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Trip Report D.C. Trip Report -- Thanksgiving Week

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How: 5 day package (air and 4 nights hotel) on Expedia for $550. Departed the Saturday morning before Thanksgiving on AA, returned Wednesday night.

Purpose: I had a slew of vacation time I was about to lose if I didn’t use it, and despite the fact no one else had the vacation time to go with me, I decided to go with the Terra Cotta Warriors exhibit as my #1 priority.

Hotel: I picked Hotel Rouge for the location primarily and for the good reviews I’d read both in Fodors, on the forums (thanks MaiTaiTom!) and Trip Advisor. I requested a king but when that wasn’t ready when I arrived, I settled for 2 queens. The room was fairly large and comfortable. The décor is very red and sort of worn out, but it was clean and felt safe. I was on the front of the building but there is next to no traffic in the overnight hours so that wasn’t a problem. I never heard neighbors, rowdy or otherwise (there’s a bar in the lobby that I’d read may result in some louder houseguests). Dogs are also allowed, and while I heard them during the day, I never heard them at night. My one complaint was that I had breakfast from room service the first two days and one day was $6 more than the other and I ordered the same thing; that was quickly corrected when I pointed it out. After that I picked something up on the way to the Metro each morning.

Restaurants:
I booked all in advance on OpenTable. Most were recommended by fellow employees in my firm’s DC office. I confirmed a couple on the forum here as well. I am extremely pleased with my choices which were:

The Russia House, on Connecticut Ave north of Dupont Circle. Man, this was worth it! I started with pierogis (mashed potato, bacon and duck in puff pastry) which were just wonderful, with a very interesting dill crème fresh sauce. I had the beef stroganoff with mashed potatoes which was insanely good. I had a Moldovan pinot noir with it which was tasty. For dessert I had a glass of the restaurant’s own infused vodka, which was strawberry, blueberry, raspberry and just wonderful. It wasn’t sweetened like sugary store-bought flavored vodka but more natural and very strong. The shot was enough. Bill was $63 plus tip. Loved it, would recommend it again!

Georgia Brown’s. My notes say “Amazing, pretty freaking amazing.” I had fried green tomatoes with cream cheese and two salsas on the side. These were just awesome. The corn bread fingers they gave in the bread basket just rocked. The peach gin martini I had was good but not terribly strong. I had the Louisiana Devil Shrimp, which was three shrimp stuffed with crabcakes served with macaroni and cheese. That was wonderful, and I’ve had some good baked stuff shrimp in my time! For dessert I had a chocolate ice box cake, which was decadent and tasty but I could not finish it. I would SO go back here. So I’m two for two with my restaurants. Would my streak continue??? Bill was $59 plus tip, I think.

Central Michel Richard, which won the James Beard award last year. It has a trendy California-feeling décor (it is Cali-French fusion). They seated me in front of the kitchen so I could watch all the chefs work the line, which was pretty fun. I started with the bacon and onion tart, which was a very thin flat bread (almost like thinner pita) with some shredded bacon and chopped onion, which was tasty. My main course was tagliatelle Bolognese, which I got strictly to pair with the wine, which I eyed first. The presentation was amazing. The chef wrapped the pasta around long tongs and laid it across the plate in a long pile with, somehow, the sauce inside the pasta. It was covered with very finely shredded cheese that looked like snow atop a mountain of pasta. I paired this with a really nice Barbera d’Asti. There was something slightly spicy in the meat sauce and I could swear I could taste cinnamon. But it was really very good, not your run of the mill pasta for sure, and a hearty serving. I followed it up with an apple pan dowdy, which is like a deep dish apple betty. Total was $57 plus tip. Worth it, very good. It is very loud there as I had read, especially compared to the two previous nights experiences, but it was still a very, very good meal.

Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert was my last meal in DC and it was everything I had hoped. The staff were so welcoming and friendly and treated me extremely well. I started with tomato soup with a mini croque monsieur on the side. The soup was nice and creamy and warm, which felt good tonight. For dinner I had shrimp and grits. This was phenomenal. It was a big bowl of really buttery grits with shrimp, chorizo, scallions, garlic and a dab of light tomato sauce on top. It was really just so amazing. I also had the Westend Cocktail, which was pomegranate vodka with pomegranate juice, very tasty. For dessert I had the ginger parfait, which was shards of gingerbread cookie with an orange coulis. It was nice and refreshing. I think it too was about $60 with tip.

Newseum Café A Wolfgang Puck creation, it was pretty good. I had a Cajun chicken salad on jalapeno roll. It fit the bill for what I needed.

Good Stuff Eatery, which is to the right behind the Capitol, and owned by Spike from Top Chef. Ooooh man. I had the Prez Obama burger, which had Roquefort cheese, some onion mayo and oh I dunno what else but it was damn good. Spike’s fries were seasoned with rosemary and thyme which made them pretty tasty (better than Five Guys, although Five Guys wins the burger contest). But the piece de resistance was the milky way malt shake, which had caramel and chocolate and a whole pile of sauces and malted milk balls at the bottom that I couldn’t get to in the end. So a good take. Spike definitely benefits from location. I was there when Congress was not in session and the line was still out the door and it was about a 15 minute wait for the food. I can’t imagine what an ordinary work week would be like!

Five Guys: two lunches here. We don’t have them near me at home yet, so I had to do it. I can’t remember the last time I had McDonald’s, but I promise you it was nothing like this. Fresh, not so greasy and good rolls. I love customizing my burger and this is worth it.

Sights:

National Geographic Museum: The exhibition of the Terra Cotta Warriors was the point of my entire trip to D.C. I’ve long been fascinated by them and jumped at the chance to see them here in the event that I never get to China. The museum is small and I am fairly certain is just this exhibition space (I didn’t see anything else). The exhibition is laid out well, with a few warriors at the start of the exhibit, some other artifacts, history about the emperor and his domain and then culminates with about a dozen other warriors. If you go, do not try to save money and not get the audio tour. The audio provides details you don’t get by just reading the placards that really enhances the experience. It explains how the warriors’ hair style or cap, their hands, their sleeves, all indicate what this warrior’s place was in the army. It points out the detailing of the soles of the shoes, the laces on the feet, the belt buckles and armor. I would not have had the profound experience I had without the audio. As absolutely stunning as this was though, it was insanely crowded. I was there at 10:00 a.m. when it opened and by the time I left it was oppressively crowded with school groups and tour buses (yes, plural) full of folks. It is the first time I’ve ever felt a museum really hadn’t managed the volume of visitors for a relatively small space (only two rooms, not terribly large by gallery standards).

Newseum: I actually stopped here on the way to the National Gallery, thinking it would be a quick pass through. I was completely taken aback by how much I enjoyed this museum. I spent 2 hours there Sunday and almost 3 hours on Monday ($20 ticket is good for two consecutive days). I liken this to a children’s discovery museum, only for adult news junkies. If you are constantly refreshing Huffington Post and CNN.com during the work day, or read more than one daily for the fun of it and not as part of your job, this museum is for you. It was complete sensory and information overload for me. I don’t even know where to begin explaining it. The draw for me was the exhibit of Tim Russert’s office as it was on the day he died. For me that was a thrill to see but also a harsh reminder of how much I miss him! There is a great exhibit on the history of the First Amendment, which really reminds you of how fortunate we are for free speech. The grand-daddy of all museum exhibits is drawer upon drawer of newspaper front pages chronologically covering significant world events from the 1500s to present. You pull out the drawer to access the whole front page; I ended up going through every drawer, both to relive events I could remember (the first I remembered was the 1980 Olympic hockey team win) and those I know of but wasn’t witness to. Reading how events were covered over time, along with what else was considered newsworthy enough to appear on the front page was really a learning experience (and sometimes kind of funny!).There is a wonderful Pulitzer Prize photography exhibit that was amazing (check out the PCs behind the exhibit where you can just sit and scroll through 1000s of photos!). There are two exhibits that were particularly striking, one with pieces of the Berlin Wall with a lot of substantive detail both on their history and how they got to the museum. The other was on journalists experiences during the events of 9/11. This just blew me away. The video, the photos, the stories…all of them were so poignant and simply unbelievable. Their quest for the story became more a quest for survival in some cases; and in the end not all of them made it. I cannot say enough good about this museum. I’d read it was not so great, too expensive, etc., but I just loved it. I found quite a few Christmas gifts for my other newsy friends in the gift shop and I proudly wear my “News Junkie” t-shirt at the gym.

