hours later for the 15-mile hike to Flam and beyond. What an incredible hike…through beautiful valleys striped with waterfalls, rivers, and silver streams which descended from mountaintops, or rushed pell-mell over boulders and rocks. The water was bell-clear; Diane has named the color Norge Blue. This is the land of 1000 waterfalls; water is everywhere, and forests of birch and pine coated the mountainsides.

On our 15 mile hike to Flam

We hiked in a slight mizzle – the sun never fully appeared, which is the Norwegian way, according to Petter, Beate’s son and our second guide.

Initially, the trail wasn’t difficult: it began as a flat, grassy track through rolling fields. Soon, however, the long grass hid stones and small boulders – and I fell three times on these very slippery rocks. It was like walking on ice up and downhill…and crossing streams is not one of my best jobs! But the treacherous undergrowth finally petered out, and we continued on grassy trails through beautiful wilderland. A goat farm, then tiny buildings appeared out of nowhere. Some buildings were smoking sheds, with roofs of long grass turves, saplings growing from them.

A “smoking shed”

Wild raspberries bordered the trail, and we ate them with relish. Divine!

Stopping several times for breaks and snacks, our final break was a “troll bowl” – a hollowed-out cave with an open top, and a large stone slab for a table. Loved it! Trolls are part of this country’s folklore – old as the mountains.

Ro with friend – troll images are everywhere!

In Bergen, many shops have carved trolls standing watch in their doorways.

The final leg of the hike was on asphalt through rolling beautiful country (a little rough on the toes.) When we finally felt as if we could walk no longer (and we’ve made very good time) we saw our hotel, which was lovely – part new, part old. From the balcony of our room, we saw goats grazing in fields bordered by wild fern-splashed country.

After a hot bath and the obligatory hair washing, we all convened in the bar for drinks. The view from the bar’s amazing floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall window, was absolutely awe-inspiring: a silvery-golden fjord, stretching for miles and surrounded by mountains and lush forests of pine trees, backed by the setting sun – absolutely glorious.

Then, a light dinner. It was a challenging, tiring day and so by 10PM, we said goodnight, packed our luggage, and it was off to bed! Tomorrow should be a little easier, but soon comes the glacier hike!

From Flam to Balestrand

A late morning: we don’t need to be downstairs until 10AM. Heaven! We slept until 7:30, showered, ate breakfast, and popped the rest of our things into the luggage, which will be taken to our next stop. Pulling on our backpacks, we began the hike – up, up, up to a small settlement on the mountainside – buildings built centuries ago which are now part of a farm.

Our hike started on the other side of the mountain to the farm

The wooden buildings were tiny, almost miniature in size. All had pots of red geraniums in the windows, and the interiors were set up as museums, with old instruments, stoves, sinks, beds, all as used in days gone by. We saw how cheese used to be made – a nine-hour process. If more milk was produced than necessary for one batch, another batch had to be started immediately making an 18-hour day for some poor woman.

Taking a water break at the museum and farm

After the museum and farm, we continued our hike through the woods towards the ferry. Beate calls this a “tricky” hike. The trail was extremely narrow, with a sharp drop on our left, and the mountain rising sheer to our right. Sometimes the hiking turned into rock climbing! The mist and off-and-on mizzle made the mossy rocks extremely slippery, so we had to be very careful where we put our feet. But the views of the fjord, and the beauty of the forest (that lovely green smell) through which we were hiking made it all worthwhile.

The scent of the pines, the green ferns, the moss that covers the rocks and boulders, and below us, the silver-gray fjord, like a living mirror of the sky: all was so beautiful, so pristine. Just breathing in the air purified lungs and mind. Many flowers showed tiny heads along the track: Ling, a heather-like bush with tiny, tiny purple bells; buttercups and celandines; and an occasional violet, poking its head through the grass. But the surroundings were mostly green, green, green – from the forest floor to the treetops.

It never rains in Norway – it just mizzles. The air is always moist, and mist often hangs low over the mountains. The sky was bright white, and the longer we hiked, the hotter we became.

On one of the ferries – it’s like driving a car in the States!

We emerged from the forest on the road at the ferry, which I just managed to get on by the skin of my teeth (the gangplank started to rise as I set foot upon it.) An hour’s ride through the fjord to Balestrand – and there was the beautiful gingerbread hotel on the water, surrounded by the loveliest little town: small colorful Norwegian houses, all painted in pastels and alive with flowers in gardens and pots. Red geraniums abounded, as did vivid hollyhocks, some tall as houses, and purple-black in color. Marigolds, roses, daisies – all in full, riotous bloom. Diane and I walked around the town drinking in the beauty of it all.

