Jenny Arsenault likes to imagine she’s legendary medieval maiden Lady of Shalott when she visits The Cloisters, and it’s easy to understand why.
The 21-year-old art student from Washington Heights is just a short bus ride from the splendid castle perched high on the cliffs over the Hudson River.
“When I sit here I feel like I’ve gone back over a thousand years in time,” she said.
I know just how she feels. As a Manhattan high school student, I used to walk the ramparts of this imposing structure, gazing up at its looming towers or casting my eyes downward on its forbidding, fortified gate, moodily murmurring Hamlet’s soliloquies, convinced I was in Elsinore Castle.
A New York corporate lawyer friend flees here on Sundays when the pressures of the world get too great and “imagine I’m a member of a monastic order, quietly tapping along the flagstone floors.”
It’s many people’s fantasy refuge and it’s also home to one of the finest collections of medieval art in the world, with more than 5,000 separate pieces of painting, sculpture and tapestry, mostly dating from the 9th through the 15th centuries.
Welcome to The Cloisters. It’s officially a part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and it rests at the northern tip of Manhattan Island, in a beautifully remote woodland setting known as Fort Tryon Park.
It takes its name from a series of five self-enclosed French medieval gardens that were re-assembled here from their original structures in the late 1930s, all part of a giant gift from John D. Rockefeller Jr.
Every effort was made to see that the buildings were as historically accurate as possible and although the overall castle is not based on any one structure it somehow reflects a feeling of total authenticity.
Serenity is also what you’re likely to feel, because while the architecture may be rigid, the colour scheme of the structure is mostly pale slate grey or warm sandstone — the hues of monastic reflection rather than clashing combat.
But when you step off the main passageways into one of the restored cloisters, you’re also likely to be greeted by bright green foliage, blazing autumnal branches or clustering white blossoms, depending on the season.
It’s a wonderful contrast to the austerity of the rest of the setting.
Another form of visual relief comes from what is probably the most famous works of art in The Cloisters: the series of seven tapestries called “The Hunt of the Unicorn” that date from roughly 1500 and form an amazing view of how tapestries were used as giant visual narratives in that period.
On a series of giant, beautifully hued fabric panels, we see the mythical, one-horned white beast of legend first at repose in a field of soothing blues and greens, only to be pursued and caught by a band of scarlet-coated hunters, whose silver-tipped spears still shimmer as though they were woven yesterday.
It’s hard to explain the sensation of seeing these giant works of art all placed together, but it’s like watching an exquisitely textured set of frames from a film spectacle being rolled out in slow motion. After all these years, their power is still undeniable.
There are daily tours of the facility as well as numerous special events and concerts throughout the year, all of which can be found on the website ( The Cloisters) but many people still prefer the opportunity to wander on their own, dreaming the dreams this unique place inspires.
The recommended admission charge is $20 for adults, $15 for seniors and $10 for students and includes all special exhibitions.
There is also a charming café serving a menu of light lunches and snacks open through October.
The Cloisters is open all year, six days a week (closed on Mondays), but it’s a good idea to check the website for specific times of entry on certain days.
There are two economical ways to reach The Cloisters by public transit. One involves taking the A Train to 190th Street, then reaching street level by a rickety elevator and walking about 10 minutes uphill through the park.
But if you really want to have a fascinating ride, I suggest you take the M4 bus from any stop along Madison Avenue.
For one fare it will take you directly to the front door of The Cloisters and it does so through a route that will pass the chic Upper East Side, Harlem, Columbia University, Washington Heights and numerous other neighbourhoods.
There’s one website which charts the incredibly varied route the M4 bus takes and it’s amazing reading: www.brorson.com/M4Bus.
Whether you see yourself as a knight in shining armour, a pining medieval maiden, or just someone in search of a totally unique experience, there is nothing in New York City (if not all of North America) quite like The Cloisters.