Archive for the ‘Washington 2015’ Category

Now that I’ve been home for a few days, what can I say about that holiday? – well, actually it was awesome. I saw some iconic sights, visited some great places, and above all met lots of great people.

Of the sights, I would have to say that Washington delivered in full. The walk along the National Mall, even in 90º heat, was extraordinary. The Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial were both memorable and moving in different ways, as was the WWII memorial which I hadn’t mentioned before. The visit to the Capitol was the same. In fact, just walking around Washington was an experience. Of the locations, the best were the Manassas battlefield site – both memorable and sobering – and the Skyline Drive, including the two hikes off the Drive itself.

But the best and most memorable experiences were the people I met. They all seemed very happy to talk and I had some wonderful conversations. I deliberately booked accommodation in bed & breakfasts rather than hotels on the basis that this would make it more likely that I would meet people, and this worked out well – nowhere disappointed. But what also struck me was the friendliness of other people I met – waitresses, people in shops, and just fellow travellers on the road. I’ve come home very enthusiastic about America, and I hope to return.

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Virginia Museum of Fine Art - exterior display

Virginia Museum of Fine Art – exterior display

My flight home was at 6:30 pm from Dulles so I reckoned that if I was back at Dulles (about 110 miles from Richmond) by 3 o’clock that would give me plenty of time to check in, get through security, etc. That meant leaving Richmond no later than noon, which in turn meant that I could have a final couple of hours in the morning. I decided to visit the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, a large art gallery just a block away from where I had stayed.

I had intended to go to an special exhibition at the gallery of late 19th century european still life pictures, mainly flowers, and featuring Matisse, Monet and van Gogh, but in the event I decided to just wander around the general public galleries. It would be fair to describe the collection as eclectic, but thorough. There aren’t that many great names – I didn’t see any Rembrandts, Michelangelos or Caravaggios there, for example; but there were examples of Dutch Golden Age art by other artists, there were Italian renaissance pictures, and several by painters who I have seen referred to as the ‘Caravagisti’ – the followers of Caravaggio. So not Premier League art, but solid Championship stuff; and it all benefitted from being hung in a big modern gallery with few visitors on that wet Thursday morning. In addition to paintings there was art of other types: a classical gallery containing statuary, pottery and mosaics from Greek and Roman classical times, a display of stunning silverware from London silversmiths of the 18th and 19th centuries, and a collection of objets from the Art Nouveau/Art Deco periods. I especially liked these – this collection included some chairs and other small pieces by Mackintosh, the first examples of his work that I’ve ever actually seen. I very much enjoyed the couple of hours I spent there, and I’m sure I only scratched the surface of what’s there.

Then it was time for the drive to Dulles. Given that I had a deadline I decided to use the Interstate (I95), which I didn’t enjoy. It was wet – torrentially so at times – and it wasn’t fun  being overtaken by big trucks doing 75mph and kicking up huge amounts of spray as they did so. Altogether the drive took me just about two and three-quarter hours, with no stops, and I was rolling into the Alamo rental lot at just after 3pm. Then it was back to the terminal in the shuttle bus, and after visiting the restroom to make myself comfortable and presentable, I was at checkin by 3:30. All of that went very well, in fact; I was through checkin and security and had got airside by about 4pm. Boarding was at 5:30 so I had an hour to kill. Having not enjoyed my in-flight meal on the way over I decided to have a final american meal, and what could be more american than hamburger, fries and all the trimmings? So I did this in a small fast-food hamburger bar around the ‘C’ gates, and even found myself in conversion one last time, with Maggie, a young american on her way to Spain to progress her education. Thank you, Maggie, for taking time to chat with a rumpled and elderly Brit; although I shall reassure Val (my wife) by saying that it was Maggie who started the conversation.

Then it was onto the plane where I found myself in an aisle seat on the back row. Never mind; I had a rented film to watch, ‘The Hobbit – Battle of the Five Armies’, which I did through the flight. I enjoyed it, especially Billy Connolly as Dain Ironfoot (although I’ve since learned that what we saw on screen was entirely digital, and that Billy did a voiceover from the UK).

The flight back had the benefit of a tailwind and we landed just six and a half hours later in Manchester, about 45 minutes early; but frustratingly that meant our gate at Manchester was still occupied by an outbound flight so we were held on the taxiway for about 20 minutes. Never mind, it didn’t take long to get through immigration, my bag was already on the carousel, and I got a bus to the long-stay carpark straight away. What with an easy drive from Manchester airport through the Peak District, I was unlocking my front door at a quarter-past eight in the morning, after 11 nights away.

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James River, Richmond

James River, Richmond

Today I was in Richmond, Virginia – once capital of the Confederacy but today a thriving, busy and successful regional centre.

