walk around during tours at Monticello in
Charlottesville, Virginia, March 14, 2007
Jefferson would most likely flip his wig over the current
state of politics, but it’s safe to assume he’d be
pleased with the condition of Charlottesville, Va., which
served as both his home and artistic playpen.
many Midwesterners, I grew up paying my respects to the
third president during road trips to Mount Rushmore, where
spectators strain their necks staring up at his
Monticello, the plantation he obsessed over for four
decades, along with the rest of this vibrant college town,
bring Ol’ Granite Face tumbling down to earth,
introducing us to both the good (patriot, architect,
gardener, party animal) — and the bad (slave owner,
control freak, Mr. Know It All).
the wide, wild world of Jefferson, while allotting time to
sample from the region’s growing number of vineyards,
may seem like a daunting task. But it can be managed in
just a couple of days, even if you choose, as I did, to
arrive from Washington, D.C., by rail, a two-hour-plus
journey with limited routes and frequent delays.
Fortunately, the Amtrak station is located just off the
University of Virginia campus and its buttressing downtown
strip, one of the longest and most vibrant pedestrian
malls in the country, with a wide range of dining options
and late-night jams. The Dave Matthews Band got its start
working these bars, a local point of pride or
embarrassment, depending on one’s musical tastes.
ventured slightly off the popular path for the Ivy Inn, a
Southern-comfort eatery disguised as high-end dining
thanks to the white-tablecloth service and lighting from
toy lanterns inspired by the Paul Revere Collection at
Pottery Barn. Most entrees at the multistory Colonial inn
fall in the $20 to $30 range, leaving room in your budget
for the melt-in-your-mouth appetizer of pork belly and
grits and the decadent pecan bread pudding punctuated with
worry about the extra calories. You’ll burn them off the
next day keeping up with Jefferson’s legacy, especially
if you make the same near fatal mistake I did.
THE ROYAL TREATMENT
best way to acquaint yourself to new surroundings is
through Uber, whose drivers often offer running commentary
free of charge. In the course of our two-day trip, my
traveling companion and I were chauffeured by a pro-weed
hippie who laid out the local music scene, a James Madison
groupie who tried, in vain, to talk us into a visit to
nearby Montpelier, and a woman lamenting both the
discontinuation of her favorite fast-food shake and the
possibility of a Latin-American president with equal
on color, short on convenience. Several of our drivers ran
late, including the one who picked us up at our no-frills
hotel where the only historical artifacts on display were
part of the complimentary breakfast buffet. That made us
10 minutes late for our Monticello tour, which wouldn’t
have been a big deal if we hadn’t shelled out $55 each
in advance for the deluxe package.
delay gave us an opportunity to watch Virginians turn on
their storied charm.
seconds of arriving at the registration desk, we were
shooed into a shuttle that whisked us up the hill to the
mansion’s front door, where staffers continued to treat
us with the respect and urgency President Barack Obama is
granted upon landing at Camp David. We had missed the
opening remarks in Entrance Hall, a reception area with
much more than dated magazines to bide visitors’ time.
our amiable guide, was kind enough to circle back to the
Palladio-inspired room later in the morning — a nicety
that will be harder to come by during the crowded tourist
season, which started earlier this month and runs through
October — allowing us ample time to draw a connection
between the presidential pack rat’s collection of
antlers, carved stone heads, maps, marble-top tables and
animal bones. Making the game even more difficult: a
ludicrous seven-day clock operating on cannonball-sized
weights, ropes, a gong and Jefferson’s overestimation of
people’s interest in knowing the time.
that you’re in the presence of American royalty abound
with floors painted green to evoke the illusion that you’re
in the great outdoors, a lush greenhouse flanked by two
Venetian porches, a pianoforte for cocktail recitals and a
collection of portraits that rival the amount of selfies
in a teenager’s Instagram account.
the overall impression is that Jefferson was more
interested in showing off his innovative mind than his
eschewed a grand dining center for drop-leaf tables that
could be easily taken apart for intimate meals around a
fireplace featuring two dumbwaiters that could shoot up
wine bottles at the ring of a bell. Guests who tipped back
a few too many bottles could easily crash on a seemingly
limitless supply of alcove beds, the 18th century version
of the futon.
