Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Weekend in Washington, DC

My friend, Rosemary, said, "Everyone will want to come visit us during cherry blossom season."

"We won't," I said.  "We'll come in the winter."

Our friend, Herb, has a two-year appointment to the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia.  Normally, Rosemary and Herb live in Madison, Wisconsin.  With Washington closer to our Albany home, their invitation perked immediate interest.

Just after the holidays, we began to plan our visit.  Bill and I would take the train to DC, and the subway over to Arlington on a Friday in late February, returning on a Monday. We would have two full days to visit and sight-see.

(one residential tower after the next)

Upon arrival, our first view was of Rosemary and Herb's lovely apartment in one of the high-rise complexes of Arlington.  Just 12 minutes by metro into the District, this is a bedroom community populated almost entirely by millennials. The four of us could be taken for parents of any of the people we saw on the street or in the elevators.

Rosemary and Herb are still baffled by their neighborhood.  Shops consist of dry cleaners and nail salons.  A few restaurants are sprinkled throughout, but the nearest supermarket is a mile and a half away.

"There isn't even an ice cream shop here," Rosemary lamented.

Clearly, everyone gets what they need on their way home from work.  On the plus side, Herb has only a three-block walk to his office.

(babbling Rock Creek)

Before the trip, Rosemary sent me lists of possible places to go, asked my opinion, and requested ideas from us.  Making decisions was not easy! In the end, we picked a few destinations for each of the two days.

Our first outing on Saturday morning was to Rock Creek National Park.  "If there's a national park near you, we definitely want to see it!" I had emailed Rosemary.  I hadn't known that any park in the District is a national park, since the District of Columbia is under national jurisdiction.

"Everything we want to do today is fairly close together," Herb said, "so we'll drive."  We retrieved the car from its garage, four stories below their apartment building, and set out.

Walking woodland trails along the creek and over rolling hills gave us the perfect opportunity to visit, enjoy the fresh air, and see a beautiful and historic park

(Boulder Bridge where TR lost his ring)

I was fascinated by Boulder Bridge, with its underlayer of rocks hanging vertically.  This style of bridge construction is called "parkitecture," architecture designed to blend in with the natural landscape.  Theodore Roosevelt loved hiking in this park, and lost a ring here over 100 years ago.  The brochure we picked up encouraged today's hikers to try their luck at finding the ring!

(comfortable paths make nice loops in the park)

Our second activity was to tour the National Cathedral.  Despite all of us having been to DC a few times in the past, only Rosemary had previously visited the Cathedral, and even that was decades ago.  We were glad that some of our choices of activity were places that Herb and Rosemary had not yet thoroughly explored during their residence in the metro area.

(Washington National Cathedral)

We were surprised to learn that the cathedral had suffered a considerable amount of damage from a 5.8 magnitude earthquake in 2011.  We remembered hearing on the news about the Washington monument being closed for repairs and extensive work, but we did not remember hearing about the cathedral.  What an eye opener it was to see how entire turrets had shifted on their bases, turning clockwise so that they no longer lined up, but sat in precarious fashion, ready to drop heavy fragments at any moment.  Expert stone masons are carefully restoring the cathedral inside and out, at a projected cost of over $32 million.

(some victims of the earthquake)

Although an Episcopal church,  the cathedral, begun in 1907 and completed in 1990, is considered "the spiritual home of our nation."  It is an interesting mix of religious and national themes.

(State flags hang high)

Using a brochure, we began our self-guided tour.  The traditional Gothic architecture immediately raises the eye to majestic heights, and the cross shape with its numerous bays along the sides offers artistic fascination.  We started out together, but soon each of us wandered his own way.

(brilliant windows glow above the dark stone)

I was struck by the abstract and brilliantly colored stained-glass windows.  Although parts of the building house traditional religious-themed stained glass, this window, below, of red and orange flames, is on the wall behind a statue of Abraham Lincoln and depicts the Agony of Civil War.

In the opposite bay, George Washington stands statuesque. The window behind him, in lovely swirls of blue, reflects the search for freedom in the founding of our nation.

Besides the glass, there was a series of dove paintings by illustrator N.C.Wyeth, a carving of Martin Luther King, who preached here regularly, and myriad more works of art.

Eventually, we all gathered outdoors where the carillon played high above.  We were hungry after our walk at Rock Creek and our wanderings through the cathedral.  Fortunately, the baptistery is now an Open City cafe, and fit our needs perfectly.

(I had Monk Tea, and how about those camel cookies!)

This February day's temperature reached a comfortable 60 degrees.  With delicious sandwiches on hearty homemade bread, pots of tea, a table in the outdoor seating area, and music from the carillon wafting down, we couldn't ask for more.

(The Baptistery made into an Open City Cafe)

Rejuvenated from a sit-down, and well-fed, we were ready to explore the 57-acre Cathedral Close, which comprises gardens and woods designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, best known for designing Central Park in Manhattan.  Olmstead wrote that the Close would "brush off the dust of the city...so that one is cleansed in mind and in spirit."

(restored 13th century Norman arch)

Both the garden plantings and the permanent structures originated from locations throughout the world.  In addition, close to 40 different flowers would bloom over a three-season period. Sheltered among the stone and greenery, a visitor could feel a timeless quiet.

(the Cathedral Close)

Our final exploration of the cathedral led us back inside, where we found the elevator which would take us up seven stories to an observation area.  From here, we could look out windows from every side, down to the ground, out to the city, and back to the cathedral's roof and architectural detail.

(we followed this hallway past windows to the outside)

What a treat! Whether it's in the mountains or in the city, I always love to get up high. The first windows we came to looked down on where we had just been, the cafe and the gardens. 

(the Baptistery with its cafe, and the Cathedral Close)

I was thrilled to see the flying buttresses with their ornate pinnacles up close.

