Tour of the US, leg 1: the Big Apple

It finally happened, we're off! 

We've been waiting for months, filled with planning and longing. But finally we got on the airplane, and kicked off the first leg of our journey through the US. And what better place to enter the States than New York, where millions of immigrants entered the country?

Saterday July 12, 2014

We depart at 10:25 in Brussels National Airport, and spend the next eight hours whizzing over the Atlantic. That seems long, but many of the migrants I just mentioned came to the States by ship; they did six weeks over the trip, often without any luxuries. We on the other hand have plenty of (tasty!) food and beverages, and a private TV screen that sports tons of movies, music and games.

And then, finally, the arrival on American soil. But we're not out of the woods yet, first we need to pass security. In a big hall filled with bored and anxious conversations in a million languages, we're shown to a waiting line that lazily snakes through the crowds. It will take us more than an hour to get to one of the glass booths, but eventually we do, ready for some tough checking. Once at the counter, however, we're faced with our first big disappointment: no rigorous interrogation, no suspicious looks, just a deadly bored functionary that demands our finger prints and passingly looks at our passport. Verdict: we're good to go.

Our suitcases are already waiting for us next to the luggage belt, so we can walk out without further pause. Once in the arrival hall we're approached by a lady of a bus company to downtown Manhattan. We had planned to take a cab to our hotel, but this option turns out to be much cheaper! Every now and then, we learn, it helps to just drift along with the stream instead of blindly depending on the planning. Turns out the bus throws us out on Bryant Square, where we're immediately ushered into a van of the same company, that drops us of at our hotel. Luxury!

First impressions of the city: completely overwhelming. I've seen my share of high-rise in my life, but the mastodons here defy your imagination. And yet... the streets feel a whole lot less claustrophobic than you'd think! There's plenty of air and sunlight, and maybe that's because of that (boring) checkerboard pattern, which allows you to look endlessly far into the canyons of glass and steel on any given intersection. 

The hotel: we will spend four nights in The Roger on Madison Avenue. Very beautiful, lushly furnished room, friendly staff. Not a single bad note! A bit expensive, in retrospect, especially for a place you only use for sleeping. Probably a simpler hotel had been just as good for our needs. That's another lesson for the future. But for those who like to get pampered, The Roger is definitely worthwhile.

The rest of the day: exploration. I hadn't made any plans for today yet, so we start with a leasurely stroll throug the neighbourhood. We arrive at a small park (Madison Square) and look around a bit. It's hot, but under the trees hangs a soothing coolness. Everywhere impressive buildings rise above the treetops. In the farthest corner we suddenly stumble on a very familiar sight:

Flatiron Building

We buy a can of soda from a street vendor and continue along a road that just happens to be called Broadway. No theaters yet, those are further north. Strolling brings us to a new plaza/park, bigger and brighter than the previous one: Union Square. There happens to be a farmer's market going on, which turns out to be very nice: vegetables stalls, fruit stalls, street artists and a jingling group of Hare Krishna devotees. Once we've taken it all in, it's time to return. We search and find a nice pizza tent and have a delicious pizza. No evening activities tonight, I'm afraid, we have to catch up on a jetlag! And so we hit the sack early in the evening. And that is just as delicious.

Sunday July 13, 2014

Up ungodly early today! We have breakfast in the hotel (expensive and not worth the money) and hit the road for our first activity. Originally we had planned on taking the subway, but the weather is cool and pleasant, and the distances are smaller than we thought. The streets are still largely deserted as we walk to Grand Central Terminal. We have a free tour planned, but it doesn't start until 10:00, so we still have plenty of time to pick up our New York Passes. Who What Passes? you're probably thinking. The New York Pass is a card that allows you to do numerous activities for free in NY, often with the added benefit that you can skip the queues and make reservations at the last minute (all attractions we do with the NY Pass are marked below with an asterisk*). The NYP office is located near Grand Central, but that's easier said than done. We will end up looking for that stupid little door for more than an hour, so we end up arriving on the meeting place for the tour only in the nick of time.

The façace of Grand Central. Anyone seen the chilling scene from I am Legend?

a slightly less haunting foreground ;-)

The tour guide is a bit... special. He arrives too late, sweats like an ox and has a peculiar limp that suggests he has difficulty walking. He's not exactly mister Universe either, but he's very enthusiastic, and clearly knows all about his subject. For 2.5 hours he leads us around, not only through the station building itself, but also along the surrounding streets, telling about the past, present and future of this neighborhood. A few times I somewhat doubt his explanation (he claims, for example, that the constellations on the ceiling of Grand Central are the only ones visible from Athens, but who then has named the other ones: the Aboriginals? All the zodiac constellations are visible from any place on earth, which is exactly what makes them so special!), but most of the time he clearly speaks with the voice of the Sincere, Polished Truth, which of course we love. The tour ends and inevitably evolves into the dreaded tip moment. The tour is "free", it turns out, but you are expected to give a corresponding tip. We give $ 10 (about € 7) and thank the guide cordially.

