I needed an adventure. A local adventure. Here's how it found me:
Mst nights when I get home from work, I turn on my T.V. manually and flop onto bed/futon/couch/epicenter of my living space. Many times, it's only after said flop that I realize the remote is out of reach. I'll usually zone out for about twenty minutes until I'm abruptly pulled out my haze by some horrific story and wonder what the hell I am doing watching this, and seriously Kerry, just get up and walk the three feet to the remote. One particularly serendipitous evening last week, however, I caught the tail end of coverage on a benefit for a historic property upstate that is open to the public. Frederic Church's, renowned American landscape painter, hilltop estate overlooking the Hudson River Valley, the reporter said. Curious.
A masterpiece in its own right, she went on, set upon 250 landscaped acres designed by the artist himself. Intrigued.
Persian-inspired, fantasy mansion. Sold.
I immediately Google "Olana" and reach their website. On the the "Things to Do" section (taken from www.olana.org), I find such suggestions as:
- "Picnic under the venerable oak trees."
- "Watch a storm roll in from the Catskills."
- "Find some quiet space – read a book, sketch, write, or just watch the clouds drift."
- "Let a Hudson Valley sunset take your breath away."
I suddenly, desperately needed to watch the clouds drift from a Persian mansion. Funny, because every morning on my walk to work these days (I do take the same route in the hopes of a third Sarah Jessica Parker sighting), I pass this tiny Middle Eastern restaurant, set a few steps down from the street, with beautiful tiling surrounding a water spout on the facade and I think "I want to go somewhere where that is the norm." Greece, Istanbul, Sevilla - all would do. Not to further digress, but I just looked it up and the restaurant is called Salam and actually, I should try it. Any takers?
Anyway, I could barely contain my excitement at the discovery of Olana's existence, and texted my friend Kevin. Being a talented and passionate artist himself with an affinity for landscape, I knew he would share my delight. So I wondered why I received only radio silence the first few minutes - until I realized the vast difference between www.olana.com, which I had texted, and www.olana.org
"Ah, that's a bit different," he responded to my correction. And we were on!
So home to CT Friday night, and day trip begins Saturday morning (fine, early afternoon). We make few stops - gas, coffee, a market on the side of the road which does not have seltzer but should you require live bait--night crawlers, worms, grubs--you would find a wide selection. We passed on bait and eventually the drive revved up the scenic factor. Naturally, I begin snapping away on my phone's camera like crazy to document the trip. Look!
Purple mountain (hills) majesties and amber waves of grain!
A farm with a lake!
What an oak tree!
But then I pause. I put my phone away. As is too often the case, we spend fleeting moments trying to capture vistas, and they are gone before we have truly appreciated them. This is especially true when one is in motion, amplified even more so by the attempt to capture with a camera phone. Just sit back and let the views unfold, I tell myself.
No sooner had I lost myself in the rolling landscape did Kevin ask me if we were still headed in the right direction. Oh shit - that's right. I'm the navigator. I instinctively reached for my phone - yes, the same phone previously cast away, abandoned, deemed useless by my technology-unreliant self. "You think you don't need me?" my phone asked under the guise of "No Service". "Ha." I should have prepared for this obvious result of taking the winding, scenic backgrounds. We get ourselves back on track, but still manage to get turned around several more times, partly because of the lack of service but more often than I admitted, due to my sheer inattention. "We got off Rt. 23 ten minutes ago, and now we are getting back on?" Kevin very patiently inquired? "Yeah," I muttered. "I'm manually overriding Google. Makes the most sense, you know?" He nodded in compliance, while I kept hearing the word "recalibrating" in a robot voice repeated in my head.
One hour and two unintended trips over the Rip Van Winkle bridge later (hey, I wanted to check it out anyway, and the view headed East across the bridge affords a fantastic sneak peak of Olana), and we're at the entrance - a long, paved driveway passing curvier, narrower gravel carriage roads winding their way up the hill. Frederic Church designed the property to be a work of art in and of itself - the house is mostly hidden from view along the way, allowing the visitor to appreciate each vantage point as it slowly unfurls. At the top, the grand finale reveals itself, and it is every bit as sensational as I had imagined:
No time to marvel though - we park and run toward the visitor's center, nervous that we came all this way and are now five minutes late for the day's final 3 p.m. tour. We tell the lady behind the desk that we would be more than happy to simply tour the grounds at this point, but she reassures us that joining the tour will be no problem, as they have "plenty" of staff (two tour guides). We quickly pay (I have cash! for once!) and she leads us up the servant's entrance (here's to you Downton Abbey) to join the group of about a dozen fellow home gazers. As soon as we catch our breath, Kevin looks to me and says, "We're...gonna need to come back", and I nod in agreement.
It is remarkable. Church originally had plans to build a French Chateau on the property, but changed his mind entirely after traveling through the Middle East with his family in the late 1860s. And it shows. The layout is centered around an "interior courtyard" - not exposed to the elements in the traditional sense, but rather painted a glossy blue designed to emulate the sky. The incredible Moorish stenciling throughout nearly every room is the original paint from 1870. The paintings on the walls, most by Church himself but many completed by close friends of the artist, are museum quality. The stained glass glows at all times except night time, in any light. Anytime Kevin or I slag behind the tour, lost in a particular detail, we fill the other in with the tidbits we missed, such as the fact that the pattern within the stained glass windows is not made of metal or dark paint, but rather a paper design layered between the two panels, or that the church bell in the tower is in fact the door bell - yes, there's the chain leading down to the front door! Everything has significance, every detail is planned. Even the grout between the stones is fluid and unique:
The grounds are just as impressive as the house itself. Wrote Church: "...I have made about 1 3/4 miles of road this season, opening entirely new and beautiful views. I can make more and better landscapes in this way than by tampering with canvas and paint in the studio." I mean, the man built a lake on the property. And added something like 8,000 trees. You are looking at these magnificent works of art, and then you look out the window and see the same view:
The fact that it is the dead of winter is not lost on me. If I can be so overwhelmed with beauty during the bleakest, most barren time of year, I can only image trips in the spring, summer, and fall. And ultimately, as worried we were about timing, we ended up exploring outside the house at what must be the most optimal time - sunset. The home radiates in all its glory. Though I managed to hit it right the first time, I trust you have not really experienced it until you catch Olana at rose-gold dusk:
I could go on about the facts, the history, the skill and thought that went into the property, but this isn't a history blog. If you can, go. And let a Hudson Valley sunset take your breath away.
"Almost an hour this side of Albany is the Center of the World - I own it - I am all alone...enjoying a nice wood fire and thinking how thankful I ought to be to have travelled and returned with my family all well." -FEC
P.S. I do realize that if I am going to be undertaking such visually striking excursions, I need to start bringing my big girl camera. Sorry.