Sunday, October 27, 2019

Perfect days in Washington, DC.

There are many reasons why one travels to a distant city for the sole purpose of enjoying the company of friends. While at it, you can also take time to visit the city’s main attractions. Spontaneity is a gift most of us enjoy even if it leaves us feeling a little guilty at times – surely, there are other priorities. Throw in the decision to drive to that distant city and you have all the ingredients of a delicate time out spent solely on finding ways to experience life far different to what has become routine.

For this particular weekend, Margo and I drove to Maryland to experience some of the best that Washington DC has to offer. It would have been easy for us to call this post Three Perfect Days in DC, but that heading has already been used by one of the major airlines and leaves unsaid much about whom we visited. In this case it was our good friends, the Rosen family – Robert and Randy. Gracious in their hospitality and over-the-top when it came to putting an itinerary together for the short time we spent with them.

Our route to Maryland took us out onto Interstate 70 for the majority of the trip that is, until we detoured south through Nashville and Knoxville as we wanted to hit Boone, North Carolina, and from there, find our way onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. As you can tell from the photo atop this post, the trees were very much highlighted by the colors of fall. Don’t ask me how best to navigate your way onto the Parkway even when you start from a township like Boone that boasts its close proximity to that stretch of road, as it’s a trip through the hills on unmarked roads. But find it we did and it being a Friday, the traffic was very light and we got to see it in all of its glory – something not quickly forgotten.

The detour didn’t delay our arrival by all that much. In fact I think we were only a matter of a few minutes either side of the scheduled arrival time. Having been a reader of many of these posts over the past few years it came as no surprise to find that Robert and Randy had lined up a first night dinner at one of DC’s most famous restaurants – the Prime Rib. It bills itself as being among the top five romantic restaurants in the US even as it promotes its ZAGAT award for being the #1 Steakhouse in Washington! It’s also one of the few remaining restaurants in Washington that mandates men wearing jackets. As for the ladies, well that is an entirely different story and given the number of Washington’s elite present that Friday night, for privacy reasons all I can add is that the jewelry looked very expensive. On the other hand, it’s a shame the ladies couldn’t afford more material for the frocks they chose to wear …

However, Washington D.C. is much more than good restaurants. And yes, we did enjoy cocktails at The Prime Rib, by the way. Next day, given that it was Saturday, our first full morning in D.C. was rather busy. Taking the metro into the heart of the city our first stop was the Library of Congress – not so much for the books, artifacts and mementos but for the architecture. Tucked away in the basement was a small anteroom where there was an exhibit featuring the life and times of Bob Hope and that was well worth the time we spent absorbing all of his accomplishments.

We did climb to the top and onto the observatory where we could look down on the reading room, but again, to think of how early in the life of this democracy space was set aside so as to not lose track of what were critical works of the founding fathers is impressive to say the least. Standing at the entrance to the former office of the Librarian – yes, it’s moved across the street to the new, far less charming building – we can only guess at the conversations that transpired within these walls.  

On exit, we headed back to the Metro but not before we had a chance to take in the Capital as well as the Supreme Court. We were fortunate once again as the crowds were pretty light and this afforded us many photo opportunities and as it had been more than two decades that had passed since last either Margo or me had been in D.C. it was pretty cool seeing these prominent edifices once again. The biggest change of course had to be the security as there was evidence everywhere you turned that precautions were in place to stop anything tragic developing and it is a sad commentary on our times to note that the most powerful democracy on the planet is ringed behind metal road-traps and immovable bollards.     

There was a reason why we headed back to the Rosens that afternoon and it was for Randy’s chicken dish – wonderfully prepared, tabled and accompanied by a dry Gewurztraminer. However as good as that dinner was the events that then followed were spectacular. We had tickets for a performance at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts where we would be participating in a special celebration of the one hundredth birthday of Nat King Cole. The National Orchestra was on hand together with a small ensemble of traditional musicians of the times – drums, piano, slap bass and guitar.

The real treat came when Nat’s younger brother, Freddy Cole, now just eighty eight years old made an appearance and while the venue experienced microphone issues for his first two songs, when it came to the finale and through the graciousness of fellow participant, Patti Austin, who held her own microphone up to Freddy, we all got to hear him loud and clear. As for the other participants at this event we were privileged to hear arrangements from not just Patti but from Eric Benét, Dulé Hill, and BeBe Winans.

Prior to entering the concert hall we had enough time to cross over to the newly opened The Reach where there was an art exhibition featuring the works of President George W Bush. Irrespective of your political leanings, you would be very surprised to learn that with this exhibition, Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors you will view a collection of portraits by President George W. Bush that will surprise for their authenticity. To say the day ended on a high note would not only be passé but miss the point entirely – all of us need days and evenings like this to remind ourselves of just how all-encompassing the nation’s capital really is; to date we have visited three continents in 2019 but we count this first day among the highlights we will not forget.  

For Margo and me, 2019 really started late 2018 and it’s as if we haven’t stopped moving – leaving Australia in January, then spending a week in Munich in March, Edinburgh in May, Amsterdam and Budapest in July with trips to Las Vegas, Dallas, San Jose and Atlanta all thrown in for good measure has meant we have seen a lot of the world. Shortly, we leave for San Francisco for perhaps our last road trip of the year, but what stands out for us is that at all of these destinations, it continues to be the people we meet on these trips we remember most of all. And to think, our perfect days in Washington D.C. has only just begun and yet, remembering all of this is perhaps the best way to segue to what transpired Sunday. 

