The former capital of the Confederacy became our latest pandemic destination, only this time with vaccinations in arms as we tiptoed back into the world of mass transportation by traveling via Amtrak. We owed friends a visit, and Pat had money left over in one of those pre-tax accounts that allowed you to pay for commuting costs. (She set it up while working in Philadelphia but with commuting a thing of the past, given the pandemic and the fact she retired, it was a good way to use up the money.) We visited and stayed with old friends Geoff and Diane, who have been our regular buddies for attending the annual Xponential Music Festival in Camden, NJ. (We hope the festival can resume this year at its new scheduled time in September rather than July, as had been the case in the past. September is really a much nicer time of year in the Mid-Atlantic region.)
Richmond, the state capital, is a mid-sized city. On their own, state capitals can be kind of dull as even during pre-pandemic times the tendency was for the sidewalks to be rolled up shortly after the end of business at 5 pm. But Richmond is also home to three universities, which helps to keep things youthful and lively. Virginia Commonwealth is the largest, but Virginia State and the University of Richmond also call the city home. But it’s also a city reconciling with its Civil War past, as evidenced by these newer statues commemorating some of the heroes of the Civil Rights era and women’s suffrage. Both of these are on the Capitol grounds, where one can also find the governor’s mansion adjacent to the State House.
Our friends are renting a home in the Church Hill neighborhood, so named in part because it’s up a hill from the downtown core that abuts the James River. It is also home to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where Patrick Henry delivered his famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech in 1775. The area is known as well for Chimborazo Park, which was the site of the largest hospital in operation during the Civil War. None of the hospital buildings remain but the park does offer some nice views. Church Hill is a neighborhood in transition, with gentrification underway. It can still be a bit rough in some areas, but our friend’s home is new construction and they say the neighborhood is fairly tight knit.
Prior to finding this house they had lived off Monument Avenue in an area known as the Fan, for how the streets fan out from the main thoroughfare. Monument Avenue was famously the home of multiple memorials honoring Confederate heroes, but after the Black Lives Matters’ protests during the summer of 2020 the city’s mayor had all of the statues removed save for the one honoring Robert E. Lee. Our friends’ understanding is that when the land under Lee’s statue was deeded to the city, the family behind the donation stipulated it had to be used in perpetuity to honor the commanding general. So its fate is probably tied up in the courts and at present the colorfully decorated statue is blocked off by metal fencing. It’s both an eyesore and also a reminder of how American society has been affected by the BLM protests.
We suspect many of the residents along Monument Avenue aren’t thrilled with the redecorating. They are by and large members of Richmond’s “royalty,” as our friends put it. The houses have tended to be owned by the same families for generations and rarely come up for sale. The area screams “old money,” and the homes are quite stately and attractive.
We toured much of the city over our two-day stay. Richmond is compact enough that you can get across town in about 20 minutes. In addition to walking around the state capitol grounds we also visited the James River waterfront and the Hollywood Cemetery. (It’s named for holly bushes; any resemblance to the movie capital is coincidental.) The grounds are extensive and scores of Confederate dead are buried there. As we drove through it appeared many of the soldiers were killed in battle in 1862. There may be later dead that I didn’t see that are interred there, but I suspect that as the war dragged on it became difficult to return all of the victims for burial there.
The cemetery is also where Jefferson Davis, the confederate president, is buried, along with his wife and other family members. Unlike on Monument Avenue, a statue of Davis remains and is absent any graffiti, though a close read of the inscription on the front of the statue, calling him a “defender of the Constitution,” is certainly rich given his role in leading a rebellion against the government defined by that document. But politicians have always had the ability to bend the truth, apparently even when dead. Also buried in Hollywood is James Madison, widely viewed as one of the fathers of the Constitution, and former President James Polk.
This trip also marked our first timing dining indoors in a modest-sized restaurant, a very funky place called L’Opossum. It’s looks rather non-descript from the outside, but the inside is full of pop culture memorabilia and references. The menu leans French but the dishes aren’t classic French. It’s in the Oregon Hill neighborhood. Definitely worth a visit if you are in the area. We also had an outdoor breakfast at a place called Lulu’s, near the main train station. We snagged a table before the brunch crowd started arriving in late morning. Be sure to try a biscuit if you go. It’s one of those “when in Rome” sorts of things. We also visited the Virginia State Museum, which appears to have a solid collection and is free to visit. Our first breakfast was supplied by a Sub Rosa Bakery, apparently the place to get baked goods in Richmond. Ordering online requires as much tenacity and fleet fingers as getting tickets for a popular concert. Their fig and cheese pastry is in such demand our hosts couldn’t nab one during our weekend visit. (Next time!)
To wrap up, just a couple quick comments and tips about the trip on Amtrak. It’s a longish ride from our home in Trenton to Richmond, and be prepared for a layover at Union Station for Amtrak to switch locomotives. The tracks are electrified between Washington and Boston, but not south of D.C., so they have to change out the electric locomotive for diesel. It adds to the scheduled travel time. On the north-bound return, be sure to sit on the right-hand side of the train to catch some nice views of the Potomac River as you approach D.C. and afterwards, views of Chesapeake Bay. We had a one-hour delay departing on the return home; but from my experience commuting by rail from Trenton to NYC, delays are inevitable. It is what is.