The southeast of Pennsylvania is a geographically convenient region, in that it makes for a rather short trip to New York City and Washington, D.C., as well as a whole cluster of bordering states. However, we have already exhausted most of those destinations in our previous sorties. And thus it has become prohibitively wearisome to even reach the outskirts of some new state we are planning to explore. (Pennsylvania on its own has a fairly large territory.) And so to kill two birds with one stone, we decided to see both Virginia and its western cousin at once; this saved us approximately seven hours of commute, which is a huge gain over the course of just a couple of days.
In what follows I share the photos of some of the most noteworthy sites of Virginia, accompanied, as always, by my often pointless and inconsequential narration. A reader of this blog might have noticed that our traveling priorities are often skewed towards aesthetics rather than historical or social values of things. That is perhaps due to my reluctance to deal with serious matters in written form (in this blog anyway) and a slightly elevated self-assurance in photographic skills. Either way, objectivity is always a fit sacrifice for good public image :)
Great Falls Park
Although we started this trip by making a stop at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, it would be logical to skip it in my post for the time being. The first destination in the state of Virginia—one of over a dozen to follow—was Great Falls Park, a mid-size recreation area along the banks of the Potomac River. The park is undoubtedly a local landmark due to the scenic overviews of water torrents bursting through the sharp rocks and forming hundreds of small cascades.
It is hard to believe that in the last century the waters have many times risen to levels well above the observation decks that are currently sitting a good 60 feet over the waterline.
In many ways, Alexandria is a wonderful tourist complement to Washington, D.C., for it is situated only miles away from the capital; it is much quieter; and it carries a lot of the historical charm of bigger cities, such as Philadelphia or Boston.
Actually, the true reason for routing our trip through Alexandria was to see Gadsby’s Tavern, a place where many early American presidents, including some of the Founding Fathers, as well as Marquis de La Fayette, another prominent figure in American history, had a pleasure dining. I sneaked in for a moment and took a shot of the interior. My observation was that if they had been as stocked with spirits back in the day, I wonder how they ever managed to do any productive work, let alone rule the country.
Yet we had to fight our temptations and head on to Richmond, the capital of Virginia.
The city of Richmond gives an impression of economically lean but culturally diverse metropolitan surrounding. The pointedly urban blocks with their worn-out brick walls covered in graffiti and improvised street shops frequented by poor folk encircle half-a-dozen public parks buried in verdure and comfortably placed along the banks of the James River. Before seeing the rest of Richmond, we first roamed around one of such parks, taking pictures and wondering how grateful the locals should be to be able to enjoy such peaceful and attractive natural retreats within the city bounds.
Next, we could not pass by the Museum of Fine Arts—for anything admission-free is to be at least considered—without first taking a few shots.
Whatever exhibition was on display at the time mainly focused on the art and culture of ancient civilizations, which—as pictures clearly show—were weird at best. For instance, the amorphic sculpture above depicts a kneeling woman entwined by serpents. Well… not a very reassuring situation to find oneself in.
A small showroom just a few steps away from the entrance was dedicated to the best works of the Virginia kids for the Google 4 Doodle competition. It was in a way cool to see these drawings first-hand after looking at some of them online.
Although we were supposed to stroll a bit around our next destination, Maymont Park, we ended up taking our kid for a half-hour walk through the Maymont Children’s Farm, where he had the fun of feeding goats and gazing at other cattle. Overall, the farm is very family-friendly and so was packed by bunches of visitors either crowding around the animals or admiring the colorful scenery of the park.
It so happens that cemeteries and graveyards are often among the most peaceful (no pun intended) and interesting places to see in a particular town. Hollywood Cemetery is not an exception: two American presidents, James Monroe and John Tyler, were buried there. And although the monuments and burial vaults were not as architecturally splendid as some that we had seen at other cemeteries, it was still a lovely spot to explore.
The tombs of the two presidents are found in the Presidents’ Circle:
To be honest, I was expecting to find more decor and some spectacular ornaments upon these statesmen’s graves. Yet even more sobering is the outlook one will find just 50 steps to the edge of the cemetery: a pair of railroad tracks and motionless train cars loaded with charcoal.
Richmond’s strong middle-class stratum and its historical overtones do not only show on the walls of aged civil buildings and municipal structures, but even in the outdoor advertising, and the whole social attitude it seems.
On the other hand, even a hurried passage through the town reveals thoughtful design and considerate treatment of the early governors and architects of Richmond.
It was already the second afternoon of our five-day trip when we finally left Richmond and turned east, towards the Virginia shore. Shirley Plantation was our next stop on the way to Virginia Beach, but the merciless gravel road available within the plantation seemed too much a punishment to inflict on our vehicle for a look at an unimpressive (courtesy of Google Images) colonial house. So, we proceeded a few miles further down John Tyler Memorial Highway to arrive at Berkeley Plantation, a place where the first Thanksgiving was supposedly celebrated.
Apart from the self-acclaimed status of historical importance, the plantation actually offers little beyond a few old houses (of which I find the gift shop the prettiest) and pleasant flower beds and pots.
Even the title of the Thanksgiving birthplace, miraculously shared with a handful of other sites, is too controversial to make Berkeley Plantation an essential Virginia must-see. Despite what this engraving might say…
Williamsburg is a kind of place that one regrets not spending more time at due to a very tight schedule (and steep entrance fees—for poorer folks like us). The city of Williamsburg is a genuine pearl to any Colonialism buff or perhaps American history majors. On top of numerous public sites of Colonial flavor scattered all over the place, there is also one particular area frequented by historically inclined tourists, Colonial Williamsburg, whose name, in my opinion, needs no further explanation.
