Friday, November 15, 2013

Vacation - Part 4: Williamsburg

Thanks for coming back with me after my unintentional hiatus! It's been a crazy month. Let's get back to that summer vacation. (My goal is to finish writing about it before Christmas...)

The penultimate stop on our big vacation was at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. This was by far the most commercialized experience on our journey. It took me some sleuthing online to figure out the set-up, as their website is huge! It's pretty, but not so straightforward. Basically, anyone can walk around the small neighborhood called "Revolutionary City" for free. Here's the website's description:
"The Historic Area of Colonial Williamsburg stretches over 301 acres, and includes 88 original 18th-century structures. Hundreds of houses, shops and public outbuildings are reconstructed on their original foundations. Some buildings are open to the public, while others are private residences and administrative offices."
Inside these "open to the public" spaces there are often costumed actors. Some of them were tradespeople just going about their business and answering questions from tourists. Some were more classic tour-guides with a script to follow as they showed us around. All of these areas require a pass to access.

The Smithy

We arrived bright and early at the visitor center. It is a modern building which seemed to me like a cross between a shopping mall and a small airport. We found our way to a ticket kiosk which spit out two badges for us to clip to our clothes. Shane hunted down an employee for a map. After gaping at the long schedule of special performances and demonstrations printed on it, we decided to just wing it. (Insider tip: Another thing the website doesn't say is that tickets purchased online are about $10 cheaper than the ones you buy in person.)

There is a shuttle bus which will take you down from the visitor center. We decided to walk in though. It was not a short walk, but it was a beautiful morning. After winding around on hiking trails near the highway, we emerged behind the reconstructed governor's mansion. We were in! And we were hungry!

We found a historical tavern. (I am 90% sure it was the King's Arms.) We were seated in the basement; which is way neater than it sounds. The floor was the original brick floor from the 1700s, the old cooking fireplace filled a whole wall, and it was lit almost entirely by candles! The food was rather plain, but well made. I was super excited about the appetizer though: Pasties! Well, they were more like meat turn-overs... but they were still really good.

After our bellies were full, we walked to the far end of the compound, figuring we'd work our way back slowly. The farthest mark on the map was something called "Bassett Hall". When we arrived, we found a tour about to begin with only two other people, so we jumped in. We were told that this was one of the family homes of John D. Rockefeller Jr. Yes, that Rockefeller. It turns out that he and his wife were the philanthropic catalysts for the preservation of Colonial Williamsburg. It was not at all what I expected! It is decorated as they had it in the 1940's, and Mrs. Rockefeller's tastes were super kitschy. It reminded me of my great-grandparents' farm in Iowa, except you know... expensive. (Sorry, no pictures were allowed.)

We wandered back to the main road, and tried to get into a tour at the Capitol Building. The guard outside told us we'd have to wait fifteen minutes, but that the Declaration of Independence was about to be read. We said "Ok. We can wait." and his reaction was something like "Whatever you want, weirdos." Except he was stoic, and old-timey, and polite. But I bet that's what he was thinking, because it turns out the Declaration is kind of a big deal. So we wandered on over. There were costumed actors on the street with microphones, reciting reactions people might have had at the time like: "'All men created equal'? Maybe that means us slaves too." and "'All men created equal'? Maybe that means us women too." (The response to which was, in both cases, "Don't be stupid. It doesn't.")

Me with the stoic guard outside the Capitol Building & the declaration of the Declaration

After the performance was over, a ton of people headed toward the Capitol Building entrance. So we ended up skipping it. Also nearby was something Shane's brother told us we absolutely could not skip: the Coffee House. Boy was he right! We were given a pretty long speech describing how coffee houses were like fancy bars. They also rented out rooms for people who wanted to throw small parties. Then we walked through the house, and were given samples! My coffee was amazing: more like Turkish coffee than modern American stuff. Shane ordered a hot chocolate. It was un-sweetened, and very rich. We loved it! But it was definitely a more grownup taste than Swiss Miss with marshmallows.

We wandered around a bit more, visiting tradespeople. All told, we saw a joiner (frame maker), tinsmith, blacksmiths, basket weavers, gunsmith and the palace kitchens. There were bunches more to see, but we ran out of time! If I ever get to come back, I'll be sure to plan at least two days to take everything in.

 (Clockwise from top-left) Basket weavers; Tin-smith (With new baskets!);
Joiner with a planer; A typical meal in the governor's kitchen building (Yes, that's real food!)

Our final stop of the day was back at the Governor's Palace. We were given a tour by a very nice lady who told us she was a servant in the house, and just the night before the masters had fled in anticipation of the revolution. This governor was England's representative in the colonies. He and his family were the only true nobility around. The palace is a modern re-construction, but you'd never know it. They followed every detail they could find, right down to the correct number of dishes in the pantry according to the housekeeper's inventory.

How many weapons do you need, Lady?!?

The palace has beautiful gardens in the back stretching for acres. There is a whole plantation back there too. But we were beat! We waved goodbye to the palace, found a modern sandwich shop nearby, and took the bus back to the car. I hope there will be another visit to Colonial Williamsburg in our future. This time, we barely skimmed the surface!

Goodnight, Palace. Goodnight, big lawn. Goodnight, tourists and tiny dog.