I hadn’t been back there since 1973, when I went to summer school at the University of Richmond after getting discharged from the Navy.
Inna and I left a little before noon on a gloriously sunny and warm Veterans Day and took the long way, a scenic drive through South County and US 301, with a stop at Captain Billy’s on Pope’s Creek, for the worst fried food EVER. It’s a scenic spot along the Potomac, but the greasy food stayed with us for the rest of the day, and not in a good way.
We drove over the Governor Nice Bridge and into Virginia with its bright red cardinal welcome sign, past Dahlgren and Fort A.P. Hill, a land still pretty much like it was 30 years ago – mostly forests and fields. We stopped in Ashland for a brief walk around my old alma mater Randolph-Macon College. Inna thought it was cute, and not much has changed – the big fountain, the motel dorms a bit upgraded, Moreland Hall where I once lived, fraternity row, everything tidy and in it’s proper place. It made me want to light a joint and take a nap.
We pushed on for Richmond and went directly to the Visitors Center on Third Street, where a gracious old Colonial Dame broke out maps and told us the best places to visit while warning us that there was going to be a marathon on Saturday and the town would be impossible to get around in. Run away! She was very helpful but she should have been wearing a button that read “Richmond Sucks!”
We headed over to Monument Street and checked out the giant statuary of the Confederacy’s fallen heros. We walked along the wide grass median where rebel champs arose into the blue sky every few blocks. There was J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and Matthew Fontaine Maurey on stone horses, with Jefferson Davis in the middle giving a speech. Ornate and immaculate houses lined the stately boulevard with its maples, ginkos and willow oaks turning the world a fiery yellow and red. The fall colors were at their peak and the residential streets were like glowing tunnels. The ginkos, in particular throbbed a golden yellow like underwater coral.
When the sun went down, we drove west to the Days Inn on Dickens Road. We unpacked, loaded up on drink and spice, and then headed back into town to Shocktoe Bottom, Richmond’s version of Baltimore’s Fell’s Point, where the former industrial bottomland is being transformed into trendy restaurants, jumping juke joints, and upscale townhouses. Inna had cashed in some of her credit card miles for restaurant discounts and we headed over to a place called Posh which was not open. We hit the very nice SUMOSAN restaurant on Cary Street for some Sapporo beer and fresh fish. Inna gave the dining certificate to our waitress as a tip.
The next day we grabbed a barely edible – but free – breakfast at the hotel before starting into town. The grey-haired docent at the Visitors Center had given me what turned out to be a gold mine map from a 6-mile charity walk called the “Anthem Stride Through Time” around the historic core, starting at the American Civil War Center Visitor Center at Tredegar on the James River, where the Park Service and others have preserved the five main areas where the industrial might of the south was put to the ultimate test.
We started our trek on the Canal Walk along the river on a sunny day with temperatures in the low 60's, past gleaming bank skyscrapers and the historic flood wall that protected the downtown core from the James River.
After about a mile, we left the waterfront and headed past the somewhat inexplicable Holocaust Museum and back into Shockoe Bottom, and then up to Church Hill to the white-framed St. John’s Church, where the rabble-rousing rebel Patrick Henry delivered his infamous “Give me liberty, or give me death” speech against King George and the British. The views of the city from the east end of Church Hill reminded me of Glasgow and Richmond lay before us like a shiny carnival ride.
We bushwacked down a hill back into Shockoe Bottom, past the Edgar Allan Poe House (Richmond’s oldest house) and had a tasty lunch at LuLu’s, right next to the historic 17th Street Farmers Market which was bustling with activity as the African-American vendors hawked their produce to the sounds of soul music oldies.
We started a long walk along East Main, up the big hill back into city center, stopping at the red, brick and sandstone Gothic Main Street train station and the Reconciliation Statue which was erected in recognition of the city’s dark connection to slavery. At the top of the hill stood the magnificent, gleaming white Georgian state capital building and Governor’s mansion. On the back side of the Capital there was a peaceful lawn much like the national capital in Washington, where statues to the African-American struggle for freedom and the Founding Fathers lined the grassy, tree-lined park and the gothic Old City Hall towered above us like a Scottish castle.
