USA Trip Part 2: Charlottesville, VA

The second part of our USA trip was probably the part I most anticipated.  We got up early on Saturday morning and drove to Charlottesville, Virginia, a city that holds a special place in my heart. Charlottesville is a relatively small town, nestled at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and home to the University of Virginia, a place where I spent four wonderful years.  It truly is one of my favorite places on earth, and I think it is a great example of small-town America.  As Willem can attest, I talk about my love for “Cville” and UVA constantly, so I was beyond excited to finally show him everything I had been telling him about for the past two years.

We timed our visit to coincide with the first UVA football game of the season, and I got my brother (who is a student there now) to get us guest tickets for the game.  We arrived in Charlottesville a few hours before the game, so I took Willem on a walking tour of Grounds.  We wandered up the lawn, around the rotunda and the pavilion gardens, and down the Corner, where we got lunch at Little John’s, a deli that is always a favorite with students.

UVA, Rotunda, University of Virginia

The Rotunda

UVA, Serpentine walls, University of Virginia

Playing tour guide for Willem at UVA. On either side of me are the famous “serpentine” brick garden walls, designed by Jefferson himself

After lunch we walked to the stadium. The game was set to start at 3:30pm, but it was so unbearably hot outside that we took refuge in the air-conditioned Aquatic & Fitness Center next to the stadium for a while before going in.  In fact, it was so hot that the University had to put its “heat management plan” in effect, meaning they made free water available to all students and had mist tents up on the concourse for anyone feeling ill from the heat.

All decked out in orange and blue for Willem’s first college football game!

The most exciting part of the game is the beginning.  I love when the stadium anthems get everyone pumped up, and when the team bursts out of the locker rooms behind the Virginia cavalier who rides out onto the field on his horse.

The cavalier riding out on the field on his horse

It is an amazing experience to be in a stadium with 60,000+ other people, all brimming with optimism for a new season and ready to go wild cheering for their team.  And despite an intense 2.5 hour thunderstorm delay, we stuck it out and were there to see UVA beat Brigham Young University in a down-to-the-wire finish. I freaking LOVE college football!

UVA, Football, Virginia Cavaliers, Scoot Stadium

The rain pours down in the stadium

The next day, we planned to do some more of my favorite Charlottesville activities—all of which involve the great outdoors.  Charlottesville’s proximity to the Blue Ridge Mountains is one of its nicest features.  In less than 20 minutes, you can be out of the city, driving on Skyline Drive or the Blue Ridge Parkway.  There are plenty of places to hike, secret picnic spots and swimming holes to discover, and during the wintertime, places to ski and snowboard.

Charlottesville, Monticello, Mountain View, Thomas Jefferson, Blue Ridge Parkway

Country roads…take me home…to the place…..I belong

We tried to begin our day by visiting Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, but the place was so crowded already we had to buy our tickets to tour the estate for later in the afternoon and plan to come back. So instead, we drove to Mile 5 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the starting point for a hike to a place called Humpback Rocks. The trail most people take up the mountain is short (only about a mile each way), but it is extremely strenuous. The trail gains over 800ft in elevation in that short distance. Close to the top, the gravel and dirt trail becomes pure boulders that you have to scramble over to reach the end.  If you aren’t in shape or are unused to hiking, you will be sucking some serious wind by the time you reach the top!  When you reach the top though, you will be rewarded with some incredible 360-degree views of the mountains and valleys in the distance.  It doesn’t matter what time of year you visit, the views will be different (and equally worth the hike) every time.

Charlottesville, Hiking, Humpback Rocks, Blue Ridge Parkway

The trail marker at the beginning of the hike

Charlottesville, Hiking, Humpback Rocks, Blue Ridge Parkway

The first view from the top

Charlottesville, Hiking, Humpback Rocks, Blue Ridge Parkway

Willem playing monkey on the rocks

Charlottesville, Hiking, Humpback Rocks, Blue Ridge Parkway

You can see why these mountains are called the “Blue Ridge”

Charlottesville, Hiking, Humpback Rocks, Blue Ridge Parkway

Victorious hikers!

Once we were off the mountain, Willem and I drove over to Carter Mountain, an orchard popular with Charlottesville residents and visitors alike.  The orchard is located on the top of a ridge, and has gorgeous views of Charlottesville down below. Depending on the time of year, you can pick your own peaches, apples, and other varieties of fruits.  There is also a traditional country store where you can buy all kinds of products made right there at Carter Mountain.  They are famous for their hot apple cider donuts, homemade pies, and fresh peach ice cream.  My mouth is watering just thinking about the food there.

Charlottesville, Hiking, Carter Mountain, Blue Ridge Parkway

Fresh picked peaches!

We brought a picnic lunch we had made earlier and ate it at the wooden tables they have scattered around.

Charlottesville, Hiking, Carter Mountain, Blue Ridge Parkway

Willem and his squinty-sun-face enjoying lunch

Sitting in the breeze at the top of the mountain, listening to bluegrass music in the background, enjoying melt-in-your-mouth apple cider donuts…that is pretty close to how I imagine the perfect afternoon.

