For a century or two, people have come to Middleburg, in Virginia’s hunt country, to ride horses, gather in taverns and do a little shopping.
Today, the town’s old brick sidewalks lead you around stores piled with German nutcrackers, tribal art, Carl Larsson children’s books, tartan plaid dog beds, John Robshaw pillows and antique pine sideboards.
The journey is part of the fun. The last 10 miles of the hour-long drive west from Washington meanders through manicured estates and moss-covered stone walls. If you’re lucky, a few snowflakes might start to swirl. You’ll feel far away from sequesters and shutdowns, especially when you see a Mercedes with a foxhound hood ornament cruise by.
This Saturday might be the day to escape here and put a dent in your holiday shopping list. You’ll see the 32nd annual Christmas in Middleburg celebration, featuring a hunt review with more than 100 horses with riders in red and black coats and packs of hounds coming through the town. Vicki Bendure, spokeswoman for the Town of Middleburg, population 650, says it feels “straight out of Norman Rockwell.”
The stores and restaurants, many in buildings dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries, are dressed in pine garlands and twinkling lights. “So many businesses are owned by locals who have had their shops for years and are really doing something they love,” says Stuart Nordin, an Alexandria interior designer who enjoys poking around Middleburg on behalf of clients and for herself. “You find things you don’t see anywhere else, both gifty things and furniture. Everything you bring home has a story to it.”
The Middleburg area’s stables and fox hunts have always attracted the rich and famous, including John and Jackie Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor. The horsey crowd is an international one. Lots of boutiques specialize in goods from Europe, Asia and other far-flung locales. The tiny Les Jardins de Bagatelle (12 E. Washington St.), which Nora Haddad has owned for 17 years, carries only French products, many made by hand in small ateliers. You’ll find beeswax candles, linen and cotton silk-screened towels, pottery and acrylic trays. Gunhild Mjornell of Skandinavia Antiques and Accessories (17 S. Madison St.) can show you Swedish cookbooks, Hungarian felt pillows and Finnish crystal. Have you ever used traditional British Christmas party crackers as part of your holiday table setting? The Fun Shop (117 W. Washington St.), the town’s version of a neighborhood department store since 1956, has what must be one of the largest selections of these amusements this side of the pond.
Antiquing has always been a reason to come here. The Middleburg Antique Emporium (107 W. Washington St.) has multiple dealers displaying plenty of the hallmarks country houses are known for: brass andirons, English transferware, silver candlesticks and horse paintings. Hastening Design Studio (116 W. Washington St.) has a nice selection of 17th- and 18th-century European furniture mixed with contemporary paintings; it also takes orders for custom furniture.
Thrift shops in prosperous neighborhoods are always worth a look. At the Middleburg Humane Thrift Shop(6 W. Washington St.), locals donate their extra turkey platters and books as well as used riding apparel and tack to benefit at-risk animals.
↑Creme de la Creme (23 E. Washington St.) It always feels festive in this shop, which specializes in merchandise to celebrate the seasons. It’s known for French and Italian table linens and handmade pottery, but there’s lots more: letterpress cards, Anduze goblets and emerald green Berlingot knives. Gift ideas include olive wood salad servers ($34) and Nouvelle candle urns ($45) that are hand-poured in Louisiana in holiday scents including fresh-cut fir and rosemary. Familiar designer names include Thomas Paul, John Robshaw, John Derian and Vietri. The store also has locations in Leesburg and Charlottesville.
↑The Outpost (6 S. Madison St.) Keith and Pam Foster opened their shop a year ago with a cache of antique British campaign furniture, sporting antiques, tribal art, custom-designed British leather club chairs and sofas and curiosities from around the globe. Their philosophy: buy as they travel to countries they love. They close each year from January to March, reopening in April with new finds. Last year, they went to England, Africa, Istanbul and China. In January, they plan to go to England, Africa and South America. Some current finds include a $5,000 teak 1840 British campaign chest; vintage rugs from Istanbul that have been shaved and dyed to give them an updated look ($900 to $1,600); Moroccan end tables from 1900 inlaid with mother of pearl ($900); and a pair of wood-and-brass antique English oars ($200).
↑The Shaggy Ram (3 E. Washington St.) Walking into the Shaggy Ram feels like being invited to a cozy English cottage furnished in the best taste. Owner Joanne M. Swift has a real eye for country antiques and sporting art and accessories, many from England and France. She has been in business in Middleburg for 25 years; Jackie Kennedy Onassis was once a customer. She also does interior design and keeps an extensive sample room. There are paintings of handsome foxes ($195) and decoupage dog plates ($45). A great gift: English plant pots ($35 to $65), handcrafted with the official seal of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew.
The Christmas Sleigh (5A E. Washington St.) Yes, those are show tunes from “The Sound of Music” you hear. This shop is for black-belt collectors of traditional European Christmas stuff. Owners Dieter Rausch and his wife, Linda Tripp Rausch (yes, the woman who blabbed about Monica Lewinsky), travel to Germany, Austria and Italy to select classic, handmade decorations. They specialize in Steinbach nutcrackers and Schweizer handpainted pewter ornaments. You’ll also find Tyrolean sweaters, gnarled wooden walking sticks, cuckoo clocks and Bavarian hunting hats. They are even open Christmas Eve from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in case you need an emergency $32 German handblown-glass mushroom ornament.
Wylie Wagg (5B E. Washington St.) Co-owner Laura Clark focuses on the well-being of animals when choosing her pet food and accessories. The red leather bone-shaped bell door hanger by Auburn Leather ($25.99) is a festive holiday decoration as well as a training tool for dogs.
The Upper Crust Bakery (4 N. Pendleton St.) is a favorite of locals, especially for its cow puddles, those caramel-like cookies both crisp and chewy. The Red Fox Inn and Tavern (2 E. Washington St.) serves Virginia-style food in a historic, beamed room. Or stop by for tea or a cocktail amid the polished clubby decor at Salamander Resort & Spa (500 N. Pendleton St.) a posh complex a short walk from town just opened by entrepreneur Sheila Johnson.
Christmas in Middleburg is this Saturday. As part of the festivities, you can buy fresh greens and Christmas trees, and many merchants offer food and wine tastings. For more information on events and parking, call 540-687-8888 or visit www.christmasinmiddleburg.org.