Our luggage was late, so we had an anxious two hours waiting for it to turn up. Finally, in it came and we were finally able to clean up for dinner. The smorgasbord offered a truly astounding buffet, with more food than an army could eat in a week. All sorts of seafood, including the whale steaks, as well as caviar, chicken, capon, turkey, a table full of cheeses, fabulous breads, a hot buffet table with roast beef, fish and veggies, a dessert bar with ten different desserts – I’ve never seen so much food!

After we ate, three of us attended a concert given by Age Kristofferson, a Carnegie Hall pianist who played eleven brief Edvard Grieg compositions. It was absolutely delightful; he told short stories to accompany each song, some of which were funny, all of which were interesting. The concert was held in a small hall within the hotel. A Japanese man recorded Kristofferson’s playing, and although asked to stop by the artist, he wouldn’t. I wanted to haul him out of the room!

Fjaerland

Fjaerland

Yes, up at 6:30 indeed! Breakfast at 7:15, then we had to finish packing and be ready to leave for the ferry by 8. An hour and a half later we reached Fjaerland. The day had become steadily mistier the further north we progressed. The mountains rose on either side of the fjord, green and majestic, covered with pine trees and wreathed in mist. Absolutely awe-inspiring and beautiful,  with silver waterfalls criss-crossing the slopes.

For the first time, the air was extremely chilly; I had to put a sweatshirt over my shirt, and top it with the rainjacket. (Note: this was the ONLY time it was chilly.)

Hotel Mundal

We disembarked from the ferry, and proceeded to haul our luggage to the Hotel Mundal – uphill! At least the hotel was not too far from the ferry! The hotel was run by Billie, an expat Englishwoman who, by marriage, had become part of the Mundal family and history <Note: Vice President Walter Mondale is connected to this family>. After dropping the luggage in the lobby, we immediately began our hike.

Fairly flat at first, the trail took us alongside a river – now rushing, now fairly quiet. No-one else was around – it was peaceful and beautiful and the overcast sky cooled the air and made for very pleasant walking. I had to divest myself of my sweatshirt, and soon after, the raincoat. Grass-green moss covered the stones and ground beneath the trees, in many places forming a broad mossy floor – very Hans Christian Anderson.

As we continued, the trail began to ascend. Soon we were climbing steadily up, over boulders and rocks and tree roots into the heart of the forest. The trail became steeper and steeper. We reached a small plateau where we dropped off our backpacks (very safely) before continuing the climb. It was tricky, the path narrowing to a wet, and in many places, rocky trail. The boulders were slick and a stone could easily turn an ankle. We stopped for a brief lunch of cheese and rolls and tomato, then on we went.

The river splashed merrily down from us, and the sky became lighter, when we finally halted at the foot of the mountain. Diane, Paul and I continued up to see the ice cave at the very top. What seemed a short jaunt at the beginning was in actuality quite a climb – and the smoothness of the grass, deceiving. Brambles, grass and briar covering stones and boulders – dangerous. Again we had to watch where we put our feet. Challenging, but worth it to get to the ice and snow, and pose atop the mountain in front of the ice cave (which was actually an ice bridge.)

In front of the ice cave

We felt as if we were on the roof of the world, with the rest of the group just pinpricks in the valley below.

After our photography session, we trotted back down the mountain like goats, joined the group and began the hike back to our hotel in Fjaerland. Not too bad going down: narrow trails, stony, mossy, and damp. The day was overcast.

And then a lovely thing happened: when we reached a leveling out of the trail, the sun broke through the clouds, the sky became a deep, clear blue, and the fields stretched before us, emerald green and literally glowing in the sunlight. And it was exactly like this the remainder of the trip. Beautiful.

The little tiny town of Fjaerland perched on the edge of the fjord and it was exquisite. A book town mirroring Hay-on-Wye in England, its tiny bookshops were everywhere, and bookcases actually lined the narrow roads. The Hotel Mundal, very old and historic, offers glorious back views onto lawns and fjord – peaceful and calming.

The view from our room at Hotel Mundal

Although our hike was only four hours, it was challenging, and we returned for a restful afternoon readying us for the hike tomorrow – 3000 feet up to the Flatbreen Glacier. Billie gave a short talk on the history of the 100-year old hotel, impressive! Much of the hotel is still the way it was “back in the old days” with marvelous old, old leather armchairs studded with nails, a fire glowing in the immense fireplace, and a great room set for dinner. So much history and tradition: it was wonderful. Tomorrow – Flatbreen!

The Flatbreen Glacier

We were up and out of Hotel Mundal by 10AM, taking a taxi to the base of the mountain where we were to climb to the Flatbreen (which means “glacier” in Norwegian…so actually appending “glacier” after Flatbreen is pretty unnecessary!)

The start of the Flatbreen glacier hike

The first 500 feet of the hike were straight up. It was very, very difficult for me: my lung capacity is not large, and I stopped every few yards, breathing deeply and drinking water. My heart was banging in my chest by the time I arrived at the top of this first stretch. Beate told me everyone has had trouble – including her! – but that from then on it would be easier – more streams and rivers to cross, more rock climbing.