In the interior space of the observation area, a museum displayed photographs depicting the history of the cathedral, including the recent earthquake damage and repairs.  We found so much to see and learn here.

(a pinnacle just beyond the glass)

We left the calm of the cathedral area and drove into a more hectic section of the city to see Malcolm X Park, our next stop. Bill had found this listed as one of the Top 10 things to see in Washington, according to Time Magazine.

(beautiful stonework stairways and paths)

With the aid of the GPS and his expert driving skills, Herb found the park and a safe spot for the car.  From the street, the park rose in a series of stone stairways up a steep incline, opening into a huge grassy area at the summit.

People played frisbee and lawn games, walked with strollers, rode bikes, jogged, and enjoyed the nice day.  The song, "Saturday in the Park," recorded by Chicago, came to mind.

(a young couple, a sunny day, a classic picnic basket, and a dog)

We saw one statue, Joan of Arc astride a horse, the only statue of a woman equestrian in the entire District.  While this was all wonderful, where was Malcolm X?

It became obvious that the real beauty of this park is its water features, even though they were dry now. In season, fountains, cascading falls, and pools dropped from one intricately designed stone level to another, with gardens alongside. I found it easy to imagine people watching the water, sitting on the stone walls and benches, perhaps with some impromptu music nearby, on a summer day. 

(water would cascade into a large fountain pool)

Despite all, we were a little confused. Why was this called Malcolm X Park, or was it?  We had seen no written name, statue, or indication that the advocate for black rights had ever been here.

Bill began to feel a little responsibility for suggesting that we come here.  I didn't mind; it was a fascinating park.  And Herb and Rosemary both said, "we love exploring places we have never been before."

Still, we were relieved when we came upon a plaque describing the park's history.  Built in the 1930s, it was home to concerts, events, and protests.  With the assassination of Martin Luther King, riots broke out and the area was devastated.  Since 1969, the park has been unofficially called Malcolm X Park, in recognition of racial protest, although its real name is Meridian Hill Park.  Since there is a memorial to President Buchanan in the park, the name cannot be changed to honor another person.

Now we had to seek out the statue of our 15th president. We found him, looking important but restful, on a regal marble pedestal under the boughs of a large tree.

(President James Buchanan sits proud)

We had had a full day and had learned a lot.  How relaxing it was to return to Herb and Rosemary's comfortable apartment and to eat a delicious meal, while we planned our next day's adventures.

We began Sunday by taking the metro to Foggy Bottom and walking the Mall, passing through or alongside the famous memorials.  While we had all seen most of them before, they are worth repeating over and over.

(The Museum of Natural History)

The weather wasn't quite as fine, so we had prudently planned some indoor activities for this day.  We debated which of the Smithsonian museums we should go in.  I was attracted to a photo exhibit of Iceland in the Museum of Natural History.  We enjoyed perusing the pictures of barren landscapes, and farms and villages, and of Iceland's hearty residents.  Then we discovered that the museum was showing the new IMAX movie celebrating the 100th anniversary of our National Park Service. We paid the minimal fee and got in line.

I had seen this movie advertised in the Sierra Club literature I receive.  In fact, I had researched how to bring the movie to our area.  Unfortunately, it was prohibitively expensive.  What a find to see it here!  The photography was exquisite, the music a perfect accompaniment, and Robert Redford's narration clear and interesting.  If we had any complaint, it was the "adventure" aspect of the film, which showed three people doing extreme sports throughout the terrain.  Some of their activities appeared unsafe, or detrimental to the landscape. Still, the movie was a wonderful tribute to the beauty and fragility of our National Parks.

We had lunch at Paul's Cafe.  With the sandwiches served on baguettes, and a case of exquisite pastries, this cafe is decidedly French. I couldn't resist a chocolate mini-croissant.  Along with the warm decor of natural woodwork, and large windows facing the Mall, Paul's made a cozy escape from the drizzle that had begun outdoors.  We were well-fortified for our afternoon activity.

(Uh-oh. Entrance to the Spy Museum)

Rosemary thought that Bill, especially, would enjoy the Spy Museum, a place, again, new to all of us.

Upon entering the museum, we were told to choose a personality from the ones offered, and to remember its characteristics.  Then we would see if we could successfully qualify to become a spy with our character.

We pressed buttons and answered questions.  After the second series, the screen told me to go to the Pub.  I was clearly a loser at spying!  Herb, however, went through several levels and got to the screen that said that he was the "most effective security threat."

(Herb and Rosemary see that he could qualify to be a spy!!)

Herb wasn't planning on a new career, so we followed the museum map through the pop culture section where we saw James Bond's car and Agent 99's phone.

(James Bond's Aston Martin)

From there we entered the history wing.  We learned how spying was used by the Greeks with the Trojan Horse, in Shakespeare's writing, by Queen Elizabeth I, and throughout the World Wars and into today.

(A model of the Trojan Horse began the museum's history wing)

Artifacts, writing, and recorded interviews fascinated us. We learned how the spies crafted their trade, what qualities they possessed that made them successful spies, how they influenced or deceived others, and were ultimately caught.  Equally interesting was the elaborate and complex intelligence the detectives used, coupled with their intuition and instincts. This museum has something for everyone.

(World War II intelligence and spy equipment)

We had had a packed weekend, and, yet, we had also had plenty of time to relax and visit, curled up in comfy chairs in the apartment.  It was fun to catch up with one another, and to better understand our friends' temporary home and lifestyle.

Monday morning, Bill and I left to catch the subway for our trip back to the train station and north to Albany. Our hours of travel time were spent going over our brochures and thinking about all of the places we had been, but we always returned to the many conversations we had shared.

(Good friends since 1989)