Friday, October 30, 2015

Distillery Lane Ciderworks

Some people might be surprised to learn that the Washington area, and northern Virginia in particular, is home to many wineries. While my friend was visiting this fall, I knew that she would love to visit a couple, so I had initially planned that into our schedule. Upon reading an extensive Washington Post article about the many new hard cider breweries that have popped up in the region, a change to our schedule was necessary. 
Our first stop was Distillery Lane Ciderworks in Jefferson, Maryland, not far from the city of Frederick. An apple orchard that grows a plethora of different apple varieties, Distillery Lane offers cider tastings in its cozy tasting room and store, as well as pick-your-own apples and pre-picked apples in season. 
The tasting cost a reasonable $6, and included samples of five hard ciders plus the typical juice cider (amazing!), as well as the adorable souvenir glass. Distillery Lane brews many varieties of hard ciders -- their tasting card lists nineteen in the categories of sparkling, still, oak ages, seasonal, and limited release. What visitors taste depends on which they have on hand. We were offered Jefferson, which is aged in American oak, and Kingston Black, aged in bourbon barrels, as well as the seasonal Summer Buzz and Sweet Autumn, and the limited release Witch's Brew, which includes aronia berries.
After purchasing a bottle to take home, we headed to the barn to buy some pre-picked apples. With fifteen varieties to choose from -- including several we had never heard of -- making a decision was difficult. We were amused by the man working in the barn, who told us that he will eat up to twenty apples in a workday!
Particularly if you were to pick your own apples, Distillery Lane Ciderworks on its own would make for a perfect fall outing. Or you could combine a cider tasting with lunch in nearby Brunswick, a visit to Antietam National Battlefield or Gathland State Park. Yet another option is hiking Sugarloaf Mountain and sampling wines at Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard. Opportunities for daytrips in this area of Maryland are plentiful!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

America's Library - The Library of Congress

One of the most stunning buildings in Washington is the Library of Congress' historic Thomas Jefferson Building. While it can be visited and toured throughout the year, twice annually the Library hosts an open house.  During the open house visitors can also enter the famous Main Reading Room, which otherwise is open only to those with a reader's card. The open houses are held on Columbus Day in October and on Presidents' Day in February. Having first been awed by this amazingly intricate building during a conference last year, I made sure to find time to visit again during the recent fall event.
Built in the 1890s, the Jefferson Building is one of the most ornate public buildings in the U.S., and should be included on most tourists' lists of sights to see in Washington. Free public tours are offered several times a day, and only take an hour. You can also look around on your own in even less time. To celebrate the building's 100th anniversary, an extensive renovation was undertaken in the 1980s and 1990s when the entire structure was restored to its original splendor.
Gold leaf on this hallway ceiling.
During the open house one could wander around several areas, and chat with helpful librarians and volunteers who were happy to answer questions about the building's history, as well as the work of the Library. The members room, for example, is typically off limits to the public, but we could peek into that, which was just as ornate as other areas.
Sorry for poor quality, but I loved this!

The highlight of the day was being able to explore the Main Reading Room, which is impressive in its size and beauty.
An alcove in the Main Reading Room.
This enormous and gorgeous room has many fascinating details. For example, as the Library's website explains: "eight giant marble columns each support 10-foot-high allegorical female figures in plaster representing characteristic features of civilized life and thought: Religion, Commerce, History, Art, Philosophy, Poetry, Law and Science."
The rest of the areas open to visitors in the Jefferson Building are also quite photo-worthy and memorable. Because many of the prettiest bits are high up, they are difficult to photograph. The following pictures are of somewhat poor quality, but they were too interesting not too share!
Such gorgeous colors and patterns!
For my many friends who like to write...
For all of my teacher friends...
And for my artist friends...
After oohing and aahing over the fantastic building, on my way out of the Library I had to stop in the wonderful bookstore and giftshop, which has many fun and educational gifts and souvenirs. My favorite bookcase was this one...
As you can tell, the Library of Congress is well worth a visit!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Visiting George Washington's Home - Mount Vernon

While the city of Washington offers a plethora of opportunities for tourists within its city limits, traveling a short distance outside the city opens up an entirely new realm of opportunities. This fall a dear friend visited; she is someone who has been to Washington many times, but she had never visited Mount Vernon, the estate of America's first President, George Washington. Therefore, on a breezy, chilly, yet sunny autumn day we set out to remedy that.

