The tour guides mights tell you otherwise, but there really is no point in visiting here unless the General Assembly is in session.

To the uninitiated, watching the nation's oldest legislature in action could be a confusing, even boring, way to spend the day. But it is only when the capitol is full of legislators that this "house that Jefferson built," and the city itself, comes alive.

Here now -- complete with enough tales from the past to make any history buff drool -- is an insider's guide to the General Assembly.

First, come for a full day at least. From Washington, you can make the drive in about two hours. Get off I-95 at the Coliseum exit and park in any of several lots near the coliseum or near Franklin Street, which runs into the capitol grounds. Rates range from $2 to $6 or more for the day, depending on how near the lot is to the state house. t

Greyhound and Trailways provide bus service several times a day between the Washington area and Richmond. Sen. Clive L. DuVal II (D-Fairfax), himself a millionaire, is a regular passenger. The Trailways station is just a block from the capitol, and Greyhound is only a few blocks further.

If you enter the capitol on the west wing -- the Franklin, Grace and Ninth streets side -- you'll probably meet Floyd Mann, who just celebrated his 20th year with the Capitol Police. He checks visitors in and out between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. and probably knows as much about the inner workings of the state house as any veteran politician.

"The Senate and House of Delegates meet at noon every day, except on Fridays, when they meet an hour or so earlier so members can get away for the weekend," says Mann, a member of a police force that traces its beginnings to the Jamestown Guard.

Mann directs capitol visitors to the second floor, when capitol hostesses quickly take them in tow, handing out guide brochures and arranging tours through the building and the nearby Governor's Mansion.

"People come from all over the world to see our Mr. Jefferson's capital," boasts Charlote Truxell, supervisor of the hostesses. Nearly 134,000 visitors came through last year, and Truxell advises large groups to call ahead.

"We get a lot of school groups, and others come from each legislator's district," says Truxell. "We try to arrange it so they see everything."

"Everything" includes the capitol, designed in part by Thomas Jefferson and modeled after an ancient Roman temple in France; the famous marble statue of George Washington, done from life by the French sculptor, Jean Antoine Houdon; and the old hall of the House of Delegates, site of Aaron Burr's trail for treason (he was acquitted) and Gen. Robert E. Lee's acceptance of command over the Confederate Army.

Standing in the Rotunda, and clearly the centerpiece of the capitol, is Washington's statue. It is part of Virginia's Hall of Fame, and keeps company with the busts of seven other men who followed Washington as president -- Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor and Woodrow Wilson.

Virginia's first honorary citizen, Lafayette, was awestruck when he first saw the life-size statue of Washington, and called it a perfect likeness.

"That is the man himself!" Lafayette is said to have exclaimed. "I can almost realize he is going to move."

Today, however, legislators, lobbyists and various Assembly helpmates barely have time to glance at Houdon's masterpiece. They scurry past it daily, intent on making a little history of their own.

Watching that history in the making is the best show in town.

Sitting in the visitor's galleries, you'll notice that the 100-member House is most boisterous than the Senate. Looking down on the House floor, you'll see A. L. Philpott (D-Henry) presiding in his first year as House Speaker. It took him 22 years to get his hands on that gavel, which is probably why he enjoys using it so much.

The Republicans are clustered in a corner of Philpott's right. Since they're members of the minority party, they tend to stay close to their seats. The Democrats, however, keep bobbing up and down the aisles trading votes. In the legislature, moving from colleague to colleague is a sign of importance. Real power, though, means never having to leave your seat -- all the legislators come to you.

The 40-member Senate is much more of a club -- and much more sedate. As with the House, there a seating chart available from the clerks, to help you identify who is where (in case you have a favorite) and who is speaking. This list is very important, because someone is always speaking.

There's a great joke about the Assembly, one that the members tell themselves. It's about the time a Senate committee (or House committee, if a senator is telling the joke) had just two bills to vote on, one a tax measure and the other a special bill compensating a farmer for the loss of a horse.