financially strapped Jefferson sold many of his 6,000
books to the government — laying the foundation for the
Library of Congress — but a few favorites remain on the
shelves in his cozy reading room, including a four-volume
set of "Don Quixote" in its original Spanish.
bedchamber, where Jefferson died, is perhaps the most
telling room. I could practically see the old man
marveling at the obelisk clock at the foot of his bed when
he awoke, climbing up the ladder to his hideaway closet to
fetch a fresh shirt and spinning a wheel at his desk that
allowed him to read five books simultaneously.
here that members of the "elite" tour get their
first perk: a peek inside the private privy where the
president would conduct his morning, um, constitutional.
But did we fork over an extra $30 just to get up close and
personal with an early example of indoor plumbing?
fear. The upgrade soon justified itself with a trip to the
upstairs family quarters, unavailable to
"commoners." These rooms, which for too long
were being used as office space, show how dedicated
Jefferson was to pampering his guests and loved ones, from
the boys’ hangout that encouraged both wildlife
exploration and horseplay, to the Dome Room, a spacious
sun-kissed hall with a hidden clubhouse for his daughters
and granddaughters who would, most likely, need an
occasional respite from the old man going on about his
tours focusing on Jefferson’s relationship with his
slaves, most notably Sally Hemings, who was almost
certainly his mistress, weren’t available on the March
weekday we were there, but you can venture out on your own
to their renovated shacks, as well as the vegetable
gardens and Jefferson’s surprisingly modest graveyard.
now it was time for lunch at Michie Tavern, a
Colonial-style chicken shack with an earnest staff dressed
in traditional garb to ease you through the cafeteria line
and bring beer to your picnic bench.
that the local favorite was just a little over a mile
away, we decided to hoof it on foot. It may have been the
dumbest idea since Benjamin Franklin suggested that the
national bird be the turkey. The road between Monticello
and Michie doesn’t feature a walking path, or even much
of a shoulder, which means we were at the mercy of drivers
who would have been less flabbergasted by the sight of two
tourists making the short journey by horse and buggy.
a good Samaritan pulled over and offered us a lift to our
destination, saving us a visit to Ye Olde Hospital. After
a filling meal with extra helpings of black-eyed peas and
beets, we headed to James Monroe’s Ash Lawn-Highland —
James Monroe. Despite coming up with the Monroe Doctrine
and a two-term presidency coined as the "Era of Good
Feelings," his legacy has always existed in the
shadow of his more colorful neighbor. Same goes for his
home. We had an afternoon tour all to ourselves. Our
guide, Josh, while more than competent, was counting down
the final hours to his next assignment, expounding on the
Wright Brothers at the Dayton Aviation Heritage Museum in
on a scale of 1 to 10, just how knowledgeable are visitors
(when there are some) about Monroe?
.5," said Josh, tucking away a copy of David
McCullough’s "The Wright Brothers" beneath the
front lawn’s 300-year-old white oak tree, so massive it
takes 11 kindergartners to join hands around its trunk.
rest of the estate is not so majestic, unless you’re
looking to redesign your condo in Colonial Chic. Almost 90
percent of the furniture, including a green marble-top
bureau and the First Couple’s mahogany bed, is original.
Salt Artisan Market isn’t nearly as historic, but the
three-year-old business, located just down the winding
road, is the perfect place to fuel up on iced coffee and
perfectly seasoned rosemary peanuts. Just steer clear of
the imbibed tourists who are known to stumble over from
Jefferson Vineyards and spoil the Mayberry-like charms of
this converted 1930s gas station.
numerous detours kept us from an official visit to
Jefferson’s other architectural marvel, the rotunda on
the University of Virginia, but we wandered around campus
at twilight, pretending to be one of the 50 lucky seniors
who earn residency on the pavilions that flank each side
of the grassy mall leading up to Jefferson’s
masterpiece, currently under renovation.
fetching their morning paper or firewood gathered outside
their front doors might get accustomed to having Jefferson’s
tribute to the Pantheon in their front lawn. If students
hadn’t been on spring break this early evening, I would
have urged them to occasionally take a pause from studies
and frat parties to appreciate their surroundings, as well
as venture off site at least once a semester for a
Monticello house call.
don’t walk there.