Thursday, December 31, 2009

December Wrap-Up

We experienced a traditional Fredericksburg holiday season this year: the downtown merchants’ open house, the Jaycees’ Christmas parade, holiday concerts, a church pageant, and too much time stuck in traffic on Rt. 3. Best downtown store decorations this year have to go to "A Place in Time" (photos above and below) which is so jam-packed with Christmas decor that it's almost impossible to actually shop.

Our best musical discovery of the season was the Stafford Regional Handbell Society. We caught their performance at the Spotsy Mall (do I ever have to call it the Towne Center?), and these young ringers were a treat to hear. I've joined the budding handchime choir at my church, so I can appreciate the work that goes into their concert. Next year, we'll try to catch their performance at Mount Ararat Baptist Church in North Stafford and avoid the noise and lousy acoustics of the mall.

And this month, we discovered a few new things on our strolls through town. Colonial Cupcakes finally opened, with its staff dressed in full colonial costume (bet the teenagers behind the counter love that uniform). We brought home a couple of samples, the key lime and the red velvet.

The Bella Italia market next to Castiglia’s opened in time for Christmas, a thrilling development for an Italian American like me. For our Christmas buffet, we stocked up on wonderful cheeses and sausage, plus a giant, but light panettone covered in confectioner’s sugar that we referred to as “Sugar Mountain.” (For the culinary purist, it was technically a pandoro, a similar bread also traditionally served at Christmas, but without the dried fruit.) They also have take-out specialities including homemade pasta, lots of deli meats, and Italian grocery items. I highly recommend a visit.

But for me, the most exciting change is that Virginia’s new restaurant anti-smoking law went into effect, where smoking sections now have to be completely separate areas, with their own ventilation system. A few of Fredericksburg’s oldest restaurants, like the Battlefield Restaurant across from the Park Service Visitor Center and the Rec Center on William St., went completely smoke free (a recent walk past the Rec Center found a cluster of smokers right in front of the entrance, huddled over the standing ashtray). I was so excited about returning to the main room at Sammy T’s, but the staff there was adamant that the restaurant was going to keep its arrangement of smoking in the big front room, no smoking in the little separate back room. I kept calling to see if they had changed their minds, but kept getting the same answer. So I was surprised and delighted that in mid-December, I finally saw this sign:

Better late than never.

(UPDATE: After seeing Emily's comment that as of late Dec. the arrangement at Sammy T's hadn't actually changed, I just called and was told that the management changed their minds, and the front room will continue to be the smoking room. I'm so disappointed. Not that they will care, but there are plenty of other non-smoking dining rooms in Fredericksburg to enjoy, so I won't be going back.)

The other noteworthy December news in town was the big snow. So many photos have been posted of the foot-plus accumulation that I don’t need to add much to the mix. I’ll just leave you with this photo from my front yard, where the snow reached 14 inches, a record December snowfall for this area.

Tonight, I'll kick up my heels at a New Year's Eve party and think about the freezing First Nighters downtown as we all wish 2009 a fond farewell. I'm looking forward to 2010...hope it's a good year for all of us.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Straight Razor Shave

My grown son has recently become fascinated by the idea of straight razor shaving. He has researched the tools, watched how-to videos, and begun saving for a high quality straight razor kit. The only thing missing is that he had never actually had a straight razor shave. To me, the idea of investing in pricey straight razor equipment without ever having had the shave was a bit like buying golf clubs without ever having been golfing. So while he was home for Thanksgiving vacation, I decided to treat him to a straight razor shave in a traditional barber shop.

Now Fredericksburg is a historic town with many old timey barber shops. But when I started to call around, I had a hard time finding someone who offered the service. I kept getting the same one does that anymore. Not even the guy who’s been in business for 65 years. And searching the internet didn’t yield anything promising, until I came across an old forum in which someone mentioned a straight razor shave at a place near the mall. A little more searching turned up a gem of a place, “Village Square Barber & Hair” in the Village Square shopping center across from Costco.

So this afternoon, I accompanied my son to check it out. I could really see the appeal of this place. Men were getting classic haircuts, and everyone was treated to a soothing neck massage by the pretty young women who staffed the place. While there were a couple of women in the waiting area, and one holding a squirmy toddler for his first haircut, all the customers were men. Men’s magazines in the waiting area, and football on the wall-mounted TVs. My son got the full treatment he was looking for: hot steamy towel to soften the beard, an expert shave, a massage of after-shave, and a dusting of powder. All for $11. It was (literally) the closest shave of his life, and when he was done, his skin felt like it did before he hit puberty. While I’m sure there will be a straight razor in his future, at least now he understands the deft, experienced hand it takes to do it right. So this will give him something to shoot for while he’s hacking up his face.