Keep climbing up to Flatbreen

It was true: while just walking upwards was difficult for me, it was easier for to climb the rocks and boulders than just hike on a straightforward uphill path. As we climbed the mountain, we crossed streams over many and various bridges and boulders, the last bridge a wobbly couple of pieces of wood. Then began the major rock climb: I used all four limbs to get myself to the more traditional trail. In some instances, I was flat against the boulders while trying to get a purchase on the stone. Petter guided us across and up the more difficult parts of the track. Difficult – but incredibly exhilarating!

Every once in a while, I turned to look back at the spectacular valley views. Miles below us gleamed the fjord, and forests stretched as far as the eye could see across mountains and more mountains. Up, up, up and up we rose – 3000 feet to the top…approximately three miles up, given that we were winding our way around the mountain.

Suddenly, Petter stopped us and said: “Clear your mind.” He led us around a huge boulder and there was the glacier, icy blue and white, jagged and jutting to the sky in the brilliant sunshine –  immense! The Flatbreen is a “calving” glacier, because it drops chunks of ice at intervals. It was one of the most spectacular sights I’ve ever seen.

I make it to the Flatbreen – glorious glorious glorious

Sitting across from the glacier, we stopped for lunch at a small hut built of boulders and wood. The man who built this hut had made a thousand trips up and down the mountain with the needed supplies, according to Beate. It was said he climbed to the top in 40 minutes, a record to this day. We made it in about four hours.

Our happy group at the Flatbreen

After lunch, once a few hardy souls had returned from climbing the ridge on the morain, we began our hike back down the mountain. Down, down, down we clambered- often on our rear ends, as we were descending yet again over boulders similar to those on the way up (although this is a different trail.) This trail was as treacherous as the upward track, the earth so dry, it slid beneath our feet. And after a couple of hours, despite the thickness of my boot soles, my feet began to feel every stone beneath them!

A brief rest about midway down the mountain, where we sat on a grassy flat and just chatted idly for half an hour, and we were on our way. The sun was high in the sky, and the world smelled of trees.

Still on the hike upwards to the Flatbreen glacier

Down, down we climbed, through fern and birch woods, often hanging onto the trees for balance. Flowers starred the trail. The sun continued to shine, and it was a heavenly day. Our final climb over rocks and boulders in the river, led us to a final stony descent. All in all, the hike took about eight hours, and I was truly exhausted by the time I plonked myself in the taxi for the ride back to the hotel. And sweaty. And dirty. But what an adventure. All the more exhilarating because I’ll probably never be doing this climb again!

Fjaerland and the Glacier Museum

Up and out by 10AM. We were staying in Fjaerland for a few more hours, and decided to walk to the Glacier Museum, which has some interesting exhibits, including a walk-in “glacier” formed of plastic. It was very eerie to be inside and hear the water melting, the stones and ice cracking within …I had, and have, no desire to walk inside a real glacier!

The little wobbly bridge in Fjaerland

The visit to the museum was followed by a two-hour walk around the town, which included inching across a hanging – and rather wobbly – bridge, one at a time. Shera, Beate’s dog who accompanied us on this hike, was truly a picture as she crossed the bridge, legs splayed, eyes beseeching!

We returned to town, purchased lunch at a local grocery store and ate on the lawn behind our hotel, alongside the fjord. The sun was again brilliantly hot, and the sky was dotted with one or two icy white clouds. Idyllic. Diane and I sat on a bench on the lawn and read for an hour until the ferry arrived. I could stay here for the rest of the trip…

Our luggage was sitting in the hotel hall, waiting for us to drag it to the dock, which was not too far away. We caught the ferry back to the Kvikne Hotel in Balestrand. Diane and I stood on the prow, looking at some of the most glorious sights in the world…sometimes it’s almost too much, it hurts to look. Everywhere we turned, there is beauty.

The beauty of the fjords

We landed, dragged our suitcases uphill to the hotel (thank goodness for wheels), had approximately two hours to clean up, and headed down to dinner. Again, the wonderful smorgasbord had every kind of food we could wish for, but I was ready for bed. The next day, we had to be awake by 6AM, as a 12-14 hour day was ahead of us.

Vik and Finden

Up at 6AM, it was the beginning a long day. We were ready to catch the ferry for a ten-minute ride to our first hike, which started at 8. After a hearty breakfast of muesli, orange juice, and that great bread, we convened on the pier, ready to board the ferry. Ten short minutes later, we disembarked at Vik.

Vik

Our hike led us through Vik, a delightful little town on the water’s edge, full of small painted wooden houses and shops and galleries. From here, we hiked to the mountains, and a trail that is green, green, green – beautiful views on all sides of farmers’ fields, woods, ferns, and flowers -the fjord gleaming way down below. From the heights, we could see Vik as an illustration in a Grimm’s fairy tale, nestled in a valley bound by water and mountains.

