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Travel Feature

Weekend In Washington -- Sacking out at CPAC

I had a great! time in Washington, DC -- midtown is a pleasure, a grid that is easy to figure out and navigate; wide, wide streets; stately and CPAC Bannergracious capitol-ish buildings; historic sites; lovely roundabouts (Dupont Circle and others) and to me, the traffic was laughably light compared to the constant turmoil and tumble of NYC canyons.

The cars are slow to accelerate after a light change, which seems strangely courteous and helped me quite a bit to circumnavigate huge multi-lane avenues and intersections. I got to places in half the time that my friends did and they arrived via train or even taxi.

Read more: Weekend In Washington -- Sacking...

The Place to Go: New York’s Grand Central Terminal Pt. 1

Because I and millions of others have fallen under the spell of what is referred to New York City's majestic "civic cathedral," I may not be uniquely qualified to write about the history and restoration of Grand Central Terminal. But as a young boy I vividly remembers riding in a coach car behind one of the last long distance steam locomotives up toGrand Central Station Main Concourse Ithaca (NY) and, long before the terminal became the still-exciting commuter train hub it is today.

In those days, departure times were written in chalk in a waiting room under what was the Biltmore Hotel, one of three grand hotels, including The Roosevelt and The Commodore (now the New York Grand Hyatt), that ringed Grand Central. The Biltmore was gutted in 1981 despite the building’s landmark status. It was rebuilt as the Bank of America Plaza (335 Madison Ave) and fortunately, the Biltmore’s famous gilded clock festoons the lobby.                                 

Railroad magnate Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt opened the first Grand Central in 1871 accommodating three major railroads and four million passengers the first year. But by the dawn of the 20th Century train travel had mushroomed to such a extent that construction on a new Grand Central began in 1903. In February, 1913, at an equivalent cost of what would have been billions of dollars in today's currency, the new and glorious Beaux-Arts terminal, modeled on the Roman Imperial Baths, opened.
"The motive of the facade is an attempt to offer a tribute to the glory of commerce," Kurk C. Schlichting quotes Whitney Warren, a Vanderbilt cousin and the terminal's architect, in Schlichting's wonderful book Grand Central Terminal: Railroads, Engineering and Architecture in New York City.

 Even after the international outrage at the demolition of NY’s beautiful Pennsylvania Station in 1963, Grand Central also faced either the wrecking ball or the unsightly addition of an office tower directly above it. With the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and the late New Yorker architecture critic Brendan Gill leading the campaign, the terminal was saved. The official ruling was made by the US Supreme Court in the 1978 Penn Central Transportation v. New York City. The Court upheld that NYC’s Landmarks Preservation Act, which named the building an official landmark, as being “reasonable.”
Jackie’s campaign words:
"Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future? Americans care about their past, but for short term gain they ignore it and tear down everything that matters. Maybe… this is the time to take a stand, to reverse the tide, so that we won't all end up in a uniform world of steel and glass boxes."
After years of fiscal and even major physical neglect, a mammoth amount of work had to be done to restore Grand Central to the magnificence it enjoys today. A primary component of its restoration was vastly increasing retail space, with a third devoted to restaurants and cafes.
For many of us, the most dramatic restoration project in terms of sheer visibility was the restoration of the 25,000-sq-ft ceiling with its star constellations. Back then they were barely fissionable. After being scrubbed, blue acrylic paint and 23-karat gold leaf was applied to the ceiling. (Curiously, the astrological sky is actually backwards!)
But not all the restorations were for the sake of art and architecture. Escalators were installed making access easier, not only to the MetLife building but also to fast food take-out places on the lower level and the rest rooms. A week ago, I was pleasantly surprised by the cleanliness of the men's room on the lower level. Lines for the women's restroom were long, however. An alternative for women: the restroom in the "ticketed waiting area" just off the Main Concourse by Zaro's Bakery. It is often less crowded. (There's no men's restroom in the ticketed waiting area.)