Located in Alexandria, Virginia, on the Potomac River and easily accessible by car via the George Washington Parkway (easily one of the prettiest urban drives anywhere!), Mount Vernon is open 365 days a year, and with one million guests a year, it is America's most popular historic estate. Although the estate totaled approximately 8,000 acres in Washington's time, it now encompasses 500 acres, with many buildings and gardens to view, meaning that a visitor should plan on at least two or three hours for a good visit. 

After paying our entrance fees ($18 each), we quickly walked through the fancy and relatively new visitors' center, knowing that we would return there at the end of our visit.  We had an hour before our appointed time in the mansion itself, and we used that time to look around the estate.

George Washington became sole owner of this land in 1761, and the mansion was constructed over twenty years, but completed in 1778.
George and Martha had such a pretty little home...
Gorgeous greenhouse & gardens
A few flowers were still blooming.
The sad reality is that the only reason Washington was able to upkeep such a large and successful plantation (in addition to the four other farms he owned in the area!) is that he owned many slaves. Can you imagine being someone else's property, working hard all day long but only receiving small amounts of food to eat, and having to live in tight uncomfortable quarters with many others?
Quarters for female slaves

After seeing the difficult conditions in which both male and female slaves lived, we stopped by to visit Martha Washington herself. The woman who played the role was absolutely phenomenal -- speaking almost non-stop about her and George's life, pausing only to ask whether anyone in the audience had a question. Martha had been married previously and had four children, but her first husband died. Only two of her children lived past the age of four, and thus she and George raised the two children -- Martha ("Patsy") and John -- who survived into young adulthood. John, however, died at age 27, and then the Washingtons took in and raised two of his children. Being a wealthy widow, Martha also brought much wealth into her marriage with George. As is so often the case, this famous, powerful, and wealthy man would most likely not have been as successful without his wife.

There are numerous other buildings one can visit, including the spinning room, the laundry room, and the overseer's quarter. The estate was essentially a self-sufficient small town, as with the many slaves who lived there and the countless visitors who came to spend time at Mount Vernon, much work had to be done to keep everyone fed, clothed, and generally content.
Eventually it was our turn to stand in line in order to tour the mansion itself. Photos are not allowed inside, as apparently all of the artwork in the house is not owned by Mount Vernon. Historical interpreters were present in several areas to explain various facts about the house and the Washingtons' life in it, as well as to answer visitors' questions. First one walks through the formal parlor, then exits the mansion briefly while walking on the portico, which affords sweeping views of the Potomac.
The home has numerous bedrooms, as other than family members, it was customary at that time for others to stop for a visit; there was one year when the estate hosted over 600 visitors! If you would like to learn more and take a virtual tour of the mansion, you can do so on Mount Vernon's website.

Among the rooms one sees is George and Martha's bedroom - including the bed in which President Washington himself died in 1799, at age 67, only a day or so after becoming ill. At Mount Vernon we were told that he died of quinsy, a rare but serious throat infection, however, it seems that this bit of history is still under debate.

The kitchen areas, located not in the house but adjacent to it, were certainly busy places with so many meals to prepare cooking meals to feed all of the estate's inhabitants plus visitors.
Imagine tending a fire during DC's hot summers!

After finishing our tour of the home, we continued to wander around the estate, stopping to take a closer look at the river view...
also checking out the stables....
and visiting some livestock...

Last but not least, we paid our respects to our nation's first President and First Lady by visiting George and Martha Washington's tomb, which is also located on the estate.

Mount Vernon offers a fascinating look at our history, and should be high on the list of things to see when visiting Washington!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

15th Annual National Book Festival

Occasionally before I go somewhere I think to myself, "This will be a great post for the blog!", but then the place or event or my experiences aren't all that wonderful. That is what happened with the National Book Festival, where I truthfully had hoped to see and hear at least a half-dozen authors, but real life intervened. Thus this post is shorter and less exciting than I had hoped!

