Find Inner Peace and More at the Cloisters

By Audrey Hoffer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 5, 2009

I go to New York often to recharge my batteries, touring Chelsea art galleries, shopping in SoHo and enjoying musical evenings at Lincoln Center.

This time I want to add a different flavor to the mix. So on a recent Sunday morning, I leave my hotel, get lunch at Murray's Bagels and head uptown to the Cloisters museum and gardens in Fort Tryon Park, the shopping and stomping grounds of my childhood.

Northern Manhattan sits up high and is hilly. The Cloisters, an outpost of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was built in the 1930s from the reassembled remnants of monasteries and other structures from the Middle Ages. A door here, an arch there and today you have a medieval oasis where secluded inner courtyard gardens are ringed by arched walkways. Here I perched on Sunday afternoons in high school to listen to early-music concerts.

Inside, the Cloisters is a resplendent monastery with spectacular views of the Hudson River. A wall of 13th- and 14th-century stained glass depicts biblical tales; there are translucent alabaster carvings of St. John the Baptist and St. James the Greater; and life-size armored knights rendered in stone top their sarcophagi. The Unicorn Tapestries soften the walls.

I leave the Cloisters and meander through Fort Tryon Park. Stopping for lunch, I rest cross-legged on a stone wall facing New Jersey, the Hudson River and George Washington Bridge. The view is breathtaking and familiar. The river is smooth; the sun falls like spilt pearls on the water. The Palisades (the cliffs on the New Jersey side of the river) are a broad, verdant swath across the horizon.

The 67-acre park is a layer cake with curves and multiple levels and miles of walking paths dotted with wooden park benches. During the American Revolution, the hilltops around here became strategic military forts. At Linden Terrace, southwest of the Cloisters Lawn and 200 feet or so above the Hudson, a bronze plaque marks the site defended in 1776 by Maryland and Virginia soldiers until its capture by British troops.

The property changed hands several times, and John D. Rockefeller Jr. bought it in 1917. He hired Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., son of the designer of Central Park, to turn it into a park.

"It was Rockefeller's private project," says Timothy Steinhoff, curator of the park's Heather and Perennial Garden. "Three hundred people worked here for five years blasting the hard schist to open space for a park and views. They used the stone to build the walls that line the walkways."

Outside the park, down residential Fort Washington Avenue with its art deco facades, the quiet street is just as I remember it. I stop at Gideon's on 187th Street, the bakery that is legendary among German-Jewish immigrants who settled here in Washington Heights and adjacent Inwood in the 1930s and '40s. My parents moved here in 1945. One bite of a 95-cent black-and-white (that's a big cookie covered with half black and half white royal icing) and my day trip uptown is worth it.

Now I'm at a pedestrian stairway leading down to a raucous commercial thoroughfare at Pinehurst Avenue and West 181st Street. It's just as vibrant as when I used to come here with my mother. But I'm surprised by colorful art pieces hanging on the black gate at the top of the stairs. Turns out they're by Konstantin Bokov, a 69-year-old Ukrainian artist, and a German film director is crouched mid-stair to shoot as Bokov touches up little paintings on scrap wood and plastic. "I make recycled art," the artist says, pointing to a penguin in red boots painted on an old metal sign.

Khachik Bozoghlian, a bronze sculptor and owner of the 1 1/2 -year-old K.B. Gallery nearby, welcomes Bokov's presence. There's a lot of energy in the neighborhood, Bozoghlian says. The street is sprouting new businesses, and "I get a lot of foot traffic," he says.

The 181 Cabrini bistro is even newer. It opened last fall, says owner James Lee, offering me a drink. Afternoon sun floods the teal-blue wall tiles.

This end of 181st Street is lined with alluring shops amid densely clustered low-rise apartment buildings. The apartments I remember; the stores are new. The hardware, grocery and toy shops once run by German-accented owners are now largely Dominican mom-and-pops.

I peek through the curlicues of a green wrought-iron window gate into Jennifer Ouellette and see feathered headbands, ribbons and ornate hats. Across the street is Hispaniola, a two-level restaurant that offers land and sea "contó" boxes at lunch. Next door to Hispaniola is Fumee, a chic cigar bar my father would have loved.

A gray Jaguar is double-parked in front of Cabrini Wines when I enter the Renaissance-like wine library. Floor-to-ceiling shelves showcase 7,000 labels among Moorish columns and arches floating from an aqua ceiling. The owner went to Spain to get ideas "and brought back a bit of Europe to 181st Street," says manager Dale Dorsey.

Moscow on the Hudson is a veritable bazaar of spices, smoked fish and pickled vegetables; the place looks as if it had been packaged over there and sent here. Probus is a SoHo-meets-Washington Heights urban fashion boutique.

I'm drawn by aroma to Fort Washington Bakery. Surely this was Leo's Salon, where my golden (now brown) curls were cut. I buy "una hojaldra" for $1.50. "It's Mexican challah," says Sylvia Serrano, the owner, referring to the golden loaf eaten on the Jewish Sabbath. "In Mexico we only eat it on Halloween, but it's popular here so I make it every day."

The sky is scarlet, and there's a breeze on my shoulders. It's time to head back downtown, but I'm happy to have spent a glorious day in a place I once called home.

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