I would hate for my Yankee forbears, lying in the graveyards of New York, to know it, but I have fallen in love with a southern city.
I've been seduced by the gentle manners, the boxwood gardens and the strong sense of history of Mr. Jefferson's Charlottesville. I like the unhurried life and the way they call you "Ma'am," and I admire the fact that all southern girls are born pretty and able to arrange flowers. I love the peacocks of Ash Lawn and the seven-day clock in Monticello and the bells of the tower of the University of Virginia. I love New York but . . . well, lately I've been whistling Dixie.
Maybe all this has something to do with the very special way my daughter and I saw Charlottesville, in a big Georgian house arranged for by Guesthouses Bed and Breakfast. We had a wing to ourselves overlooking the gardens, and there was a big bowl of camellias on the dressing table and a chaise lounge for reclining if we were fatigued from social obligations. For breakfast there were fresh cut-up oranges, a souffle and English Muffins, and from the window we could see the house where Faulkner lived.
To visit Charlottesville like this, in the company of hosts who are as unaffectedly friendly and pleasant as ours were, is bound to prejudice anyone. ("Why do you do this?" I asked my hostess, who scarcely needed the money. "I'm a people person," she said. "I like company.")
Gracious southern living is nice, but it was something else that made me fall in love with this city. Up north, we tend to think of Thomas Jefferson as a distant founding father, neatly pressed between the pages of the history books and dusted off for the fourth of July. In Charlottesville he's alive, a father figure mentioned often and always, of course, as "Mr. Jefferson." It is as if the two-and-a-half-hour trip from Washington through the pastures and rolling hills has taken you into another country, where the magnolia trees are bigger and history is more enduring, and courtesy greases the wheels of even the most commonplace transaction.
If you haven't thought much about Jefferson lately, a visit to Charlottesville will send you back to the history books. The stamp of this big, red-haired, rawboned figure is everywhere in Albemarle County, and in Monticello, the remarkable residence he built atop the hill near Charlottesville, is one of the sights of the country. Nobody could possibly come away after seeing it without being impressed with the genius of the man who chose law but took so deep an interest in architecture. He was only 26 when he began the house, so full of ideas ahead of his time. "All my wishes end where I hope my days will end . . . at Monticello," he wrote, and it is nice to know that he is buried just down the path from the home he loved. Take the shuttle bus up the steep hill to Monticello, but walk down past the gardens and the vegetable plot and see his grave. It somehow links the past and the present in an impressive way.
While you're so close by, you should also drop in at Michie (pronounced Micky) Tavern, around whose table Jefferson and his friend, James Monroe, often lifted a pint and discussed the path of the nation. Michie has been run as a tavern since the 1700s, when the price of a bed was four pence and the rule was no more than five to a bed. Organ grinders had to sleep in the wash house, being inclined to fleas picked up from their monkeys.
The tavern and outbuildings are interesting and worth a tour, though it is a surprise to hear a plug for Hagary's furniture polish in the middle of the historical lecture. The meal served in the inn is said to be the same kind of food the tavern offered 200 years ago. It's always the same: black-eyed peas, stewed tomatoes, green bean salad, cornbread, cole slaw, potato salad and fried chicken, served cafteria style. The view is better than the food, but the whole thing is pleasant, as the buses that nose in all day long with tour groups attest. Costumed waitresses welcome you.
Jefferson persuaded his friend Monroe to build his own home near Monticello, and it's also near Michie's. Jefferson personally selected the site, sent his own gardeners to start the orchards and, once the modest farmhouse Ash Lawn was built, dropped in frequently. It isn't hard to imagine the two of them spending a companionable evening in Ash Lawn's parlor, puffing on clay pipes while the massive bust of Napoleon looked on and the horsehair chairs sat still against the wall.
Monroe, described by our guide as the one holding the flag behind Washington crossing the Delaware, had an even handsomer view than his friend, and the boxwood gardens, heavily populated with peacocks, are splendid.
My admiration for the South does not include black-eye peas, so by evening we were ravenous. On the advice of our hostess, we made reservations at Le Snail, an intimate, elegant boite whose owner/chef was once chef of the Boar's head Sports Club. It offers first-rate food and a look at old Charlottesville dining out. If you prefer colonial knee breeches, the Boar's Head Inn is nearby. The C & O restaurant on Water Street and the University Cafeteria on Main Street are two other good bets.
Not the least of Jefferson's accomplishments -- and one of the three things he hoped to be remembered for -- was the founding and design, at the ago of 70, of the University of Virginia. Today he dominates the central campus, dignified and benevolent in bronze on a pedestal, his back to the Pantheon-inspired Rotunda and his gaze bent on the 16,000 students below searching for a place to park.
It is next to impossible to park anywhere near the university. You should explore the Rotunda and the green behind it on foot, but it will take a bit of doing. Our hosts, who were constantly smoothing our way, ended up driving us there and leaving us to walk back to the house between the rows of fraternity houses, each with its complement of students atop the roof (we had arrived on Easter weekend, which must be blood brother to Mardi Gras).
We spent some time searching for Martha's Cafe, a small frame building off the main street, highly touted as a good place for a light meal. It was, however, closed on Sunday, so we settled for Graffiti, a student hangout across the street, which must be one of the few places in the country where your waitress is apt to be a PhD candidate. It turned out to be nice. You can eat outdoors in the spring sunshine and scrape acquaintance with the undergraduates, and the food is good.
Sitting there under the wisteria trellis, a couple of unregenerate Yankees, we reflected on what it was about Mr. Jefferson's country that charmed us. Maybe the mountains, murmured my daughter, who likes mountains, or waking up early at our host's to hear a mockingbird.
Pooh. We have mockingbirds in Washington. And magnolias and boxwood. I keep remembering a moment when I stood uncertain at the top of the brick wall above Graffiti, wondering if the 6-foot drop necessary for the shortcut I was contemplating was too much of a jump for somebody with Lower Back Pain.
As I considered, a young man detached himself from a group standing below, put down his beer can and held out his arms.
"Jump," he commanded,
"That's Charlottesville, Ma'am. They don't do that back where I come from.