And the point of this blog post is simply that when someone googles “Where can I get a straight razor shave in Fredericksburg?,” the answer will be here waiting for them.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

River Hike

The fall weather has been perfect for some hiking, and in recent weeks, we’ve explored a couple of paths along the Rapphannock River. If you start from the small parking area across from the canoe rental place at the bottom of the Fall Hill Ave. hill, there is a wide trail that leads along the river heading west. My kind of hiking—easy. Plus lots of scenic views of the river. You pass the site of the now-demolished Embrey Dam and eventually wind your way under the I-95 river crossing to...voila!...the site of the old quarry swimming hole. I used to hear stories from the locals about swimming here, but never knew precisely where it was. Tales (exaggerated?) of teenage exploits that included jumping off the quarry’s high cliff walls into the small lake were legendary. To get to the quarry swimming hole, you pass a lot of “no trespassing” signs, but my understanding is that as long as you are just quietly walking the trail, you’ll be okay. Swimming at the quarry (oldtimers’ stories notwithstanding) can be dangerous (a UMW student drowned a few years ago), and is strictly verboten.

Site of the old Embrey Dam, with marker naming this section of the river the "John W. Warner Rapids" (because politicians can't get enough recognition).

Nice wide path for easy hiking.

I-95 bridge.

Another quarry view.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Midwest Road Trip

Downtown Lawrence, KS

In August, my son moved to Lawrence, Kansas for grad school at KU. We gave him a few months to settle in, and then thought the fall would be the perfect time for a visit. So in early October, we headed out for a 9 day road trip halfway across the country. Other than a few trips to California and Chicago (all by air), I’ve never been off the east coast. In fact, I’ll admit that I’ve been very east coast-centric all my life, never giving the Midwest much thought. Well, we had a wonderful trip, and now I’ve become completely enamored of America's heartland. The landscape is picturesque, the roads and cities are uncongested, the pace is slower, the towns are charming, the people are friendly...what’s not to like?

Heading west on I-64 is nothing like heading north on I-95, a trip I’ve taken way too many times. Midwestern friends thought I might find the drive west boring. Not even close. You drive the northeast corridor a few times, take a few trips through New Jersey, try to navigate in and around NYC, and then let’s talk about boring. The drive west was scenic and serene, from the mountain views in West Virginia, to the green rolling hills of Kentucky and southern Indiana, across the bucolic farmlands of southern Illinois and Missouri into Kansas, and there were stretches of road where we hardly saw other cars. Ten hours north is grueling; 10 hours west is pleasant.

The "boring" interstate through Kentucky:

People talk about Midwesterners as being particularly friendly. I think I figured out why. They are getting more sleep than we east coasters are. Midway through Indiana, Central time wraps you in its warm embrace, and suddenly, prime time TV starts at 7 pm, and you can watch the Daily Show and Colbert and still get to bed by 11. What a luxury. Come on, east can we make that happen here?

I've heard Lawrence called the "blue dot" of red state Kansas, but the overwhelming sense I got there was not of liberal politics, but of the domination of the Jayhawk, that mythical bird once used to describe militant 19th century abolitionists. No matter where you go in Lawrence, you can't escape the KU Jayhawk:

KU has a beautiful campus. Here's some typical architecture:

Pretty fountain in the middle of campus:

We made it to Lawrence in 2 easy days of driving, and spent 2 full days in Kansas, with a day trip to nearby Kansas City. We took our time coming home, with stops in St. Louis, MO and Louisville, KY for some sightseeing. Our goal was to eat barbecue in Kansas City, hear some blues in St. Louis, and drink some bourbon in Louisville. Check, check and check.

In Kansas City, we visited the riverfront (the Missouri River), checked out the city market, and went to the excellent Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and adjacent Jazz Museum. But the highlight was our visit to the iconic Arthur Bryant's, established in 1908, and considered by some to be the most famous barbecue joint in America:

Lots o' meat. And white bread. And greasy fries.

Next stop, St. Louis. The Midwest is land of big rivers. I was excited to get my first glimpse of the Mississippi, although in St. Louis, it’s more industrial than picturesque.

Of course, the arch is the big highlight. Here's a view of the arch, the old courthouse, and a cool fountain:

How many photos of the arch do you need to see? Because I've got plenty more:

We spent some time under the arch at the Museum of Westward Expansion, visited the old courthouse where the Dred Scott case was first heard, and visited the renovated Union Station ( just like D.C.!). Here's the front of the station with the famous Milles Fountain.

