Museums

The Cloisters Museum and Gardens

Every person in the city, whether a native New Yorker or a visitor, has heard of the Metropolitan Museum. And a majority would have been there too, at least once. But that is not the case with the Cloisters, located at the top of Manhattan. Though it is a branch of the Met, not many people are familiar with this unique museum.

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The Cloisters Museum and Gardens is focused on the art and architecture of medieval Europe, mainly from 12th to 15th centuries.

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In fact, the whole place is designed on the architectural principles of a cloister in medieval Europe, though not modelled on any particular one, instead borrowing features from many.

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When you see the museum, you will realise the appropriateness of the name as cloisters were living spaces for the monks, attached to cathedrals and churches in medieval European history.

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The building with its stained glass windows and column capitals truly exudes an aura of grandeur and you feel like you are stepping into a long gone age of chanting monks leading a secluded life.

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Among the decorative and liturgical art collection from various parts of Europe on display are illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, metalwork, enamels, ivories, and tapestries.

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Most renowned among them are a series of seven tapestries, ‘The Hunt for the Unicorn’, commonly known as the Unicorn Tapestries.

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These tapestries tell the story of how the unicorn is captured and killed, yet alive again and happily living in captivity. Leaving aside the allegorical allusions aside, these tapestries are full of rich details. Over a hundred plants and flowers are shown in detail, each bearing a significance to the story. A trip to the Cloisters is worth just to look at this set of tapestries; they are so rich and wonderful.

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The gardens at the Cloisters are unique in the sense that they are aligned with the culinary arts. There are all kinds of plants, fruit bearing trees and herbs used in the preparation and flavouring of food. Also, there are many medicinal plants as well. These are plants that played a prominent part in the daily lives of the people living then.

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For example, you will see woad, weld and madder plants that were used in the dyeing of material in blue, yellow and red respectively. And remember, these are the colours used to colour the threads in the tapestries that we just spoke about.
 
Intriguingly, there is a section of the garden devoted to poisonous plants! Of course, these plants too had medicinal qualities in the right hands, but the medieval background reminds one of many a story of intrigue and treason where poison played a main role.
 
These gardens have been planned and laid out to replicate a cloistered garden in the medieval times, based on horticultural information found in medieval treatises and poetry, and garden documents and herbals. A herbal, by the way, is a book containing descriptions of plants put together for medicinal purposes.

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And the view… Did I mention that the Cloisters is located overlooking the Hudson? From the walks around the gardens, the view of the cliffs across the river is awesome!

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Included in the view is the George Washington Bridge stretching across to New Jersey.

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Opened on May 14, 1938, the museum is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. And what better occasion than this to make a visit to the Cloisters Museum and Gardens? And the summer is the ideal time to pack a picnic lunch and spend a glorious day at this museum.

 

~Ria

11 Jul 2014

A Street with an Identity

It was to Bloor-Yorkville, the so-called swanky neighborhood that I took my friend to show her the fashionable areas in Toronto. “Well, this looks pretty usual!” was her response; my friend didn’t seem very impressed.

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I agreed with her as, unfortunately, that day, even the streets were crowded, with the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) plying shuttle buses from Bloor further south to downtown Toronto. So, the extra load of subway people on the streets along with the construction work obstructing the roads (related to the condos and the sidewalks) added to the chaos.

The high-end shopping malls and the big branded stores located in Bloor-Yorkville makes it known as ‘the shopping district of Toronto.’ According to the Fortune Magazine, it is ‘the seventh most expensive shopping street in the world.’

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Bloor Street spans 25 kms and is an important arterial road in Toronto, the other being Yonge Street. Beginning at Prince Edward Viaduct in the east of Toronto, the road extends till Mississauga in the west. I could not find the exact year when Bloor Street was built but it was in the nineteenth century that the street got its name from Joseph Bloor, an industrialist, who established the Village of Yorkville in 1830, courtesy Wikipedia.

Gradually, the region grew into a major residential and commercial hub. 2008 data reveal that the shops in Yorkville earn a rent of 300$ per square foot and the condos are priced from 1mn$ upwards.

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A section of Yorkville Avenue enclosed by Cumberland Street and Bellair Street looks hip and resembles a European town, with cobblestoned roads lined with cafes, pubs, sushi bars, posh restaurants, salons, and designer boutiques. Facing the opposite side of the street is an artistic park strewn with stone and metal sculptures and branded shops. For a change, my friend was charmed by the elegant surroundings there.

