So, really, all we ask of our jaunt to Charlottesville is a chance to get away from this beautiful but Type A, wonked-out city by the Potomac. A respite from the white noise of Beltway driving, baseball-soccer-basketball practices, grocery shopping and Saturday morning cartoons.
You know the drill.
A couple of particularly pretty country-driving hours later, however, we stumble upon one of the more elegant college campuses in the nation. And the best used-book store south of the Strand in Greenwich Village. And a creative restaurant or three, a funky diner and an unexpectedly pleasant downtown that's not yet entirely latte-ified.
Add the austere beauty of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's Roman neoclassical aerie perched high on a nearby ridge and . . . we're hooked.
Within a day, Nick, 11, has a new first choice for college, and he even knows what dorm room he wants senior year. (Hint: It's the sweet brick and oak-beam number facing an 18th-century colonnade and has a wood-burning fireplace; what's not to like?)
And Aidan, our talkatively hallucinogenic 6-year-old, has a new fondness for college kids--and college orchestras, college coffeehouses, biscotti and Thomas Jefferson's hole-in-the-wall bed (more on that in a moment).
We make a point of repairing to a mountain cottage or rural corner each summer, but exploring the side streets and shops of a new-to-you city can be no less invigorating than a stroll in the woods. If too many cities, large and small, lust for the homogeneous, the ubiquitous Hard Rock cafes and downtown malls, the best of them still reward the carefree walker--with such as a glimpse of Colonial alleyway overgrown with vines, children pitching pennies into a downtown fountain, an overheard conversation from a calico-curtained window.
Charlottesville, a sophisticated if pleasantly out-of-the-way college city, offers such charms. (Founded in 1762, Charlottesville draws its very royalist name from Queen Charlotte-Sophia, the wife of King George III.) We stayed at the eminently functional Hampton Inn and Suites, a straightforward and pleasant modern hotel that had the singular advantage of being within walking distance to both the University of Virginia and downtown Charlottesville. (You can drive the length of Main Street in 10 minutes, but we're born-and-bred New Yorkers, taking it as a matter of near-religious conviction that cities are best walked, not driven.)
Our bags tossed, we walk six blocks west, coming upon the University of Virginia campus just as a gray curtain of rain lifts and the sun breaks through, revealing blue foothills in the distance.
UNESCO has declared the university a world architectural treasure, up there with the Taj Mahal. No wonder; it's a strikingly handsome campus. Designed by Jefferson himself along Greek and Roman lines and built by the talented hands of slaves no less expert than Renaissance masons and carpenters, the university is a classical pearl set amid the hills and oak and chestnut trees of central Virginia.
We wander the Colonnade, where a lucky few students pass their senior year in cozy brick rooms with fireplaces and piles of logs stacked outside. The rooms open directly onto the courtyard. Gaining a key to these rooms is no easy matter; students must write essays, possess near perfect grades and show an accomplished record of community service. Edgar Allan Poe had a room near here. Some of Virginia's best-known leaders and warriors roomed here.
Nick and Aidan wander across the lawn, weaving in and out of Mr. Jefferson's handiwork. At the far end of the Colonnade, Aidan tugs at a massive oak door. He disappears inside and we run after him . . . only to find the university's accomplished orchestra practicing Mozart in an 18th-century hall, a transcendent moment that brought even Aidan to a rare and full stop.
Later, Evelyn and Aidan retire to the motel and Nick and I set off for Market Street and downtown. No doubt the Chamber of Commerce still views the city's center as a work in progress; there's a large university ice hockey rink and some good restaurants, yes. But also a bit of the unvarnished funk, old, still-unrenovated buildings and the unscripted (and unthreatening) street life that so many cities are intent on ironing out of their tourist cores.
Wandering a while, we find the Daedalus Bookshop, a three-story temple of secondhand lit, a bibliophile's church tucked away on a curling side street. The steps creak, the nooks are shadowed. Books are piled from dusty floor to shelves that scrape the ceiling. Nick heads for science fiction, I for essays. And history. And journalism. And . . .
