Out East Road Trip Day 3: Charlottesville, VA to Washington D.C.

Yesterday was the day we attempted to tackle both Jefferson’s Monticello and Washington’s Mount Vernon.  Our house tour reservation for Monticello was at 9:00 a.m., and our house tour (or “Mansion Tour” as the brochure so elegantly dubbed it) for Mount Vernon was at 3:30 p.m.  The estates are about 2 hours apart by car.  And we needed a lunch/gas stop in between.

We felt a little rushed, a little like we should be humming the Mission Impossible theme as we sped through the Virginia countryside, but for those of you who also want to see both estates in one day, let me tell you that it is entirely doable.  That’s with a Jimmy John’s lunch, Exxon stop, and end-of-weekend traffic included.

Before I get to the Tom Cruise-esque madness, however, I need to talk a little more about Charlottesville.  Or Cville, as the cool cats say.

There were a few pilgrimages to make in Cville.  First, to Thomas Jefferson’s adored University of Virginia.  What a lovely university.  Before driving through the UVA campus, I had been able to keep my post-grad pangs at bay for the most part, but as soon as I saw the clusters of brick buildings, the shaded sidewalks, the Dinkytown, it suddenly felt so wrong not to be buying textbooks and color coding notebooks and folders (not that I’ve ever done that).  While I swallowed the lump in my throat, Mom attempted to locate the famed UVA Rotunda.  We knew basically what it looked like.  Brick.  Pillars. Dome. But even when we spotted this:

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we weren’t convinced that it was the Rotunda.  So we drove around some more, rapidly punching buttons on Bea The Misguided GPS, until we ended up back where we started.  At the Rotunda.

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And Jefferson was all

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I bought a $20.00 mug at the Monticello museum shop to make it up to him.

The next pilgrimage is slightly more creeper-ish.  Kath’s blog is one of my favorites.  I actually squealed loudly in the UMM library upon seeing the announcement of her son’s birth last September, which drew a few glares from those in deeper study mode than I.  I never imagined that I would actually make it to Charlottesville, but since I did, I thought I should swing by the Great Harvest owned by Kath and her husband, Matt.  Alas, they are closed on Sundays.  I settled for a photo of the infamous building (the creeper part).  Wish I could have met you, Kath!  And eaten some bread!

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Here are my thoughts on Monticello:

1. Our house tour time was 9:00 a.m., which was the first tour of the day, and so the grounds were nearly empty.  This meant that we didn’t have to wait in line to peer into various rooms and to read the signs attached to various sites.  As someone who likes to take the time to read everything while touring, I rather liked being there early, and would recommend it for future visitors.

2.  Monticello didn’t feel like a tourist destination. It didn’t feel like a sight that had been paved over with excess pathways or altered for the sake of the public.  It felt like Jefferson’s house, and it was easy to picture the man himself walking around and living at Monticello.  This I appreciated above all else.  Tour guides and signs were candid about what had been restored and/or supplemented, but when they had needed to, say, repaint a room, they were careful to match the color exactly to the original.  Hooray for history buffs who take the time to read through journals and records just to find evidence of a specific paint color.  You make the world a better place.

3. The house tour was phenomenal.  If I ever return, I’d like to do the nooks and crannies tour, which covers the upstairs of the house, but I was plenty content with the standard tour.  The standard tour covered the exterior, entrance hall, sitting room, library, Jefferson’s bedroom/study suite, dining/tea room, formal parlor, Madison Room, and terrace.  Our guide explained what was special about each room and included interesting tidbits that humanized Jefferson as much as praised his character.  I gained a good deal of new perspective about Jefferson that only came from visiting his property.

4. Next we tried the garden tour.  I say tried because we are bona fide tour ditchers.  We are the tourists other tourists look down on.  But we also didn’t care to listen to the guide explain each tree and flower on the property.  I say that respectfully, because the guide was doing a wonderful, thorough job of it.  We just weren’t interested.  So we hung back and then made our getaway and were perfectly content to wander the gardens on our own.  Everything is nicely labeled at Monticello; I never spent any time guessing what the significance of something was, even sans guide.

Here are some Monticello photos:

Monticello means "little mountain."  Naturally, then, views were involved.  This was taken from the practical garden, which grows the same fruits, vegetables, and herbs today as would have been growing there in the 18th century.

Monticello means “little mountain.” Naturally, then, views were involved. This was taken from the practical garden, which grows the same fruits, vegetables, and herbs today as would have been growing there in the 18th century.

The house.

The house (back view).

The house (front view).  I really try to take straight pictures.  I really do try.

The house (front view). I really try to take straight pictures. I really do try.

Part of the storage/workrooms that lay under the terrace.  Jefferson apparently liked to keep those bits hidden.

Part of the storage/workrooms that lay under the terrace. Jefferson apparently liked to keep those bits hidden.  (Sorry about the out-of-focus.  I try to get that right as well.)

The kitchen.  All set up and reading for someone to start mixing up hoecakes.

