The streets of Richmond are narrow and often brick, and you can park your car at a meter in mid-town. Two of its movie houses still have their pump organs from silent film days. But Richmond is a city where the old is comfortable with the new and, cheek by jowl with 19th-century buildings are glass skyscrapers and trendy restaurants.
It's hard to get a handle on the city's personality until you drive down Monument Avenue and see the mounted statue of Robert E. Lee brandishing his sword against the blue, blue sky.
That's when you realize you're in the capital of the Confederacy, plundered by the British, fired on by its own retreating army, and metamorphosed today into the industrial South.
Look for the legendary Richmond in the outlying districts. You won't find it in the John Marshall Hotel, modern as tomorrow, or in the new restaurants in Shockoe Slip. Nose your car out into the old areas beyond the tobacco factories and the insurance and banking centers to Church Hill, or the Fan District, or to Ginter Park where the founder of Richmond's cigarette industry built his home. That's where you find the Richmond that remembers another era, dignified and flavored with southern charm.
I chose the Fan District, a tree-lined part of the city where the turn-of-the-century homes have walled courtyards, exposed interior brick walls and character. Here, courtesy of Bensonhouse, Richmond's new bed and breakfast, I made the acquaintance of Betty Swyers and her husband. Both teach at nearby Virginia Commonwealth University and, now that their sons are grown and gone, they occasionally take in paying guests.
Their house is a wonderful hodgepodge of old prints, hanging plants, macrame curtains and offbeat collectibles, and I loved everything about it from the reproduction of a 1920s Atwater Kent radio to the player piano and the front veranda swing. Four cats keep the Swyers company in their pleasant, easy-going life. Bensonhouse of Richmond will introduce you to the city here or in other interesting places for between $28 and$45. Call (804) 321-6277.
Seeing Richmond right takes a little planning since things are pretty spread out. Richmond on the James, the new organization pushing Richmond's heritage, suggests theme approaches--the story of tobacco, perhaps, or Black roots, or Edgar Allan Poe associations. I preferred to see what life was like on the plantations that spawned the Virginia aristocracy, so I drove out instead to Berkeley, the ancestral home of the Harrison family that give America two presidents.
The 20-mile trip to the old house is lovely, but watch the springs of your car on the approach to the great house, an unpaved road built in 1725 for horse-drawn carriages. It must have rattled the teeth of the Harrisons' illustrious guests, of which there were plenty. George Washington drove up this high-crowned dirt road and so did every president after that until Buchanan. Since James River plantations were small baronies in their day, it is easy to imagine the elegant gatherings beneath the chandeliers of Berkeley.
A lot of things happened here for the first time--the first Thanksgiving celebration, the first rendering of Taps, the first use of the pediment roof in America--but the "first" that brightens the eye of many a visitor is that bourbon was invented here. You'll hear all about this at a slide show and can go round afterwards to see the 200-year-old still that produced the drink that caused the FFV's to abandon English ale.
Berkeley's woodwork is Adam throughout and the furniture old and beautiful--though not the original, which was largely destroyed by Benedict Arnold during the Revolution and finished off by a fire that followed during the Civil War. The place is now in private hands but open to the public. It's a anomaly to see the air conditioning units protruding from the upstairs windows where the owners have their quarters.
The sweep of the terraces down to the river is as impressive as anything you see inside, with the feel of the past nicely pointed up on the shore by the wooden cutout of the ship, Margaret, which brought the first Thanksgiving celebrants. The boxwood here is famous and, when you finish strolling through the gardens, there's a nice tearoom for sandwiches and the like. For only $1 extra you can tour the grounds of nearby Westover, a 1730 mansion whose interior is off limits to the public. If you're lucky, you might even spot deer or wild turkey.