The Great Hall. Stunningly beautiful, even without the enchanting light paths of this powerful photograph

when you whisper in this corner, you'll be perfectly understood in the opposite corner

Second stop today: Bryant Park! Yesterday we already passed through here, but at that time we were too busy dragging around our suitcases. Just like Madison Square and Union Square, here too a green zone has been left open between between the skyscrapers. There's a beaux arts library (the New York Public Library) as well as a play area for children, outdoor cafes, kiosks where they sell salads and sandwiches and a large grassy area where people are sunbathing. We buy ourselves something to eat and get settled on the grass, enjoying the eternal whirring of world.

When we are ready to hit the road again, we continue on Broadway, a miles long street that begins in the southern tip of Manhattan and generally doesn't seem to care about the tight checkerboard pattern that's lord and master in New York City. At times it cuts diagonally through the other streets and avenues, which of course has strange effects on the building shapes. One such example was the Flatiron Building that we saw yesterday (shaped as a narrow wedge), but the most famous clash of the stubborn Broadway and the straight lanes of New York is Times Square, which is exactly our goal now.

Times Square is a deceptive name: it is not square in the mathematical sence (four equally long sides and four 90° corners), and it's not really a square (or plaza) either. In reality Times Square seems to be shaped like a bow tie: two triangular squares touching at the point. And what's even more impressive: Times Square is surrounded by giant billboards, with flickering advertisements that sum up American life better than a 1000 page reference book. Real billion dollar corporations even have an office here - the most onerous McDonald's in the world is said to be the one on this hotspot of capitalism, for example. But its cola is just as cheap (and watery) and anywhere else, which is more than welcome in this sweltering heat.

Times Square: the north side...

... and the south side

Not that we shun the heat! In an Irish bar near Times Square we squeeze ourselves between the tightly packed regulars. Above the bar hang five flat screens on which the final of the World Cup is being displayed. I'm not exactly a football fanatic, but Cathy is, and it's her second homeland playing: Germany. It's still 0-0 when we come in, but the atmosphere is already steaming. Half the crowd screams encouragements whenever the ball approaches the Argentine goal, the other half roars when a goal against Germany is threatening. Eventually even I start to cry encouragements! And there we are: two Belgians in an Irish bar in America, rooting for the Germans in their match against the Argentines in Brazil. That's what I call cosmopolitic. And when after endless extensions the Germans do make the decisive goal, the whole bar explodes in revelry. And out on the street we can hear honking and jeers. For a moment it seems even in soccer-indifferent America the World Cup plays the top note. But that fades away quickly. When we step out on the street a little later, a German garland around our neck (a gift from a German lady at the bar), nobody seems to remember the match. Life goes on, and New York is too big to dwell too long on such a trivial sport...

And there we are: two Belgians in an Irish bar in America, rooting for the Germans in their match against the Argentines in Brazil.

We dine at the Red Lobster, where you can eat shellfish to your heart's content, and then we stroll back to the south along Times Square and Broadway to where our bed awaits us. But first we quickly (so to speak) pop in at the Empire State Building*, which we can access free of charge with our New York Passes. From the 86th floor, 1050 ft above the ground, we have fantastic views over Manhattan in the emerging darkness. The air is monochrome, but there are stars: below us shine a million lights.

And there it is: the most iconic tower of this iconic city

view to the north, with the mighty Chrysler Building on the far right

view to the south, with the shining One World Trade Center in the distance

Monday July 14, 2014

Yesterday we saw New York by night, today before breakfast we crawl on yet another tower to take in the city in the morning light. But not the same one, that's not how we roll. This morning we climb the highest tower of the Rockefeller Center, all the way to the double observation deck that is called Top of the Rock*. No long queues here, but that might have something to do with the time as well. But the view is actually far more beautiful, and unlike the Empire State Building, this place treats you to one of the most iconic silhouettes of New York: the Empire State Building! If you only plan on climbing one skyskraper in New York, make it Top of the Rock. It's completely free with the New York Pass, and you actually have front of the line access in case there's a queue.

the highest tower of the Rockefeller Center, with all the way up Top of the Rock

view to the north; Central Park is clearly visible from here!

view to the south, with the Empire State Building smack in the middle

Just for the heck of it we pay a visit to the St-Patrick's Cathedral as well. We had seen it from the top of the Rockefeller Center, but since it's still wrapped in scaffolding, it sort of lacked the typical grandeur that usually hangs around a cathedral.