Closing time comes before I hit fiction. We buy a few treasures, memorize the bookstore's location for a promised return and stumble back through darkening streets to our hotel.
The next day, we explore Mr. Jefferson's house on the hill, his Monticello mansion, a few miles to the east of Charlottesville. There is the aforementioned bed-in-the-wall (Jefferson did not want to waste any space and so carved a niche in the wall that allowed him to lie flat-out, with an inch to spare at either end). Aidan takes notes and informs us he envisions such a bed for himself at home.
Afterward, we take a terrific "plantation tour," an exploration of slave life along Mulberry Row at Monticello. Thanks to the seasoned hand of the plantation guides, we are encouraged to wrestle with the conundrum: How is it that this Enlightenment master, this revolutionary advocate of the rights of man, could nonetheless justify keeping more than 100 African Americans enslaved?
We finished that evening at the Continental Divide, a fashionably funky, Southern-tinged restaurant on Main that serves good fish and pork chops and local wine for the parents, and enough burger and french-fry fare to keep Aidan and Nick happy.
The next day, as our quartet downs eggs and pancakes and juice and coffee at the Blue Moon Diner, we find ourselves paying Charlottesville the ultimate visitors' compliment. We're lazily scouring the real estate ads.
Y'know, what if . . . I became a college professor . . . and Evelyn became a graphic artist . . . and we strike gold, the lottery maybe . . . and we buy one of those old Victorians near the downtown . . .
Nicky gets in-state tuition at the university. Aidan gets to chat up the college kids and probably run for mayor. And we pass our weekends at those secondhand bookstores and hiking those soft and hazy Blue Ridge Mountains 20 minutes west.
Our car noses back up Route 29. The fantasy sustains us right to the very edge of the Beltway.
WAYS & MEANS
GETTING THERE: Charlottesville is about a 2.5-hour drive from the Beltway. Take I-66 west to U.S. 29 south.
BEING THERE: At U-Va., visit Edgar Allan Poe's room (now a small museum) and be sure to hit the lawn and walk into a few of the older buildings, including the graceful Rotunda, a scaled-down Roman Pantheon. Downtown is about eight blocks east, and has a Virginia Discovery Museum (804-977-1025) and some terrific bookstores. Monticello (804-984-9822) is about seven miles east, built in 1768, and best visited early in the day. There are separate tours of the house and the plantation (read: slave quarters); take both, the guides are patient and knowledgeable. Down the hill behind Monticello, you'll find the family graveyard, now hotly contested as descendants of Sally Hemmings, the woman who likely was Jefferson's slave mistress, now want the right to be buried there.
WHERE TO STAY: Many choices. We stayed at the Hampton Inn and Suites (804-923-8600, doubles from $85, suites from $108), unadorned and pleasant. Most of the brand names can be found on U.S. routes 29 and 250. The English Inn (804-971-9900), just south of where the two routes intersect, has a swimming pool and doubles from $75, and suites at $81. Nearby Clifton (1-888-971-1800) and Keswick Hall (1-800-274-5391) provide a taste of the high life, with matching prices.
WHERE TO EAT: Even more choices, from fairly swank to microbrew-and-food to down-home. We ate at Continental Divide (804-984-0143), but the historic, pedestrian-friendly downtown includes Hamilton's (California nouvelle, 804-295-6649), the classy C&O Restaurant (804-971-7044), Metropolitain (804-977-1043, nouvelle Americana) and Monsoon Cafe (804-971-1515, snappy Thai). The Michie Tavern (804-977-1234), perched on a hill near Monticello, is a restored 1765 tavern where you, and busloads of others, can eat authentic Colonial food in a cafeteria-style setting. (We did not get to, but loved the name of, the Buddhist Biker Bar & Grill, 804-971-9181.)
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Check with the Charlottesville/Albermarle County Convention and Visitors Center at 804-977-1783 or www.charlottesvilletourism.org.
CAPTION: The city's center may be a work in progress, but there's still plenty to do--and plenty to like.