Sunday, January 01, 2012

Four Days Behind, Losing My Mind

You know it's a good holiday when you start losing track of days. But today is January 1st, which means a hearty HAPPY NEW YEAR to all. But more on that later. First up, we need to recap our little side trip to the nation's capital - Washington, DC.

Make a coffee before you start reading. This recap is likely to take a while.

Day Eight, Don't Be Late
I have been a bit silly, dragging my poor parents out of bed early while they're supposed to be on a restful tour to the States. But you know what? If we sleep in every day, we miss out on seeing lots of cool things and then we only achieve half the things we set out to do.

So it was that we rocked up at Penn Station, New York bright and early on December 27 to catch the train to Washington. I had already bought our tickets ahead of time, and put us in business class on a regional train. We could have got express train tickets but that train left even earlier in the morning and I really don't think we could have faced that. As it was, the regional train stopped at only a few places but it gave us a lovely chance to peer out the windows at towns along the route. Plus we've only got little legs, so there was ample leg room and comfort for us in business class, thanks very much. And we were two carriages away from the cafe car, so what's not to like about that?!

You know it's funny - if the only thing you ever see of Philadelphia and Baltimore is what you spot from the inside of a train, I don't think you'd ever go there. The towns look pretty grotty and not too welcoming really. And yet I'm sure I've heard good things said about both places. Maybe one day....

Our train pulled into Washington DC's gorgeous Union Station about 15 minutes behind schedule, and the weather had turned pretty rotten. Grey skies, drizzle - not a good start to a mini-break. Our taxi driver was a Pakistani ex-diplomat who, as he drove us to our hotel, regaled us with stories about the fantastic postings he'd had throughout his career and how he's now only driving a cab to pay for his son's university education. He does pretty well out of it too - with all the additional cab fares we had to pay (extra passengers, luggage, mileage), he'd charged us $10 before we'd even set off for the hotel! Classic.

Before long we pulled up at our hotel and I was very impressed with the location and amenities. We were right across the street from the Spy Museum, around the corner from Chinatown and one block from the Metro station. Perfect!

With the weather like it was, I have to confess that we really didn't want to pound the pavement and start exploring the city. So we dashed across the street and sought refuge in the truly beautiful (and IMMENSE) National Portrait Gallery. Even if museums and galleries aren't normally your "thing", this place is amazing. Endless corridors filled with amazing - and very different - works of art. Portraits of ordinary and famous Americans filled the walls and we happily lost hours in there. When we couldn't walk any further, we paused for a coffee in the indoor Kogod Courtyard which is just gorgeous. Me being me, I flatly refused to leave until I had seen The Great Hall - and me being me, I couldn't find it; even though I had the map. Absolutely hopeless. But it's amazing what happens when you ask for help and in no time we were ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the gorgeous mosaic tiles and stained glass windows of the room I'd been searching for.

Obeying our sore feet and rumbling tummies, we ducked around the corner into Chinatown for a really tasty meal and frosty Singha beer.

I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow that night.

Day Nine, Feelin' Fine
It was about this time in the holiday that I realised that wearing knee-high leather boots was probably a really dumb idea. So on Day 2 of our holiday, when we did more walking than would ever be considered normal elsewhere, I switched to sneakers and was pretty proud of myself for remembering to pack them.

We had 2pm tickets for the tour of the Capitol Building (but had to be there 45 minutes before that), so we really didn't want to venture too far out of the city.

Grabbing an extra strong coffee as we wandered the streets, we walked past the gorgeous Ford's Theatre, where President Lincoln was assassinated. Then we wandered past more truly gorgeous architecture - the IRS building, the EPA building, and the expansive museums of Constitution Avenue.

By then we had agreed that our aimless wandering should take us to the Washington Monument, so we headed across the parklands and over to the enormous obelisk. The Monument is still temporarily closed because of the 5.9 magnitude earthquake in 2011, but it is still possible to take some great photographs of it - which we did.

Then we looked across Constitution Gardens towards the Lincoln Memorial, and we agreed to walk over to there next. En route we looked at The National WWII Memorial and watched construction workers make long-overdue improvements to the Reflecting Pool site.

There is something amazing about standing at the Lincoln Memorial, at the foot of the mammoth statue and seeing what the late President sees - the wonderful view over an amazing city. From our lofty vantage point we could trace our route backwards, as well as see the day's ultimate destination - the Capitol Building.

So we were off - back along the other side of the Reflecting Pool, stopping this time at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial - the loss of life truly scary when you see just how many names are etched into the memorial stones (58,195).

Ducking around The Elipse, we gave ourselves a fantastic photo opportunity of the front lawn of The White House. Sadly no tours at this time of year, but I hope to get back another time. You don't watch as much "West Wing" as I do, and not have a curious interest in touring the amazing building.

With no time for lunch, we got to The U.S Capitol Building a few minutes before 2pm and lined up for our tour. After a short introductory video, our tour guide took us through some of the main rooms, including the gorgeous rotunda (Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol", anyone?!). We walked into the statuary, which used to be the original House Chamber and offices. You can see plaques on the ground where famous politicians used to have their spots (incidentally we were almost standing on top of Lincoln's plaque without even realising it!).

At the conclusion of our tour we took ourselves through today's House and Senate galleries. Even though the pollies were on a holiday break, it was very impressive to look around the chambers and see where all the political magic happens. The information brochures that you can pick up for free are also really good - they give you a seating plan so that from up on high, you know who's who in the zoo.

