In November 2017, I got the chance to take a solo trip to New York City and explore some areas where tourists fear to tread. Though that may seem overdramatic, it is a real phenomenon. In preparation for this trip, I read too many posts about people my age instagramming and yelping their way across lower Manhattan as if it were an Olympic qualifier. Solo travel days like this one are the perfect remedy for the check-list mentality many are guilty of adopting on vacations, myself included.
I am about to take you deep into the wilderness of Harlem, Upper Manhattan, and Washington Heights for an Alexander Hamilton-themed day of history, food, and navigational mishaps. If you are not already a Hamilton the musical fanatic, I would recommended at least listening to the life-changing, mind-blowing soundtrack. For the history buffs, I can also recommend working your way through Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow which is stuffed to the brim with historical tidbits, excerpts from letters, and slightly cheeky commentary.
Finally, if you are like, "Britt, I don't believe in your mad vacation planning skills, and I am too lazy to plan my own Hamilton-themed NYCstravaganza" then let me at least refer you to Jimmy Napoli, a tour guide that has been doing Hamilton way before immigrants were cool (jk). He comes highly recommended by the docent at one of the sites I will be discussing in this post.
I started my day off at Park Ave North Inn in Harlem, a clean and bare-bones hotel/hostel, which is basically all I could afford if I wanted to stay in central Manhattan. Using the CitiMapper app, I found a bus headed for the Hamilton Grange National Historic site. I arrived at 9am to snag a free ticket for the park ranger-led tour of the building, and then scooted over to Manhattanville Coffee to grab a some coffee ($2.50).
Though it was cold and windy, I was enchanted by the old winding stone steps in the nearby St. Nicholas Park. I took my coffee and one decadent gluten free scone to dine al fresco.
At 10AM, the tour of Hamilton Grange began. The mansion was Alexander Hamilton's refuge from the scandal and personal tragedies that shadowed his final years. It has actually been relocated twice, and if you are not quite sure what "relocating" a mansion looks like, it's complicated. They have a cool video on the process included in the tour. At the gift shop, they have a book cataloguing every piece of furniture in the home (I was curious about the chair in A. Ham's study below) and you can also get information on all the other National parks in NYC.
Leaving Hamilton Grange, I headed to the closest M3 bus stop in hopes of getting to my next point of interest, the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights, without freezing to death a la The Day After Tomorrow. Waiting for what seemed like an eternity, a man looking at his phone next to me threw his hands up in the air and informed me angrily that the next M3 would not be arriving for another 30 minutes. In a fit of shared frustration, I too threw my hands up in the air, fingers flicking like a cat's tail, and made a face of fatalistic disgust. Our eyes met briefly in mutual knowledge of the incompetencies of the NYC transit system, and then we both trudged out into the wind in opposite directions.
I thought this was the New York-est interaction I would ever have, but I was wrong.
Forty minutes later, I arrived on foot at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, the oldest home in New York. Having walked up one long continuous hill - they call it "Heights" for a reason - I really took my time touring the museum ($10 self-guided). I chatted up the docent who had met Lin Manuel-Miranda (the creator of Hamilton the musical) and his parents personally. Lin wrote portions of the script in Aaron Burr's bedroom upstairs. There was also a Charles Addams exhibit which could have been it's own museum. There were so many hilarious cartoons of the Addams Family. I had no idea he was such a talented and creative artist.
Around 1pm, I headed over to Elsa La Reina del Chicharron in Washington Heights for some Dominican-style fried pork and tostones. I got a pound (what the hell was I thinking???) of fried pork belly and a side order of tostones. I have since eliminated meat from my diet and wish I could show you some vegetarian options, but if I'm being honest, this was a delicious and filling lunch in a busy working class neighborhood. The window was the perfect spot to people watch and think about what A. Ham would write about the state of modern New York.