One of our goals this day was to see a stave church, built with no nails but supported by tree trunks, or “staves” which are felled and left to dry and naturally resinate for eight years, and which are then used to build the church. This particular church was built in the 1100’s, and has its original staves. Special services are still held within.

Rambling all around the town (of Vik)

After a brief rest here, we rambled all over the mountain, returning down to Vik in the golden sunshine. So peaceful, it is as if all stress and responsibility fell away as we walked over the rolling countryside. All is heartbreakingly beautiful in the clear golden light.

When we reached Vik, we spent a couple of hours exploring, shopped for some supplies, and checked out the shops and the grocery store: I love foreign grocery stores and drugstores. It’s always so much fun to shop in them, checking out the different and unusual! Wandering the streets, I discovered the most delightful little group of homes, almost like dolls’ houses, painted in pale pastels and hidden from the eye behind storage buildings. The windows were lace curtained, with windowsills lined with pots of bright geraniums or daisies. The houses surrounded a small village green, the grass bright as emeralds in the sunshine. It was one of the most delightful parts of our delightful day here.

After eating our lunch at an outdoor table by the fjord, we rambled  for an hour or two, Diane buying a statuette of a “troll couple with tails.” Then we caught the ferry to Finden where walked to a goat farm for another “lunch.” We were met at the base of the mountain by the farm’s owner, who led us uphill to his historic home, built entirely of wood, and beautifully decorated. One side of the room was filled with a very long table, lit with candelabra, and lined with benches on either side, all of which he had built. The table was set with exquisite china, napkins, silverware and wine glasses. When we are seated, he brought out immense platters of grilled goat and vegetables: beans, potatoes, carrots, cauliflower, mushrooms, and gravy.  It was a wonderful meal – and I sure wish I could’ve done justice to it.

Benches front the house, on one of which reposed two adorable tiny black kittens – the sweetest little things – but they did not like Shera, Beate’s dog, who, however, was very patient, as always, and left them well alone after an initial bout of barking.

We took many photographs, then walked back down the mountain to the ferry, which took us up the fjord to another mountain trail. Ferns and high grass and trees surrounded our narrow track – and up, up, up we climbed. Presently the trail extremely difficult. Huge moss-covered boulders, steep, steep paths, grass covered – stones lined our way, slicked with moss and dew, and tricky. We hike forever up through wild raspberry, blackberry and blueberry bushes – the berries were delicious with that wild woodsy flavor.

The trail became steeper and steeper, and eventually one by one, we turned back to the boat.

I was drenched in perspiration by the time I made it back down. What an experience; I was climbing down alone, and kept hoping I wouldn’t miss the trail. Never was I so happy to see a ferry!

And so back to Vik, where a taxi was waiting to drive us back to Balestrand. Back earlier than expected, we actually had a couple of hours to clean up for dinner. Then it was time to pack for an early launch back to Bergen on Saturday.

Back to Bergen

Up at 6:15, we packed, zipped down to breakfast, then rolled our suitcases downhill to the landing by 7:45, where we boarded the ferry for a four-hour trip back to Bergen. Unlike prior trips, we all stayed downstairs, many of us sleeping. The morning started off cloudy, but ended sunny and hot.

My suitcases, which seemed relatively light at the beginning of the trip, now felt as if I was carrying two-ton weights within. It must be all the sweat and dirt packed on the socks and t-shirts!

In Bergen, we said goodbye to our small group, then Diane and I rolled our suitcases to the Admiral Hotel, overlooking the fjord, dropped off our luggage and rambled round for a final farewell. I always feel sad at the end of a hike such as this. You enter into another world….then, of course, you have to come back to the real one. Hard sometimes to make the transference.

Then it was back to the Admiral Hotel and my room, overlooking the fjord. However…noisy as all get out! If it’s not a ferry or catamaran revving up for an hour or two before actually leaving port, it was the mass of people making merry at the top of their lungs – or someone on a bullhorn talking about who knows what ad infinitum – this town is unbelievably noisy, busy and social! And I couldn’t close the windows because it is TOO HOT! But I survived – it was a great, great experience and adventure (oh, and now they’re setting off guns!)

Another observation: Some hotels, such as this one, do not put out soap, but rather have it in a wall dispenser in the shower. Not so good if you are sitting in the bathtub, and the soap is three feet above your head – it made for some slippery moments!

Finally: I never saw a homeless person nor a stray animal on any streets in Norway.

I will never forget the incredible beauty of this country…so much unspoiled loveliness, you just have to be thankful you’ve seen what the natural world has to offer.

Everyone and everything is friendly in Norway

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I Love New York!

This is not my usual post, as it’s really a hiking trip down Memory Lane… before 9/11, back in the 90’s. Now time’s passing by so quickly, I can’t seem to get a handle on Christmas before the Fourth of July turns up. Anyway, it’s nice to look back on these two really fun trips – and I do love New York….such an incredible city, now and always.