In the morning I visited a new museum, the American Civil War Center, based at the former Tredegar Iron Works (which was the CSA’s main manufacturer of cannon). This offered a solid overview of the whole conflict from a variety of perspectives – Union, Confederate and also African American. Perhaps there wasn’t anything in it that I hadn’t been aware of before, but the Centre presented the information in an organised way that made it easy to understand. It was good, also, to get the story at a higher level than that of individual battles or campaigns. While the Centre did refer to some battles it did so in the context of the war as a whole and their effect on it. So First Manassas was the battle that told everybody that it would not be a quick war; Antietam cost more american lives than any other single day before or since; Vicksburg was the key to the Union winning in the western sphere; and the capture of Atlanta won the 1864 election for Lincoln. A good visit.

Then I walked along the canal and river side (James River) towards the centre of the city. Again, this is a historic area that has been scrubbed-up and made into an attraction. Very nice, in fact. And finally I spent the afternoon walking around the area near the B&B. I explored Carytown which is a shopping and restaurant area near where I was staying. I also found the Virginia Centre for Architecture, which is located in the Branch House, an extraordinary ‘American Tudor Revival’ house dating from the early 20th century. Until this afternoon I’d never heard of the American Tudor Revival, but apparently in that period it was huge, and this house is a prime example of it. I was able to take a short walk around on the ground floor, and all the Tudor features you would expect were there: Long Gallery? – check; Great Hall? – check; minstrel’s gallery in the same? – oh dear me, yes…. Utterly extraordinary, completely bonkers, but somehow it does work.

At lunchtime and again in the evening I ate at a restaurant in Carytown, ‘The Daily‘, which I really enjoyed. The menu was slightly less whole-heartedly american than I had found in many places in Front Royal and Staunton, perhaps reflecting both Richmond’s status as a regional centre, and also Carytown’s local position as a student and possibly even ever-so-slightly bohemian area.

This was my last full day. Tomorrow I have one last morning and then I must get back to Dulles for my flight home.

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Monticello House

Today I was due to drive from Staunton to Richmond with a slight diversion to Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson.

As regards the drive, I decided to not use the Interstate (I64) but instead to drive along the older US Highway – 250, since you ask. I’m glad I did this as, although slower – traffic lights, speed limits, and so on – it gave me more of a view of Virginia. I was driving through places instead of driving past them, as it were. The nature of Highway 250 changed several times – in some places, especially around the towns, it was what we would call a dual carriageway with at least two lanes in each direction, sometimes more; but in other places, especially between Charlottesville and the edge of the Richmond metropolitan area, it was a simple two-lane single carriageway road that winded its way through the countryside.

I did end up on the Interstate at one point. I found that Monticello was very badly signposted, what signs there were seemed to take me first onto the Interstate and then back off it, and I remember driving up and down at least one stretch of road several times. But I found it eventually.

Monticello itself is a bit of a curate’s egg. The house itself is attractive and quirky – clearly a personal vision – but rather disappointingly only the main floor of the actual house is open. There are two higher floors (containing bedrooms, nurseries, another sitting room) that aren’t. You can only go round it in a guided tour, which takes less than an hour, and photography is not permitted inside the house. All that said, it was still an attractive house, and gave you a good insight into what Jefferson himself wanted from his dwelling place.

What is undeniably magnificent is its setting – on top of a mountain (ok, perhaps just a hill) and at the centre of an estate. This is where some of the questions about Jefferson’s life emerge. The estate was actually a plantation, and during his live Jefferson owned over 600 slaves; yet this plantation owner was also the man who drafted the Declaration of Independence – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. A puzzle.

To their credit, the owner of the property (the Thomas Jefferson Foundation) does not shrink from this and does admit the contradictions in his life. They are also doing archeological work on ‘Mulberry Row’ where the slave quarters were, and have (and are continuing to) reconstruct some of them. It’s also the case that the interpretative material all over the house, the gardens, the working areas in the basement (which is open for casual inspection), and the re-created buildings on Mulberry Row do highlight the experiences of the african americans held in bondage there, and traces their family histories as far as is known.

A worthwhile visit.

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American Shakespeare Centre theatre

Today was a rest day in Staunton. I spent the morning walking the town which, to be truthful, didn’t take very long – this is a small town in Virginia. The town’s stand-out attraction is the American Shakespeare Centre with its theatre. This a reproduction of a theatre apparently used by Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men, as their winter playhouse from 1608. The original theatre was indoors, in part of what had been the Blackfriars monastery – perhaps even in the early 1600s groundlings objected to getting wet in the winter? Anyway, a touring company of actors performing Shakespeare was established in the 1980s and in 2001 they moved to this newly built theatre and became a resident company. I had a tour around the theatre – supposedly a public tour I was the only taker which meant that it turned into more of a conversation than a presentation, which I liked. It was a good hour.