From its beginnings on the East Lawn of the Capitol on September 8, 2001, when approximately 30,000 people attended the first National Book Festival hosted by First Lady Laura Bush, the Festival quickly grew and moved to the National Mall, and later begun its close association with the Library of Congress. Since 2014, however, the Festival has relocated to the Washington Convention Center, which - while not as picturesque and iconic as the Mall location - does have some benefits, such as air conditioning and actual restrooms. 

I had attended and enjoyed the festival a number of times when it was located on the Mall, but had not attended in recent years  When I saw the impressive list of 175 authors who would be at this year's festival, I made definitive plans to go.

The Festival is enormous and very well-attended. With the Convention Center being so immense and spread out, and with getting a later start than planned, I was able to see only a couple of authors in whom I was interested, plus spot two famous writers as they were being interviewed by C-SPAN's Book TV (slogan: "Television for Serious Readers").
William McCullough
Tom Brokaw
I also visited the exhibit part of the festival - the Library of Congress and several other organizations had tables full of information and freebies (all the paper bookmarks one would ever need!), and each state had a booth with varying amounts of information.
Hawaii's booth even had musicians!

The local bookstore Politics & Prose was selling books by the many authors appearing at the festival, and most of the authors had designated times for signing books. Lines for the more popular writers formed early and were lengthy.

The only author whose entire presentation I heard was Stephen L. Carter. Interestingly, somewhat recently I had picked up one of his novels - and had not been able to finish reading it, as the writing did not hold my attention. However, I knew a bit about him, and was interested to hear him speak. He is an excellent public speaker, which is not surprising given that he is a lawyer by training, and his "day job" is professor at Yale Law School. Carter is an incredibly accomplished individual: after earning a bachelor's degree from Stanford and a law degree from Yale, he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. He has written numerous non-fiction books, as well as six novels! It's difficult to comprehend how one person manages all of this, but he does, and he even spoke about writing being tedious - that he has even spent two weeks writing just one sentence!
Stephen L. Carter
One of many stands in the festival's exhibit portion was for Free Little Library, which is a wonderful initiative encouraging individuals and organizations to build and set up tiny libraries on their front lawns. People can both leave and take books from these little repositories. A good friend of mine here in the DC area put up a Free Little Library in her yard, and was kind enough to share a photo of the lovely library she has created - complete with Latvian "ausekli" or morning stars. Note also the gnome who lives underneath, complete with tiny picket fence.
A friend's Little Free Library in the DC suburbs.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Coffee & Chocolate

Located in a large and nicely repurposed garage in an alley in the unassuming DC suburb of Hyattsville, Maryland, Vigilante Coffee may look like an unlikely place for an excellent cup of coffee. While I have only been able to visit the cafe twice, I enjoyed both immensely. On my inaugural visit I was struck by the airy space and sun streaming in through the huge garage doors in the front and a skylight in the back. The cappuccino I savored was certainly one of the best I have ever enjoyed, which is understandable given that the coffee is roasted right there in the cafe.
A friend and I returned to Vigilante for a coffee and chocolate tasting that the cafe and its owner Chris Vigilante co-hosted with chocolatier Puja Satiani.

We were treated to three pairings.  Our three coffees were all quite different - the first was a very strong iced coffee, the second was a smooth cup of high end coffee brewed in a siphon or vacuum coffee maker, and the last was one of the cafe's innovative specialties, a Vigilante Julep, which is an iced coffee prepared with mint and basil. The three chocolates, all beautiful small truffle/ganache-type of concoctions, were a 70% dark (my favorite), one made with coconut oil and bits of coconut, and one with a basil ganache. 

It was interesting to learn about both of these local businesses, and to chat with the owners, both of whom were lovely people. While it was an incredibly enjoyable afternoon, an earlier start would have been preferable, as I could not reasonably finish all three coffee drinks between 4-5pm on a Sunday afternoon. Let's just say I was quite wired all evening!

With the arrival of fall, Puja has created and released her seasonal fall collection, which includes Dark Chocolate Fleur de Sel Caramels, Pumpkin Spice, and Dark Chocolate Peanut Caramels, and sounds amazing. Her products can be ordered directly from her website, and she offers free shipping to DC, Maryland, and Virginia for orders worth more than $40.
If you ever happen to be in Hyattsville during the hours of 7.30am and 4pm, I highly recommend seeking out Vigilante for some outstanding coffee.
Vigilante's offerings available in their Hyattsville cafe.