Southern Road Trip #1: Virginia

Most Decembers, my mom, sister, sister-in-law, and I go on girls’ trips right after Christmas and return home on New Year’s Eve. In honor of Travel Tuesday, I thought it would be fun to tell you about our travel destinations so far and tell you a little about what we have done on our Southern Road Trips! The first road trip we took is detailed below, and I will try to post about each of the rest in succeeding weeks!

Stop #1: Virginia (December 2013)

In 2013, I was wanting to look at a couple of the law schools to which I had been accepted. My girls were up for a road trip, and thus the December trips were born. Right from the beginning, the trips were heavy on history. Our first stop was in Lexington, Virginia, where I had been accepted at Washington and Lee. Very friendly people! Lovely campus! Also, while we were there, we did a drive-by of VMI. Very impressive fortress! The town of Lexington was cute, and, of course, packed with history. Stonewall Jackson once taught at VMI and was very much a part of the Lexington community, and Robert E. Lee served as the president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) after the Civil War. Just be cautious about the stop lights! They are not above the car but are instead on the sidewalks beside you. We blew through about three of them before realizing they even existed.

From there, we drove to Charlottesville, where we had supper at a fabulous Mexican restaurant called Plaza Azteca. My sister-in-law spoke fabulous Spanish with the waiter, a gentleman who corrected me on my own Spanish and made exemplary guacamole at our table. Of course, the destination was Monticello. You park, and they take you in fancy little buses up Jefferson’s hill. The tour of the house and grounds is awe-inspiring. Monticello is actually a World Heritage Site now, and it’s easy to see why. As my mom said, “You can really feel Jefferson’s presence here.” Monticello was and is a very loved house. There is also a new exhibition on the Hemingses of Monticello, which was insightful. The staff operates like a well-oiled machine, and the gift shop is not to be disdained. I actually ordered a colonial-style wreath from them this Christmas, and it arrived all the way from Virginia in perfect condition.

Then we went just around the river bend to Michie Tavern, which is a revelation in and of itself. It was originally a tavern and inn, which continued in operation until around the time of the Civil War. It opened as a museum in 1928. Today, you walk up to the big wooden door, knock, and a person in period-appropriate attire comes and welcomes you in. Then you get in line and are given a trencher, which more costumed interpreters fill with typical Southern fare. Our favorite menu item is what we call “Jefferson’s tomatoes,” although we cannot establish whether he actually ever had the recipe. Basically, they’re stewed tomatoes with biscuits crumbled in and a dash of sugar added. Heavenly. You then go out into the tavern dining room, which is appropriately dimly lit, and you are served drinks from metal mugs. It is delightful and delicious.

From there, it was on to Richmond! Rain was pouring down, and our time was limited, so we only got to do two things. We drove down Monument Avenue, lined with mansions and monuments, which you have to do if you go to Richmond. We also went to Maymont, which is a Victorian estate. This is like touring Biltmore Estate in North Carolina or some of the cottages in Newport, Rhode Island. It is the same era, and every bit as fancy. The family story is fascinating, as are their antiques. The house and estate is beautifully preserved. It was very crowded the day we toured, and a little chilly, so I suggest that if you have to wait for your tour under similar circumstances, do not sacrifice your place in the gift shop (they will tell you when they are at capacity). Otherwise, absolutely get outside and explore the grounds, which are still intact with gardens, a carriage house, an arboretum, and some of the buildings used while it was a working estate. The tour is free, but they love donations.

Then we went on to Charles City County, a still-very-remote and untouched area where lots of historical movies are filmed. The destination was Shirley Plantation. However, my mom saw a sign for Berkeley Plantation and made a rapid left turn. We then proceeded down a driveway with no gravel while it continued to pour rain, wondering whether we would ever get out. My mom, however, was quite determined, and we made it. Berkeley was the home of the Harrisons of Virginia (as in Benjamin, William Henry, etc.). While there, we had an excellent tour from a man in an 18th Century waistcoat and tights, admired the odd pink color of the walls, and learned that the Harrison men were very attractive, or at least very photogenic in portraits. Taps was also composed and first played there, to top it off, while the Union Army was encamped there. Talk about worlds colliding!

Then we went to Shirley Plantations, which is *ohmygosh* FABULOUS. First of all, there was a cat in the gift shop called Tuna. How do you top that? Established in 1613, Shirley claims the title as the oldest farm in America and is still owned and operated by descendants today. Maybe it’s just the structure and architecture of the house that I love so much, or maybe it was the deeply colonial feeling of it when you walk in… Either way, it resonates!

And then, our final destination was Williamsburg. Our main point in going there was to see William and Mary, which I was considering attending. Beautiful campus! Amazing setting! We didn’t have time to tour Colonial Williamsburg (do you see a Part 2 coming soon? ), but we did drive around the stunning town and had a great supper at a swanky seafood place which was a little over our budget. But our waitress was really nice and told us about her home in Czechia, which was really memorable. We also went to the great university bookstore on campus and found a Scottish store with accessories in the crests and tartans of the original clans from Scotland (go Clan Colquhoun!). Sadly, the latter was closed, so we made plans to return.  And then…the fourteen-hour drive home!

Next time: Asheville, North Carolina!

Travel Tuesday: ROME!!

I would like to thank my sister, Hannah, for graciously agreeing to do this guest post following her study abroad trip.  Hannah, I cede the floor to you!