The rest of the morning and lunchtime I spent just walking around and taking pictures, in one rather more picturesque area I found, the Wharf area. When the railroad came to Staunton (after the Civil War) there was an industrial boom in the town which lasted until some tine after the first World War, I think. This resulted in some industrial development around the station area, and this was known as the Wharf area. Today there’s just a single track with (very) occasional Amtrak trains stopping.

Then in the afternoon I went for a drive up the Shenandoah valley and circled back over Massanutten mountain. It brought home how big the US is – this was a drive around a part of just one valley in the corner of one state, yet it was over 100 miles.

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Skyline-4Today I drove the length of the Skyline Drive – 105 miles down the Blue Ridge Mountains, at a maximum speed of 35mph. Doing this was always going to be one of the highlights of the trip and it didn’t disappoint.

As you drive along it, there are ‘Lookouts’ every few miles from which views can be had of the Shenandoah Valley to the west and the Virginia plain to the east. From several of these there are way-marked hikes, either through the woods, up to peaks, or down to waterfalls. I did two of these – to Stony Man Mountain, at 4011 feet the second-highest point in the mountains, and to a waterfall. There also  couple of places where there are restaurants, restrooms, visitor centres, etc.

Altogether the journey took me most of the day. I joined the road at its northern end at about 10 o’clock and I reached the southern end at about 5:15. There’s a charge to drive it – $20 per car – and only two (I think) exits along it, at about 30 and 65 miles. It was a great experience doing the drive. I was wondering if by the end I would be bored – “oh, look, another amazing view….” – but I wasn’t. It helped that the weather improved as the day went on – the early views were quite misty, the later ones were sunny.

But the best thing is to just show some of the pictures I took. Enjoy.

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Having arrived at Front Royal the day before I had a quiet day after all the exertions of the four days in Washington. I explored the town cemetery and walked around the town, which is quite small. It was helpful that the Wine Festival was being held: Main Street was closed to traffic, there were stalls all along it, there were at least a couple of bands playing at various places, people were tasting the wine, and a generally fun time was being had. Front Royal is actually very small, and I think that on a normal Saturday it would be very quiet.

Now for the wine. I’d never heard of Virginia wine until this week, but it is in fact the fifth-largest wine producing state in the US. However, much of the planting is new – many of the wineries told me that they had started in 2006, 2007, and so on, and I think this showed in the wines. Many were very young and not especially subtle. There was a lot of sweet wine, including sweet red wine – not to my taste. There was also a tendency to produce wines with fruit additions – apple was a favourite. Also, many of the wines were made from blends of three or four grapes, which makes it hard for any especial character to come through. There were some exceptions, and I enjoyed what I tasted from the Naked Mountain winery. Perhaps not coincidently, that one dated from the early 80s (and the vineyards from the late 70s) so they already have over 30 years’ experience of making wine.

Back to the car, the little Hyundai. I found a really strange feature on it – it has three doors (actual doors, not counting the hatchback). There is a single door on the driver’s side, and two on the passenger side. Bizarre.

Finally, I ought to say that I had wonderful stay at the Woodward House B&B in Front Royal. Bob and Joan made me especially welcome and introduced me to a number of other guests, and a couple of very good evenings were had.

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I left Woodley Park Guest House on Friday morning after an excellent four nights’ stay. First destination was Dulles Airport to collect a hire car. This time I used the metro to the end of the Silver line, then the ‘Silver Line’ shuttle bus from the metro station to Dulles airport, and finally the car hire company shuttle bus round to their lot. All in all it took me abut 90 minutes, but it was easy enough. There was no problem with my large bag on the metro – there are lifts at all the stations both from ground level to the mezzanine (ticket barriers) level, and from there onto the platforms. Much easier than the London Underground, but there again the DC metro system is much more recent.

a Hyundai Veloster!

a Hyundai Veloster!

The car is a Hyundai Veloster, which is a model I’ve never seen before. Small, sporty-looking, 3-door hatchback and automatic. In other words, rather different from my VW Golf. The first few minutes were pretty panicky, and I then missed a turning a few minutes later so for a while I was driving without knowing where I was going. But I realised that I was in fact headed in the right destination (south), even if I wasn’t on the right road, and that I ought to hit the road I really wanted, Interstate 66, if I just kept going, and that’s what happened.