Perhaps the most famous movie featuring Grand Central was the 1934 movie Twentieth Century starring John Barrymore and Carol Lombard. The late Barrymore, whose granddaughter is current Hollywood star Drew Barrymore, played a tyrannical Broadway producer who does everything in his power to cajole, threaten and sweet-talk Lombard into coming back to Broadway in a play he's producing. Most of the movie takes place aboard the 20th Century Limited, a luxury train that went from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles.                     


  • The Municipal Arts Society (T 212-935-3960) sponsors a free tour every Wed at 12:30pm.
  • The Grand Central Partnership (T 212-883-2420, sponsors a 90-min tour of the Terminal and surrounding area every Friday.
  • Take Your Own Tour ( has maps for self-guided tours and for the retail shops.             

Next Time: Dining In Grand Central

[Ward Morehouse III is the Checking In columnist for TravelSmart Newsletter/courtesy]


Vatican City In A Day

One of the coolest things that a tourist can do is to see an entire foreign country…All of it…From one end of the other. St Peter's Square Vatican_CityThis is activity that can literally take a lifetime in some cases, and for most of us, that’s just too damn long. 

So how to choose?

Size matters. It has to be small, real small. So the best place is to start in Rome. The record books state that the City of Rome is home to three countries: Italy, of which it is the capital, The State of Vatican City, and the embassy of The Sovereign Military Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta.

The Knights of Malta’s embassy at Via dei Condotti 68, has official extraterritoriality, which means that it’s the territory, not of Italy, but of the Knights, who don’t have a country back home like Belize or Monaco and thus, the small palace and its courtyard are the whole shebang. They don’t let tourists in, but there’s nothing to actually see except a couple of trees and boring office space.

That’s why the Vatican is a must. It’s an official country, and at 0.2 square miles -- much of which is dedicated to one of the best museums in the world -- is doable. And thanks to the internet, now more than ever.

It used to be that getting a ticket to the garden tour, where you get to hike all the way to the helicopter pad on the western end of the country and back, was impossible. You had to send a fax to some monsignor somewhere, and wait a few weeks, and if the pope decided to take a jog or something, it could be canceled. Then you’d be stuck.

But today, it’s different.  Go to the website (see below), apply, then pay the 35€ when they reply, and when the time comes, go. It’s worth the trouble.

The first thing you notice when you get off at the Ottaviano metro station is that the reason the Vatican still exists is that it’s surrounded by a very high and thick wall. Across the street are literally hundreds of souvenir shops, at least on the side close to St. Peter’s Basilica, and these sell religious articles and Pope stuff; it’s best to ignore these for now.

But look for the huge line and find where it begins. You don’t need to wait because you’ve already got a ticket. You enter the museum entrance and go through customs, which resembles airport security. You will then notices the first of many official souvenir shops, which dot the museum. After presenting you’re ticket to the people at the guided tour they give you a little radio receiver. That way the guide doesn’t have to yell and disturb the priests who hang out in the gardens to shirk their hard spiritual labors.

What’s there is almost unexpected. Aside from the formal gardens, there’s areas of lush subtropical splendor palm trees and banana bushes with parrots screeching from here and there. There’s Pope Pius IV’s pleasure dome, which dates from the early 16th century, which is a sight to behold, a small temple to the Madonna and John Paul II’s jubilee bell from ten years ago.

The priests and Swiss guards don’t like tourists mucking up their private park, and after about two hours of hiking, we are sent back to the grounds of the museum and relieved of our radios. The tour covers about 75% of the country, and the rest is the museum and office buildings. While the offices are of no real interest to anybody who doesn’t have business there, the museums are.

The Popes didn’t live in the Vatican until 1870. That’s because they controlled all of central Italy until then, and would only use it as glorified panic room when the Romans would revolt, or the Saracens, Germans, or French would invade or something like that. Since these things would happen far more frequently than one might assume, what is now the museum was a rather large palace.