After this we were tired, hungry and over stimulated, culture-wise. And yet we thought it would be a good idea to take the underground tunnel to the Library of Congress, so that's exactly what did. I have to say, I don't regret it in the least. You know me and books - I can scarcely resist a library or a bookshop to save myself. The website may be plain, but the building itself is spectacular, which says nothing of its contents. The Reading Room alone made me wish I was someone of importance, who had access to the incredible collection. To browse those shelves, even for a few minutes, would be such a gift. Naturally we are plebs, so we had to observe the Reading Room from up on high, behind a giant perspex sneeze barrier. But I took a sideways glance at some of my fellow tourists that day, and I don't blame the Library for a second - I wouldn't let any of those weirdos near my precious books either.

Having toured the Library, we were now OFFICIALLY knackered. We called in to the McCormick & Schmick's restaurant across the street for dinner that night. It was my pick, and I didn't have it in me to be any more creative than that. The seafood was pretty good though - but in a case of lovely deja-vu, I was asleep before my head hit the pillow that night too.

Day Ten, An Early Start Again
On Thursday we were up early again. After all the walking we'd done the day before, my feet were feeling so tender on Day 3, and so sneakers were totally the only option again.

More confident of our geography this time, we headed straight to the Metro station and after a change at Metro Center, we took the blue line subway to Arlington National Cemetery.

There is something quite lovely about a visit to a sombre place like Arlington, when you have the weather to match. I recall we had the same experience at the 9/11 Memorial in New York. For us at Arlington, we had a bit of fog, a bit of grey sky and the threat of rain, but nothing that actually materialised. The weather just added to the atmosphere and it was beautiful. I came to Arlington on my first (and only) visit to Washington DC back in February 2006 and I remember being really impressed then. Rather than taking the trolley car, we walked around the Cemetery this time and it really is a great (and easy) way to see everything. We visited the very simple Kennedy graves, Arlington House (aka the Robert E. Lee Memorial) and the Tomb of the Unknown Solider for the impressive - and rather haunting - Changing of the Guard ceremony that takes place every hour, on the hour. I wouldn't normally sanction the recording of such a lovely ceremony but given that the crowd prevented me from seeing much of it on the day, I don't feel too bad about sharing this video with you.

Once we'd done those things, we wandered back through the Cemetery to the main visitor entrance and then we were back on the Metro, returning to DC.

It would also seem we had not quite reached our limit of museums, because we devoted the next four hours to The National Museum of American History. My God, the people!! Tourists everywhere you looked - and who brings kids in strollers to these sorts of places? ARGH it was manic. But we steeled ourselves ("elbows out") and used the museum floorplan to ensure we hit up all the key attractions. We saw Julia Child's kitchen, Dorothy's ruby slippers, the Star Spangled Banner, the original Muppets and finished up by going though a couple of the ongoing exhibitions, including the First Ladies (evening gowns! fine china!) and Within These Walls, a wonderful exploration of the life of 1 house and all the families that had inhabited it over the past 200 years.

Were we exhausted after that? You bet. But did we stop? Hell no.

Wandering next door we stopped into the National Museum of Natural History. The life-size whale hanging from the ceiling, and the gorgeous elephant in the main rotunda were real highlights. But aside from that, and the mammals exhibit (impressive), I was in a daze from this point of the evening forward. The groovy neon inflatable artwork woke me up a bit of course, but I was pretty much done.

So it surprised us all that once we were out in the open air, we had enough energy to walk past the statue garden and watch the outdoor ice skaters for a while. But then our stomachs won out and we set off in search of dinner. All we wanted to have was a bowl of soup, and yet when we stumbled across Hill Country Barbecue Market, we had to go in. And so it also goes without saying that with BBQ ribs, mac & cheese, and brisket on offer, there was no way we were having just soup. The live band started up downstairs at 8.30pm and we enjoyed a couple of tunes (I was quite transfixed by the lead singer's fluffy red afro, to be honest. It was like a car accident atop his head, poor fellow).

It's amazing how a pitcher of beer, a good feed, and some happy tunes will restore a couple of weary travellers.

But yes, you guessed it - I was asleep before my head hit the pillow AGAIN. Third time's the charm.

Day Eleven, and a lack of a rhyme
The start of our 11th day was another early one because we had to contend with a hotel check-out, an Amtrak train departure and (in my case), a swabbing from the transit police for illicit drugs and other contraband. Fortunately I had enjoyed a rather strong coffee before that part!

We got the train back to NY without incident, and arrived in the City on a sunny and clear day. Is this December or what?! Winter be hanged.

Say what you will about how lovely holidays can be, sometimes there is just no place like home. And getting back to the apartment and swapping my sneakers for slippers never felt so good.

We did a couple of loads of laundry and then headed out to Times Square (ugh!) to meet B&C for dinner at Sardi's. Despite the traffic and pedestrian chaos, the restaurant was really nice and of course I couldn't fault the company. B&C had only been in New York a few days but had already seen most of the major sights and seemed to be enjoying themselves (though B did bemoan the lack of quality coffee - a kindred spirit if ever there was one).

After dinner we pretty much RAN to the theater to see "Million Dollar Quartet" and it was fantastic. Skilley is my friend from work and she joined us for the performance - we had fantastic seats, only a few rows from the front - and no one in front of us to block our view at all. The story is fantastic - capturing the music of the recording session at Sun Studio in Memphis, when Jerry Lee Lewis joined up with Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. The whole cast was just amazing, and was a nice flashback to my own visit to Memphis when me & K toured Sun Studios and stood in the very room where the music magic happened. I think I might have to be friends with the entire cast of that show - I just loved it, and I think we all did.

After the show we said goodbye to Skilley and walked B&C back towards their hotel, stopping off for a quick coffee & catch-up chat along the way. It was great to see them and I was very envious to hear about the rest of their US trip, including a visit to New Orleans. Lucky ducks!

1 comment:

coco cooks said...

Now that was a itinerary! I miss the Chinatown in my home town of DC.