Visiting Jefferson’s Hometown

Charlottesville Illustrates the Southern Charm of This Founding Father

Posted October 15, 2008 at 2:24pm

Thomas Jefferson was one Founding Father whose love of country was perhaps only equaled by his love of the written word. And the man who helped design the Capitol and found the Library of Congress once made two very astute observations when it came to the idea of taking time off of work to go on vacation.

“Traveling is good for your health and necessary for your amusement,” Jefferson wrote to a friend in Paris in 1788 in the heady days just before the French Revolution.

Ten years later, as he was in the midst of a trying term as vice president under President John Adams, Jefferson lamented in a letter home from Washington that “time is every day adding to the improbabilities of my undertaking long journeys.”

Perhaps what Jefferson could have used was a weekend getaway.

In the days of horse-drawn buggies and cobblestone roads, the idea of getting away for a few days was a lot more daunting, unless a weekend jaunt meant enjoying, say, the high peaks of Tenleytown. But today, barring a major D.C. traffic jam, a two-day trip to the countryside is just the thing to cure the pains of a Washington workweek. And one weekend getaway spot that Jefferson would most certainly have approved

of lies just a few hours away, about 115 miles southwest of D.C., in historic Charlottesville, Va.

Tucked into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Charlottesville is home to several of Jefferson’s most beloved legacies, including his home at Monticello and the University of Virginia, which Jefferson founded and built in his later years.

In fact, Jefferson was so proud of his work to create his “academical village” at the University of Virginia that it was one of a few achievements that the third president had inscribed on the stone that marked his grave. Despite a lifetime full of accomplishments, Jefferson’s epitaph states only that he was “author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.”

Tours of Monticello run throughout the year, and tours of the plantation’s historic grounds run from April through October. Historical tours of the University of Virginia are led by the school’s student-run University Guide Service, and the free tours leave from the Rotunda — the focal point of Jefferson’s original university space — several times each day.

For a family-friendly dining option after a trip to Monticello, many visitors choose to stop at historic Michie Tavern. This 18th-century-era tavern greets visitors the same way it did more than 200 years ago, with homemade Southern fare and servers dressed in period attire. During the winter months, guests can eat their Southern buffet feast before a roaring fire and sip on hot cider or a selection of Virginia brews. Tours of the old section of the tavern feature 18th- century games and a chance to dance the colonial reel.

But not all tours that take place in Charlottesville are of the historic variety. Charlottesville claims to the wine capital of Virginia and makes a good argument for that title with several popular vineyards located in and around the city.

One of the most well-known wineries in Charlottesville is Jefferson Vineyards, which is located on land adjacent to Monticello and has ties dating back to Jefferson’s pre-Revolutionary War days in the then-colonial town. Today, the 20-acre winery offers tours and wine tasting throughout the year.

Another well-known local winery with ties to Jefferson is Barboursville Vineyards, which is less than a half-hour from Charlottesville in Orange County. Barboursville Vineyards was founded 32 years ago on land that was part of the estate of James Barbour in the early 1800s. Today, the ruins of Barbour’s estate house, which was designed by Jefferson, still stand watch over the fields of grapes that are used to produce Barboursville’s award-winning wines. A trip to Barboursville Vineyards could include an evening of fine dining at the on-site Palladio Restaurant, which features a Northern Italian-inspired cuisine.

But that’s not to say that visitors shouldn’t take advantage of all the food options that the city of Charlottesville has to offer. The city’s pedestrian downtown mall offers scores of restaurants within easy walking distance of one another, and the local bar scene has served as a launching pad for several successful music groups, including the Dave Matthews Band.

During late October and early November, Charlottesville also plays host to the popular Virginia Film Festival. For more than 20 years the Virginia Film Festival has earned national acclaim. Last year, more than 60 films were shown over four days while dozens of actors, directors and scholars served as speakers for the festival’s educational programs.

Charlottesville is serviced by a local airport, Amtrak and Greyhound, but the best way to get to the city in the fall is by car. That way, visitors can take a side trip along the Blue Ridge’s majestic Skyline Parkway Drive. The more than 100 miles of roadway that runs through the Shenandoah National Park allows motorists to take in all the colors of the fall foliage.

And along the way, weekend travelers may also be able to find a bit of peace and quiet before returning to the commotion of the Washington, D.C., workweek.