Just where is St Patrick’s Cathedral?
For the likes of me I couldn't remember. I knew it was opposite the Rockefeller Center...but where exactly was that? Was it south of Sak’s or north of it? I actually walked past it before I realised it was there..
But that is the thing about Fifth Avenue, there are so many sights and opulent stores along its length that you are bound to miss one or two. This is supreme shopping territory. New York's equivalent of Paris' Rue Faubourg St Honore, London's Bond Street, or Vienna's Kohlmarkt. In American terms it excels Chicago's Michigan Avenue and even Hollywood's Rodeo Drive. This is the New York you have travelled great distances to see - a wide boulevard overlooked by art-deco buildings with window displays showing fabulous jewel's or designer clothing with price-tags as high as the skyscrapers. It is here that wealthy widows in dark glasses and dressed in furs descend from their apartments on the Upper East Side to peruse Cartier and Harry Winston’s.
However wealthy you are, however big your budget -- you WILL feel poor walking along Fifth Avenue.
Fifth Avenue stretches all the way from Harlem down to Greenwich Village, but it is the stretch between Central Park and 42nd Street which is the most impressive and draws in the crowds. The black asphalt sidewalks are a constant moving human tide flitting from store to store This is especially busy at Christmas. In fact there was a sense of deja vu about visiting Fifth Avenue on my recent visit to New York. I had to kill time on a Saturday before my matinee show of 'Cabaret' started so I wandered along this thoroughfare in the pouring rain. My last day in America, 11 years ago, was also spent along Fifth Avenue -- and guess what? Also in the pouring rain. But if you want to keep yourself absorbed and see some of the most famous shops in the world - there is no better place to do it then Fifth Avenue.
The best place to start is along its southern edge where it connects with 42nd Street and then move north to Central Park. A subway station is here, as is another one enormous block to the west on 42nd Street. Buses pass east to west along 42nd Street and it is also within easy walking distance of the train terminal of Grand Central Station. The southern part of Fifth Avenue connects with the New York Public Library. Worth seeing is Bryant Park behind it. This is a green lawn park under the rear bulk of the Library and surrounded by art deco skyscrapers. The lawn itself is as smooth as a bowling green and watched over by the tables and chairs of the Bryant Grill. On the southern side is the Bryant Park Hotel. This is an extraordinary building made of coal black stone and glistening with gold leaf. The Empire State Building looks magnificent towering behind it.
The park, when I was there, was washed with rain so I headed for the New York Public Library. The guidebooks give this a good recommendation, but is it really worth much of your precious New York time? I'm not so sure. Inside is impressive with a beautiful beaux-arts ceiling made out of cream marble. Corridors echoed, staircases swept grandly up and chandeliers hung from the ceiling - but what was there to see? I wandered the corridors enjoying the architecture but it was only when I reached the exhibition areas that I began to take an interest. There was an exhibition on 'Anglers Weekly' - a fishing magazine from 1683 -- even in the UK I wouldn't be interested in that. But upstairs is more of a draw with exhibits under beautiful painted ceilings. There was a good display on the history of eating out in New York including reviews of 'Delmonico's' the famous 19th Century restaurant. And who should I find staring back at me but a 17th century portrait of Oliver Cromwell and his propaganda-in-chief John Milton. What were they doing there? All in all, the NYPL goes back to a time when libraries were temples of learning and for that it is impressive, not to mention a useful place to escape the rain.
Just north, Fifth Avenue starts in earnest. The first major store is SAK's on E59th Street. Stepping inside the cosmetic department almost required a gas mask as the clouds of perfume wafted over me. The designer clothes and cosmetics are impressive with Givenchy, Chanel and Prada on display. If you cross the street and backtrack down to E47th Street where it heads west you meet Diamond row. I used this street to cut through to Times Square and every other store is a jewelry store and part of the diamond trade run by New York's Hassidic Jews. These can sometimes be seen in the street but more often they are behind the counters of their shops. Back on Fifth Avenue, as you push north you will bump into the great bulk of St Patrick’s Cathedral. I nearly missed this and there is no doubt St Patrick's is beautiful but so obscure - tucked away on Fifth Avenue like another store rather then the great cathedral it is and deserves to be. I'm firmly of the opinion that cathedrals should have a setting to match their magnificence -- St Patrick’s was squeezed between two dominating skyscrapers.
Inside, however, there is no doubt that it is impressive -- as it should be for America’s first Catholic cathedral. Its ceiling was soaring gothic vaulting and the side chapels and altar glittered with gold. There wasn't the grime of ages that European cathedrals have but it is still magnificent and well worth a visit. Across the street is the Rockefeller Center. This came as a massive surprise -- my memory had wiped it out and I did not know what to expect when I revisited it. It is fitted between two grey monolithic buildings where a stream and garden flow down to an ice rink. The crowds gather at this icerink to have their photo's taken with the gilt statue of Prometheus (see photo) which was much smaller then I remembered it.
North from here is the domain of really exclusive shops -- Cartier, Asprey, Gucci, Mikimoto's pearls, Harry Winston’s jewellers and the 'Trump Tower' which sported an enormous 'stars and stripes'. At the far top Bergdof Goodman -- the department store for millionaires -- had pride of place next to 'Tiffany's' jewellers. But from here Fifth Avenue was Grand Army Plaza and the start of the greenery of Central Park. The Toy store FAO Schwartz held court on the eastern side and the western side was taken up by the extremely posh copper roofed 'Plaza' Hotel. This is one of New York’s great set pieces -- I almost felt I was in the middle of a film set. This was impressed more when a white horse and carriage trotted into view. It was almost on the tip of my tongue to shout, "Carriage driver! Once around the park please!" Hold on, I'm not that rich. Fifth Avenue must be getting to me. Where is the bus stop . . . ?