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Trip Report The van Winkles return to Washington

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We went back for an afternoon once. Otherwise, my wife and I had not returned to Washington, D.C., where we met, for almost half a century. We felt like Mr. and Mrs. Rip van Winkle. We found the office building where we worked, and near it the corner of Connecticut and K streets. In November 1963 I stood on a chair there to photograph John F. Kennedy's funeral procession, with Charles de Gaulle, Haile Selassie, Prince Philip and other world leaders marching in brilliant fall sunshine behind the casket and Jackie Kennedy -- a somber and unforgettable sight.

In some ways we felt at home in Washington, in others the city was foreign to us. The chief impression was of many more trees and so many new buildings. The Metro, now often referred to as antiquated, was new to us. We found it very handy except for the escalators, of which a dismaying number were not functioning. That's especially tough when you're dragging any kind of suitcase. If you're older, consider taking a cab to and from your hotel and the airport and using the Metro while you're in D.C. It's easy, and the Metro information booth people in each station were helpful. The cavernous Metro underground stations appeared dimly lit to our eyes. Usually there were plenty of other riders waiting around, but sometimes not.

The Metro is cheap for seniors. We bought a paper card for $10, worth $20 of rides, and it lasted until near the end of our eight-day stay. Note, though, they're sold only at a few locations. You can also buy a plastic card, which costs a bit more but lasts longer. (For details check <http://www.wmata.com/index.cfm>, the Washington Metro website.) Another great deal is the Circulator bus, dirt-cheap for seniors with a card. There are several routes, one connecting Union Station with Georgetown, passing through the heart of the city. We took a cab only from our hotel to Reagan National, a reasonable $15 plus tip.You can walk most of the central city, but get in shape before you go. The blocks are long most everywhere, and really long in the Mall and monuments areas.

There are plenty of places to take breaks. Many of the museums have good cafeterias, especially, in our experience, the National Gallery of Art. Try the Cascade cafe there. The Museum of the American Indian has a fine cafeteria featuring native dishes. There are also places to eat or get goodies along Pennsylvania Avenue. Our favorite was the casual French bakery and cafe Paul, convenient to nearly all the big museums along the Mall. It's at 801 Pennsylvania right by the Archives/Navy Memorial Metro stop.

Our visit was in early September. Good weather, although hot for several days even for Texans. While the city was active and busy, we encountered no lines anywhere and didn't have to peer over a 10-deep crowd to see exhibits. Even the security guards were pleasant, presumably in relief that the summer hordes were no longer pouring through. If you can arrange to go soon after schools get back in session and it's too early yet to schedule a Washington tour for classes, do it.

We stayed at the Sofitel Layfayette Square. A bit expensive but very good, with a friendly and responsive French staff and a great location just a couple of blocks from the White House. For a pleasant breakfast, lunch or dinner nearby, try country-casual Le Pain Quotidien at the corner of 17th & I Streets. (French seemed to be a recurring theme for our stay.) We ate there so often the manager thought we were locals. There are several other locations, including one in Georgetown.

Our surprise favorite museum was the American Art Museum, in the same building as the National Portrait Gallery. The folk art exhibit is astonishing. It will make you wonder at the imagination of the "ordinary" American and maybe a little embarrassed that you never even dreamed of creating such marvelous things. Curiously, the museum also has an eye-opening show of electronic art, much of it using TV or TV technology. That's 21st-century American folk art I guess.

At the top also was the Library of Congress and its display of "America's birth certificate," a unique 12-sheet world map by a scholarly German monk, printed in 1507 and only discovered in 1901 in a German castle. In 2003 the Library completed its purchase for the American people, for $10 million. Near the tip of South America is the single word "America," its first appearance. The mapmaker later realized Columbus deserved credit, but by then it was too late.

One day we took the Metro to Alexandria, a trip that cost us about $2.60 each way -- for both. We took the free trolley from the King Street Metro station the entire length of colorful old King Street down to the water and back. The area is both touristy and historical, worth a diversion from Washington's museums and monuments. We especially enjoyed a walking detour to our first home together, a tiny rental townhouse just beyond Old Town Alexandria. The house is exactly as wide as our car (a '57 Le Mans) was long. Best of all, we got a tour from the young woman who now owns it.

And then Rip and Mrs. Van Winkle returned home to catch up on their sleep.

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