National Gallery: The first time I visited during the week, I just did the “greatest hits tour” following the map the museum has. First stop, obviously, was to see three more Vermeers (albeit without my dear sister, will have to return with her!) so that alone made this a great stop. I think Lady Writing a Letter might be another one I love. The Woman with the Balance seems like a typical Vermeer. But the Woman with the Red Hat and Girl with a Flute seem unlikely to me. The Girl with The Flute is actually labeled as “attributed to Vermeer” which I don’t remember reading about before, so maybe something has been uncovered that makes it perhaps not a Vermeer after all. Across the hall, I fell in love with Monet all over again. There is a Venetian palazzo of his that is just insanely beautiful in deep blues and greens. His Woman with a Parasol and Young Boy are both gorgeous. Two Rouen Cathedrals, a Chinese Bridge, I was just smitten all over again. Sigh…there are two rooms of Rembrandts, a really nice da Vinci. That night, I spent some time on the museum website doing a search of artists I like and seeing what the museum had on display. I went back again with this list and sought out what I hadn’t already seen. On my return visit, I found a room of Titians (one beautiful woman in green), a very uncharacteristic Velasquez of a lacemaker and a bunch of Rembrandts, including a beautiful Saskia (his wife). In the Titian room, the guard talked to me at length about the meaning of one of them and what we both thought of it. I’d never had such a gracious interaction with staff when they have initiated it before, which was refreshing. I revisited the Vermeers and was astounded to find out that they do indeed allow flash photos, as long as the camera is a foot away! Good lord. I can’t believe it! I also revisited the Impressionists and then headed downstairs and browsed the sculpture, finding a Bernini and a bunch of Rodins I didn’t know they had, as well as some Degas bronzes.

National Portrait Gallery: I’d never been before and decided to stop in as I passed by. I went directly to the President’s portraits. The Washington Lansdowne portrait was there, which I did not know was joint owned by the MFA (my hometown museum). And Lincoln’s portrait was insane…he was a good looking guy. I liked seeing the presidents I know, but George W. was a bit too casual among the other men! The gallery also had other portraits of famous people, American and otherwise, like Einstein, Updike, Marilyn Monroe (Warhol’s), RFK, Henry Cabot Lodge (a Sargent).

US Holocaust Memorial Museum: I was at the Holocaust Museum when it opened. No lines, no waiting, which I found is de rigeur in D.C. at Thanksgiving week, but I did think twice as I went in since that guard was killed there earlier this year. This museum is amazing. It is organized from the top floor down, and you work your way through the Jewish/Nazi story, how the Nazis implemented the “final solution”. There was a lot of background on how Hitler came to power and how he not so subtly asserted his true intentions and how the Gestapo and Stasi came to be. This was helpful in understanding the problem overall. I felt there was a lot of reading at the start of the exhibit which led to a lot of bunching up of visitors. But as it moved downstairs, when it became more about the objects on view, it thinned out and moved more quickly. Seeing the photos of inhabitants of towns that were entirely wiped out, the bunks of Auschwitz, the brushes, scissors, shoes and hair of victims, the railway car used to transport the internees, all of it was just so mind-numbing. Then the video, so graphic (and wisely hidden from young and sensitive eyes) really just hit the point home. How did this happen? How can people deny that it did? The atrocities and the sheer number of them are just mind-blowing.

Museum of American History: Having only been to D.C. once before, when I was 12, this is one of the most striking memories I have of the city. I remember all the pop culture paraphernalia and the First Ladies’ gowns. Well, riddle me this, there are all of 8 pop culture items on display and only a handful of gowns. I was disappointed I have to say. Julia Child’s kitchen was pretty cool to see and the Star Spangled Banner exhibit is vastly re-done and impressive, but after only a half hour in the museum, I was ready to move on.