The kitchen. All set up and waiting for someone to start mixing up hoecakes.  A sign on the wall that I found funny mentioned that Jefferson “never visited the kitchen except to wind up the clock.”

Jefferson's grave, with what he considered to be his three greatest achievements inscribed upon it.

Jefferson’s grave, with what he considered to be his three greatest achievements inscribed upon it.

Thoughts on Mount Vernon:

1. We did successfully make our tour time, but unfortunately, it fell during the hottest part of the day.  The time of day when I am prone to both grumpiness and sleepiness.  It was also a time of day when the estate was crowded and the lines are long.  Hot+grumpy+sleepy+crowds don’t a happy camper make.  So there were parts of Mount Vernon which I perhaps didn’t appreciate as much as I might have had conditions been ideal.  It’s not Mount Vernon’s fault.  Visit early, friends.  Don’t let George see you cry.

2.  Mount Vernon felt a lot like Versailles to me (the only comparison I can think of.  I apologize for whipping out my “this one time, when I was in Europe” line) in that the estate was huge, mostly self-guided, and more often than I would like, I wasn’t sure of the significance of what I was looking at, or whether it was original.  Because of my garden tour ditch, you know that I don’t always jive with guided tours.  But I do like information-laden signs.  And there weren’t enough such signs, in my opinion.

3. The best part about Mount Vernon was the fact that there were various buildings to explore.  Most of them were located in a semi-circle on either side of the “mansion.”  So, for a selection, we peeked into the overseer’s house (and read a brief description), the salt house, the stables, and the kitchen.  Washington’s estate was self-contained, and it was interesting to see its various operations.

4. Most of the Mount Vernon guides were as grumpy as I was!  Perhaps they were merely responding to my chi, but my goodness, people were being barked at left and right instead of being helpfully directed.  I didn’t feel as welcomed as I had at Monticello, which lessened the experience for me.

5. The mansion tour was not the typical small-groups-led-through-by-one-guide tour.  Instead, a continuous line wound through the entire house.  In each room was a stationary guide who repeated a memorized spiel over and over again.  They answered questions, too, but as we were kept moving, there wasn’t much time to ask.  Some of the guides were animated and entertaining, but some recited their pieces in a monotone which again, dampened the quality of the tour.  I didn’t feel Washington come alive at Mount Vernon.  I had trouble convincing myself that we were really in his home, on his lands.  I wish I didn’t have to speak so negatively about an important historical site, but I want to be honest.

6.  Lest you think I hated the experience, here are a few big positives: first, the original blacksmith’s forge is still being used.  The blacksmith was pounding away as visitors watched, and often paused to hand onlookers examples of his work to examine, and to explain the various steps involved in making axe heads or hooks or hoes.  Further (and this is the really cool part), the blacksmith–who again, does his work where it would have been done in Washington’s time–makes all of the pieces necessary for restoration projects on the estate.  The second positive is an honoring ceremony that takes place at Washington’s gravesite twice a day.  The guide pulled two veterans from the crowd to place a wreath on the grave, asked two girl scouts to lead the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance, and asked another audience member to read from a passage about Washington.  I thought it was wonderful that visitors to Mount Vernon are allowed to participate in the honoring of Washington and his contributions. Third, there are animals at Mount Vernon.  Sheep and pigs and cows and horses.  And they smell and lay in the shade and chow down and otherwise behave as naturally as could be.  They lent some authentic ambiance to the place without even trying.

Mount Vernon photos:

The "mansion."  Okay, it really is a mansion.  I'll stop with the quotes.  But why is Monticello a house and Mount Vernon a mansion?  I'll never know.

The “mansion.” Okay, it really is a mansion. I’ll stop with the quotes. But why is Monticello a house and Mount Vernon a mansion? I’ll never know.

Because he had an abundance of timber on his estate, Washington chose to use it for the mansion and surrounding buildings.  But, since stone was considered the classier siding choice at the time, Washington had the wood siding made to look like stone.  This simultaneously baffled and delighted me.

Because he had an abundance of timber on his estate, Washington chose to use it for the mansion and surrounding buildings. But, since stone was considered the classier siding choice at the time, Washington had the wood siding made to look like stone. This simultaneously baffled and delighted me.

The Potomac!  I won't say how much I squealed when I saw it.  It's rawthur a famous river, you know.  I'm partial to the Mississippi, but I have to say that this view from Mount Vernon's backyard was quite grand.

The Potomac! I won’t say how much I squealed when I saw it. It’s rawthur a famous river, you know. I’m partial to the Mississippi, but I have to say that this view from Mount Vernon’s backyard was quite grand.

The stables still smelled like horses!  Amazing!

The stables still smelled like horses!

No offense TJ, but GW's gardens were better than yours.

No offense TJ, but GW’s gardens were better than yours.

The overseer's house.

The overseer’s house.

The blacksmith's shop, where we spent a good deal of time gaping.

The blacksmith’s shop, where we spent a good deal of time gaping.

My sheep friends.  Notice the ones dozing against the cool stone wall.

My sheep friends. Notice the ones dozing against the cool stone wall.

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