Charlottesville, Virginia, is more than just a pretty picture postcard of Monticello, the home of our third president. For instance, think of the University of Virginia as representing excellence in education. For a glimpse of 19th Century life there is Michie’s Tavern and Ash Lawn-Highland, the more modest home of our fifth President, James Monroe. For some fun things to do, the Downtown Mall is for strolling, networking and shopping. Noted for fine dining are Hamilton’s and the Clifton Inn. A great stop for wine tasting would be both Jefferson Vineyards and Kluge Winery and Estate. And there is a pleasant, convenient place to stay while seeing all this: the Cavalier Inn, just across the way from the University of Virginia.
Of all our destinations in Charlottesville, Monticello was the most culturally significant and stunningly beautiful. I knew from the time I first found out I would be going to Virginia that this was the place I most wanted to visit – and it far exceeded my expectations! Monticello was the cherished home of Thomas Jefferson. It is one of the most identifiable residences in the world. At the conclusion of his second term as president Jefferson was anxious to return home to Monticello, his “harbor” with his family, books and farm. The 5,000-acre plantation is located on the lower slope of Monticello Mountain.
The place to begin your introduction to Monticello is the Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center, which opened in 2009. Start with an introductory film which speaks of the many facets of Thomas Jefferson. Listening to the story of his life and seeing his many inventions will make you think of the similarities to the great minds of Leonardo Da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin. His biographer, James Parton, said he could "calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, dance a minuet and play the violin." You will see evidence of Jefferson’s versatility everywhere in his residence.
Confirmation of his talents is in the four exhibitions in the Visitor’s Center. The first is entitled, “The Words of Thomas Jefferson.” Jefferson was a prolific writer of letters, and his legacy is more than 200 quotations which have been placed on the wall. John Adams said of his vast correspondence, “he had a felicity of expression.” “Thomas Jefferson and the Boisterous Sea of Liberty,” the second exhibit, illustrated the influence of Jefferson’s beliefs that led to his writing of the Declaration of Independence. His beliefs are projected on a wall of 21 flat-panel screens. Seven of these are interactive touch screens. The words are in different colors and are continually changing. The third exhibition is entitled “Monticello: Jefferson’s Essay in Architecture,” which shows how Jefferson’s vision of his future home evolved. His drawings and models are preserved and displayed in the center along with his drafting instruments.
The forth and most dramatic exhibition is entitled “Monticello as an Experiment: to try all things.” There are more than 200 objects and models of the devices Jefferson thought of to make life easier. One of the most fascinating is the machine he called the Polygraph, which was actually a copy machine. Who knew the idea began so long ago! Another invention is an extremely useful tool, the “plow of least expenditure of force” which he invented by using a mathematical calculation. A gadget that will catch your eye is the wheel cipher. Just looking at it, it might be hard to infer its use. This metal wheel was used to encode and decode messages during the Revolutionary War. You will see many of these inventions in action when you visit the house itself.
The original home was a two-story, eight-room house. In 1796, upon returning from his duties as the American minister to France, he began transforming his home into a three-story, 21-room edifice that reflected the homes he had seen in Paris. A short ride up the hill will take you to the great structure itself. Visitors are ushered through the impressive doors by a guide who was completely in character as a butler. I doubt that there was a fact about Jefferson your guides will not know. You will go through the house and learn the many details of his life and to see his practical time-saving devices put to work.
From your tour of Monticello you can go directly down the mountain to the Jefferson Vineyards. Thomas Jefferson was noted as America’s “first distinguished viticulturist.” When he took office he added a new budget item – wine. The vineyards he planted in 1774 were just a mile south of Monticello. Today, Jefferson Vineyards winery grows its grapes at that same site, the vineyards being replanted in 1981. Arriving at the tasting room in mid-morning you will be treated to a delightful sample of four dry white wines and four dry red wines. One of the most impressive wines is the 2007 Meritage, which received the Taster’s Guild International Gold Medal two years in a row.