Skyline

1995
I’ve been to New York to spend some time twice in my life (not counting flights through Newark to England and other ports of call.) And that includes some time spent in New York State…which happens to be just beautiful. My first visit encompassed both a shopping trip into the city, and a hot air balloon ride over the Green Mountains –  absolutely magical.

Arlene booked us in for the balloon ride, so we drove to a field in the countryside where the balloon was being “gassed up.”

Waiting for the hot air balloon to fill

Waiting for the hot air balloon to fill

The day was just about perfect…the skies clear, with little or no wind.

Ro waiting for balloon...intrepid! ha!

Once the balloon was almost filled with gas, four of us climbed into the (very small) basket, and in short order, we were off. Because of the lack of wind, we didn’t really swing from side to side, but nonetheless, my knuckles grasping the sides of the basket were white, the higher we climbed. We made it to about 2,000 feet and the countryside spread below us like a patchwork quilt, all shades of green, everything so sharply etched, so you could even see a small black cat snoozing on gravel below.

I think we were up and drifting for about half an hour, then we gently began our descent into a small valley, with a miniscule white church at the far end. By this time dusk was settling in. Just a few twinkling stars lit up the sky. Lower and lower we came – and faster – I was afraid we’d bump into the trees, but we missed that little problem, and landed. As we came to a halt and the balloon dragged across the grass, the doors to the church opened and a mass of small children ran out into the field to see if the Wizard of Oz had landed! Magic!

We ended up drinking champagne and eating cheese nibbles as the sun went down. Despite my fear of heights, it was an incredible experience.

The next couple of days were spent just driving around the countryside, with a day spent on Fifth Avenue shopping, and a trip to Broadway to see “Miss Saigon“. Loved the play – that helicopter scene was intense. The weather held, and it was a lovely lovely time.

Autumn in New York 1998 – On the town
Three years later, it was all New York City… I left Houston on a wet and windy November day – the plane trip was uneventful, but the plane itself was cold, cold, cold. I needed 2 blankets and 2 pillows to be comfortable (and, back then, I didn’t have to pay to “rent” them). I arrived in Newark after dark, so when we flew over Manhattan- what a beautiful sight: a blanket of multi-colored jewels of lights as far as the eye could see, for miles and miles to the horizon- all massed in varying patterns and ribbons of moving color, with an inky-violet sky behind all.

The luggage came in fast, and I zoomed thru the airport to the pickup area where Arlene was waiting … Well, I’m here! We whooshed back to Ramsey, New Jersey for a good night’s sleep…

The first thing I wanted to do when we got to New York was visit The Cloisters.

Ro on the beautiful Cloisters pathway

Ro on the beautiful Cloisters pathway – talk about Autumn in New York!

The very next next day, we made our merry way to Manhattan, after a brief breakfast of coffee and scones (yum). The maples were still in living color- reds and golds everywhere. I’m so glad l got to see them before the leaves dropped from the trees.

The Cloisters is magnificent. A part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it is an “ensemble of rooms and gardens” compiled from various parts of European monasteries, and built to house a wonderful collection of medieval art, from the 1100’s thru the 1500’s. Beautiful, beautiful. The walls, constructed from old monastery stones, are at least 4 feet thick. The rooms house carvings, paintings, statues, sarcophagi, chalices, and other beautiful things such as cloaks, ivory pieces, goblets and a set of oval playing cards from the 13th or 14th century. St. Juliana was represented by a mask carved over her skull – with the skull still in the mask. A reliquary of an arm – in brass – had two small “windows” cut in it to show the arm bones of the saint!

At The Cloisters

The view of the Hudson River from the ramparts of The Cloisters is spectacular.

A view from the ramparts

From the ramparts we watched…

You can see for miles, because The Cloisters is actually on cliffs overlooking the Hudson. Cobblestone paths lead from various entryways to main roads. The gardens house all sorts of herbs and flowers, most of which, of course, were not in bloom at this time of year. The day was gray and cloudy, but not too windy… actually, it was perfect weather for this particular adventure!

Lene just outside The Cloisters on an overcast November day

Lene just outside The Cloisters on an overcast November day

Always Shopping!

Always shopping til we drop, no matter where we are! We finished touring The Cloisters top to bottom, then drove to The Plaza and checked our car in with Fernando, our super-nice doorman.

Fernando at The Plaza

Fernando at The Plaza

We then found the front desk, got our key, and moseyed up to our corner room at the far end of the hall. The room is nice: two double beds, big window, fireplace facing the beds, wonderful big – echoing – bathroom, huge closet, big armoire housing a huge tv, and best of all, lots of alcohol & food in the mini fridge! We immediately made ourselves Bloody Marys, and opened the nuts, cheese, and chips! and then noticed that the draperies exactly matched Lene’s robe.