My first destination of the day was the Manassas Battlefield (US Civil War) site. It’s maintained by the US National Parks service. I arrived there at about 2 o’clock and started by watching a 45 minute film about the site and the two battles that happened there, in 1861 and 1862. I was especially interested in the 1861 battle which was the first significant battle of the war. Some 900 soldiers died altogether. It ended in a Confederate victory, but more significantly it signalled to both sides that the war would not be won quickly or easily. There was a warden-led tour of Henry Hill (part of the 1861 battlefield) where the crucial part of the battle occurred. The tour was very instructive; the warden didn’t pull any punches about what happens to soldiers who line up in front of other soldiers who are firing rifles and cannon at them. He knew the details of the various troop movements on that day and why and how the top of Henry Hill came to be the decisive location. It was an interesting and sobering visit.

Woodward House porch

Woodward House porch

After that I drove down to my next bed and breakfast in the town of Front Royal, Virginia. I’m staying at a small B&B (Woodward House) where I’ve been made very welcome. It’s also the case that there was a Food Festival in the main square in the evening, and a wine festival tomorrow (in fact, today as I write this). I had no idea about either of these, really; but sometimes things just work out well.

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This was my last full day in Washington, and I visited the National Air & Space Museum in the morning and Arlington National Cemetery in the afternoon. I did it that way round because I was told that while both would be very busy – there are lots of school trips at this time of year – you can get away from the crowds at Arlington but not so at the museum. So I was there not long after opening time at 10:30.

It is certainly a feast for the eyes. There are aircraft and spacecraft suspended from the ceilings or laid out on the floor; the very first things I saw were two US space capsules, a Mercury and a Gemini. (They’re tiny, by the way, especially the one-man Mercury.) I especially enjoyed the space exhibits – there was many of these covering the whole of the US space program, from Mercury through to the end of the Shuttle. I wasn’t quite so impressed with the air displays – there was a lot about the pioneering days of aviation (Lindbergh, Earhart and others) and to be honest that doesn’t seem so interesting to a Brit – well not this Brit at least; I’m firmly a ships and railways man. But it was well worth visiting, and there were plenty of other displays that were good – the development of jet technology, for instance.

In the afternoon I went to Arlington National Cemetery. This was certainly very beautiful, and was bigger than I had expected. I visited Arlington House, the pre-Civil War home of Robert E Lee, which is in the heart of the Cemetery (indeed, I get the feeling the part of the origin of the cemetery was the burial of dead Union soldiers within the grounds of Arlington House by Union officers after it had been captured in order to make it unacceptable to Lee as a future dwelling no matter how the war ended). As long as I could get away from the crowds it was very peaceful; and it was also a good walk. As with everywhere I’ve been on this trip, there has been abundant help and information available. I didn’t get to see the tomb of the Unknown Soldier – just too crowded with people waiting to see the changing of the guard – but I did get to the tomb of John F Kennedy.

Tomorrow I’m picking up a hire car at Dulles Airport and driving to Front Royal, with a call at the Manassas National Battlefield site on the way.

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This morning I had a reservation for a tour of the Capitol at 9:30. The advice was to arrive at least 45 minutes in advance, and bring a print out of my reservation notice with me. The latter requirement neccessitated a panicky printing session at the B&B because I hadn’t printed out the right part, but Kelly, one of the staff there, helped me sort it out.

I got to the Capitol at 8:45 where I found a long queue stretching up the steps; would I make it into the building in time, I wondered? Well, I did, and found that most of those queuing were actual ‘turn up’ visitors, and that once past security the queue for those with reservations was non-existent. In fact I was able to get onto a slight late-starting 9am tour.

The tour started with a 15 minute film about the history of the Capitol building and its role and significance in overall US history. Then it was onto the tour. We didn’t go into either of the chambers – House or Senate. The tour actually takes you into the public areas of the building – the crypt (underneath the Rotunda), the Rotunda itself, and the National Statuary Hall. in fact, the statues are in many ways the main feature of the tour, plus the rooms in which they are placed. Each State has the right to have two statues placed in the collection, and they are displayed in various places. Sometimes the States change ‘their’ statues – the one for Rosa Parks (Alabama), is quite recent, for example. The National Statuary Hall is in a room that for about 50 years was where the House met, but in the end the growing numbers of legislators required a larger chamber elsewhere and the current House Chamber was built.

I enjoyed this visit. The Rotunda (the space underneath the Capitol dome) is very reminiscent of the Pantheon in Rome, although without the oculus. One slight disappointment was that the dome is being repaired, and as a result is sheathed in scaffolding on the outside, and largely concealed by canopies inside. But it was a good tour, its intention being, I think, to impress visitors with the dignity and power of a central institution of the United States.

After that I walked along a tunnel from the Capitol to the Library of Congress and went on a tour there. This wasn’t so good. I had hoped that there would be a number of historic documents on display here. There were a few, but the tour was mainly about the building itself. It is very beautiful, and being built at the end of the 19th century almost has a bit of an Arts and Crafts feel to it (albeit being very grand as well). But in the end I felt I hadn’t used my time very well by doing it.

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