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yk+family weeklong American history tour to Virginia, April 2022

yk+family weeklong American history tour to Virginia, April 2022

Old May 9th, 2022, 06:02 PM
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yk+family weeklong American history tour to Virginia, April 2022

Hi all,

My son (age 9; third grade) and I went to Virginia (Charlottesville + Williamsburg) in April 2022 during school vacation week. We had a great time.Thank you to all of you who gave advice, and also to those who made this initial suggestion. I have never been to these areas so it was interesting and educational for me as well!

Why Virginia?
The 2 of us went to Philadelphia in February 2022. We had a lot of fun on that trip, and also learned a lot about the Revolutionary War. When I started thinking about April vacation, a few fodorites mentioned the "historic triangle" in VA. Once I started reading about it, I thought it would be a great "sequel" per se to our Feb trip. Besides, with us living in Boston, we can easily cover the rest of the Revolutionary War during our free time here.

Pre-trip preparation
We got a number of childrens' books from the library — biographies of James Madison and James Monroe, as well as books on revolutionary war. I also searched on PBS video app and found there are a number of shows on Montpelier, Highland, Monticello, Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown. Most of those shows are <30 minutes, so we watched them all prior to our trip.

Basic itinerary
Initially I wanted to cover CW first, then Charlottesville, simply for the chronological reason. However, I had to swap them around due to super high lodging prices in Charlottesville for the second half of my trip. As a result, this is what we did: we flew in/out of Richmond. Spent 3 nights in Charlottesville, then 5 nights in CW.
You may find my Charlottesville itinerary a bit haphazard — it was due to weather/opening days. It wasn't ideal but I made it work.

Lodgings
Charlottesville Hampton inn and Suites by UVA
During the planning stages, I thought about staying outside of town for cheaper options. In the end, I chose to stay IN Charlottesville and I was very glad with this decision. (at one point I considered saying at Holiday Inn in Ruckersville). I was glad because while it still offers free parking and free breakfast, it is also within walking distance to UVA, which means plenty of affordable restaurants nearby, and actual places we can walk to without driving everywhere.

The hotel is typical Hampton Inn. I downloaded the app, which gives me the option to select my room prior to arrival. I studied the map and layout and picked a room on the top floor away from Main Street. Noise was tolerable, even though it is near a train track. Breakfast is actually quite decent, and the breakfast area is large enough that I wasn't uncomfortable (with covid risk). Staff were very very nice. It rained one day and front desk let us borrow a big sturdy umbrella.

Colonial WilliamsburgWoodlands Hotel and Suites
I decided to go with CW's own hotels because of their offers — we got their Spring Break package, which was stay 3 nights, get 4th night free (we stayed 5 nights and paid for 4 nights), and also 2 length-of-stay tickets to CW. There are also some minor discounts such as discounts to paid events at CW, and "kids eat free" at CW restaurants. But the first two (free night & free tickets) saved us around $300.

CW offers a variety of hotel options; unfortunately I could only afford the cheapest one, the Woodlands. I considered the Lodge; the rate was a bit more but they also charge for parking, wifi, and breakfast. I just couldn't justify paying an additional few hundred bucks for those. In any case, Woodlands isn't bad; the decor is a bit dated, and the complex is HUGE. We got so lost our first night finding our room. I wouldn't want to stay there in the height of summer; I can't imagine the noise and how pack the breakfast would be. But for us, being there in mid-April, it wasn't too bad. Breakfast is actually not nearly as great as Hampton Inn, and I cannot stomach the amount of waste the breakfast generates (everything is single-use and individually wrapped). But they have a lovely outdoor dining area so that's where we ate breakfast every morning. The location is just under 1 mile from town; and the visitors center is right next door where you can catch the free shuttle. We have done both shuttles and walk; it is a lovely walk in nice weather. Woodlands also has a pool and other entertainment but we were too busy to enjoy them. My son did spend 45 minutes one day in the pool.

Last edited by yk; May 9th, 2022 at 06:30 PM.
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Old May 9th, 2022, 06:27 PM
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Day 1

Day 1 (Sunday)
We flew nonstop to Richmond arriving just before noon.

My original plan was to visit Lewis Ginter Garden outside of Richmond, then drive to Charlottesville. The plan for Monday was to visit Montpelier. HOWEVER, pouring rain was predicted for Monday, and Montpelier is only open Thu-Mon. So, as soon as I landed in Richmond, I called Montpelier and requested them to switch my tickets from Monday morning (which I had pre-purchased), to Sunday afternoon, on their last tour at 2:00pm.