After which, we cleaned ourselves up, and rambled down to The Plaza’s Oyster Bar, very New York, leather chairs, booths, dimly lit, great food; Oysters Rockefeller and smoked salmon – yum-o!

Taxis everywhere...but try flagging one down!

Taxis everywhere…but try flagging one down!

After dinner, we took a cab to Grand Central Station, where we walked around for an hour or so. It is glorious: cavernous, with soaring arched ceilings, chandeliers, huge glass windows front and back. The ceiling is etched with friezes of the various constellations, with little twinkling stars of light interposed throughout.

We looked over the subways in case we wanted to take one to Greenwich Village later, then walked to the Nederlander Theater (built in 1921), where we saw “Rent“, which at first I wasn’t sure I would like- so loud! Based on “La Boheme“, all of the characters (or most) have AIDS or the HIV virus, and are dying…  I began to appreciate it much more by the second act; in the first case, I began to better understand it! Powerful and affecting, it is more emotionally engaging by the time Angel starts to “die”. The cast stayed on stage after the performance and asked the donations for the homeless HIV- and AIDS-positive. So… pretty poignant.

A funny thing happened after the play. Lene and I went into the bathroom, and about 15 women crowded in, putting on lipstick, etc…. and every single one of them was dressed in black! Not a color to be seen. So New York!

Then- great adventure – we walked from 4th street down Broadway (at 11 at night) past Times Square with all the huge lit-up advertising signs- to 58th Street, then back down 5th Avenue to Central Park and The Plaza… about 25 city blocks, I think. What a walk. No taxis were available- it’s just about impossible to get a taxi in New York unless you get with a doorman, or stand at a taxi stand. The streets were jammed with people- all sorts – absolutely packed (you’d never see this in downtown Houston, unless it’s 5PM and they’re waiting for the buses home).

Some absolutely beautiful women and gorgeous men here, wearing all sorts of different outfits, but these outfits are all…black! Skinny pants for women are definitely in; black leather jackets, pea coats – I love all this stuff.

The other side of New York is the homeless. They are everywhere…it is shattering. When we got to 58th Street, there’s a sort of overhang, and under it were all the homeless carts in a row. So hard to take in.

In direct contrast, the horses and carriages were all out and driving around Central Park. We passed some wonderful-looking New York bars- very Breakfast at Tiffany’s type hangouts-all dark wood, leather, and dim lights. Men and women in cocktail clothes (black), smoking and sipping – whatever! We also passed apartment high rises, with uniformed doormen opening limo doors, etc. Many of the apartments had their curtains open, and you could see high­ ceilinged rooms, elegantly furnished with deep dark furniture, lit with diamond-bright twinkling chandeliers. The whole experience is a view into another world.

Midnight feast

Finally, we found our home away from home – The Plaza. The first thing I did when we walked in was order room service! We ordered hot chocolate, a bagel and cream cheese, fresh strawberries, hot tea, and croissants. We didn’t need any menu – I just asked, and they said “Of course, Miss Dunn!” and “Certainly, Miss Dunn” (I could get used to this.) Anyway, in short order, up came the fabulous food -fresh strawberries with a big bowl of whipped cream, chocolate and tea in tall silver pots, small pots of fresh jam, marmalade, honey and butter, and a hot sliced bagel with cream cheese- $40.00 plus tip!

It was wonderful. Here we were at 12 midnight (or later) sipping tea and hot chocolate and eating strawberries and cream. Oh, I love New York! (Of course, we could have bypassed eating and just applied the food to our hips…but…oh well.)

Funny- I’m not even tired, and it’s 1:30 in the morning. Arlene is fast asleep, so I guess I should be too. I’ll read for a bit, then- to sleep, perchance…etc. and so forth!

Saturday morning….New York –I hate to repeat myself- is wonderful: I could live here, I think but sometimes I’m not so sure: it is so frenetic. The energy level is intense at all hours. It doesn’t matter if it’s 6 in the morning or 12 at night. The shops are open, the people are coming and going, the doormen are whistling, whistling, whistling for the taxis that are always full. It’s amazing.

Last night at 1:30 AM, I finally turned out the light to go to sleep. Suddenly – outside in the street, it sounded like they were reconstructing New York. Breaking glass being bundled, brushed, crashed, bashed, shoved, collected, pushed and dumped. Sounds of trucks and semis moving and hauling…the noise was intense. I finally crashed myself, and woke up on Saturday sometime between 11 and 12.

New York has fascinating people: just a terrific amalgam of all and every kind. You see these elegant old ladies, beautifully dressed in little suits and high heels, just-done hair. They seemed to always be walking around in pairs…this will be Arlene and me in 20 years! Lots of Asians, Jews in yarmulkes, African-Americans, Germans. Heard accents from England, Australia, Germany, Japan among others. Some marvelous – I mean really good looking men – tall, slender and gorgeous, with dark hair and eyes… the John Kennedy Jr. type abounds in New York. With equally glorious-looking women- almost always blonde, slender, and tall, tall, tall.