With our bellies full and the car loaded up with apples, we drove back to Monticello for our 4pm tour.  Monticello was Thomas Jefferson’s home, and is now (along with UVA, which he founded) a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Every schoolchild in America knows Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence and one of our first presidents, but few people know that Monticello was his true pride and joy.  Jefferson designed every detail of Monticello himself, and it is considered a masterpiece of neoclassical architecture.  He named the plantation Monticello (Italian for “little mount”) due to its beautiful location on the top of a hill.

Charlottesville, Monticello, Mountain View, Thomas Jefferson, Blue Ridge Parkway

Monticello

Charlottesville, Monticello, Mountain View, Thomas Jefferson, Blue Ridge Parkway

Monticello

Charlottesville, Monticello, Mountain View, Thomas Jefferson, Blue Ridge Parkway

Pretty from all angles

Charlottesville, Monticello, Mountain View, Thomas Jefferson, Blue Ridge Parkway

Not a bad view…

Charlottesville, Monticello, Mountain View, Thomas Jefferson, Blue Ridge Parkway

Jefferson knew how to pick a nice vista!

The inside of the house is incredible, and the tour of the site is well worth the cost of admission.  I know my history, and I still learned things from the guide.  No matter how much or little you already know, you will come out of a trip to Monticello with an appreciation for the genius of the man that was our 3rd president.  I know when I build my dream house one day I am definitely going to be stealing some of his ideas for my own masterpiece!

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USA Trip Part 1: Washington, DC

Since my post last week was on such a depressing topic, I thought it was time to lighten the mood and finally catch up on my trip posts that I have been intending to write. This trip to the U.S. was a first for me, because it was the first time I played tour-guide/tourist in my own country.  For the past year, I have been mostly on Willem’s turf, so it was fun to take Willem out of his comfort zone for once!

We left Haarlem early in the morning, and took the bus from a stop near our house to Schiphol.  Leaving Haarlem, I was very excited, but also sad because I knew it might be one of the last times I would see our lovely little apartment on the Grote Markt.

Passport, Flight, Ticket, Plane

Ready to go!

We flew United on the way over, which was my first experience flying an American-based airline transatlantically. It was not an experience I wish to repeat.  Usually I love flying…but 9+ hours on a plane with a 3-inch screen and no movies on demand?!?  Too bad I am too poor for airline loyalty.

We arrived in our first stop of the trip, Washington, DC at about 2pm. Miraculously, we made it through customs and immigration in record time. Our bags, on the other hand, did not.  We sat there for almost 45 minutes after we got through immigration waiting for the bumbling bag-men of United to get our luggage onto the carousel. Considering I had crammed my entire Dutch life into three bags, I was anxious to get my hands on them again. Luckily, they all made it safely onto U.S. soil.

Once we were out of the airport, we took the bus straight to the hotel to drop off all of our bags. Walking into the outside air was a shock.  I had forgotten how hot and muggy Virginia is in August. Oh, sweat and humidity, I did not miss you!  We were tired after an entire day of traveling, but we decided to immediately go out and do a little sightseeing before the jetlag caught up to us. Our hotel was less than a ten minute walk to the White House, so we set out with that as our goal in mind.

We made a loop around the center of DC, walking past the White House, the Capitol Building, and the Washington Monument.  Our pictures didn’t turn out the best because the skies had turned an ominous shade of gray in between our arrival at the airport that afternoon and our walk around the city.

The White House

The White House

The White House- the famous side

The White House- the famous side

Ignore how terrible we look after that plane ride!

Ignore how terrible we look after that plane ride!

Ominous thunderclouds behind the Capitol Building

Ominous thunderclouds behind the Capitol Building

We decided to walk back towards the hotel, but the clouds did not wait for us to get inside before the downpour began.  Of course my trusty umbrella was still safely stowed away in the dark recesses of one of my bags back at the hotel (I thought the Netherlands was supposed to be the rainy place!), so we got absolutely soaked through.   I don’t know if a violent summertime thunderstorm is supposed to be a good omen or a bad one, but it was certainly a welcome of some sort.

After going to sleep early that night, we woke up early on our second day in the U.S.  We got breakfast along the way (and promptly had to scarf it down when I remembered that it is illegal to have food or drink on the DC metro—seriously! Ignore at your own risk).   Our first destination of the day was the Library of Congress.

Library of Congress, Washington DC

Library of Congress

If you are a book nerd like I am, the Library of Congress is some sort of heaven. It is the oldest federal cultural institution in the U.S. and one of the two largest libraries in the world (the other being the British Library in London).  It has over 32 million books in 470 languages in its catalogue!  We got there shortly after it opened at 9am.  We decided not to wait for one of the free tours, and took a self-guided one instead. The building itself was beautiful.