Picking up rental car at Richmond airport is easy as the complex is right next door. However it took me and a rental associate almost an hour to find a car that has the right usb plug for my iPhone so that I can get CarPlay to load in the car. When we finally got going, I realized we would arrive at Montpelier at 1:55pm (I thought the drive was 1 hr but it was close to 1.5hrs from the airport).

We got to Montpelier just in time to buy a couple granola bars from their "cafe," as we didn't get a chance to stop for lunch. Weather was beautiful that afternoon; 60sF and sunny. Montpelier is visited by guided tours only. The tour takes about 45minutes and you get to see 3 rooms inside the house ó the reception room, the dining room, and the upstairs library where Madison drafted the Constitution. Although the house closes at 3pm, one can stay on the grounds for a bit longer. We toured the quarters for the enslaved, as well as the garden, and left just before 4pm.

We then drove into Charlottesville and checked into Hampton inn. Given that we didn't really have lunch, we quickly headed out in search of dinner. We walked towards UVA, which is less than a mile away, and found plenty of affordable and ethnic options around campus. In the end, we settled on a poke place which has outdoor seating and we each had a poke bowl.
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Old May 9th, 2022, 06:34 PM
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My son in front of Montpelier

Statue of Madison and Dolley in front of the visitors center
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Old May 9th, 2022, 07:06 PM
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Day 2

Day 2 (Monday)
As predicted, after yesterday's glorious sunny day, we woke up to cold rain, barely above freezing. Given that we already visited Montpelier the day before, we have this morning free, which gives us the chance to take the UVA Rotunda tour at 11am. Previously I wasn't able to fit it in so it all works out.

We had a laid back morning in the hotel, enjoyed our breakfast and then spent some downtime in our room until 10:30am, when we set off on foot to the UVA rotunda. As I said before, we were able to borrow a big sturdy umbrella from front desk. (I also packed a smaller one that my son used). Did I say it was cold too?

I had presumed the tour is about the Rotunda and the architecture/history of the building, but I was quite wrong. Yes, the tour does mention some of it, but mostly it is a tour about the history of UVA, which includes the good and the ugly, esp when it comes to racial and gender equality, not to mention the use of enslaved people to build the university in the early 1800s. Our guide, a junior, is excellent and very eloquent in relating the troubled histories. After the tour, we returned to the Rotunda where they have a room full of display in the basement (about the history), and then we took the elevator to the top floor where we were able to see the dome (which Thomas Jefferson designed after Rome's Pantheon). Together with Monticello, the UVA Academical Village is a UNESCO Heritage Site.

[one thing about staying at hotels with free breakfast: we don't have big appetites, so we usually grab a few extra items and breakfast and eat them as lunch.]

We got back to the hotel to warm up, had our 'free" lunch, and I took a nap. Then we set off to Grottoes, VA to visit Grand Caverns. The bad weather hadn't let up, and I had zero idea that we actually had to climb over the mountain range on I64 to get to Grottoes (sadly, google maps don't show contour lines so I was simply clueless). It was an almost white-knuckle drive because the fog was so dense up in the mountain that you could barely see the car in front of you. 18-wheelers have their flashers on. When we got over the pass, there was SNOW on the ground. I was simply not prepared for snow in Virginia in second half of April.

Luckily, inside the cavern is a steady 56F and no snow! Our guided tour is 70 minutes. I have been to a number of limestone caverns in China, but never in the US. I can't tell you how Grand Caverns compares to the better known Luray Caverns nearby. My son has never been inside one, so this was one of the highlights of the trip for him. I wish our guide could tell us more about the formations of caverns, but mostly she was just pointing out shapes that resemble this and that. At one point, she turned off all the lights in the cavern, and wow, talk about pitch dark. You can't be anywhere darker than being inside the earth. That was unsettling for sure.

That evening we ate at Kuma Sushi Noodles by UVA. My son had tonkatsu; I had vegetable tempura udon soup. Food was okay. I was glad to be able to get plenty of veggies while on vacation.
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Old May 10th, 2022, 04:14 AM
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Grand Cavenrs, Grottoes VA


UVA rotunda
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Old May 10th, 2022, 06:11 AM
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Signing on for the trip. We were back there in the fall, and overlapped some of your destinations. Hope you made it to Lewis Ginter.

We quickly gave up and turned around driving in Shenandoah on one of those foggy days you describe.