We continued north, past St. Paul’s Church, the Library of Virginia, the glass and steel new City Hall, Monumental Church, and the VCU School of Medicine. We had covered over four miles at this point and we needed to give our feet a break, so we grabbed an empty table next to the fountain behind the Valentine Richmond House. Inna took off her shoes and we basked in the warmth of the sun.
The café patio closed at 2 and we continued our urban walk past the Georgian-styled John Marshall House, Abady Festival Park, the Arabesque Carpenter Theater, Richmond Coliseum, and the Richmond Region Visitor Center where we had mapped out our visit the previous day.
It was beer-thirty, so we stopped at the Marriot for a cold brew on the outdoor patio, across from the Richmond Center Stage on East Broad Street. There was a nice electric fire place and we people watched while we drank our IPA’s and remarked how nice everyone seemed and how clean and attractive Richmond was – unlike Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg which we had visited a few months before. The residents have a real sense of happiness and pride and the city is a treat to explore.
We headed back down the hill on Fifth Street to the Tredegar Iron Works and hopped in the car. On the way back to the hotel, we scouted out a biker Jazz bar on West Broad Street known as Emilio’s. We had been told it was a great place to hear jazz but the place looked a bit sketchy and the Hell’s Angels book signing sign in the window didn’t exactly ring our bell. Back in our hotel room, we rested at the hotel and regrouped for the evening. After out 6-mile hike over much of Richmond, our heads were spinning and our feet were hurting.
We finally summoned the strength to dress for dinner and then drove down to 301 Franklin where Inna had yet another restaurant discount coupon. We had a yummy dinner and then took a walk around the neighborhood, taking in the Victorian houses on a beautiful fall evening. We took a side trip around the very urban and attractive VCU Monroe campus and then over to the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart which lit the night like a huge white flower.
The next day was the Richmond Marathon, so our plan was to steer clear of downtown until noon when the streets would no longer be closed for the runners.
We headed about five miles north of town to the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. They wanted $10 to tour a garden that was hardly in bloom, so we ate brunch in the empty café, overlooking the glass-domed botanical garden. If it had been $5, we would have stayed, but $10 for a dormant garden was too much to pay.
Still wanting to avoid the Marathon, we stayed on the southwest side of the City and visited some of the historic mansions overlooking the James River, stopping first at the red-bricked Wilton House, which was moved fourteen miles upriver from its original location to make way for a factory that never materialized and which is now being run by the Colonial Dames of Richmond, who charge $10 for a tour. We once again declined.
We headed a few miles east to the Agecroft and Virginia House mansions that sit side-by-side on tree-lined bluffs above the James River.
Agecroft is a giant Tudor mansion that looks out of place in the Antebellum world of Richmond. It dates back to the 16th Century England and the windows, roofing tiles, beams and furniture were brought to Richmond in the 1930's when the tobacco baron industrialist T.C. Williams purchased Windsor Farm and decided to build a Tudor village. The depression nixed that plan and other than Virginia House, a 15th Century castle that was transported from England to it’s current location, the neighborhood is comprised of million dollar Georgian mansions built in the 1960's. We walked around the ornate gardens of Agecroft and Virginia House and marveled at the tranquil beauty of these recreated gems.
Around noon, we drove through new-money communities on the west end of town where smiling families played in giant leaf piles and waved as we drove past. We parked just off of Monument Street and walked around The Fan, a residential mix of diversely-designed houses lined by magnificent street trees that were in the peak fall glory. We walked for about an hour around The Fan, and once again, we were struck by the tidy nature and genial hospitality of everyone we met. Whenever we stopped to look at a map, someone – blacks and whites – came up and asked if they could help us find what we were looking for.
We walked over to Carytown where head shops, consignment shops, and trendy stores were bustling with activity. Well-dressed hipsters ambled along the flag-draped boulevard and we stopped at a sushi restaurant for some $2 Pabst Blue Ribbons and raw fish. After lunch, we walked along Cary Street, stopping to check out the funky stores.
As the sun began to set, we hopped back in the car and hopped onto I-95, heading north to Annapolis. Two hours later, we were home.
Richmond is a wonderful weekend getaway and a place where history and the present come together with both grace and style. The people are unbelievably friendly and the city is clean, safe, and chock full of interesting places to play. We are definitely going back.
To see our trip photos check out http://picasaweb.google.com/steve.carr567/Richmond#