As previously noted, everyone wears black. I mean, to see anyone dressed in a color here is to be shocked… shocked! The uniforms for women seem to be: black pantsuit; or long black skirt, black hose, black jacket; or short black skirt, thick black hose, black jacket; or tight fitting princess style black coat; or black leather jacket with everything. And black short boots. Very cool.

Off to shop.

Bloomingdales

After a satisfying couple of hours at a couple of boutiques, we toddled off to Bloomingdale’s, which happened to be across the street. Unfortunately, we didn’t see it. So managed to spend 30 minutes searching for it – we are so directionally impaired! Bloomingdale’s was a madhouse (what else is new) – it makes Houston’s Galleria look like an empty cave. People, people and more people -wall to wall people and very hot clothes.

We shopped Floor 3: Designer Sportswear. Lene bought a white sweater, and I bought a pair of gray flannel Ralph cargo pants, a DKNY short sleeved black turtleneck, and a white Ralph t-shirt.

Our sales assistant was named Gloria. I loved her: Hennaed hair, about 65 years old (maybe older), and fairly small-a typical New Yorker, born and bred, and funny as hell “Let me see ya in that sweater, honey I’m waiting out here – let me see it – is it on yet?”

Me: “I’m trying on the cargo pants, Gloria.” Gloria: “Oh, yes, those look good – no, honey, you don’t want to get them tailored here- too expensive. Ya know what I do, take them to my cleaners, tell them what to do, pay ’em a few dollars- there you are: so much cheaper than here… plus, you have to pay the shipping!”

Gloria: “I’m still waiting to see the sweater.” Me: “Well, give me a minute to get it on –  the sleeves are too long.” Gloria: “Now let me tell you what you do: everyone does it we turn up the sleeves like so, therehow’s that look?” Me: “Let me think about it.”

Gloria: “You do that honey!”

Outside Bloomingdales We finally left Bloomingdales, picked up our clothes (on hold) from various other shops and walked back to the Plaza. We changed clothes and grabbed a cab (via our wonderful doorman) to Tavern on the Green – only to find out we needed a reservation to eat there. So we walked upstairs to the adorable little bar and had Bloody Marys. The bar is dark, with (I think) dark green walls, banquettes, duck plaques, an oak bar, and as usual- fascinating-looking people all having drinks, smoking and talking it up.

After drinks, we took a taxi (strangely available) to the Empire State Building. The lines for this are miles long- masses of people, and by this time it’s dark, but we persevere. “You got a 40 minute wait.” Okay by us.

We finally get an elevator to the 86th floor. You don’t go up to the 102nd – 86 is the observation deck. We walk outside onto the deck, and it is bitterly cold. But you can see east, west, north and south- and at night, the view is spectacular. And I mean spectacular. The lights stretch in endless patterns endlessly to the sea or just distant parts of New York. You see the Hudson River, all the bridges of New York, the Chrysler Building looking like a Christmas tree of arced lights, the World Trade Center, and more, more, more. Everything is lit, and ribbons of lights move endlessly with the traffic patterns. The lights are sometimes massed, sometimes spread out. It’s magical. Overheard: “I know it’s ridiculous, but when I’m sitting up here and looking out, I feel New York belongs to me.” (Corny, but true.)

After all this, we had about 45 minutes to find a place to eat before we had to get to the play, so we took a cab to the Minskoff Theatre, picked up our tickets, then ran across the street to Lindy’s, a little landmark deli with the best sandwich I ever put in my mouth, a Sid Caesar (all the sandwiches are named after old-time comedians). A Sid Caesar is hot pastrami and corn beef on rye with Russian dressing – and it’s almost as tall as the Empire State Building! Lene had a Charlie Chaplin- not sure what that was, but it came on toast. We both had beers. We had 10 minutes to wolf down two bites of sandwich, and 3 gulps of beer, then we had to whip out of there and dash across the street to get to the theatre on time! (I have to say, I hated to leave that sandwich.. .it was the only food we’d had all day since breakfast!)

Well… La di dah, la di dah.

The musical was “The Scarlet Pimpernel” (otherwise known, in the play, as Pimpy). And it was delightful and funny and sweet. The actors had wonderful voices, terrific personalities, and the sets were unbelievable: of the guillotine (in action), La Bastille, aboard the ship, in a carriage that rocked as if it were really drawn by horses, in the manor, at a ball, in the rose garden… it was all terrific. The sets moved back, forward, up, down, and under. Fantastic! Everyone thoroughly enjoyed the show.