Great pictures, thanks.

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Old May 10th, 2022, 07:00 AM
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Really enjoying your super trip report. I remember your planning threads. Looking forward to more!

The spring weather has been all over the place. This past weekend the state was treated to rain deluge, howling winds, and tornado warnings.
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Old May 10th, 2022, 09:31 AM
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Count me in on your VA visit, yk.
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Old May 10th, 2022, 05:57 PM
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Day 3

Day 3 (Tuesday)
My original plan was to go visit Shenandoah National Park/Skyline Drive/hiking today, and visit Monticello + Highland on Wednesday en route to Williamsburg. At 7:30am I got up to check the conditions of Skyline Drive, and realized it is closed due to wintry/snow conditions. So I quickly recheck Monticello and Highland's website. Monticello only offers their guided highlight tours in the morning, and that morning's tours are almost sold out. I quickly bought 2 tickets the last guided tour (12:50pm), and then bought tickets for the first entry at Highland (10am).

There were hardly anyone at Monroe's Highland when we arrived. It was still cold and wintry, with snowflakes coming down. I mistakenly thought tickets are for guided tours. But it wasn't; they don't have guided tours. Timed tickets are for crowd control. Inside the house was a very well-informed guide who answered all our questions. We didn't even realize the actual house was burnt down and the remaining structures are the guest house, plus an addition built after Monroe had sold the place. In fact, the people there didn't know until they did a full archeological study in 2016 and found the original foundations of the burnt-down house. The displays inside were very informative; my son wanted to read everything. As a result, we spent close to 2 hours at the site, which includes the 2 main buildings plus outbuildings where the enslaved people lived. TBH, one can easily finish there within an hour. When we left, there were still only a few visitors around.

So you can imagine my shock when we drove the 2 miles over to Monticello. Just the sheer size of the parking lot was shocking, and it was jam-packed. The visitors center complex is huge, and we were given strict instructions that we had to arrive 30 minutes before our tour. Despite the size of the center, the cafe had zero indoor seating. We bought lunch and ate outside in the cold. Then we had to board a shuttle bus to take us up to the house. Once we got to the top, we were herded to the group "staging" area, where we were basically on a conveyor belt of tourists. "Are you 12:40pm or 12:45pm?" "No, we are 12:50pm." "Oh you go wait at the 2nd set of benches." They had different tours starting every 5 minutes. The whole operation felt very stressful, making sure we are in the right spot for our group.

Once our Highlights tour started, it was better, but inside the house we were still on a conveyor belt, as each timed group move from 1 room to the next, and we have to vacate our room to move on to the next etc. The rooms aren't exactly that big, and our group is quite a decent size, so it felt rather claustrophobic. Our guide also talked while she walked, so unless you're keeping up next to her, you would easily miss half of the things she said.

Among the interior, I was struck by how he slept in an alcove next to his library/study, rather than a real bedroom. And also struck by how small his dining room was ("he prefers intimate dinner conversations"). There was no shortage of mentioning of the enslaved people who worked there. The highlights tour was 45 minutes. Afterwards, one is free to roam around the complex for as long as one wish. Included are the Slavery tour, the Gardens and Grounds tour. We could have done those but my son wanted to meet Thomas Jefferson instead, who comes out a few times a day to "orate" to the people. After meeting Jefferson, we toured the rest of the estate ourselves, and slowly meander our way back to the Visitors center instead of taking the shuttle bus. In the visitors center there is a movie and also a museum exhibit. We were there until around 5pm, though I could imagine someone spending the entire day there if they started earlier and take the other tours I mentioned. Before I left, I remembered that I actually had PRE-purchased tickets for the following morning (I bought them before vacation started), and the ticket office kindly refunded me for those tickets.

In any case, I was really shocked by how crowded Monticello is, while Highland, only 2 miles away, is empty. I know James Monroe isn't that well known (I had to look him up), but he's no less interesting in terms of getting our nation started (IMO).

That evening, we met up with a friend whom I met on social media. She is an opera fan who lives in Charlottesville. We had met briefly IRL once before when she came up to Boston for a performance. She and her husband had dinner with us at Otto Turkish Street Food. I had a veggie bowl. After dinner, they suggested taking a walk in downtown Charlottesville. Too bad it was a chilly evening but it is such a nice area, all pedestrian with lots of outdoor space. I can imagine how lively the place can be on warm evenings.