Next, journey another notch down the hill and back in time to Michie’s Tavern. Here you will be treated to a sumptuous Southern buffet, created from recipes dating back to the 18th Century and served by the staff dressed in period attire, speaking in character of that period of time. Michie’s Tavern is open during midday, following the custom of that era of eating the main meal of the day at this time.
The meal is served buffet style from large copper vessels that are constantly being replenished. You can serve yourself as much of you want of colonial fried chicken, hickory-smoked pork, black-eyed peas and stewed tomatoes, mashed potatoes and gravy, whole baby beets, coleslaw, homemade biscuits, and cornbread. Beware of taking too many servings, as after the meal the helpers will be around to serve you apple cobbler with vanilla ice cream! If you are there in the winter months you will have the comfort of dining fireside.
Now for a little exercise after that meal! The tour of the general store and tavern comes next. You will learn about the founder, William Michie, see the rooms where visitors spent the night, visit the gaming room, and learn about the various diversions of the era. Most fun is working with a group to learn the dance steps and then performing the Virginia reel together.
Time for more wine tasting, and thankfully Kluge Winery and Estate is just down the road. What a showplace of natural beauty! Rolling hills surround the vineyards, a perfect setting for the farm shop that houses the tasting room. The winery founder and chairman is Patricia Kluge, who is supported in this venture by her husband, William Moses. You will have someone to assist you in enjoying a tasting of Kluge wine. We had the distinct pleasure of being met at the farm store/tasting room by Kristin Moses Murray, who works with her parents as Director of Public Relations and Marketing. She is a dynamic speaker who knows how to make her guests feel at home while imparting information about the wine and winery.
Patrons are treated to a special tasting with Kluge wines served in an innovative way. At each place you will find a Plexiglas holder containing four V-shaped plastic vials, two filled with white wine, the other two with red. Under the clear holder is the description of the wines. On your table you will find small platters containing various cheeses, fruits and nuts to complement the vintages. Making the event complete are not only the flowers on the table but large windows that look out on the garden, which gave us the feeling of springtime in September.
Refreshed by food and drink, look nearby for more history-comes-alive at Ash Lawn-Highland. Here you will find the historic house-museum and working farm much as it was when President James Monroe and his wife Elizabeth lived there from 1793 to 1826. Monroe was the fifth president of the U.S.
As a young soldier Monroe was with General George Washington as he crossed the Delaware River. He was wounded in battle and camped at Valley Forge during the infamously cold winter of 1777. When Monroe returned to Williamsburg after the war he met Thomas Jefferson, then governor of Virginia. In that time period one “read law,” which meant one would work as an intern with a lawyer to enter that profession. Jefferson was the person Monroe chose to work with and this was the beginning of a life-long friendship. Monroe’s years of public service included the U.S. Senate and serving as the governor of Virginia. He is acclaimed for being instrumental in the final negotiation to complete the Louisiana Purchase and the formulation of the Monroe Doctrine, which let the world know the United States would consider any effort to colonize land in the U.S. an act of aggression.
The tradition of Ash Lawn-Highland is that all were to be welcomed, friends and family as well as visitors. That practice is preserved today by the College of William and Mary. Monroe, an alumnus of this educational institute, left the property in its care. Those who work there are dedicated to “continuing a program to preserve and restore the special character of the Highland estate.” When you visit there you will be received by many colorful characters in the dress of that period, and they all have a story to tell. One really special treat is the demonstration of open hearth cooking. You enter a small building located on the lawn near the house and meet a woman dressed in 19th Century mode who demonstrates the cooking method as it was practiced in the kitchens during the period the Monroes lived there. She will tell you the various types of things cooked as well as the hazards of this type of food preparation.
From here is a short, scenic trip to visit the University of Virginia to take a tour of the Rotunda and grounds, but that is a story for another day.
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