Ah, Rome. I can’t think of a city packed with more religious magnitude or culture. My study abroad trip consisted of deep historical research ranging from four hundred years pre-Christ to World War II. I am perfectly aware that this sounds impossible to accomplish in ten days, but, with a good pair of boots, my feet naturally led me to the ancient wonders all around. Shots of espresso didn’t hurt, either. The uneven cobblestones and massive hills presented me with layer after layer of the ancient world, and along with that, of course, followed much food exploration and failed attempts at navigation. There will always be too much to do and see in Rome, so hit the sites that are most poignant to you. You can do the other stuff the next time you go. Hopefully this blog post will help you on your own pilgrimage to Rome.

First, I will help you out on all things food (the most important thing, right?) If you’re a big breakfast person, I would suggest finding a café that advertises “American Breakfast”. And don’t worry about finding a café that suits you. Tables and cute tablecloths are outside under awnings, catching your eye. If that doesn’t work, each restaurant and café has a host who invites you as you pass to join them for a meal, telling you what is on the menu. Ignoring them isn’t an option, and sometimes listening pays off. Most cafés are open for breakfast, but they really only serves espresso and lunch items. Each café will be packed around 9 a.m. with Romans ready to have their caffeine fix before work, and after quickly downing it while standing at the counters, they leave having had no food. My American friends were continually appalled by this. I’m not a big breakfast person either, but the food I did order was much different. The pancakes came with marzipan, scrambled eggs were flatter and fried, and the bacon was a big piece of the best ham you’ve ever eaten.

I found that as I reverted to the things I knew while ordering lunch or dinner, I kept looking for Olive Garden menu items. I did this because sometimes the language barrier was pretty intense, especially since I opted for the less touristy restaurants in search of more authentic Italian food. The pasta is much thicker, the options at each restaurant more limited, and changeable per day, and the quality of the food is so much better. With that being said, I found that sticking with the tomato-based stuff was the safer option for tourists, mostly because the names of the dishes were more familiar. Anything with an olive oil base was definitely the way to go, if you’re feeling riskier, especially with breads. All the ingredients are so fresh, and your taste buds will thank you. Don’t forget to order seafood, too, because the daily catches are usually cheaper and much tastier. Bruschetta drizzled with olive oil is a must, as is any pasta with mushrooms. House wines will be poured regardless of if you order any, and water is very expensive. Oh! and the gelato is a great pick-me-up when you get a little tired from touring. I found that three gelatos a day kept the doctor away.

On my first night in Rome, I ambled around the Forum and stumbled on a beautiful cathedral (this isn’t difficult to do; I literally stopped counting the basilicas midway through the week). I quickly realized I had entered a Mass service, and I decided to stay, even though I am not Catholic. Do yourself a favor when you go to Rome and sit through a service. Growing up, my home church was very simple, but pretty, so I wondered why so much money was put into architecture and objects. In the back of my mind, I knew such beauty made me feel the sacredness of the space and the importance of worship. The next day I was fortunate enough to have tours of St. John Lateran, Santa Maria Maggiore, and St. Paul’s (three of five of the major basilicas in Rome!) by a Dominican Nun. She explained that beauty and ornateness in Cathedrals are meant to reflect the beauty and complexities of our God. Teary-eyed, I viewed the grandeur all around me through different lenses. This made my experience at St. Peter’s much more meaningful. My professor secured a behind-the-scenes tour of what lies beneath, circa 200 CE. It took my breath away, both literally and figuratively. There was very little air underground, and through near-suffocation, the nerdy historian and religious scholar within won out and was able to see Peter’s tomb, along with the perfectly preserved Roman city of the first, second, and third centuries. Needless to say, I completely freaked out. There was a little moment at St. Peter’s when everyone in my group was convinced we saw the Pope. Hey, it was a man in white walking toward the altar, surrounding by Swiss Guards. I’m sure he was some significant figure in the Church, but what else was my sleep-deprived brain supposed to think? If anyone asks, I saw the Pope at St. Peter’s.

The ceilings were my favorite thing in each basilica. Even though you feel like you’re in sensory overload, remember to look at your feet, too. Sometimes you find little treasures like the gold bricks in the Jewish ghetto pictured below. Placed outside of homes, each brick has the identification of the Jews who were pulled from their Roman houses and later killed during World War II. And though the city is filled with sad histories, the presence of God, and knowing the fight for Him through history, will give you chills. It was funny how randomly I would look up and find another breathtaking view, and I would become overwhelmed by the history of the city. And surprisingly, it is pretty easy to navigate. I tried to keep the Colosseum, the Forum, or the Capitoline Hill in mind to keep myself from getting too lost. The great thing is that you will get lost, if you tour by foot like me. I stumbled on the Via dei Coronari trying to find the villa my group stayed at, and, to my wonderful surprise, I found a Renaissance street lined with white lights, sweet cafés in the Roma style you see in Audrey Hepburn movies, artists painting the sites around them, acoustic musicians, and so much shopping. I’m talking handmaid ties, silk scarves, Italian leather, furs, vintage items, antique stores, and everything else your heart could desire but your luggage doesn’t have space for.

One last suggestion. When you go to Rome, don’t take too many pictures of the amazing architectural things around you. You can find better ones online, and you will want to experience Rome rather than seeing it through your camera. But do try to get pictures of you and the people with you in front of those amazing things. Castel Sant’Angelo is the best place to take photos with the city behind you! 😉