National Archive: This was another stop I remembered vividly from my first trip to D.C. It is pretty much unchanged from then, except for the lower level exhibits which are much more interactive than they were 25+ years ago. I had pre-reserved a timeslot and by this point it was absolutely pouring. I really didn’t need a reservation since there were only about 40 people in the general admission line but I didn’t want to stand in the rain to wait so I went to the group entrance and cut right through to the metal detectors using my reservation. To stay dry, it was well worth the $1.50 to book ahead! So I went directly to the Rotunda, where I walked right up to the Magna Carta, just sitting there on its own. But then I had to wait in line to see the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights. It wasn’t too bad of a wait and the security guy did his best to be affable and entertaining. It was actually sort of sobering and really a privilege to see the documents up close and neat for a history freak like me to pick out the signatures of Hancock, Washington, Franklin, Adams, etc.

Arlington National Cemetery: Around 9:00 one morning, I hopped on the Metro and went off to the Cemetery even though it was drizzling and cool out. I got there about 9:30 and as the changing of the guard happened at the top of the hour, I went right to that. What an amazingly somber and moving ceremony it is. To me it is a complete contrast to the Changing of the Guard in London that I saw earlier this year. To guard the Tomb of the Unknown must be such an incredible honor and not a ceremonial “performance” like in London. And I wonder if it is not mentally taxing as well. On the way back down the hill, I stumbled upon Joe Louis’ grave. I remember seeing it here when I was a kid but I couldn’t have sought it out again if I tried.

I then followed the map to the section of the cemetery where the killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried. I got close but there was a funeral going on so I didn’t want to be obtrusive or be noticed so I didn’t stay. It is mind-numbing how many graves there were in that section. And I heard a few 21 gun salutes while I was there. So sad.

I ended my visit there by visiting the Kennedy graves. Jackie has died since I was last there, so she is buried with JFK. RFK is right behind that and Ted, who just died in September, is right near RFK. It was kind of poignant to see Ted’s grave given that I’m from MA and did see his funeral cortege pass by in Boston and watched all of the services on tv. Despite the opinion of some, he was a hero for our state and did a lot of very good things for the greater good.

The Capitol: I hadn’t been here before and didn’t have any luck pre-booking a tour with any of my Congressmen on such short notice (and on a very deserted Thanksgiving week). I went to the Capitol to the new Visitor’s Center and hoped to just look around, not expecting to get a tour, but I did. So score there! The tour took us through the crypt (room under the rotunda, holding up the rotunda and dome), the old Supreme Court room and the rotunda itself, which was fascinating. We also went through Statuary Hall where Obama’s inaugural lunch was, as well as passed through the hallway where Obama walked out on to the balcony for the inauguration. That was pretty cool. I would have been happy with that, for sure, until the guide told us at the end of the tour that we could go into the Senate chambers this week for free and without an invitation. I was thrilled, it was pretty neat to go in there and see where the State of the Union is, where we see on CSPAN all the time.

Library of Congress and Supreme Court: After lunch (see Spike’s restaurant above) I hauled my fat butt back up the hill and went to the Library of Congress. I was feeling a bit heavy from the food and a blister on my right foot was screaming, so I did the tour on my own rather than wait for the next guided one. I saw the Gutenburg Bible and the gorgeous lobby. But the overview of the reading room was damn impressive. I had no idea how enormous that was. There were temporary displays in the basement on the Gershwins and Bob Hope which were sort of interesting.

Next door to the Library is the Supreme Court. Again, it wasn’t in session either so I could look right into the courtroom, which was pretty cool. I mean, both the experiences could have been a lot more interesting if things were in session and I got in to those, but this just really made me smile. I guess I’m crazy like that.

