Washington: A Capital Place

Trip Start Sep 06, 2009
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of United States  , District of Columbia
Monday, October 19, 2009

After the teeth-chattering cold of New England, we wanted to get to warmer climes as soon as possible so planned to do one long drive South to Washington, with just one night's stop at Philly to catch up with Mark once more.  

Before leaving New England, we were keen to see Newport in Rhode Island, famous for being home to yachting’s most prestigious trophy, The America’s Cup, for over a hundred years until the Aussies finally managed to win the cup in 1983 under the patronage of Alan Bond.  It was also the scene of Great Gatsby-style living in the 1890s when wealthy New Yorkers engaged in heady game of one-upmanship by building grander and grander mansions along it’s Bellevue Avenue.  We drove along this road gasping at the scale and opulence of some of these houses – amusingly known as’ Summer Cottages’ to their owners – which culminated in the home of Cornelius Vanderbilt, a 70-room Italian Renaissance megapalace.

We drove on in pouring rain and, as we tried to skirt New York, experienced American-style gridlock for the first time.  It took us two and a half hours to drive 10 miles…  And if the dreadful weather and traffic wasn’t enough, we managed to get lost just outside Philadelphia and ended up circling one particular section of freeway for at least half an hour until we got back on track…  The net result was that we arrived in Philly not only tired and hungry but also very late – dinner with Mark which had been scheduled for 6pm ended up being at 9.30pm. After collapsing in bed at 11.30 we were woken by the hotel’s fire alarm at 3.00am…  Not one of our better days! 

The following day we had a late and lazy breakfast, courtesy of the hotel (the least they could do in the circumstances!), and spent the morning with Mark, visiting his college campus and meeting some more of his friends.   We set off for Washington in the early afternoon and arrived just as darkness fell so decided simply to have something to eat and have an early night.

The next day we noted with some chagrin, that despite our big drive South, the weather had not improved significantly: it was still raining and pretty cold….  We drove into a surprisingly quiet Washington – well, it was Saturday morning – and, despite the rain, parked the car to get out and explore.  The children were keen to see the White House and by great good fortune, we happened to have arrived on one of only two weekends per year when the White House gardens are open to the public.  We got our free tickets from the Visitor Information Centre and joined an orderly and very respectful queue to enter the grounds.  We were able to see the Oval Office and the brand new climbing frame installed for the Obama children as well as the 'Children’s Garden’ where the hand prints of the various children who have lived in the White House over the years have been set in concrete slabs.

By this stage, though, the drizzle and the cold was beginning to get to us so we decided to retreat to the warmth and shelter of one of Washington’s many excellent museums.  The children chose the Air & Space museum as our first port of call.  This was without doubt one of the best museums we have ever been to.  We were lucky enough to be in time for a guided tour and had an excellent guide who transmitted her enthusiasm and passion for all things aeronautical.  The museum is home to the Wright Brother’s first plane and to Charles Lindberg’s The Spirit of St Louis, the first plane to fly across the Atlantic.  It also has the first rocket ever made, the Apollo II command capsule and many other treasures.  We loved it and were there until they closed.

The following day we were relieved to see that the rain had finally stopped and, although it was still rather grey, we would be able to see some of the other sights that Washington has to offer.  We started at the Lincoln Memorial – a suitably impressive structure and the seated Lincoln every bit as imposing as he appears from photographs.  From there we worked our way along The Reflective Pool, the long oblong pond that runs from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument, in itself an iconic sight – scene of anti-Vietnam protests amongst others.  So, it was perhaps fitting that the memorial to those who died in the Vietnam War was located at the base of this stretch of water. 

The memorial was very sensitively conceived by a 21-year old of Chinese descent called Maya Lin who won a National competition to design a monument for those who fell in this, the most divisive war America had ever participated in.  A simple angled black granite wall slashes through the ground simply listing the names of all those who had died or were missing in action.  It is powerful in its simplicity and in the subtle and gentle touches Maya Lin added such as listing the names, not in alphabetical order, but in date order, so that comrades who had served and died together would be together forever on the wall.  She also started and ended the names in the central apex of the angled wall so that the first and the last to die would be together.  It was very moving, all the more so because of the presence of several Vietnam veterans who were acting as guides and who had their own tales to tell.  They could point to names on the wall and say "I was there the day that those three were killed".  I think even the children were affected by it.

The memorial to the those killed in the Second World War at the other end of the Reflective Pool was a complete contrast.  It was impressive but huge, impersonal and somewhat grandiose.  It lacked where the other succeeded. 

We ended our walk at the Washington Monument the tall obelisk which punctuates the end of the Reflective Pool.  From here it is possible to have fantastic views over the capital from the top.  Unfortunately all the tickets had been issued for the day by the time we got there so we didn’t get the chance to do that, though the greyness of the day suggested that the view from the top might not have been quite as good as usual.  Once again, the weather was defeating us – no rain but a cold, harsh wind – and we decided to retreat to a museum. 

This time we chose the Natural History Museum.  This was so much better than the one in New York; fresh and imaginatively presented, the whole family loved it.  We explored the mysteries of The Deep, the fascinating properties of soil, the marvels of rocks and minerals – including a very privileged look at the Hope Diamond amongst other wondrous sparklies – and ended by looking at the shifting Teutonic plates and why earthquakes occur.

When we came out of the museum, we were delighted to see that the clouds had lifted and there were weak rays of sun poking through.  We decided to walk back to our hotel to see a little more of this capital City which had proved to be so much more engaging and less impersonal than we had expected.  Despite the weather we really enjoyed our time here.

Next stop: the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia
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keithw-2009 on

Wow !! Looks like a great trip so far
Just signed in to catch up on the Todd Blog and I'm really impressed by what you've done so far. I've visited many of the places you've been to so far except for Yosemite and the pictures there make me want ot go back to see it. Keep it coming and I'm looking forward to the next report. But above all ...... HAVE FUN !!

toddfamily on

Re: Wow !! Looks like a great trip so far
Fun?? After 3 days at Disneyland, we're not sure we can take much more Fun!!

Simon on

Enjoying the blogs - and this one on DC takes me back to my last visit 25 years ago. So that's where I saw the Wright brothers' plane and no wonder I can't find it at the science museum in South Ken.

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