Capitol/Capital Fun!

Trip Start Jul 29, 2010
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Trip End Feb 04, 2011


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Flag of United States  , District of Columbia
Thursday, December 23, 2010

The train journey was fairly uneventful...if rather hot. After all the layers I had bought the day before it felt very strange to be peeling them all off. Thankfully, they turned it down after Charleston. That was one cool thing about the journey...I got to pass through a number of other States - South and North Carolina and Virginia before hitting the capital region - The District of Columbia. Washington DC is usually referred to just as "DC"...but I had picked this up already having been here forever (get me!). Surprisingly my train gets in half an hour early (particularly considering just how slow these trains are). More surprising is how inauspicious the signs at the station are for the Nation's Capital. I collect my bag and try to locate the bus stop...rather difficult as there are no signs to the Circulator stop at all...it's just all so here helpful here! However, Union Station is beautiful...I had been disappointed by North American railway stations so far in comparison to the fabulous European ones such as Milan, Paris Gard du Nord and Paddington, but this one is a goody. I eventually find the right place and I catch the bus...indulging in shamelessly touristy glee as it goes passed the Capitol. I arrive at the HI Washington, which seems pretty nice and most importantly...warm! It's minus two out there and I didn't fancy freezing my toes off here for 9 days. In the normal style of HIs in the US it's huge and there are loads of people but there are also organised activities. These are still the best way to meet people so I sign up for a few before hitting the hay. All this travel is exhausting!

The next day is a "chores" day and I do laundry and other exciting things but in the even I join one of the activities heading to the White House Christmas Tree and carols. It's f-f-f-f-freezing. The tree is enormous and completely covered in lights so you can't be entirely sure there is a real tree under there. Then I remember reading somewhere that this tree has in fact got its own twitter account and has been updating the world on its progress. Bah, Americans! Seeing the White House is really cool though. I get talking to a couple of people and quickly make friends with an English guy called James and an Australian girl called Rhiannon (we bond over being burdened with unspellable Welsh names). We decide we've frozen enough and head back to the hostel, via the Indian across the street for very yummy curry, and warm up in the TV room before calling it a night.

Thursday, I have put aside the morning to do my winter shopping and get myself a decent winter coat and boots...and it's rather good timing as it begins to snow heavily as I step out the front door of the hostel. Armed with advice from my Canadian family I get myself some waterproof boots and a particularly fetching down jacket. I feel like the Michelin man. However, it is warm and it is designer (Tommy Hilfiger...get me!) and, even better, it's better than half price. Wrapped up in my shiny new spare duvet with my hat and gloves I venture back into the snow and head to the Portrait Gallery. This place is enormous and in 3 hours I only manage to see two thirds of the portrait half (the other half is the American Art Museum). It's really cool though. I skip over a LOT of Civil War pictures and enjoy the more contemporary portraiture (ie people I recognise). The section on American Presidents is particularly good (although it's the beginning of several hundred depictions of George Washington that I will see over the next few days). Again the more recent are the most interest, with the exception of the Lincoln items...including life masks of his face and hands. The personalities of the men seem to show in this portraits...Kennedy is looking handsome and "of his time", Reagan looks conservative and rather dull, George W. looks idiotic. The Clinton picture is most interesting artistically and the Nixon portraiture by Norman Rockwell is interesting considering his place in American Presidential history and Rockwell's comment that it was over-flattering.

I make my way back to the hostel as I have signed up for Taco Night and a bar crawl around Georgetown. I join Rhiannon and James and we are surprised by the number of other English people are part of the 20 strong dinner group.We make friends with a couple called Jemma and Adam who are on a world tour. It's decided to forego the Georgetown tour but head out ourselves with another German guy and we end up in an Irish Pub in Chinatown (as you do). While I can get to grips with table services in an American Bar it still feels wrong in somewhere to be British/Irish. It seems to be instinct to want to order and pay for my drink at the bar and the Yanks just won't let me! We have a fun evening (the two bottles of wine Rhiannon and I share may have helped), full of laughs and general good company. A very tired but happy Sian heads to bed at about 2am...dirty stop out.

James and Jemma and Adam leave the next day so it's just Rhiannon and I who join the hostel tour to the Capitol. We head first to Union Station and then to the Capitol buildings themselves. They are iconic, certainly, but also very impressive and particularly picturesque in the snow. We also go into the Library of Congress which is A-MAZ-ING...and would have been more so if the snotty tour guide had actually let us passed them into the viewing gallery. This may be the first piece of genuine rudeness I have seen in America and I am not impressed as it was completely unnecessary. The tour then winds up as we've run out of time but Rhiannon and I carry on together going into the Supreme Court and trying to get into the Capitol. It's here I begin to experience the excessive security measures here in DC and again later in New York. I can understand the security checks here, don't get me wrong...there are some very powerful people working in this building but we are not allowed in with  our water bottles. We are not allowed in with empty water bottles nor are there any lockers whereby we may but them out if the way. As my water bottle is decent and a souvenir from the museum in Drumheller I am unwilling to just through it away to go see 100 American politicians having a discussion. However, Rhiannon is still keen and leaves her things with me and I head to the food court in one of the museums further down the mall to have lunch while she has a quick look. Once she has joined me we divide up again and I head to the Freer Museum. There are a number of significant museums along the National Mall in DC and in a few other location that make up part of the Smithsonian Institute. I will be heading to a few of these over the next few days...they are all amazing and (even better) FREE!

