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Under-rated Albany, NY!

Old Jun 16th, 2011, 05:31 AM
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Under-rated Albany, NY!

Secretly, I’ve been excited about going to Albany, NY. It was just a stopover on the approximately 650 mile voyage from Montreal where I live to Washington, DC where my parents live. I usually either fly, spend a few nights with my aunt in New York City or do the trip in one fell swoop when I do this journey. This time I did something different and chose to split up the trip, overnighting at a B&B (State Street Mansion) a few blocks from the State Capitol building in downtown Albany.

However, I was starting to get embarrassed to tell my friends/coworkers that I was looking forward to Albany. Most asked “why are you going there???”; one friend even said “ew” when I told her I was going. This negative attitude I think extends from the fact that most Montrealers only experience (the “ew” friend an example) Albany as a stopover on the bus from Montreal to New York City, so their view of the city is clouded by the sorely-in-need-of-loving-attention bus station.

Anyhow, call me terrible but I can’t wait to burst some of these friends’ snobbish (and I think in some cases ill-informed) dismissals as I had a terrific day and evening in Albany, which included a tour of the State Capitol building and mostly independent strolling. I was almost sorry I didn’t have a bit longer to explore some more! As the closest US city to Montreal, I’m hoping my words will incite some friends and acquaintances (as well as perhaps some further flung Fodorites) to hop down the I-87 and check out Albany: a walk-able, friendly historic small city with some beautiful architecture.

*My Day in Albany to Come*
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Old Jun 16th, 2011, 11:25 AM
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*Getting to Albany*

You might be thinking Albany is not such a hot middle point, being much closer to Montreal than it is to Washington, DC, but it actually was just perfect for the way I traveled. It's $58 on Greyhound from Montreal-Albany, which took about 6 hours, due to the time consumed processing passengers crossing the border, as well as time for stops in upstate New York. It’s quite a lovely ride up I-87, with the steep granite cliffs, lakes and coniferous parabolas of the Adirondacks. This was followed by Amtrak from Albany/Rensselaer-NYC, with a quick connection to NYC-DC (trains were fast, this too took about 6 hours).

*Day in Albany*

I inherited a general family trait of penny-pinching (i.e, I can be cheap), so I walked past the calls of “taxi!” at Albany bus station, seeing that my B&B seemed to be reasonable walking distance of the Trailways terminal. There’s one building I’ve always loved seeing when I’ve whizzed by Albany on the bus or train to New York City in the past… turns out it’s a SUNY Albany administrative building!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SUNY_Sy...ation_Building

This turned out to be a theme of a trip: admiration of a stellar city in terms of its architecture. Rolling my luggage up a hill, it was maybe 20 minutes before I arrived at State Street Mansion near the corner of State & Dove in Albany. A reasonable nightly rate, I loved the high ceilings, dark wooden staircases and closet doors, as well as the fact that the home dates from the mid 1800s, formerly serving apparently as a home for autistic children. The owners were very likeable and there was continental breakfast in the morning.

*NY State Capitol*

I took the 7:30am bus from Montreal in order to get into Albany by 1:30pm, so that I could make the last tour to the NY State Capitol building, at 3pm. While the exterior of the building (while still beautiful) is covered in scaffolding and may not seem so inviting as such, I would highly recommend a visitor go inside for the tour.

So, as it turns out there were 45 schoolchildren (with their chaperones), one Japanese couple and myself on the free tour of the interior of the building. I would *highly* recommend a visitor to Albany to do this, as the guide was very knowledgeable on the history of the building. Plus, there’s something called the “Million-Dollar Staircase” built in the 1800s which is just *spectacular*. Built in sandstone imported from Scotland, the vision of the geometry of the criss-crossing staircases strikes me as a marvel of architectural engineering. The moldings are a masterpiece of artistic and intricate, painstaking craftsmanship, with heads of prominent early Americans in bas relief. I love that one artist, purportedly disgusted with the state of New York State government of the time, surreptitiously carved tiny demons into the crevices of the moldings.
I thought the children were so well-behaved walking into the chambers of the Senate and the Legislative Assembly, that at age 12, they recognize the importance of the institution they were entering. They asked good questions afterward about the 23-carat gold upper walls of the Senate and one girl if there were prominent American *women* heads as well in the Million Dollar Staircase. Both chambers were quite grand, and I enjoyed the difference between the State Capitol and the two Parliaments I’ve been to in Canada in Quebec City and Ottawa (much less pomp & circumstance in New York I thought). The mural on the ceiling where the governors greet visiting dignitaries is also quite colourful and handsome; amazing to think both presidents Roosevelt and now Cuomo would meet visitors in that very spot.