National Zoo: I will save you my gushing over animals as I would probably lose whatever little credibility I may have here! Suffice to say, I was thrilled to see pandas for the second time in my life (and they were actually even awake at one point!) and the big cats made me miss my boy at home. I loved the zoo, despite the fact it was raining. Many exhibits were closed or under construction, but I still felt like I saw a lot of animals I either hadn’t before or may not again. If you can get to the chimpanzees for the Keeper time, the interaction with the chimps’ keeper is really interesting and a great learning experience. The zoo is a very quick 2 stops from Dupont Circle (1 stop if you don’t mind walking up hill) which was super-convenient for me.

Phillips Collection: At one point, I found myself only a block from the Phillips Collection. This is a private house that houses paintings (not a house museum that also holds paintings) so it is supposed to be more visitor-friendly. The works are not hung with any particular rhyme or reason other than to evoke conversation. Yeah, that makes for a nice orderly visit…sigh. The big draw here for me was Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, which I wanted to see and was the only reason this museum even hit my radar. It took a few minutes to find but when I did, it caught me breathless….don’t you love those moments? The colors are gorgeous and it’s much larger than I expected. I go back and forth on Renoir at times but this is just beautiful. I suppose now I need to read the book on it that I’ve had at home. There were of course other interesting works there, like a few Van Goghs (house in Auvers, gates to the park in Arles), a couple Monets and an absolutely gorgeous and surprising El Greco. Man, I can spot those a mile away and this one totally surprised me. They had a substantial collection of Bonneau, which I hadn’t seen much of before. They also had a Rothko room, which had four large color block paintings on the walls. They limited the visitors in the room to 8, explaining on the sign that it was to limit exposure to the paintings and preserve them. I think that served only to scare people off. I went in and wasn’t terribly impressed other than to learn that the artist himself designed the room and requested the solitary bench that is in there. Hmmm.

The Monuments: I don’t think anyone can visit D.C. and not come away a flag-waving patriotic freak. If you don’t, then you probably haven’t visited the monuments. I spent the better part of a day walking from the Washington to the WWII to the Lincoln to the Vietnam to the Korean memorials. Again I haven’t made it to the Jefferson (or the FDR or the MLK for that matter), but I guess I need to leave something for next time. I visited both in day time and at night. I can tell you that even after all the places I’ve been around the world since the first time I visited D.C., nothing strikes so profoundly at night as the Lincoln Memorial does. Near or far, it is just awe inspiring to me, and oddly enough, this is how I remembered it as a 12 year old too. But since I’d visited, the Korean War memorial is new and it is both eerie and nostalgic. It really sort of blew me away. There are 18 alabaster white soldiers climbing through the bush, but against a shiny black granite wall, on which they are reflected so they appear to be double what they are. It was quite pretty and very solemn.

Coming home: I’d prepared for returning to Boston the night before Thanksgiving to be a nightmare. It wasn’t. The airport was not terribly crowded. The one thing that did happen was all AA flights to Boston were grossly delayed. The explanation given was “an incident in Boston”. Well, you’d have to be both blind and deaf not to notice that other airlines’ flights to Boston were going out on time and the free airport wifi allowed me to check Logan’s website where no delays were reported. Oddly enough, this also happened to me returning from Miami on AA, and other flights were going to Boston on time then too. But either way, I ended up only being an hour late, which, for the price I paid, I was fine with.

Random thoughts:
-- Nearly all sights being free makes this a very economical vacation.
-- Going Thanksgiving week gives you the run of just about every place; the worst crowds I experienced were at the warriors and Spike’s burger joint!
-- All of the restaurants I booked on Open Table will call and confirm your reservation and in one instance will say “call us back and confirm or else…” which is sort of a pain.
-- I got a 7 day metro pass which I think I probably broke even on in 5 days. Because I’m used to the subway in Boston, I’m sort of pre-programmed to use them wherever I go, but I did find things much more walkable (and closer than they appear on a map) than I expected.

Déjà vu moment:
Driving home from the airport, it was raining and quite dark and I was pretty hungry. Halfway home I thought I was seeing a mirage, but it was a Five Guys, not 5 miles from my house. How did I miss that? I had no idea! But now, what to do with that information….. ;-)

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