Anyway...the Freer. This building is dedicated to Asian art and also to a number of works by Whistler including the absolutely awesome (English sense) Peacock Room. I spent a good 20 minutes just sat there and absorbing the wonderfully atmosphere brought out by the dark teal colours, gold paint work and the blue and white china porcelain. Heavenly. I could so have a dining room like this!

I meet Rhiannon again that evening and we head out to enjoy the Washington monuments in the dark (and snow). This was such a great idea. They look so different and some where even more moving/evocative in the reduced light. The Lincoln memorial shines out like the beacon it is. You can even just about make out Lincoln himself from as far away as the Washington Monument. Rhiannon and I were lucky enough to catch one of the talks given by the Park Rangers and it was just us two. Hearing about Lincoln's achievements, for all that he was glorified after his assassination, you begin to understand why this one is one of the most beloved by the US people. There is a reason why The March on Washington concluded here and Dr Martin Luther King Jr made his speech here. They have even replaced one of the flagstone where he stood to commemorate the speech. Something that most visitors miss, I have to say. However, while Rhiannon and I are there there is a group of school kids each standing on the step and doing their own "I have a dream" speech. It's a nice thing. There is a small museum underneath the memorial and it focuses very heavily on Lincoln and on Dr King...although I am interested to note that the section on protest at the moment includes some less popular movements such as the American Nazi movement. We head to the Vietnam memorial and then on to the Korean War memorial. This is the one that is so effective in the dark. The memorial is partly made up of statues of a patrol group in full gear, including rain cape. Probably because they are life size and it's so dark it makes you feel like you are part of the patrol and it's a moving experience. By now we're freezing and it's quite late so we decide to skip Roosevelt and Jefferson and head back to the hostel.

The next day I head to the Museum of Air and Space. It is enormous and for good reason...there are entire aircraft in here, including bits of space shuttle. This place is really interesting but it's also hard because it is just so huge. It's really cool to see models of the first satellites and items from the first moon landing and even from the first space flight (although as Yuri Gagarin was Russian not sure what it is doing in an American museum). There were several bits I just skipped though but the ones that stuck out included a collection of photographs of the solar system that were amazing. Seeing  pictures of the sun, the planets as well as the Earth from space is something else...starts you thinking about what's out there and you're insignificance etc. The other exhibit that was really interesting looked at just how busy American airspace is on any one day. It's nuts. It's a screen with a little green plane for each one in the air and after about 9am it's just a sea  of green and doesn't calm down until about 10pm. Then they show the same simulation for September 11th 2001 and seeing just how quickly those little green planes disappear after the attacks is spooky. Rhiannon leaves this afternoon and I'm back to say farewell. It's a little sad as we had great fun but I hope we stay in touch.

It's Sunday and it's a day for more museums. This time is Art and head to the the National Galleries. There first is the "old stuff" up to about 1930ish (there's an Edward Hopper). The gallery hold a huge amount of work, the majority of it European. As such, it's difficult to see everything you want without seeing everything. As it is I end up running around pretty much every room, including the art I don't particularly enjoy to make sure I see the Vermeers and the Da Vinci. There is a very good exhibit on the collection of Chester Dale who donated all his art to the Smithsonian. It included some major works by Renoir, Monet and Van Gogh so it was very much to my taste. More unusual but just as interesting was a section on Pre-Raphaelite photography. I knew some of the works by Millais and so forth but early photography is always interesting. In the afternoon, I headed across the road to the second building which houses the Modern Art. Almost as soon as I am through the door I get very excited. I recognise instantly some work by Andy Goldsworthy. My mother is a fan and uses his art in her teaching and so I have been buying art books on him for my Mum's Christmas present for several years...and here is a real one right in front of me...how cool! I gallop though the exhibits quiet quickly (it's significantly smaller than the Old Art building) and there is some good stuff by Rothko and Calder. The major exhibit there is on Arcimboldo - you would probably now his stuff if you saw it. He painted portraits using fruits, flowers, fish and so forth to make up the face. I hadn't seen all of his work so that was cool, but more interesting was seeing the art that influenced him as well...from zoology and botany text books to Da Vinci's sketches of grotesques.