And speaking of beautiful people (again): seated right next to us was one of the best looking couples I’ve ever seen in my life. She: tall, extremely slender, straight shoulder length (or longer) blonde hair, a figure to die for, and a very sweet smile. Dressed in dark brown/camel pants and top (hey, no black here.). He: dark brown hair, taller than she, slender, dressed in a dark suit, friendly- and good-good looking. I told Arlene if I was 20, I’d slit my wrists, but since I’m a tiny bit older than that (ha), I can enjoy it- I think!

Taxis galore

After the play, we- along with hordes of New Yorkers – streamed through the streets looking for a taxi. Here’s an amazing thing: there’s never an empty taxi. At one point, I actually ran out into the street banging on one’s door… but he wouldn’t take us. Taxis can only pick people up at designated areas now (such as street comers… not in the middle of the road.) So we walked across the street to the taxi stand at the Marriott, which had about 10 people waiting, and waiting… and we joined the merry throng. By the time we got our taxi, there were about 50-60 people in line.

Horses, joggers, tourists  Police cars with sirens were blasting (good old NYPD Blue). The streets were humming with people and cars and taxis, – and we were humming along there with them in our taxi. Taxi drivers in New York don’t believe in the words “slow and steady“; nor do they believe they’re on the streets of New York: obviously they think they’re at Le Mans. Zooming is not too strong a word for what we were doing thru the streets of New York that night! But the energy level was unbelievable.

We arrived at The Plaza – and a long line waiting for the elevators. So we decided to walk up the stairs to our floor under the auspices of a very nice (although initially suspicious) security guard. All of the people here are so very nice, from the saleswomen at the Banana Republic and Bloomingdale’s to the doormen at the Plaza, to the waiters and just people in the street.

Back in our room, we again! ordered room service. Me: bagels and cream cheese, strawberries and cream, and hot chocolate. Lene, tiramisu (which I had a hard time pronouncing to the room service attendant at that time of night: “I’m sorry ma’am… we don’t have that! Oh… what was that again?” Arlene: “I wondered what you were attempting to order!”) and hot tea. Quel spread!

And now Arlene is sleeping the sleep of the just, the recycling trucks (as I found out they were) are outside on the street loading 5 million tons of glass into various carriers, and I’ve got hand cramp. But I’m in New York! Anyway, I’ll stop here and read for a while, then ….to sleep!

Sunday: These past two days have been hot and sunny and bright – unbelievably unseasonable weather for New York in November. Are we lucky or what?

We had a wakeup call at 9AM, so we could get up, shower, pack and check out, with enough time to eat lunch at the Algonquin Hotel (which I loved…what else is new).

We ordered a Continental breakfast again, which came with hot coffee, fresh orange juice, croissants and English muffins. For some reason, I wasn’t that hungry, so only ate a muffin and had one cup of coffee. Unusual for me. One really nice thing, among many: the coffee was always piping hot and really good. No lukewarm stuff for us! The sweet little bellhop then came and got our bags and held the elevator for us as we – unknowing – slowly sauntered down the hall. Then we picked up our car and took off for the Algonquin.

Goodbye, lovely Plaza.

Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged

It took us about 20 minutes to get to the Algonquin, which had been refurbished and was so old New York, I could’ve cried. We arrived before noon; not too many people were in the hotel dining room – only two or three couples, all dressed for Sunday brunch.

It’s dim inside. Dark paneling, half-way up the wall; then wallpapered to the ceiling. Fleur-de-lis pattern on the wall-to wall carpeting. The round table where Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley et al met to eat, drink and be merry, was right there in the middle of the lobby/cum/dining room. The lobby actually segues into the dining room; the round table was placed between one and the other.

To get to the bathroom, I walked down a narrow, winding, low-ceilinged little staircase to the basement. Floor, walls, ceiling of the bathroom were totally refinished in white marble. The staircase was marble, the staircase wall covered in green-painted narrow paneling.

We sat at a comer table (round) in two wine-red velvet wing chairs- which were rather low to the ground. As we sat gingerly lowered ourselves, our chins almost hit the table. Seating was all velvet chairs (green or deep red) of different styles – wing, club or whatever – or small sofas. Everything was hushed and mustily elegant.  I loved it! Arlene had a shrimp salad and I had pastrami on rye (had to, I’m in New York).

It was exactly as I thought it would be – still living in the past. Charming and gently faded and genteel, it was like stepping through a door into another world.
So we ate, and finally, back in the car to the airport, with a short side trip to see Lene’s clinic in Clifton. I was thinking as we were walking around – how long ago it seemed when Arlene and I bought matching brown jumpers and ran around Houston’s Old Market Square, both married and both so young (it was the 70s).

On the way out of Clifton, we suddenly found ourselves in an avenue of over-arching maples, all yellow-leafed, with the road carpeted in yellow leaves. The sun hit the trees as we entered the avenue, and suddenly we were driving through a tunnel of shining gold.

Lene in Ramsey NJ

Lene in Ramsey NJ

Then on to Newark Airport – and goodbye New York: auvoir to you!