The Cloisters

Earlier this summer, a friend was in New York for a business trip, and I jumped on the chance to hang out with her. She came up a day early on a sunny, hot Sunday. We agreed to meet at her hotel with another college friend.

First to arrive, I sat in the snazzy hotel lobby. A bit later, I received a text from my friend saying that she had arrived and how about we meet in ten minutes? I looked up and saw her checking in at the reception desk. Not wanting to scare her or interrupt her conversation with the receptionist, I creepily stood behind her at the distance you’d stand behind the customer at a post office counter when you’re next in line (in the U.S. I mean… in France mosey on right up behind that stranger).

We went up to put her bag in her hotel room, which to her surprise was stylishly decorated but did not feature a desk. Considering she was there for work and would need to use her laptop several hours a day, she called reception to inquire about it. They responded that she hadn’t requested one. We were baffled. Even in low-cost motel rooms, I have always seen a bed and a table.

Our friend joined us, and after a leisurely lunch and animated chat at a restaurant in the neighborhood, we took the subway up to the Cloisters, which is built from stone and materials from four French medieval abbeys. It contains art, objects, and tapestry from the Middle Ages. There was a surprising lack of signage leading to its location in Fort Tryon Park. We followed somewhat inclined paths surrounded by trees and plants before reaching the fortified structure. 101_1003

You may recognize “The Unicorn in Captivity” (1495–1505).

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You’ve probably never seen this guy, though. He is an aquamanile from Germany (ca. 1425-50), used for handwashing at the table.

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This stained glass window from the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Rouen (ca. 1200-10) depicts a scene from the Legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus.

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The gardens were lovely. 101_1009101_1010

There was an entertaining garden of plants grouped by use in medieval times: magic and ceremony, arts and crafts, brewing, medicine, vegetables and salads. Plants had funny names like wallflower, scarlet pimpernel, mandrake, common foxglove, catnip, and butcher’s broom.

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A couple of trees reminiscent of pipes or menorahs stood against a wall. 101_1050

Our visiting friend had chosen the perfect museum for her trip because she spent time looking at every object and artwork in the building. Meanwhile, our other friend and I sat in one of the peaceful gardens for a while after looking through the Cloisters until she joined us.

On our walk out of Fort Tryon Park, we took a different meandering path and found a small cave.

101_1055We topped off our day with dinner at an airy restaurant near our friend’s hotel. Old friends and the even older Cloisters, a delicious Sunday indeed.

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This Provincial Life

In the dead of winter a couple of years ago, a friend and I took a day trip to Provins, a medieval village about an hour and a half from Paris by train. It was very cold, and there were no other tourists in town.

It was charming.

There were stone buildings on the quiet roads that sometimes ascended and descended.

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Doors about five feet high were everywhere. Why?

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We walked to the northern edge of the town, where the ramparts are. After passing under an archway to the other side, I was amazed. Before us were fields. Vast fields. The landscape was like a beautiful painting.

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It was very cold. But I said that already. We climbed a staircase up the ramparts and walked along the edge.

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Through another gate of the fort, we found a path leading to the tourist office. An odd location I thought, rather than near the train station or the main square Place du Chatel, which was our next stop.

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On a covered heated terrace of a resto, we ordered galettes (buckwheat crepes) and were given red blankets to warm our laps. The cream to accompany my smoked salmon and spinach galette perched on a curved spoon.

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Provins is a walking town. We reached the Tour César easily from the square. Atop a hill, it reminded me of the tower in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” I pretended to ride an invisible horse with coconuts knocking for the hooves. I suppose saying ‘pretend’ is redundant since the horse was invisible.

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We climbed the twelfth century tower and paused for a view of the village.

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For the rest of the afternoon, we wandered and visited a park and a couple of churches, including the Eglise Saint-Ayoul, which had beautiful stained glass windows in a low ceilinged wing of white arches. There was one window of yellow stained glass, and others with red or orange or purple glass.

The stained glass I love is light. It creates light, filters it, plays with it through color. A photo never captures it but makes me remember how it felt to stand in its light.

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By a quarter to five, we were back to the train to Paris’s Gare de L’Est. It was not the first day trip I had taken to medieval times, though it was probably more authentic than the dinner theatre of the same name in New Jersey.

Siena

When my friend and I were planning our trip to Florence, Pisa, and Milan, I asked everyone I knew for recommendations on where to go. Many people suggested taking the train to other Tuscan cities that neighbored Florence. After hearing about San Gimignano and Lucca, I began to wish that we had two weeks instead of one to visit all these places. I couldn’t decide which day trip to suggest to my friend, seeing as only one would be feasible. Then I mentioned to a girl I work with that I was going to Italy, and she said, “Go to Siena.”

And so I did.

The train ride to Siena took only an hour and a half from Florence. It left once every hour from Santa Maria Novella. We left in the morning and came back in the evening.

Every single little medieval street in Siena was charming. We arrived without an agenda, and we didn’t need one. The city was made for walking and oohing and aahing.80.siena.2014a 80.siena.2014b80.siena.2014e80.siena.2014g Flags everywhere signaled the annual horse race that took place about two weeks prior and would occur again on August 16, the Catholic feast of the Assumption.

This red, green, and gold flag with a dragon in the center represents one of the seventeen contrade, or districts, of Siena.80.siena.2014kMy friend and I napped on the Piazza del Campo. Not bad to open one’s eyes to the Torre del Mangai.80.siena.2014cI like roofs.

80.siena.2014fNotice anything about this restaurant furniture?80.siena.2014iI think I glimpsed a princess behind these billowing curtains.80.siena.2014hIt was funny to walk around town and look up to notice St. Peter looking down at me. These kinds of religious reliefs are common in Italy.80.siena.2014jI would definitely recommend visiting Siena if you have the chance to go to Toscana.80.siena.2014d