you can see the cathedral in the bottom left. Not very impressive from so high up, is it?

the ceiling of the St-Patrick's is very impressive, however

the maintenance crew of just another building

We continue our expedition northward, and enjoy a delicious breakfast at Sarabeth's on the south border of Central Park. This is really worth the money, people! Afterwards we rent a pair of bicycles* (free, with the NYP) and buzz our way through Central Park. Lesson for the future: ask for a lock (there's no extra cost), so you can leave your steel stallion for a while and explore the park a little more thoroughly. By bike you're only allowed to take the asphalted loop around the heart of the park, so as soon as that's done, we drop off our bikes and continue our exploration on foot. Now we pass dusty baseball fields (fun to watch), lush lawns, thick forests and even a little lake, rowing couples and water turtles included!

Wanna hit a ball?

time for some peddling with the lady, they must've thought

this one kept a safe distance from all the miserable peddling

We get lost a little, but we finally arrive at the next stop: the Guggenheim Museum*. It's right on the eastern edge of the park, which is perfect! The building was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the best architects ever if you ask me (famous for Fallingwater, among others). Unfortunately the artistic contents were much less impressive than the architecture, which kinda left us hanging a bit. 

inside and...

... outside of the Guggenheim Museum

We return to Times Square for a Night Bus Tour through the City, but when it turns out not to be included in the NYP, we decide to skip it (cost: $ 44 per person, which we think is just a little too much). We have delicious sushi right behind the corner, and return to the hotel.

Tuesday July 15, 2014

Well what a surprise, we're up early again! This time, however, it's not because of a lingering jetlag. We get up early because we want to do our first attraction of the day as soon as possible: the Statue of Liberty! We take the subway to Battery Park, where the queue for the ferry* is still practically nonexistant. That's not gonna last! The ferry itself is included in the NYP, a visit to the inside of the statue isn't, but that doesn't interest us: only real peeping Toms would like to take a peek under Lady Liberty's skirt. Us decent people limit ourselves to her outside, which is impressive enough. Well, impressive? Compared to the mastodons we've seen the past few days, the statue is actually on the small side: barely 151 ft high from the pedestal up. But it's still an iconic statue of course. The ferry back to Manhattan makes a stop at Ellis Island, but we don't get off, we already have another appointment waiting!

New York in the morning

Lady Liberty on guard

a true sky scraper

finally some sun again!

At 11:00 we're expected on the world famous Wall Street, the starting point of the History of Wall Street & 9/11 Memorial Walking Tour* (free with the NYP). We booked it online this morning just before leaving. A plucky lady leads us through the financial district, the beating heart of one of the biggest economies in the world (and starting point of the till resonating bank crisis of '08). She tells us she used to live in a tower near the World Trade Center and witnessed the 9/11 attacks. Logically our tour ends with an emotional stop near the 9/11 Memorial. We say goodbye to the group and visit the 9/11 Tribute Center*, where witness reports, objects and debris of the attacks give is a good idea of this black day in New York history.

Charging Bull, symbol of a rising economy (Bull economy vs Bear Economy)

the stock exchange on Wall Street - right in the bottom right corner you can see our guide
a horrible, badly stitched panorama picture I took with my cellphone, but it gives you an idea of the landscape around Ground Zero

Bleh, brrr, all very depressing. To shake off the gloomy atmosphere, we take the subway to Gansevoort Street, where we find the southern tip of the High Line. The High Line is a fully refurbished overground railroad track as there used to be many in New York. There's no more trains now: the tracks are still there, as a refference to what was, but around them have appeared gardens and hardwood footpaths, with benches and glass walls where the track crosses streets. The weather is nasty, grey and threatening with rain, but it's nevertheless a beautiful place. In good weather the High Line must be really impressive. Added bonus: it runs right through the Manhattan "slums", but safely above the dingy streets. When we arrive at the northern end (where the tracks continue westward but withouth the walkways), we descend to street level and head for Penn Station. The subway takes us to Chinatown, which we find rather foul - maybe we missed the center, who shall say. We continue onwards to Little Italy, which is in a far better shape. In a super cozy restaurant named Da Gennaro we have a delicious pizza in the open air (that has cleared up a bit by now). When that's done, we stroll through sizzling SoHo back to the subway, which whisks us away to our hotel for the final night.

Tracks in the way? Just build over them!

A streetview from the High Line

the old railroad tracks braid their way through the buildings of West Side New York

a streetview from the High Line

green and grey hand in hand

the only interesting image in all of Chinatown

What? The final night? Indeed, we finished our New York part, but luckily more is waiting for us just behind the corner. You can read all about that in the next post.