Every once in a while, it's nice to experience one's hometown while in tourist mode. Even though my sister grew up in the NY metro area, she hasn't lived here for over twenty years. Her husband decided he needed to get out of his winter rut, so he took the family up to the Big Apple for a change of pace. Additionally, a Prestigious Bastion of Prestige is courting Boy B., my eldest nephew. We made plans to meet in the vicinity of The Cathedral of St John the Divine, and then head up to the campus of the aforementioned Prestigious Bastion of Prestige. The unfinished cathedral is pretty bizarre- it began as a Romanesque church, but a decision was made to complete it as a neo-Gothic cathedral. The nave makes a somewhat abrupt transition from a diaphanous, Gothic dreamscape tinted beautifully by huge stained glass windows into a dark, heavy Romanesque bring-down. Did I mention that the cathedral is unfinished? When one looks at the Western facade, one can instantly tell that the top of the tower is much newer than the rest of the facade, yet it still seems truncated. The northern side of the church really looks half-formed- one looks in vain for a transept that seems like it should be there, and some of the roof is covered with weathered plywood.
Just south of the church, the Peace Fountain forms a funky centerpiece of a nice little park which is surrounded by sculptures designed by schoolkids. The fountain itself has some delightfully disquieting features, such as a severed devil's/satyr's head and an archangel who seems to be getting disturbingly friendly with giraffes.
After our cathedral visit, and a quick swing by Morningside Park, we headed over to the campus of Columbia University. Columbia University is an extraordinarily pretty urban campus, and the neighborhood is disconcertingly quiet for Manhattan- there was very little automobile traffic, and the vibe of the community is more small town than huge city. Of course, we were visiting the area the Sunday before Christmas, while most of the student body was away on break, but the area is sandwiched by parks, so it doesn't ever really get too bustling.
We then headed over to Riverside Church, another stellar example of neo-Gothic architecture, before heading to Riverside Park and Grant's Tomb (to all the wags out there, U.S. Grant is interred there, along with his wife). My nephew Boy A. waggishly asked if Grant's Tomb was the Tomb of Horrors... I told him that it certainly is, if you're a Confederate sympathizer!
After our sojourn at Riverside Park, we strolled down to the Hungarian Pastry Shop where we split a couple of linzer tarts (one apricot-filled, one raspberry-filled) and a poppy seed hamentasch. I had an excellent "Hungarian coffee", flavored with almond extract and topped with a glob of whipped cream. As much as I love the place, it's a little annoying to discover that the cutely-painted menu behind the counter has absolutely no bearing on the actual menu. The sweet counter girls kept telling us "no, we don't have that" until they finally admitted that the whole menu was a cruel hoax perpetrated by a management that doesn't want to paint over the pretty colors.
After our coffee-break, we leisurely sauntered down to 97th and Amsterdam where we hit El Malecón, one of a mini-chain of Dominican rotisserie chicken restaurants (I usually go to their location on Broadway near 231st St in the Bronx). El Malecón never fails to deliver the goods- the chicken is perfectly cooked- crispy skin and moist meat, and served with a citrus/garlic mojo sauce. We ordered a whole chicken, an order of tostones, an order of mofongo, and an order of fried pork chunks. Sides of yellow rice, black beans, and a rich vegetable stew accompanied the main dishes, which we ate family style. The twenty-three block walk from Grant's Tomb was a prerequisite for such a delicious gut-buster of a meal. I parted from the family afterwards, because I had to get home to take a nap before working the graveyard shift. Their plan was to hit the Columbus Circle Christmas Market, then figure out their next move.
It was a good time hanging out with the family, and getting to a neighborhood that I don't often visit. I hadn't been to Grant's Tomb in about fifteen years, and I'd never been inside Riverside Church. I know it's not a Christmas song, but the most appropriate soundtrack for the day would have to be the Gang of Four's At Home He's a Tourist:
Maybe that should be a Christmas song...