That evening I join another Hostel tour and we head to the Kennedy Centre for a free Christmas concert. The Kennedy Centre is  kinda cool, the entrance halls are nicely set out and it seems a decent arts centre with a number of performance spaces...it would have been good to see them. However, the little Christmas Concert turns out to be a folky group that includes a couple of Englishmen. I rather enjoy it, although I seem to be the only one out of the Hostel group that does. I meet up with an Aussie girl called Lauren and a rather good-looking Argentinian guy called Pablo while waiting for the bus back to the subway and they were not impressed. We head back together and bump into some other Aussies and decide to head for dinner and some beer. The beer is good and I have a rather good pulled pork sandwich. Lauren seems quite taken with chance to talk to her compatriots so Pablo and I have a good chat while we eat. He's an interesting guy. We head home earlyish but I am rather tired after all these museums.

The next day I decide to the Monuments by daylight and fortunately it is sunny. It's a long walk to see them all but very enjoyable. I decide not to go up the Washington Monument (this involves queuing for a ticket at 8am, no thanks) but it's cool to stand by it (particularly in the lee of the wind) and take photos...I have a feeling this day will be all about the photos. I head to the World War Two memorial (huge and ostentatious)...not sure why there is not one for World War One. The Vietnam memorial is more impressive in the daylight when you can see the black walls with the names of the American fatalities. There are books for relatives to look up family members and find their name and there are some bits of wall where flowers have been placed which is moving. The Korean War Memorial is just as impressive in the daylight. Lincoln less so, to be honest but the views across the mall to the Washington Monument and the Capitol behind were amazing. Plus, I was able to take a decent picture of the "I have a Dream" step. I then try to make my to the FDR and Jefferson memorials. However, this is not as straightforward as I would like as large chunk of land is currently sectioned  off for the construction of the Martin Luther King memorial. I end up walking around about three quarters of the Tidal Basin...however, it's a nice walk and the snow makes all very pretty indeed. The FDR memorial is cooler than I thought...it's very well thought through with quote from the great man and human touches as a statue of his dog and a portion that is touchable in reference to his failing eyesight. Also, there are several waterfalls...most of the fountains in DC have been switched off in the cold weather but they seem to have been a bit late here. The resultant frozen waterfalls are very cool. I keep going onto the Jefferson Memorial which is again very different from all the others (I rather like how they're all so different). The view of the great man through the column and the views through the columns across the Tidal Basin are very cool...and yes I take many, many photos. I make my way back towards the hostel but first head up the Old Post Tower (as recommended by several people) and enjoy the great views across the monuments and to the White House and up to the Capitol.

Tuesday is more museums. I start with the Museum of American History. Feeling slightly museumed-out I am selective. The popular culture stuff is really cool. I am almost as excited to see Dorothy's ruby slippers as I was to see the Death Star back in Seattle and equally so for Fonzie's jacket and one the Kermits. The section on American Presidents is very interesting as it focuses more on them as men - their families, the deaths, the impeachments and so forth as well as the role that the president plays in society and how that has been reflected in Hollywood. There is a special exhibition on Lincoln that is fascinating and seeing his actual coat and the hat he wore the day he died was particular impressive. There are two star exhibits in this museum...the first is the original Star Spangled Banner as sewn together by Mary Young Pickersgill back in 1813 - interesting but I don't it has quite the same effect on me as for Americans. The second is the collection of First Lady dresses - this was interesting, particularly to see the changes in fashion and quite how important these dresses seem to be to the American people (not entirely sure why). The more recent ones are notable in the fact they show very little skin...fair enough for Barbara Bush but more of a surprise for the more recent and younger First Ladies. It also raises the question of what would have happened if Hillary Clinton had been the candidate and won. Would Bill have been included as the first First Gentleman? What would he have worn?

Next was The Natural History Museum. This was another gallop through for me...I guess I've been to one too many Natural History exhibits in recent months. Dinosaurs? Meh...seen plenty. The Ocean Hall was kinda cool though, with the big whale various sea-creatures...including a double horned Narwhal. More interesting was an exhibit of a crocheted coral reef, part of a worldwide project to highlight their decline. I have recently discovered an interest in Geology and gemstones so was looking forward to this one as they have the Hope Diamond. To be honest...a little disappointing. I was expecting it to be at  least about the size of a fist but it's only about the size of the bowl of a dessert spoon. Beautiful blue colour though. More impressive were the other gem...great socking rubies and emeralds from India plus a huge prefect crystal ball, no flaws. Completed museumed-out I head back to the hostel, I have signed up for Chili Night. The chili is a bit rubbish but it's good to find more people to talk to.

The next day is a quiet one for me, all about planning and packing. I get myself pretty much sorted all the way to my flight home which I consider a job well done. That evening is the last hostel event I do, a Christmas Party! I'm rather excited. It's good to talk to my fellow travellers again and have a taste of Christmas. Even more exciting...we get a present! Two luggage tags, 4 pens and a globe keyring. Merry Christmas DC!

The next morning I check out and join the long, long queues for the Megabus to NYC.
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