TRAVEL: A destination wedding took us back to Virginia. The ambrosial affair gave us permission to further explore the Richmond and Charlottesville regions.
First, though, the wedding. Our gorgeous niece and goddaughter, Lauren Barnes, wed dashing Alex Bonetti — both University of Texas grads — at Keswick Vineyards outside of Charlottesville.
The historic Edgewood Estate rises in an impossibly beautiful valley of horse farms and old country homes. The site played small roles in the Revolutionary and Civil wars.
On a cool, clear May late afternoon, the ceremony took place against the background of rolling vineyards and the green hills beyond. Lauren and Alex wrote their own vows. Especially touching were their tributes to the rest of the wedding party. The tented reception — including jaunty toasts — added to the evening’s sweet trance. Knowing my family, I’m sure there was an after party following the after party.
Before and after the wedding, I criss-crossed Charlottesville on foot. The town’s signature building, Thomas Jefferson‘s Rotunda on the University of Virginia campus was covered with scaffolding. Yet the famous lawn behind it was quiet and inviting, as was the rest of the fantastically landscaped school, deserted on Memorial Day weekend.
Most of my perambulations took me along a bent line from University Avenue through South and North Main streets. Here, locals have gone a long way to preserve the quirky, low-key, pedestrian-friendly charms that we formerly associated with the Drag and West Campus in Austin. Great attention — perhaps too much — is given to echoing Jefferson’s tributes to Palladio and other neo-classical designers. At least here, a row of white columns does not automatically equate with dubious social status, as it does elsewhere in the South, but rather conveys a respect for learning and tradition. Enjoyed fine bites at Bodo’s Bagels and World of Beer, where I got some reading done on “Empire of Cotton” and caught up on The New Yorker.
On this, my third visit to this college town, I finally toured Monticello, Jefferson’s mountain-top home just outside of town. A relatively new visitor’s center is crisply organized around shuttling guests up to the plantation home for timed tours. My sister wisely reserved tickets in advance, so we were wheeling up the incline within minutes after our arrivals — others waited for hours for a slot. Historic homes often disappoint. They give a glimpse of the times, but not into the minds of the residents. Monticello is a product of Jefferson’s long life and many interests — scientific, geographic, literary, spiritual, gustatory, agricultural, aesthetic — so it’s far more than a building with period decor. After the formal tour of the first, mostly public floor, we poked our noses through the lower levels and gardens. We also heard a long, very informative talk near the Hemmings’ cabin on life for Jefferson’s slaves, including his offspring.
On to Richmond, which I’d skimmed only briefly before. The first thing you notice is the industry that spreads out in layers from the James River. Richmond grew rapidly into an industrial power because of its placement on the fall line, which secured water power, but it continues as an industrial center. Secondly, one can’t ignore Richmond’s muscular downtown, which, unlike Austin, offers powerful examples of commercial and civic architecture for each period that dates back more than 200 years. It was a big city in the 20th century, too, and shows it.
Spend a little more time here and one quickly discovers the many historic neighborhoods, whose fortunes have ebbed and flowed over time. Observe even more closely and you’ll see how students, hipsters and artists are interacting with those who stayed when old Richmond experienced white flight in the late 20th century. (Examples: New South eatery spot, Pasture, pleasing Capital Ale House and an organic grocery in transitioning Church Hill.)
I visited seven museums and monuments on my last day. The best of them focused on local rather than regional history. The Valentine Richmond History Center, built into a row of 19th-century houses, is everything you’d want from a local history museum — smart, current, incredibly well presented, including a respectful temporary exhibit on Church Hill and a funny contest matching old beards to current ones on locals.
Similarly, the Historic Tredegar museum stuck to the history of Richmond-area battlefields during the Civil War. Built into the remains of the giant forges that supplied rails, munitions and other supplies for the South, it artfully explained the two big military campaigns that threatened and ultimately vanquished the former capital of the Confederacy.
Two other Civil War museums attempt too much and accomplish too little. The American Civil War Center and the Museum of the Confederacy try to tell military narratives while providing some context. The first ends up too scattered and muddled, while the second often misses the point. A temporary exhibit on the Stars and Bars, for instance, is introduced as “controversial,” but sticks almost exclusively to its role as a battle flag. Interesting for period details, for sure, but virtually nothing was included on its role for more than 100 years as an unashamed symbol of white supremacy.
There’s much else to see in Richmond, including Jefferson’s State House, surrounded by monuments, the most prominent by far is dedicated to President George Washington, the most moving depicts the civil rights movement. Nearby is the governor’s Federal-style mansion and the neo-Gothic Old City Hall. The Confederate White House is blocks away, near the Valentine and Museum of the Confederacy. All this can be done on foot. Best to take a wheeled vehicle to Monument Avenue, a grand thoroughfare that starts with familiar Confederates and ends with tennis great Arthur Ashe.