St. Louis has lots of parks and fountains. In a city park, we came upon an exhibit of sculptures, including this giant head...

and this water feature:

Our trip to St. Louis included an evening spent at Beale on Broadway, a great music venue where we heard the dynamic Kim Massie, arguably St. Louis's best blues/R&B singer. After two nights in St. Louis, we headed for Louisville on the banks of the Ohio River:

Louisville's riverfront plaza:

One of Louisville's claims to fame is the ornate cast iron architecture of Main Street:

We toured downtown, and stopped in at the Louisville Slugger bat factory and museum:

Before heading home, we drove down to Loretto, KY, to take the tour of the Maker's Mark distillery and complete the BBQ, blues and bourbon trifecta.

We just scratched the surface of the surface of these cities, and are planning to go back each year, taking in more sights, and trying other routes. I leave you with a last look of just one more reason why our Midwest trip was so satisfying: it's the home of White Castle. Reason enough to go.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Maryland Renaissance Festival

The only Renaissance fairs I’ve been to have been the local ones, first on Rt. 3E in Stafford, and lately at the Lake Anna Winery. But on Saturday, we were invited to join friends who were going to spend the day at the Maryland Renaissance Festival near Annapolis, and we were thrilled to go along. The Maryland festival is one of the largest in the country, covering 25 acres, big enough to need a map...a veritable English Tudor amusement park. There are ten stages with acts going on continuously throughout the day, over 100 little shops, dozens of food vendors, and five taverns.

Little Tudor-style shops and stands lined the lanes:

One of the festival stages:

We spent nine hours there, and still didn’t manage to see all of the performances and demonstrations. There were musical groups (bagpipes, drummers, Celtic music, madrigals), comedy acts, magicians, a sword swallower (I checked out sword swallowing when I got home, and it’s actually real, although pretty gross to watch), an acrobat/tightrope walker, belly dancers, swordfights, jousting, archery, storytellers...the list goes on. Comedy ruled the day--most of the performers, regardless of the act, kept up a running banter of jokes.

The sword swallower:

The Squire of the Wire:

For me, the people-watching opportunities were priceless. So many visitors wear costumes that you end up wishing you were wearing one, too. And then there’s the suspense of wondering if the tightly laced bodices of the women were going to hold up to the sheer force of the boobage. I kept expecting a major wardrobe malfunction at some point in the day, but those costumes are a marvel of engineering and there was nary a nip slip to be found.

The story line of this year's festival revolved around Henry VIII, on the hunt for his 6th wife, and if you were lucky, you could find Henry and his court roaming the grounds:

The festival is in a lovely wooded setting, and although it was quite crowded and we got a bit of rain, we had a terrific time. Two thumbs up...I highly recommend it. The festival is open from 10 am-7 pm; adult admission is $18. The festival runs weekends from August 29 through October 25. We drove up via Rt. 301 through Maryland, which was a pleasant 2 hour drive.

Now a note about the photos. I snapped pictures all day long, but my old camera had a major meltdown and I lost all of the photos. So the ones accompanying this post were all taken from Google images, mainly photos from the media and wikipedia. I am now in possession of a brand new camera, so I’ll be back to my own photos in the next post.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Yankees in Falmouth

On Saturday, my husband and I checked out what seems to be becoming an annual Civil War commemoration, the “Yankees in Falmouth.” The Yankees arrived in Falmouth in 1862, and faced gunfire from the Moncure Conway House, but ultimately drove the Confederates across the river into Fredericksburg. Despite the name, both Yankees and Confederates were well represented at the weekend event. We started at the Falmouth Waterfront Park to hear about Civil War artillery and to watch the highlight of the day, shooting off the cannon, a plug-your-ears moment. Definitely a hit with the kids.

Cannoneers at the ready...


This re-enactor explained everything you'd ever want to know about Civil War era artillery and ammunition. One of us found it fascinating:

Then we went across the street to the Conway house, where Civil War campsites were set up in the backyard, and demonstrations were going on throughout the day. As a Unitarian, I’m familiar with Moncure Conway, a noted Southern abolitionist and Unitarian minister, but I never actually knew which Falmouth house was his. The large brick home on River Road is privately owned and not generally open to the public, but for this event, we were invited into the home to see the front hall and living room.

A Confederate campsite:

Vignette of Civil War accoutrements:

A campsite showing the role of women during the war:

Portraits were taken with period cameras:

Is this what they mean when they say "Yankee dog"?