Last edited by yk; May 10th, 2022 at 06:01 PM.
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Old May 10th, 2022, 06:35 PM
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Day 3 photos


Inside Monroe's Highland

April in Monticello

Mr. Jefferson
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Old May 10th, 2022, 07:04 PM
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Day 4

Day 4 (Wednesday)
Because of the change in itinerary, today ended up being a very long day because Shenandoah NP is in the opposite direction as Colonial Williamsburg. We woke up to clear blue skies and we brought hiking boots, so we just couldn't give up missing Shenandoah. Since we only have limited time, I know we can only cover half of the Skyline Drive, especially if we want to do some hiking as well. I had studied the Shenandoah NP website ahead of time, looked through their suggested hikes, and even picked out a few and printed out hiking maps in advance.

We didn't check out as early as I had hoped, and there was a line of cars to get into Swift Run Gap at Elkon. We finally arrived at the Harry Byrd Visitor Center (mile 51) around 11am. After speaking with the park ranger about my hiking routes, he had 2 completely different suggestions for us. My son wants to complete the Junior Ranger Activity (he has been collecting Jr Ranger badges up and down the East Coast), and in order to do that, we had to go through the exhibits in the visitors center. In any case, we didn't get to our first suggested hike spot until 12noon. We quickly ate our "free lunch" (from hotel breakfast) in the car, then set off on the hike. It's called the Dark Hollow Falls which is just 1/4 mile from the visitors center. The hike is short distance-wise (0.75 mile one way), but there is significant elevation gain of 440'. It's all downhill to the falls, then back uphill. There was still snow and ice on parts of the trail when we set off, but pretty much all were melted when we returned. We were glad we had our hiking boots as the trail was extremely muddy at places. The falls is very pretty and I can see why the ranger suggested this.

Afterwards we returned to the visitors center where my son completed the required jr ranger activity and got his badge, then we headed south to drive the southern half of the Skyline Drive. The vistas are really amazing; there are plenty of turnouts for lookouts. I do wonder how crowded it gets in the summertime? We got to mile 84 and stopped at Blackrock area for our second hike, the Blackrock Summit hike. Once again, the ranger's recommendation is spot on. It's only a 1-mile hike but you get to the summit where there is huge pile of rocks that you can climb up, and from the top it's a 360 degree view, which is absolutely stunning. Part of the 1-mile trail is the Appalachian trail, and we met a young man at the summit who is hiking one week on the AT.

When we were finally done with this hike, it was 4pm and time to leave. It would take us another 45 minutes to get to the southern end of Skyline Drive (exit via Rockfish Gap) before getting on I64. Then it's another 2hr15m on I-64 all the way to Williamsburg. My son asked to listen to the Hamilton soundtrack for the drive, and I happily obliged.

We got to Williamsburg around 7pm, and instead of checking into our hotel, we went to dinner first. I stopped at the first restaurant I saw (Cracker Barrel), and was told it would be a half-hour wait. So I looked on google map and saw a Thai restaurant around the corner, and we went there instead. The restaurant was empty when we arrived, but was quite full by the time we left. I had a tofu tom yum noodle soup, which was a bit disappointing. My son had summer rolls and edamame and dumplings, and he was a happy camper.

Finally got to the Woodlands Hotel in CW and checked in, and called it a night. We have another full day ahead of us tomorrow.
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Old May 11th, 2022, 02:57 AM
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Good to see your trip with your fantastic travel pal. Keep it up! Thanks
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Old May 11th, 2022, 04:52 AM
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Very impressed with how you roll with the punches. Looking forward to the rest!
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Old May 11th, 2022, 05:56 AM
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I'm enjoying your report. Thanks for posting. Great photos as well.
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Old May 11th, 2022, 06:16 AM
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Enjoying your impressions; we've toured all of those places with our children when they were younger. Looking forward to the rest of your story!
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Old May 11th, 2022, 06:23 AM
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Yes, impressive how you can juggle tickets at the last minute with changing conditions. Your discussion of herding the crowds at Monticello is spot on. That system could use some work. We did a self-guided tour so we could move through the house at our own pace, but still had to go through the entrance procedure.

If you want to redecorate after your tours, note that the wallpaper in Monroe's Highland is still available, for a price no doubt.
https://www.zuber.fr/en
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Old May 11th, 2022, 06:54 AM
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Thank you for your trip report yk

I didnít realize there were tours at the UVA Rotunda. Itís interesting that Highland is so quiet, especially when compared to Monticello. I went to Highland in the 90ís when I was an undergrad and we were one of a handful of visitors then too and Monticello in Dec 2019 when it was the finely tuned clockwork super-busy machine of letting visitors in that you describe. Downtown Charlottesville and the UVA area are a nice place to meander on a nice day; sorry the weather was not cooperating.

