Sunday, 22 July 2012
A fantastic day, filled with American presidential history.
After breakfast in the hotel, we hop in the car for the 15-minute drive to Monticello, climbing the hill to the visitors’ center where we wait for a shuttle bus to take us the final leg up to the house and grounds. To finally see Thomas Jefferson’s masterpiece, a repository of so much history, is thrilling.
We begin with the house tour, led by a very personable UVA student; the highlight for me is seeing Jefferson’s bedroom and library. After the standard tour, which includes the main rooms on the first floor and the immediate grounds, we kill a bit of time looking around in the basement (work areas, store rooms, wine cellar, slave quarters) before the start of the “back stage tour,” which takes us through the second floor of Monticello. We see a few bedrooms (none of which were furnished with Jefferson items but you get the idea) and it’s nice to see the view from above. We also get to climb the incredibly narrow winding staircases to the second floor, spending time in the dome room and the hidden alcove over the porch.
Afterward, we take the Slavery at Monticello and garden tours, both of which are chock-full of information. I’m impressed that at no point do they shy away from the subject of slavery, Thomas Jefferson’s complicated relationship with the institution and, of course, Sally Hemmings. All the tour guides are excellent and really know their stuff. On the day we were there, Monticello was busy, but not insanely crowded, and I marveled at the impressive volunteer army on hand. Five hours later, we’ve seen it all, and wrap-up or visit with lunch at the visitors’ center.
Next, we’re off for a quick visit to James Monroe’s abode, conveniently located about a five minutes drive away. Quite a stark contrast between these homes. Ash Lawn-Highland is smaller, humbler, less impressive but no less interesting. Monroe’s home is notably different from when he lived there (the second floor was added later) and the later time period is quite apparent by the different style in architectural style, furnishing and decor.
We take a quick house tour, given by a young man dressed in a sports coat on a very warm day. I take a photo of a 300-plus-year-old tree on the grounds and we call it a day. Montpelier, James Madison’s home, would have to wait until tomorrow.
Back in Charlottesville, we take a dusk walk around the UVA campus. Much of the historic Jefferson-era section is under restoration, looking less than its best. It’s still fun to see after hearing and reading so much about the place. Dinner is at The Virginian, a local university hangout. So far, Virginia’s craft beer scene is nothing to write home about.