In the afternoon, I made my way over to The Cloisters (a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) for a non-Hamilton side quest. Though it's technically free, a donation is requested. I paid $10 for my ticket and moved with mild boredom through each room until I found the outside herb garden. Too be frank medieval art, especially religious medieval art, is not my thing, but I could spend hours walking through a garden. This one had an assortment of special herbs used for food, medicine, poison, and magic in the medieval period, and I took home a paper list of all the herbs growing there. The MET occasionally posts about these gardens on their blog.
From the front entrance of The Cloisters, it's a short walk to the trails running the length of Fort Tryton Park. This park was an outpost significant to the Battle of Fort Washington during the Revolutionary War, but it's most notable in my opinion for being designed by the Olmsted Brothers who also redesigned and expanded Piedmont Park in my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. Because of its revolutionary history, I am including it in my Hamilton day, but it's a beautiful walk along the river that could be added to any trip to Upper Manhattan. (See my map below for more ideas.)
At the southern tip of Fort Tryton Park, I got lost trying to find my way to the closest A train station. There was a rickety looking service elevator that should have taken me to street level, but a not-so-helpful fellow tourist informed me it was not working. This lead me to a set of stairs that appeared to lead down to the street where I encountered two completely plastered grown men rolling around on the stone steps in front of me.
"Are you a hooker?!" They yelled, "Are you Russian?!"
"No, I am not a hooker or Russian," I said "but I am trying to get down to the train station. Do you know how to get there?"
And with the topic changed, they instantly both sat up, politely told me that the elevator was in fact working and that all I had to do was go down to the first floor and make a right. I thanked them, they told me to have a great evening, and all was right in the world.
This is the New York-est interaction I have ever had. You see, being the wife of a former New Yorker, I have had lots of opportunity to observe New Yorkers in the wild. They are hard on the outside, but soft on the inside. Finally, if there is one topic that consistently leads to a deep and passionate conversation between New Yorkers, it's the best way to get from point A to point B. Whether it's a Google maps route or your personal spiritual journey, New Yorkers are going to have an opinion on it.
I hope you enjoyed my Hamilton-themed day in New York City! Did I miss something? Did I get New Yorkers wrong? Is there something in my teeth? Let me know in the comments, and make some plans for solo travel today!
Arriving in Bath, it was rainy and warm. Orderly parcels of pallid grey Georgian buildings spread out before us. The city was surrounded by verdant green hills speckled with leafy trees and pastures, and I could not help thinking about how I'd rather be up there on the hills, admiring the twinkling street lamps from afar. We marched our way up the uneven stone sidewalks to the YMCA hostel tucked away in a cozy courtyard which also happened to be a local hangout for the working class set. The room was sparse but not unwelcoming, and though the bathrooms down the hall reeked of body odor and some foreign disinfectant, all was as advertised.
In the early afternoon, we made our way through the mist to the Roman Baths museum. Included in the ticket was a handy audio tour that offered an educational track, a track by author Bill Bryson, and a special track for kids. The museum was incredible with an in-depth focus on Roman religion, culture, and engineering. In the interior rooms, holographic men and women chatted, bathed, and dressed. To walk in and stumble upon these figures going about their lives was exhilarating, like looking into a crystal ball. The musty smell of old things, the sulphurous steam filling the air, and the stony darkness enveloping you. For a moment, history was before you like book opened by the wind. Public baths were an important part of Roman daily life, and to discover this pagan temple surrounding a hot spring must have felt serendipitous to the homesick Roman conquerors. I also found it interesting to see Roman syncretism first hand. They welcomed and absorbed the local Celtic goddess of the hot spring, Sulis, comparing her to their own Minerva.
At the end of the tour, we got to try the mineral-rich spring water, famed for curing all sorts of ailments and other vexing conditions. Unfortunately, it could not cure Britton of his flair for the dramatic.