The skies dawned overcast with a fine mist prevailing. It wasn’t long before the mist turned into a steady downpour of rain. Perfect for heading indoors once again and to what better place could we drive than to the outer fields of Dulles International Airport, Virginia, where the Smithsonian Institution has set up their Air and Space National Museum or, more correctly, the Udvar-Hazy Center and the companion facility to the Museum on the National Mall in Washington, DC. We arrived as the worst of the rain came down and we weren’t prepared for what we were to see. Even though we had walked through the Smithsonian’s air and space exhibit on the Mall, the Udvar-Hazy Center was a completely different establishment, completely mind-blowing in its scope. The numbers simple don’t do the museum justice but to have complete histories of all forms of flight so readily accessible says a lot for what the Smithsonian stands for – capturing the crucial moments in history that we all can relate to – in an entertaining yet educational format.   

From the Space Shuttle Discovery to the Concorde to the Super Constellation that was the stalwart aircraft of airlines including QANTAS prior to the advent of the jet age. Looking at the Super Connie that seated only 60 or so passengers, depending on configuration, it was no wonder flight was for the privileged (and elected officials). It was also very clear that major technology advancements were triggered by global conflicts during the twentieth century so much so that it was remarkable that in the early days of WWII there were still biplanes and yet, as that conflict came to an end we had jet engines and rockets.
When you look at the Mercury and Gemini craft and the total lack of creature comforts they provided you just have to step back in awe at the speed of progress achieved in the 1960s. To think that mankind indeed landed on the moon and that they were able to return when you look at the computer systems involved – and numerous systems were part of the exhibition – you have to acknowledge that really, there’s no way you would want to be an astronaut. 

On the other hand, looking at the International Space Station and it’s many elements together with the fact that creature comforts have only moderately improved we still have a long journey to take before any of us will dig deep and pay the stipend to enjoy a few moments in the darkness of outer space. Then again, there is a reason why we still call space the final frontier!

On the other hand, being up close to the spy jet, the fabled Blackbird SR-71 truly sends a tingle up your spine – to be able to cross the United States in under two hours! You have to ask yourselves, whatever happened to that technology and why can’t we fly like that anymore? As a final look I had to take in the sight of the exploits by balloonists, including the free-fall to earth by the parachutist Felix Baumgartner who stepped outside his gondola even as it was entering the stratosphere to descend to earth breaking the sound barrier on the way down from 127,853 feet (free-falling a total of 119,431 feet).

If Friday night was prime rib and Saturday night was chicken then Sunday night it was all lobster as Clyde’s restaurant – a favorite jaunt for many locals – was celebrating lobster-fest! Can’t recall the exact weights but Margo and I enjoyed lobsters that were in excess of two pounds (one kilo). Each! And we still wanted more! As it was getting close to Halloween, the decorations were evident everywhere we turned but once again, our hosts Robert and Randy excelled in pulling off another great day in DC.

However, perhaps the best was saved for last as it included two complete surprises, with venues both public and private. Who couldn’t have guessed a tour “Behind the Scenes” of the National Cathedral could be as enthralling as it turned out to be; while we didn’t climb the bell towers we did manage to get to the roof for a view of all DC. Again, Monday isn’t a day of heavy foot-traffic so we had a lot of the important spaces available for an extended tour as it was clear our guide was having the best time of all – walking across the catwalk directly beneath the rose window had me holding my breath.

Monday night was perhaps the most extraordinary of all. The Rosens took us to a neighbor’s house that was a theatre wonderland. Not just because it had a theater in the home featuring dual 35mm projectors but because it housed ancient music boxes, coin pianos, carousel organs and much more. All fully restored and in some cases, one-offs to the extent accessing the paper / fabric rolls that carried the tunes had to be reconstructed and in some cases, emulated in software. 

The sound these instruments produced is mind boggling to say the least and as I looked around the collection of rolls, together with vinyl including long forgotten 78s, CDs and DVDs and everything else that filled many rooms it soon made sense that even the Smithsonian was familiar with the collection and frequently had our host, Matthew Jaro, visit their collections to help validate material.

Walking through the home, it was truly a wonderland but then again, it simply added to the magic that truly is DC. From the well-known structures of government to the museums and cathedrals, to the history of flight and the history of America and yes, even the history of music, Margo and I couldn’t have asked for more perfect days in DC. 

It is a wonderland and perhaps at times out does anything that Disneyland or Universal can provide – fantasy ultimately is no match for reality when viewed this way. Not sure how long it will be before we return to DC, but we have to accept, it won’t be another two decades before next we make the journey to our adopted country’s capital city. And we simply have to add, it won’t be too long before we see the Rosens visiting us in Colorado which leaves us to ponder; what constitutes perfect days in Colorful Colorado!


Randy said...

We are so pleased that you both enjoyed your Capitol vacation stay with us. We loved having you as guests in our home and planning the sightseeing and food venues that you so obviously enjoyed. We did, too! We look forward to visiting you in Colorado.

Robert said...

You left out our reaction to that nano skirt (definitely shorter than a micro). :-)