Library of Congress, Washington DC

A terribly bad quality photo of me playing tour guide

Library of Congress, Washington DC

The Great Hall

Library of Congress, Washington DC

The Great Hall

Walking into the Great Hall reminded me of some of the grand European cathedrals I have visited.  Souring ceilings, marble columns, rich paintings, and delicate gold filigree adorning every surface—it is truly a cathedral of learning.  The highlight of our tour was, of course, the famous main reading room, featured in many movies. It is as gorgeous in person as you could ever have imagined.

Library of Congress, Washington DC

Main Reading Room

I also enjoyed seeing Thomas Jefferson’s original library, which is located in a side wing of the building.

Library of Congress, Washington DC

Original books from Thomas Jefferson’s library

Since I went to UVA (founded by Jefferson himself) I am obsessed with anything to do with TJ. I didn’t know until our visit that the majority of the core collection of the Library of Congress comes from Jefferson’s personal book collection.  After much of the original collection was destroyed when the library was burned by the British during the War of 1812, Jefferson gave his entire collection of books (6,487 books—a VAST collection in the early 19th century) to replace the ones that were lost. His collection included many books of historical importance, including hundreds of books written in their original languages.

When we got out of the Library of Congress, we walked the short distance to the U.S. Capitol building.  We didn’t go inside, but we walked around the perimeter of the building, to see the view from both sides.

Willem at the U.S. Capitol

Willem at the U.S. Capitol

U.S. Capitol Buliding

U.S. Capitol Buliding

From the south side of the building, we walked onwards down the National Mall.  “The Mall” is a big, grassy area that spans the distance between the steps of the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial.  The entire distance is 1.9 miles (3 km) long!

Aerial view of the National Mall (click picture for source)

On both sides of the mall are various federal government agency buildings and museums.  Of these, the Smithsonian museums are by far the most well-known.

All of the Smithsonian museums are incredible, and they are also FREE, but it is impossible to see them all in one day.  You could spend a lifetime exploring all of the different museums here. We didn’t have forever, so we had to pick one—and, since Willem still hasn’t left his childhood dinosaur obsession behind, we chose the Natural History Museum (home to a legendary dinosaur display).

Dinosaur

For all your dinosaur fantasies

Elephant in the lobby of the Museum of Natural History

If you can only see one museum in DC, I would recommend this one. It is amazing that the place is free, because it is a high-quality museum.  We spent almost two hours wandering the exhibits, and we still didn’t see everything.  The best part about the museum being free though is that you don’t feel like you have to force yourself to suffer through an entire day in the museum just because you spent so much money on the entrance fee. We saw what we wanted, and then moved on.

At the middle of the mall is the Washington Monument. I would have loved to go up to the top, as was possible a few years ago, but currently the monument is completely closed and covered in scaffolding. It sustained structural damage during the earthquake in 2011, and is still being repaired. If it ever re-opens, going to the top of it is definitely on my DC bucket list.

This is what the monument SHOULD have looked like…

By this point we were tired of walking- the distance from the White House to the Capitol to the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial may look quite doable because you can see the landmarks everywhere, but do not be deceived: you will walk a lot in Washington.  One of the symptoms of walking so much in DC is that you will ALWAYS BE HUNGRY. We decided it was about time to find somewhere to grab lunch.  If you’ve ever been to DC, you will find out very quickly that there is a severe lack of lunch spots near the Mall (unless your idea of haute cuisine is an overpriced hot dog stand), so we got back on the metro and went to Chinatown to stuff ourselves with cheap, delicious Chinese food.

At lunch we brainstormed about what we wanted to do for the rest of the day.  During our past trips, one of the most enjoyable things Willem and I have done is to find a local sporting event to attend.  We decided to ask around and see if any of the DC sports teams happened to be playing that night.  A really kind woman we talked to told us that we could get $5 tickets to the Nationals game (DC’s Major League Baseball team) that evening if we got there at least an hour before the game started. We thought, “What the heck?”…so out of the blue we ended up on our way to Nationals Park to see an MLB game.

Entering the stadium

Entering the stadium

The stadium was really easy to get to on the metro, and it wasn’t crowded at all since we arrived super early to get the cheap tickets.  Washington was set to play Miami, a team neither Willem nor I knew anything about, but it didn’t matter. We were still excited. It was Willem’s first baseball game ever! I’m not the biggest baseball fan in the world, but it was still a perfect chance to see a truly American pastime.  How much more American can you get on your first trip to the U.S.A.?

DSCN8871

Nationals Park

DSCN8873

Nationals Park

A night at the ballgame

And even better? The Nationals scored two home runs, and Washington won! Willem was impressed with the relaxed, family-friendly atmosphere in the stadium.  In the Netherlands sporting events are more likely to end up with streakers, drunken fights, and police in riot gear than a hand-holding rendition of “Take me out to the ball game” followed by children running the bases.

Our choice to go to the ball game meant that we didn’t end up getting to see all of the monuments and historical sites we had originally planned to see that in DC that day, but honestly, we had a much better time at the game.  The monuments will be there another day. But our experience at the ball game was much more memorable. And our feet certainly thanked us.