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Cumberland Street is that part of Bloor Street where people love to be seen drinking, eating, and shopping.

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Hemingway’s is a popular pub there and Trattoria Nervosa serves awesome-tasting Italian food, moderately priced. Definitely worthy of multiple visits!

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Bloor Street has a unique historical appeal as it houses many old buildings embodying European style architecture and design. The intersection of Yonge and Bloor divides Bloor into east and west zones. Yorkville is situated on the west side while the east side mostly has tall corporate buildings and is more recently developed. The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) with the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, world-renowned as an architectural splendor, and the Bata Shoe Museum are two significant places to visit.

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The ROM is a wonderful treat for art lovers with five floors of beautiful art and sculpture from cultures around the world, depicted through the ages. The natural history sections are also very informative whilst no kid can ever forget the huge dinosaur exhibits that they were delighted to see and which still remain as their fond childhood memories.

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I have made a custom of visiting the ROM once every six months. Or so it happens! With each visit, it seems like there is more and more to see and I come away regretfully with the feeling of not having spent adequate time.

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My friend was more interested in the Bata Shoe Museum that showcased the evolution of footwear for different societies along with shoes worn by prominent celebrities. I loved the intricately designed and beaded moccasins of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada the best.

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10 Jun 2014

A Castle Fit for a King

After procrastinating for more than two years, I finally ventured out to see Casa Loma, a historical building which is now a cultural landmark for Toronto. I have always wanted to do this since I came here as I have heard a lot about the place. So, my friends and I planned this as a fun activity on a rainy day which was also a good way for us to stay indoors yet not be bored.

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Our day was pretty productive and Casa Loma turned out to be way more beautiful than I anticipated. Firstly, there was ample parking and that always scores high in my list of impressive things. 🙂 Secondly, there was more to see inside the building than I had expected. My prior expectation was based on the information that Casa Loma was not really a king’s castle but somebody’s erstwhile residence, hence does not bear the ornamentation of a palace. This was proved wrong.

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Built like a castle, it is a heritage structure that is more than a century old. Following Gothic-style architecture, it used be a villa owned by a prominent figure of those times, Sir Henry Mill Pellatt. Since we weren’t sure of who he was, we sat in on the documentary that was being screened in one of the rooms of the castle.

Sir Pellatt was a Canadian financier and soldier for The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada. His most significant achievement was that he brought hydro-electricity to Toronto. He commissioned architect, E. J. Lennox, who is known to have designed 70 buildings in Toronto, including the City Hall, to construct this huge mansion.

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Sir Pellatt liked to throw lavish parties and entertain guests in style and looking at the palatial nature of the rooms, I wished I could have attended one of those parties. I was reminded of the book, The Great Gatsby, written around the same time, by F. Scott Fitzgerald where the author portrays the extravagant and flashy life of the rich and the famous in that era.

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Casa Loma was built in three years, between 1911 and 1914, by 300 workers and incurred a total cost of 3.5 million dollars. It was strategically located, on a hill, to gain a complete aerial view of downtown Toronto. Surrounding the castle are well-tended gardens spanning five acres and fountains that make for interesting photo ops. I read that the Casa Loma gardens won the Phoenix award from the Society of American Travel Writers.

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My favorite room, in the castle, is the library with its crystal chandeliers and the continuous array of wooden bookshelves lined up floor-to-ceiling, covering an entire wall. The conservatory has a mesmerizing glass dome roof adorned by stained glass paintings; so were the windows that spread across the room, making it the best-lit room in the house.

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The exciting part came up when we took a walk along a long winding dark underground tunnel that led us to the garage and the horse stable. The stable, once upon a time, was home to six gorgeous stallions. Each stall had the name of the horse carved in it and looked royal. The garage displayed refurbished vintage cars, which seemed fabulous to wheelcrazy me.

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Some of the rooms, on the upper floors, are converted into war museums in order to treasure the artifacts from World War I and II.

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We saw some interesting signs along certain articles like the below.

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These days, the library and the conservatory are used as wedding venues. In fact, just as we were leaving, we saw the staff getting the place ready for such a function and for a fleeting moment, we thought of lingering back and crashing the party!

27 May 2014