*Coming Up: Meandering in Albany*
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Old Jun 16th, 2011, 11:32 AM
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CC: Albany Chamber of Commerce
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Old Jun 16th, 2011, 12:09 PM
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Daniel, enjoying your report thus far. Sorry to hear the capitol was swathed in scaffolding on the outside, as it's got a nice exterior as well. Glad you liked the legislative chambers and murals and Million-Dollar Staircase as much as I did -- spectacular stuff. There's attractive ornamentation in other parts of this building, but these were the highlights for me as well.
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Old Jun 16th, 2011, 12:27 PM
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The tour of the State Capitol lasted an hour and then I walked immediately to the tranquil and nearly people-less Empire State Plaza, an extensive open space where one can admire the performing arts centre called “the Egg”, extensive reflecting pools and multiple works of modern sculpture art. Of the modern art, I most liked one called “Two Lines Oblique”, a pole with two long metal arrows attached at a pivot point. These arrows would rotate like two propellers of a wind turbine: sometimes in the same direction, sometimes in opposite directions, depending on the wind currents. Perhaps wrongly, I imagined the artist thought the Two Lines Oblique were like New York state politics, with each arrow representing the two main parties, blown by the prevailing winds of public opinion, sometimes in the same direction, sometimes in opposite directions. 

For the remainder of my meandering, I really enjoyed the compactness of Albany, a delicious feast for the eyes for one who enjoys architecture of another time. Handsome brownstones and gaily painted wooden homes from the 1800s put me in such a good mood, as I snaked my way through the side streets surrounding Lark Street between State Street and Madison (my favorite was cobblestone Jay St. south of Lark which had a sign proudly announcing “Best Block Award 2001”). Friends seemed to enjoy sitting out on the steps of their brownstones conversing with their neighbours. Washington Park was the northernmost point of my walk, where some college students were playing “fetch” with their dogs. I particularly liked one sculpture in Washington Park with a bearded biblical or Zeus-like figure with outstretched arms and a staff atop a pile of rocks with water cascading as meeker ancient Greek-seeming statues peeked around from the side.

Lark Street was described in my guidebook as a “Greenwich Village North” due to its “counter-culture vibe” (which left me thinking “yeah sure”). While a good bit quieter than Greenwich Village, I nevertheless enjoyed the overall energy of the street what with the mix of independent coffee shoppes, tattoo parlours and pubs.

Anyhow, the last time I spent the night in Albany in 1994, it was a quick visit mostly about visiting my cousin who was a student at SUNY Albany (she lived further north in the city near the campus). At the time, she was renting out a room in a lovely older wooden home, but my main impression was of a neighbour who said “yous guys” (didn’t think people actually *said* that!) who was having a loud domestic argument with her husband. She left shortly thereafter and I had not been tempted since (perhaps influenced by my recollection of "yous guys" lady) to pay a second visit. Needless to say, I'm sorry it took so long to return as this trip left me looking forward to my next visit to the New York state capital!
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Old Jun 16th, 2011, 12:27 PM
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Bachslunch: Thank you for telling me the Capitol tour times prior to the trip. As a result, I scrambled quickly, checking into my hotel rapidly, grabbing a quick lunch so as to make it in time for the 3 pm tour of the Capitol. I'm so glad for this advice, as the Capitol was an unquestionable highlight of the trip!
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Old Jun 16th, 2011, 02:36 PM
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Nice report - thank you. The SUNY admin building, formerly the D&H RR bldg is one of my favorites, having driven past it many times over 50yrs.

I like to visit Lark St. from time to time for a cheap dinner - had some good thai curry there a few weeks ago.

If you're looking for a stop on the way back consider Saratoga Springs. The central town is compact, but some of the sites are scattered around (battlefield and spa parks). Better served by car. Many good restaurants in downtown SS.
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Old Jun 17th, 2011, 10:47 AM
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Thanks J62 for enjoying!

Was that Sukhothai you went to? It looked quite tempting, as does Saratoga Springs (which I've passed many a time but never stopped!). One of these days...

Best wishes, Daniel
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Old Jun 17th, 2011, 12:02 PM
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Albany has great firework and other festivities for the fourth of july, I hear
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Old Jun 21st, 2011, 08:27 PM
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Daniel,

Glad you enjoyed the NY State Capitol. I too enjoyed my visit there several years ago.

If it seems to have less pomp and circumstance than the parliaments in Ottawa and Quebec (both of which I have enjoyed visiting as well - Ottawa just a month ago), you should see some of the other state capitols. New York's is quite opulent compared to most!
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Old Jun 22nd, 2011, 06:40 AM
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wow. I've never heard someone so excited about Albany. That's great. I lived there for almost 6 years form 1998-2004. It's a small city but I really enjoyed living there (lived on State Street right across from Washington Park).
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