May 23, 2011

On to Richmond! The ups and downs of travel by this soon-to-be 82-year-old

While Picasso is not my favorite artist of his time (Cézanne is), I wanted to see the much-touted Picasso exhibit at the Virginia Fine Arts Museum in Richmond.  From my home in Washington, DC, the drive time to Richmond is typically about two hours, but route 95 these days is notorious for its nerve-racking delays and back-ups. I could have asked a pal to join me... and do the driving. But one of my many peculiarities is that I prefer touring art museums on my own.

So, I checked Amtrak and... WOW. The round-trip fare was only $50! And they had a perfect timetable for me: departing DC at 2pm this past Thursday (arriving in Richmond at 5), and leaving Richmond on Friday at 6pm. Excellent! And several friends urged me to book a room at Richmond's historic Jefferson Hotel. Done!

Well, you know what they say about the best-laid plans... 

Eager for some exercise, I decided to walk from the train station to the hotel, along Main Street. It was rush hour, but there was little traffic. What surprised me more was the absence of interesting shops, restaurants, cafés. I wondered... this is Richmond? Finally at the Jefferson, I found a typical restored historic hotel but set in the middle of an urban wasteland. Looking forward to my afternoon java, I asked if there was a coffee shop in the hotel. Nope. Only a fancy restaurant. I asked if there was a Starbucks or similar coffee shop nearby. The recommendation: a Seven-Eleven two blocks away, on the edge of a vast parking lot between the hotel and the Virginia Commonwealth University's buildings (that looked like army barracks). So I took my coffee back to my room, since the hotel had no decent place to sit outside. From what I'd seen, I assumed there was little chance of finding a nice restaurant in the vicinity, so I had a fancy, pricey supper at the hotel and went to bed, thinking "Richmond sucks!"

Would the Virginia capital redeem itself in my eyes on Saturday?

In the morning, I walked the two miles from the hotel to the art museum (opposite direction from the train station). This time, it was one of the most delightful urban walks I’ve ever had.  The street was lined with old homes and mansions; there was interesting, varied architecture, with glorious gardens and lots of trees. It all seemed like the best of DC's Georgetown, DuPont Circle, and Capitol Hill, but even nicer. And kudos to VCU for preserving many of these beautiful old houses and using them for classes and offices.

Here's a photo from my walk (that doesn't do justice to the alluring streetscape):

I arrived at the museum to find -- THE PICASSO EXHIBIT HAD ENDED THE PRIOR WEEKEND. Whoops!  

There was nothing to do but make the best of it and tour the museum. I ended up thinking I might well have enjoyed the museum more seeing it without the Picasso exhibit.  I’ve seen many Picasso exhibits through the years. Liberated from that "requirement" now, I thoroughly enjoyed the museum's other collections: a special show of Nigerian art, good Indian/Nepali/Tibetan art, Pre-Columbian and Native American galleries, and some works by a few favorites, like Cézanne and Hopper. The museum's success with both mounting and describing their collections is extraordinary! Happy, and having had enough for one day, I enjoyed an excellent lunch at their restaurant. Yes, things were looking up!

Then, on the recommendation of several museum staffers, I took a cab to the downtown riverfront for a stroll along the canal. I enjoyed the walk -- the surging water from recent heavy rains was amazing -- but it lacked the glorious bucolic beauty of the C&O canal in Washington.

Finally, a special surprise as a conclusion to my Richmond trip. The canal walk ends a few blocks from the railroad station, in a slightly seedy, semi-industrial area. I saw a few modest-looking restaurants, one of which -- the Café Gutenberg -- had an open deck right next to the Main Street traffic. There were a few patrons enjoying the food and the "ambiance," so I decided to check it out. What a sophisticated menu! My salmon, sweet corn fritters, and salad looked so good that I decided  to capture them in a photograph! 

And it tasted even better than it looked! Who'd have expected such a fine meal just feet from the Saturday traffic zooming (?) by?

So, I left Virginia's capital city with a very good feeling about it. And I was reminded that both the joys and disappointments of travel -- like so much of life -- come from the unexpected.


Emily Gilden said...

Hi John, Sorry the Picasso show had closed, but it sounds like you had a wonderful time. I've made a note about the Cafe Gutenberg -- now on my must-visit list. Looking forward to seeing you in August.

John Schappi said...

Good to hear from you, Emily.