The tax bill breezed through the committee, but the special bill sparked half an hour of debate.


"Well, you see," says the House member, with a wink, "the legislators knew something about horses."

Speechmaking is so important that almost any ocassion will lead a member to make a "few remarks." Some of the legislative traditions, in fact, have come from this dedication to speechmaking. Introducing visiting constituents is a time-honored reason for a speech. (If you want to be introduced, just tell you local senator and delegate.) Special occasions, like a home-town parade or a member's birthday also requires remarks.

But the really heavy speechmaking is reserved for the days when the state honors a notable native son -- like Lee, Jefferson or Stonewall Jackson.

One thing the Senate is big on is decorum. Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb presides over the chamber, sounding like an auctioneer as he chants his traditional monotone question: "Are the senators ready to vote? Have all the senators voted? Are there any senators who desire to change their votes?"

Robb also acts as parliamentary go-between for the senators, since any senator who wants to ask a colleague a question must, according to the rules, put the question to the presiding officer. Only a freshman would be so impolite as to try to speak directly to another senator on the floor.

The same rule is supposed to apply to the House, but the rule seems to be bent very easily -- and frequently -- there.

Unlike the House, you'll hear a lot of finger-snapping in the Senate. That and the withering look from the supervisor is enough to strike terror in the hearts of the junior high school students who serve as Senate pages. The pages, of course, are at the beck and call of the senators. They rush about the chamber, ferrying bills and food in the direction of the nearest fingersnap.

Free peanuts are another perquisite of the upper house. Senators are constantly munching one of Virginia's most famous products, kept in ready supply in the clerk's office. It is estimated that peanuts have reduced speechmaking by a third, since no Virginia gentleman would speak with his mouth full.

One disconcerting event for visitors may be the voting in the House and Senate. In both houses, votes are tallied on the red and green lights of electronic voting machines. If you notice members constantly switching from red to green, or vice versa, don't get the idea that legislators are confused. They deliberately flip those little red "nay" lights on the board, then cleverly switch them to green "ayes" just before the final tally. It has a way of making bill sponsors very neverous.

The reason lawmakers seem to have so much time to play when they're on the floor is because the hard work already has been done in committee. In fact, that's where much of the legislating really goes on. You can sit in on a bill hearing or watch members "mark up" the finished product at any of the committee meetings that go on before or after each day's session.

Most committees meet in the General Assembly Building across the street from the capitol. This is also where all members have their offices. An information board inside the lobby lists where legislators' offices are and what committees are meeting each day.

When planning to drop in on a delegate or senator, call first if you want to see him in person. And allow plenty of time for a visit -- the elevators in the building are very slow.

No visit to the capitol would be complete without a stop at Chicken's, a snack bar on the first floor of the capitol. Of course, the proprietoress (Chicken) won't serve you at the counter unless you are a legislator. At rush hour, just before and after a session, it's best to go next door where Chicken has a more public operation.

You can also buy peanuts from Chicken, and if you're bored with the indoor goings-on, you can feed the nuts to the friendly pigeons and squirrels that prowl the capitol grounds. On your stroll, you make a side trip to the historic Bell Tower, Lieutenant Governor Robb's office. His staff is friendly, too, so save them a couple of peanuts.

If you're spending the night, you might want to drop in on what seems to be the No. 1 dinner hangout -- The Tobacco Company on nearby Cary Street. It's usually jammed, and the most prestigious legislator can't make a reservation.

The John Marshall Hotel and the Jefferson Hotel (with an elegant, red-carpeted staircase made famous in "Gone With the Wind") attract their share of diners, too.

But the most popular watering hole is the third-floor lounge of the Downtown Holiday Inn on Franklin Street. Most legislators stay here during the session, so they just naturally start of drift in before the 11 p.m. news -- in time to watch themselves on the big TV screen in the bar.

You can easily pick out the delegates and senators: They're doing all the "shushing" when the announcer comes on with the Assembly report. It seems they learned a long time ago that watching a legislator is never as much fun as being one.