The next day found us in a small bus with wide sightseeing windows. A persistent drizzle filtered our view across fields so singularly beautiful, I felt I was dreaming. In fact, the gentle sway of the bus, the calm monologue of our tour guide, and some unaddressed jet leg were rocking me to sleep. I bit my lip hard, not wanting to miss a second. Our first stop was Stonehenge, the great henge of stone! I have to admit this was one of Britton's leaning tower of Pisa adventures. I didn't really want to go, but once I was there - Wow! Sometimes you can see a really old thing and know it is old without feeling its age. These stones, even from many yards away, radiated primordial energy. The tallest thing across the Salisbury plain, they dominated your view like a skyscraper with all the force of time.
Our next stop was the Avebury Stone circle, and it took me completely unawares. At first the village of Avebury looked like any little village we'd seen along the road: clean and tidy with a pub, a bakery, a gift shop, and a small chapel. As we began to walk around, I noticed people, mostly women, sitting quietly at the base of the stones. Their eyes were open and alert, as if they were listening. Low and behold, when I get back and do some research, I discover the stones have a sound. They have a voice. Does it sound like the high-pitched fizz when you put your ear to freshly poured glass of red wine? Is it a guttural rumble rising up from the flinty earth? I don't know - I wish I had stopped to find out.
A brawny old woman in a green velvet robe sat at the base of a stone with a tall wooden staff. Feeling increasingly wrapped up in the mystery of the place, I couldn't help myself. I had to speak with her. "Are you a practicing pagan?" I asked, not really knowing what that meant. She identified herself as a shaman, talked about her bet with a friend and physics professor working at CERN about the nature of the universe, and invited me to experience the stones for myself. Holding my hand on her wooden staff, she told me to move my mind from one plane to another - down, up, the past, the present - and with each turn of her staff, I felt a change in the frequency of the vibration of the wood as it connected to the earth. Britton looked on curiously. How could I really explain this to him? It was the strangest sensation, and as much as I love to have evidence for things, I've got none for the way Avebury felt and for the vertigo I felt when I finally left to continue our tour.
Our tour took us through The Cotswolds, an area of enormous wealth for centuries powered by sheep's wool. The growing desire for rare fabrics from India combined with the invention of the cotton gin in the U.S. in the 1790's spelled the end of big wool for The Cotswolds. Bankrupted, they could no longer make repairs or updates to their lovely villages and manses. Sitting unloved and untended for many years, they are now an "AONB". It takes a British mind to create an acronym for the phrase "Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty", but it was without a doubt, outstandingly beautiful.
Stay tuned for my next post in the United Kingdom series where we visit The Village from England's 1960's sci-fi classic, The Prisoner!
The sensation of being in London is a sensation that is altogether too familiar. It's not the fleeting clarity of deja vu - no, nothing that exciting. It's a domestic sort of feeling this southern girl has developed for big, lived-in cities thanks to her New Yorker husband. The violent lurch of a subterranean train, the sudden waft of urine or trash, a bird waddling drunkenly down a brick-lined alley. For me, these little moments too easily fade into the wrap-around background of city life, leaving me to wait for a celluloid savior, that unexpected moment that knocks me out of my stupor.
When we arrived at Heathrow after a surprisingly pleasant (and practically free thanks to credit card points) daytime flight from Newark, we were floored by the line at border control. The line looped around forever. We were forced to wade through an undulating sea of Turks and Canadians for two hours, looking in turns longingly and angrily at the U.K. citizens in their bloody expedited kiosks. It did not comfort us that in two weeks we would be those assholes waltzing back into the U.S. nbd. (Hot tip from a friend who lives in London: you can pay for expedited entry if you fly into Gatwick for just 10£.)