Colonial Williamsburg is a full-day attraction in itself, and not an inexpensive one. In exchange for time and money visitors get to straggle throughout a small model town whose looks are missioned to recreate the ambience of early American life.
Unfortunately, at the time of our arrival we would have no more than forty minutes at our disposal in the colonial town, and only one or two late shows to catch. We concluded that a $130+ toll might be a bit greedy even for a day-long admission, much more so for a hasty look at what is on display. So we moved on to circle around a couple of downtown blocks, and that was it for our exploration of Williamsburg.
Until I found out that most NASA facilities in Hampton are not open to public, I was really hoping that seeing the Eight-Foot High-Speed Tunnel or the Lunar Landing Research Facility would be a highlight of our journey. Alas, the only NASA building with non-restricted access is the Visitors Center. On the bright side, we were admitted free of charge, and many exhibits turned out to be even better than at the National Air and Space Museum in D.C. So, perhaps we should not bitch about our misfortunes too much.
In actuality, anyone with an inquiring mind can find new things to learn at this museum. For instance, how the undercarriage of a plane looks like (not as simple as some might imagine):
And this is an inflatable replica of Curiosity, a rover that has recently landed on Mars. You can only sigh in disbelief at what the NASA scientists have accomplished when you see the size of that critter and confront that with a thing or two about physics.
Finally, my son and I had the honor of being a part of piloted space mission to Mars and, along with the crew, responding to a few emergency conditions.
Though it was already evening when we wrapped up our NASA Visitor Center tour, we took our chances and went to see the Langley speedway, a short NASCAR-sanctioned race track, where, it so happened, the local sports car enthusiasts practice during the week, Thursday being admission-free. Again, some luck on our part.
By the way, just across the street from the speedway stands a large NASA campus which, among other things, includes the wind tunnel we could not get in to see. Interestingly, on the outside this particular site looks nothing extraordinaire.
Initially, we were going to stop in Norfolk before making it all the way to the shore, but since our following day would then become one endless ride to the West Virginia borderline, we saved Norfolk for the purpose of diversifying the long commute. So, on the morning of the third day—a gloomy morning it was—we finally saw the ocean. First, we were to find the Cape Henry lighthouses, and then hang out on the beach for about an hour.
We discovered that the lighthouses are situated on the territory of a military base, Fort Story, and had to undergo standard roadblock procedures on the way in. As a person who has been up a dozen lighthouses, I have to say that it is a big disappointment when the observation deck on top is framed with glass—as it is always, without exception, dirty or scratched—and all the steps climbed and lenses carried serve little purpose at the end. That was the case of one of the Cape Henry lighthouses. The other one was simply closed.
Without any further delay we rolled down Atlantic Avenue to the live oceanfront blocks of Virginia Beach. It is not hard to guess what constitutes the life of this and similar commonplace resorts, during the summer months anyway.
Either tourists tend to be extremely dirty-mouthed around here or we did not correctly interpret the meaning of this sign.
As for the ocean, the water felt cold to the touch, and waves seemed rather rough that day.
In spite of no swimmers, there were still plenty of joggers and sun-bathers (on such day, really?) to be seen around. We were not particularly disposed to either of those activities, so we just let our little one play in the sand and frisk about in the water. But before too long we needed to get going again, because we had a couple of stops in Virginia and tons of driving to do before we even got close to the state’s western frontier. But first, we were going to drive back to Norfolk, according to our modified plan.
If not for the Chrysler Museum of Art, we probably would have not included Norfolk in our itinerary at all. But since the collection of the museum includes works by such names as Rubens, Manet, and Matisse, we figured that it is as good as a free lunch gets, so we made sure to see all that was inside. (Although I have to confess that I will likely never grow to appreciate some of the classic impressionist works, as least proportionally to their monetary value today.)
As a side note, look at the level of artistry the book illustrators of the past were capable of. Artist at heart, I have a weakness for the amazing drawings that many old books are decorated with.
The visual art of the last forty or so years has invested very little effort into books. Instead, the focus has shifted towards more spectacular and eye-catching installations that almost completely lose touch with reality.
Another interesting trait of the Chrysler Museum is its orientation towards glass craft. There are literally hundreds of glass exhibits inside these walls.
There were also a few thematic expositions at the time of our visit, such as the one with junk food items made fully out of colored glass.
To top it all, the museum even offers a glass workshop where the most restless visitors, young or old, can have a try at manufacturing their own glassware.
We enjoyed the Chrysler Museum a great deal, but it was really time for us to get going, for our next stop was way in the mountains, just shy of fifty miles from the West Virginia borderline,; meanwhile, the sun was past the zenith, and we were still sitting pretty at the heart of Chesapeake Bay.
It was practically last minutes of daylight when we managed to climb up the first heights of the Appalachian Mountains in our pity little car. Turn after turn, we followed the winding mountain roads that were to get us to Crabtree Falls at Montebello. We were not hopeful to see all three big cascades before dusk (as we would have to hike a few miles in the dark to accomplish that feat), but seeing at least one big waterfall felt within our reach. The time was slipping quickly, and we kept making short stops for photographs of the magnificent views that certainly called for a more detailed survey and enjoyment.
Yet finally we made it. We made it in time to see one waterfall in the dim twilight colors of the evening and check in at some high-altitude motel with a knowing that the next morning we would be starting the exploration of West Virginia, and that one mission of this journey has been completed.
Below is the route of our three-day wandering across Virginia.