by Isabel Conway –
Set foot in the Southern State of Virginia and it won’t be long before you run into someone who’ll proudly say “you are in the Commonwealth here”. Only an hour and a half by car away from Washington DC, Virginia proudly traces her history all the way back to 1607. By US standards, the birthplace of America is seriously ancient.
We drive along one of the grandest avenues in America, lined with stately mansions and elegant belle-Epoque apartment buildings, peppered with imposing churches and monuments to Virginia’s dead heroes. They include Confederate generals Robert E Lee, Jefferson Davis and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson astride his horse.
American Civil War history, the stories, monuments and battle sites are found everywhere in Virginia never more so than in Richmond. The capitol of the Confederacy’s own White House and superb colonial era architecture provided the setting for Steven Spielberg’s Oscar nominated movie ‘Lincoln’
The city encompasses a nice mix of old and new – from beautifully restored Antebellum architecture to wild and weird street murals, a bohemian district of craft shops, bars and cafes, a resurrected lively harbour district where nightlife thrives and skyscrapers that include the heavily fortified Federal Reserve.
The Powhatan Indians settled on the banks of the James River in the 1500s, planting tobacco crops that would bring enormous prosperity to Virginia.
It was here in Richmond that a battle cry for secession of the colonies from England by statesman Patrick Henry declaring “give me liberty – or give me death” back in 1775 put the Revolutionary war in motion.
You could easily spend days exploring Richmond’s historic districts, checking out numerous civil war land marks, visiting a long list of interesting museums and going on ‘field trips’. One museum is dedicated to Edgar Alan Poe, there’s his haunted trail legacy, the outstanding Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, American Civil War and Black History Museums to name just a few.
Once the centre of the second largest slave market in the US Richmond’s slave trail tells the appalling story of slavery and a flood protection wall plaque pays tribute to “Irish indentured workers” who toiled alongside the slaves building it.
We barely skim the surface, racing through Carytown, a miniature version of Greenwich Village and dining amid the old cobblestones of the historic Shockoe Slip, a narrow passageway leading to the river where goods were once unloaded, in an old tobacco warehouse. The Tobacco Company, all Victorian polished wood, brass and chandeliers is a popular high end restaurant with live music.
Downtown Richmond is also an urban adventure zone along the James River, arguably America’s most historic waterway along which the very first colonists travelled in their exploration of the new territories also beckons here.
Riding the nation’s only urban class IV rapids while white water rafting through downtown Richmond with Riverside Outfitters we crash through rapids passing an island where 15,000 Union soldiers were incarcerated for more than a year during the American Civil War
After battling the rapids or participating in other active adventures we hit the Richmond Beer trail, celebrating out rescue of a rafter who had fallen out of his inflatable boat earlier.
My whistle stop Virginia tour also included Old Town Fredericksburg, another famous Civil War battle field where a trolley tour took us past historic homes, including beautifully restored Kenmore plantation built by George Washington’s sister Betty and through downtown where a slave auction block stands to this day.
Later I stopped off at Goolricks soda fountain- pharmacy for lunch reflecting on days when non-whites were barred. A famous lunchtime sit-in during the Civil Rights protests of the 1960’s helped turn the tide on racism here in Virginia.
The pioneering legacy of Virginia’s first settlers is honoured at the A. Smith Bowman distillery of Fredericksburg whose ‘top shelf’ bourbon has been crowned best in the world beating off the competition from Kentuckey. Our three day tour of just a small portion of Virginia began at Manassas National Battlefield less than an hour from Washington DC, site of the first battle of the American Civil War and an enduring reminder of its horrors. “Don’t let these pretty fields fool you, we are standing on some of the most blood stained ground anywhere in history” pointed out the guide. Over 622,000 lives were lost. It’s a sobering thought…. almost as many as in every war combined which Americans have fought since. “And sadly history never learns its lesson”, remarked one of our group.
Get there: Isabel flew with United Airlines (see www.united.com) daily flights Dublin-Dulles Washington. Getting to Virginia: Car rental recommended taking interstates 95 and 64 into Richmond region. Frequent trains run from Washington DC to Richmond. Further information: www.capitalregionusa.org;
The new year brochures are hitting the travel agents shelves and one of the first and the most comprehensive has arrived from US specialist tour operator American Holidays The dedicated brochure offers the ultimate in American holidays, from a broadened range of escorted trips to fly drive, cities from Washington to Seattle and Dallas to San Francisco with new and direct flight routes and exciting discoveries of national parks, coasts and specialised food and music themed trips.