Archive | October, 2010



Sitting atop a hill in Charlottesville, Virginia, rests Thomas Jefferson’s estate, Monticello. Jefferson built, and rebuilt, Monticello over the course of forty years; at one point significantly remodeling it to incorporate architectural elements he learned while serving in Paris as the Minister of the United States to France.

Inside, Monticello follows an annoying trend we’ve noticed increasingly at tourist destinations of prohibiting indoor photography, even after extracting an astounding $22 per-person admission fee. The photography prohibition has become so pervasive it is probably time to update the old traveler’s saying: “Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but what you buy in the gift shop.”

A couple of photos would certainly help in describing the unique interior of Monticello. But suffice it to say, Jefferson used space in a way that isn’t all that common today. Rarely will you find a plain rectangular room. Instead, octagonal shapes predominate, often increasing light flow from multiple directions. Most interestingly, Jefferson’s office extends seamlessly into his library forming a barbell shape that extends the length of the house. Throughout the estate, Jefferson incorporates design features innovative for the time, from revolving serving doors to triple hung windows that double as private entryways for guest quarters.

Monticello IIProbably the most striking thing about Monticello is the sense of Jefferson’s genius that one gets from the place. Jefferson wasn’t simply a gifted writer who penned great documents; or merely the 3rd U.S. President; or a political elite who commissioned some great buildings; he was all of those things, and more. Jefferson was a philosopher, an inventor, a voracious reader in at least four languages and a self-taught architect who designed Monticello himself. I found his notebook replicas at least as fascinating as his stunning home.

A shortcoming of Monticello, though, is its superfluous treatment of Jefferson’s great contradiction: the genius that declared all men to be created equal owned over 600 slaves during his lifetime, of which he freed just two while still alive. Monticello itself wasn’t just a home, but a plantation. Signs indicate where slaves lived, and worked, but the complex juxtaposition of Jefferson as both professed opponent of slavery and prominent slave owner isn’t really explored or explained in a way befitting a great historic site, like this one.

DC Comics

The Washington D.C. metro is probably the best of its kind in the U.S., which, now that I think about it, isn’t saying all that much because public transportation systems here kind of blow. But even compared with Europe, DC’s metro is pretty good. Everything is clearly marked and the spaghetti tangle of subway lines (similar to those in Paris) actually facilitates getting most places in the city.

Figuring out how to pay for it is another matter entirely. Every departure and destination combination has its own price, and each of those prices change depending on whether you’re traveling at a “regular” hour, a “discounted” hour or a “peak of the peak” hour. If you have a “Smart Trip” card, you pay 25 cents less than the normal price. If you don’t have a card, your leg gets humped by Hoyas, or something. A tourist could skip all of that nonsense and just get a day pass, except for the small fact that day passes aren’t actually valid for an entire day. Ha-ha, stupid tourists.

We’re not complete morons and we’ve (mostly) mastered basic arithmetic. So with a little planning and finger counting we calculated how much to put on our Smart Trip cards. One unplanned trip at a “peak of peak” time, though, had us fifteen cents short on our final stop. No worries. We’ll just add the fifteen cents at a vending machine and we’ll be square. Only this particular machine wouldn’t accept credit cards or change, dollars only! Stupid tourists.

Two For None

National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum are housed in different wings of the same building and are separated by this nifty little courtyard. I generally find portraits to be among the least interesting form of art. In fact, the most entertainment I’ve gotten from a portrait probably came from watching the looks of disappointment by people seeing the Mona Lisa for the first time. But the American Art gallery is hosting a special exhibit of Norman Rockwell paintings until January 2, 2011. The collection, on loan from directors George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, rivals the one assembled by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA. The free admission charge includes access to both museums as well as the special exhibit. It’s well worth the price.

Washington DC

Washington DC

Washington D.C. may be our favorite U.S. city. It’s large enough to have everything you want within easy reach but small enough that you don’t have to fight for space on crowded streets. They’ve even opened one of our favorite New York restaurants, Carmines, and will soon open a Crumbs cupcake shop.  But most of all, Washington is simply beautiful. Probably due to its origins as a planned city with European roots, Washington just seems like it was put together by people who valued aesthetics. It is no surprise that six of the top ten buildings in a recent “America’s Favorite Architecture” survey reside in D.C. Naturally the great government buildings, like the Capitol, and the fabulous monuments are highlights, but many of the city’s lesser buildings are absolutely gorgeous too. Walking down miscellaneous streets while surrounded by the dizzying mix of grand architectural styles is a joy.

And as a tourist, I’ve never seen so many free things to do in any other city.  In what must be a socialist plot to undermine our capitalist democracy, the Smithsonian’s 12 museums, the national zoo, the National Gallery of Art, the Holocaust Museum, the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, the U.S. Capitol, the Library of Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, all of the national monuments, and probably a whole host of things I’ve missed or forgotten, are completely free. What other city can top that?

Afternoon Delight

Round Robin Bar, Washington DCWho are we to argue with such a spirited tradition? After a stroll past the White House, we stopped at the Round Robin Bar in the Willard Intercontinental Hotel a few blocks from the president’s digs for an afternoon cocktail. (Technically this was “literary research.” If you’d like to know which famous writers tied one on here, click over to

Fixings for Mint Juleps sit on top the bar, waiting for weary sightseers like us to sample the Round Robin’s signature drink. Kentucky senator Henry Clay introduced the (not-for-lightweights) libation to the nation’s capital in the 1850s, and it’s still mixed using his recipe. And yes, it stands the test of time.

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