In addition to a heady continental breakfast spread for guests, the Inn at Court Square is open to the public for lunch weekdays, and had I but world enough and time I'd tell you of the magic that chef Karl Bock works in a tiny commercial kitchen about the size of my pantry closet. Alas, we must move on.
From Court Square it was a quick dash around the corner to the Market Street Wineshop; if someone back home is watching the plants/the pets/the kids, here's the place to pick up that special something that says "thank you." The cool grottolike shop, with its whitewashed stone walls, sits just below street level at 311 E. Market St. (434/979-9463), and its five rooms offer wine, wine and more wine ("we have a lot of wine," admitted Kathy Stolzenbach working the counter) as well as specialty beers, pâté, cheeses, sausages, teas, coffees, fresh, locally made baked goods and packaged gourmet goodies from cookies to vinegar. A recent transplant to C-ville, Stolzenbach commented, "People here are awfully nice. Strangers keep complimenting me on my parking abilities."
The Downtown Mall in Charlottesville.
(Richard Robinson - for The Washington Post)
I ambled back to the Mall and was seduced within moments by the Sun Bow Trading company. From outside you are drawn in the door by the deep, rich, earthy colors visible through the large picture windows: rust, burnt umber, persimmon, reds so profound that they seem to speak directly to your soul.
Stephanie Tanner, owner Saul Barodofsky and Olivia Johnston at the enticing Sun Bow Trading.
(Richard Robinson - for The Washington Post)
Sun Bow (401 E. Main, 434/293-8821) is a downtown veteran, in the neighborhood since 1978, selling "fine tribal and nomadic textile art," extraordinarily beautiful pieces from the Middle East and Central Asia: kilims and prayer carpets and tent bands and runners, each unique.
On duty the day I dropped in were three of the store's staff (owner Saul Barodofsky was in Turkey on a buying expedition), a delightful trio of women whom I almost immediately began to think of as the Three Graces, after the goddesses of Greek mythology said to be the personifications of charm and beauty, inspiration for poetry and the arts. Lisa Williford, Olivia Johnston and Stephanie Tanner beguiled and entertained me with tea and conversation, and I could easily imagine them all in another time and place weaving and drinking tea and chatting happily while a bitter wind swept the steppes outside their cozy yurt.
"This was the most beautiful place in Charlottesville, so I came here," said Williford, looking around Sun Bow with pleasure.
One morning, the Graces told me, they found kiss prints dotting the front window glass.
At last I pried myself reluctantly away and continued my explorations, checking out in the course of the day the Toy Place (112 W. Main St., 434/984-3198), the ice cream floats at Chap's (223 E. Main), paint-your-own pottery at Glaze N Blaze (108 Third St. NE but moving soon onto the Mall proper, I was told; 434/984-5885), and catching a round-trip ride on the free trolley that plies the University-to-Downtown corridor (schedule and stops are printed on the downtown map available at the Visitor Center). My final ambition for the day, however, was the Fridays After Five concert that evening.
"Still free after all these years," goes this year's Fridays ad campaign; now in its 14th season, the weekly summer concert series draws crowds upwards of five to six thousand people to the Downtown Mall on Friday evenings with music that covers the spectrum (see the concert schedule at www.cvilledowntown.org).
Zoot-suited swing band Big Ray and the Kool Kats was on tap for the evening, and as the opening act crooned jazz standards, the amphitheater's grassy bowl filled with families and couples, empty-nesters and college kids, picnic blankets and baskets and folding chairs.
The concert, however, was only one act in the show. Down the Mall were performers, craft vendors and one guy making elaborate balloon dogs, hats, cats, rats, swords, and moose, gratis, for an impatient swarm of kids encroaching upon him in their eagerness like fast-rising floodwaters.
"I do this for relaxation," the balloon guy told one parent without a trace of irony.
A group of African-style drummers -- a regular attraction, I was told -- set up mid-Mall and drew a sizable crowd of its own with hypnotic, irresistible rhythms. A teenage boy strode briskly past bearing bagpipes and dressed in full piper's regalia of kilt and sash and heavy wool tasseled knee socks. He was trailed by a handful of friends who seemed to be serving duty as his pit crew, extra piping parts in hand. A folk music duo played beneath the shade of a tall tree.
The crowd continued to grow, but the long length of the Mall comfortably accommodated everyone without inducing claustrophobia. I sauntered eastward again -- past grandmothers and toddlers, and dads clutching sippy cups, and 20-somethings in sundresses with their polo-shirted boyfriends, and slouchy boys in baggy shorts, and teenage girls chattering by in giddy clusters -- happy simply to drift on the tide.
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- A pleasant two- or three-hour drive from the District via scenic, four-lane Route 29 (take I-66 west to pick up 29 south). Directions are available online at both www.cvilledowntown.org and www.charlottesvilletourism.org (which also offers a general map of the downtown area). The toll-free number for the Charlottesville/Albemarle County convention and visitor's bureau is 877/386-1102.