When we arrived at our Airbnb, it was weird and wonderful. We were greeted by the owner who runs a motorcycle repair shop downstairs. He was cheerfully glum, just the sort of Londoner I envisioned, with a magnificent red mustache and neat, well-tailored work trousers. He walked us through a graveyard of tires and past a decrepit screen door behind which I recognized several oily steel bowls and the long-handled spoons used to protect its user from the breath of the wok. The smell of rancid oil filled the air as I dodged random pools of god knows what. Up some steps, and then some more, to a bright and modern flat split between 4 floors, each separated by a narrow sets of stairs that were more like glorified ladders. On the tippy top was a small rooftop patio with a view of hundreds of dusty little chimneys and the glowing London Eye. It was awesome.
We spent our first day there seeing the usual sites - visiting Westminster Abbey, seeing the Churchill War Museums, strolling through lush manicured parks, peeking at Buckhingham Palace, and popping into the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square. Though the Churchill War rooms were incredible, this was not a favorite day for me. To give you an idea of where my priorities lie, the highlight was actually dinner at Nopi, owned by chef Yotam Ottolenghi. We decided to forgo our reservation and sat at the bar (because people who sit at the bar for dinner are the best kind of people). I love vegetables in almost every form (looking at you turnips, get your shit together), and Nopi did not disappoint - roasted aubergine, pistachio, mushrooms, preserved lemon, cardamom, ginger - so many flavors I love working together.
On our second day, we booked a Beatles walking tour with London Walks as a special treat for Britton. In addition to seeing an enormous variety of locations significant to Beatles history, it was also a good way for us to gain some spacial understanding of popular London neighborhoods that benefited us the rest of the trip. In retrospect, I would have scheduled a tour like this for our very first day. Britton is particularly proud of his zebra crosswalk photo (the one on the cover of Abbey Road) just outside Abbey Road Studios. With just a slight nod at me to start snapping away, he leaped out into the busy street, managed to get into the crosswalk all alone, strike a pose, and quickly exit without getting honked at or mowed over by a black cab. From personal experience, I can tell you Britton's "strike a pose" skills are extraordinary, but that day, he was at the top of his game. Michael Jordan in Game 6 of the '98 NBA Finals kind of game.
On our final day in London, we got up early to be one the first in line for the Tower of London. Our first stop was the crown jewels (notoriously long lines in the afternoon) followed by a meander through the white tower and the first couple stops of the beefeater tour. Being a perpetual tourist myself, it was fascinating to learn about the history of the Tower as a tourist destination and how tourism shaped the way certain items were displayed. In many instances, museum "curators" just made shit up to please the masses. For instance, the Line of Kings was one historically inaccurate exhibit of life-size painted wooden horses and royal suites of armor first displayed in the late 17th century. In the seventeenth-freaking-century, y'all! People have been gawking at this stuff for 350 years! They were just rolling around in heavy petticoats and thinking "Behold at how fusty this stuffeth is - thanketh god f'r advancements in philosophy, technology, and medicine so we has't not to kicketh the bucket liketh these po'r slobss". AND here I am with my bra digging into my shoulder thinking THE EXACT SAME THING. More or less.
As we headed to the sunlit Paddington Station on our way to Bath, we stopped by the Churchill Arms for lunch with one of Britton's Dad's long time friends. She is a beautiful woman with bright eyes and an easy, unself-conscious manner with an appreciation for good ambience and the color black. We heaped steaming piles of jasmine rice and thai curry on our plates and admired the serpentine mass of flowering vines and ferns covering the ceiling of their dining room. We chatted about family and life in the city. I drank a beer that tasted like honey. The longer we sat in that incredible place, the longer I felt myself succumbing to that wonderful sensation of being exactly where you're supposed to be. I imagined myself spending the rest of my life in that room, in that chair, with green tendrils slowly wrapping about me like a gown or funeral shroud. The sun spinning across the horizon yet the world below unchanging in every aspect. Then the moment was gone as quickly as it came, as faulted as memory.
Since the post breezed over quite a few of the places we toured in London, I've included the map below with all the spots we visited during our first week in the United Kingdom. Cheers.
In 2018, I took a vow of no shopping. Join me as I find ways to have fun that don't involve my shopping cart.