This palace now contains literally centuries of plunder and collections, Rome being almost 3000 years old and all, every time someone found a sculpture, his holiness would get first dibs on it, and if he was generous would actually pay for it.

The amount of ancient Roman sculpture on display is mind boggling  there are tens of thousands of busts of anyone and everyone between emperors and slaves, some of which are rather famous, such as Laocoön and his Sons by Agesander, Athenodoros, and Polydorus, and the iconic image of Emperor Augustus.

But the Sistine Chapel beckons, and while the art is spectacular, the place is as crowded as a subway car during rush hour, the conservators keep the room dark, so it’s difficult to take it in.

Then once you’re finished with that, there’s the long trek back to the exit, and on the way, there’s dozens of official souvenir stands selling Michaelangelo reproductions and Pope stuff.  There’s also a pizzaria, which isn’t bad.

Then you have to leave the country, return to Italy, and follow the walls to St. Peter’s Basilica, which is a trip in itself. There’s the huge works of art, and at least three dead popes in glass cases (John XXIII, Clement XI, and Pius X) and a souvenir shops in the treasury area and near the statue of Constantine. The huge church is in fact built over a graveyard, and you can see that too, but aside from the graves of the two John Pauls, it’s difficult to find any of the more interesting ones.

The area around the entrance to the basilica has a dozen or so official tchotchke places, so it qualifies as a tourist trap. It is essential. 



New Orleans Jazz Park A Must

Sometime back in the early ‘90s, some congress critter got it into his head that the Department of the Interior should promote music.
A few years earlier, in 1987, Congress passed one of those symbolic resolutions, somewhat akin to “National Turnip Day,” dThe centerpiece of the site is Perseverance Hall No. 4eclaring “Jazz is hereby designated as a rare and valuable national American treasure to which we should devote our attention, support, and resources to make sure it is preserved, understood and promulgated.”  This was harmless enough in itself, but how exactly does it go from there to one of the more misbegotten parks in the National Park System?

Well, in 1993, Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) -- the guy who would eventually wind up in jail for having all that cash in his freezer -- introduced H.R.3408, a classic piece of pork designating something in New Orleans to be a National Park celebrating the history of Jazz. It had no boundaries, no land, no nothing. Just funding for some rangers based in the offices of Jean Lafitte National Park trying to promote what the city of New Orleans was doing very nicely on it’s own.

Today, it has a few very modest venues around the French quarter and is getting some more, but that’s why not why it’s essential. The reason it’s essential is that the Jazz National Historic Park, and its sibling Jean Lafitte, cover the entire French Quarter of New Orleans.

So get this: The two Hustler Clubs on Bourbon Street, of which I’ve only seen the outside, are inside a National Park, so’s the rest of Bourbon Street, and if there ever was a tourist trap, it’s Bourbon street.

The French Quarter, unlike, say Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, is a source of pride for New Orleanians, and while the place is as touristy as Hell, the locals not only admit to frequenting the place, they can outnumber the tourists on occasion, and the area of Bourbon St. between Canal and St. Phillip, is Disneyland for Drunks.

The drinks are extremely expensive, although you can take them outside and go to another bar for a refill, paying $16 for a shot is a little much. But if you do it right, you can manage to hear some pretty good music, which is what the National Park is all about. While it’s not always Marti Gras, they try to keep up the pretense.

One block south of Bourbon is Royal, which is full of art galleries and restaurants, all three levels of government, Federal, State, and Local, have strict laws regarding the preservation of buildings, and as the Quarter was one of the few areas that were totally unscathed by Katrina, and unlike the Ninth ward, the powers that be want this area to continue to thrive, and it does.

Most people in the Quarter don’t know that they’re simultaneously in two National Parks. Tour Guides Association of Greater New Orleans, Inc., who’s membership doesn’t appreciate the Federal Government taking over their jobs, has an agreement limiting the NPS to one fifteen minute tour a day. With tourism the areas largest industry, that makes sense

The architecture is beautiful, the people are mostly friendly, and while everything is damn expensive, but you just HAVE to see it.

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