Looking forward to the Williamsburg report, as thatís where I did my B.Sc.

Thanks, Daniel

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Old May 11th, 2022, 01:41 PM
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Your pre-trip research really came in handy, yk, as you were able to adroitly switch up things.

Our tour of Monticello was in the late 1970s or early 80s. Yes! the rooms were so much smaller than expected. Did your guide note that Jefferson slept in a sitting position (or not totally prone)? It was considered healthier.

I enjoyed Colonial Williamsburg enough to return... looking forward to that part of your trip.
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Old May 11th, 2022, 05:44 PM
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Day 4 photos


Dark Hollow Falls

Blackrock summit

View from one of the many lookouts on skyline drive
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Old May 12th, 2022, 07:00 PM
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Day 5

Day 5 (Thursday) ó Jamestown
given that we had such a long day the day before, I didn't have the heart to march my son out the door first thing in the morning. After breakfast at the hotel, we drove on the Colonial Parkway (which is sooooo scenic!!!) to Jamestown. Our first stop was Historic Jamestowne, which is managed by both NPS and Jamestowne Rediscovery. This is the site where the actual settlement was, and is still an active archeological site. I had checked beforehand and saw Jamestowne Rediscovery offers a archeology tour at 11am and thought that would be interesting. We arrived around 10:30am and paid the admission fee of $25 (which is good for 7 days and good for NPS Yorktown Battlefield as well). At 11am we joined the tour which was led by an archeologist. We find it very informative and interesting, as she went over not just the archeology finds, but also the story of the first years of the settlement. The site has some reconstruction of the original Jamestowne fort, so we could see where the walls were, and what they used to build the buildings. After the tour, we walked over to the archeological museum, which has a very vast collection (of all the stuff they excavated ). We could have spent a long time there but we were short on time. Before we left, we visited the church; its church tower is the only remnant still standing from the original settlement. There was a volunteer docent inside and gave us a tour and history of the church. Before we left, my son picked up his second junior ranger badge for completing the ranger activity book.

By the time we made it over to Jamestown Settlement (more or less right next door), it was already 2pm. I bought the combo ticket that allows entry here and their museum at yorktown. But the combo ticket only allows a single entry to each place. We still hadn't had lunch yet, and we bought lunch at the cafeteria, which has outdoor seating. We decided to visit the outdoor exhibitions first: the Powhatan town, the replica of the 3 ships (only 2 were there; the middle-sized one is at the dry dock), and finally the James Fort. At each location there are costumed interpreters, but they don't pretend to truly live in the 1600s. Rather they educate us about what lives were like back then, which I find pretty refreshing. We finished the outdoor exhibits around 4pm, then went back indoors to watch the introductory film, which was 20 minutes long. In the end, it only left us with half an hour with the indoor museum exhibit (it closes at 5pm), which was definitely not enough. If we had arrived at Jamestowne at 9am instead of 10:30am, it would have given us more time here oh well.

That evening back in Williamsburg, I decided to "take advantage" of the CW restaurant's "kids eat free" offer. It's a gimmick. Only a handful of their restaurants are open; a lot are closed due to covid/short-staff. The ones that are open don't really have that offer, or the place is expensive. We ended up taking the free shuttle from the visitors center (right next to our hotel), to the Williamsburg Lodge restaurant (Sweet Tea & Barley). Surprisingly we got seated right away. I had a crab chowder and their thursday special - a huge piece of pork chop. My son got kids quesedilla which was free, but he also got a drink and a dessert, which were most definitely not free. Food was delicious for sure, but our dinner ended up being one of the most expensive meals we had on the trip, despite being "kids eat free."

We finished a little after 7pm, then we took a nice stroll along Duke of Gloucester Street. Even though we arrived at CW the night before, we haven't actually set foot in the town until now. It was a beautiful evening and few tourists at this hour. Finally we got to the Bruton Parish Church where there was a free candlelight concert that evening, by the William and Mary Gallery Players (string ensemble). My son is not a huge fan of classical music but we came prepared ó he brought a book so he read it while i enjoyed the music. All-in-all, it was a long day but also super fun and educational day for both of us.
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