There's an old joke about Richmond, Virginia, that questions how many Richmonders it takes to screw in a light bulb. The answer's three -- one to screw in the bulb and two more to talk about how wonderful the old bulb was.
It's a joke that hits home with plenty of people in the former capital of the Confederacy -- and that's just the way they like it. Much of Richmond has looked exactly the same for more than a century, and most of the city's most prominent families date their Richmond lineage back many generations. Even so, for a city that's known for revering its heroes from the Civil War and Revolutionary War to the point of idolatry, Richmond enters the new millennium on the cusp of a small but growing transformation -- civic improvement that does a fine job of honoring the past while looking forward.
Like in most of eastern Virginia, toss a rock in Richmond and you'll hit a historic site. Though it's filled with the spirit of a bygone era, Richmond's "South" isn't the in-your-face, flag-waving kind -- that's too unbecoming for this genteel town. Rather, Richmond prides itself on its brand of aristocratic chivalry. You can't drive too quickly through its streets, lined with oaks, maples, and magnolias. Life proceeds at a stately, refined pace here; you want big-city excitement, you'll have to head north to Washington, D.C. Still, there's plenty going on here.
But for the history enthusiast (particularly the Civil War buff), visiting Richmond is a must. In the center of the city stands the White House of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis' home from 1861 to 1864. Next door is the Museum of the Confederacy, a collection of memorabilia that began in the days immediately after the war. In addition to the requisite weaponry and uniforms, visitors can read heartbreaking, scrawled letters, like one from an Alabama soldier in 1862 pleading for his brother to take his place temporarily "So that I can go Home and See my little Baby."
Visitors can find a more removed -- though no less impressive -- perspective on the Civil War with a drive down Monument Avenue, one of the South's grandest thoroughfares. A magnificent stretch of restored 18th- and 19th-century townhouses, Monument is every bit the equal of Memphis' Belvedere or New Orleans' St. Charles.
Monument Avenue also serves as an immediate object lesson in the intricate web of Richmond society and politics. Enormous statues of Confederate heroes dot the street, some in Monument's median, some -- like the 100-foot statue of Robert E. Lee -- in their own block-sized traffic circles. A few years ago, some Richmonders decided to honor another of the city's favorite sons, the late tennis champion Arthur Ashe, and ignited the city's fiercest ideological battle in decades.
No one disagreed that Ashe, an African American who rose from Richmond's streets to win Wimbledon, deserved an honor. But the form of that honor tied the city in knots. Confederate loyalists protested his enshrinement on their avenue of heroes. Aesthetes wondered about the decorum of a statue in sneakers and sweats. Some Ashe supporters questioned whether the statue should instead stand at the tennis courts where Ashe began his career or in another location similarly accessible to the African-American population. And some simply wished the whole matter would just go away.
Unlike similar skirmishes over Confederate symbolism, the battle had no clear color lines, and political enemies often found themselves on the same side of the fence -- for different reasons, of course. In the end, Richmond voted to erect the Ashe statue at one entrance to Monument Avenue sneakers and all.
Other, less-controversial Richmond locales of note include Church Hill, a neighborhood of brick townhouses that's undergoing a slow, long-term renovation process. Church Hill's centerpiece is St. John's Church, where Patrick Henry made his famous "Give me liberty or give me death!" speech -- though not, apparently, in those exact words, which were fabricated 40 years later by a biographer. Enormous trees surrounding the church date from Henry's day.
Nearby, Richmond maintains the Edgar Allan Poe museum in the oldest building in the city. Poe won fame as an editor and critic in Richmond, and the city's riverboat, Annabel Lee, takes its name from one of his more famous poems. Fifty miles up the road, the University of Virginia has preserved his actual dorm room, even though Poe got drummed out for overdue library fines.
Near Poe's museum is Shockoe Slip, a former port on the James River that, in recent years, has become home to dozens of trendy restaurants, boutiques, and art galleries. Drive a few miles west and you'll enter the Fan District, several blocks of Cooper-Young-style alternative music clubs, shops, museums, and more great restaurants. Indeed, the tiny, family-owned restaurants tucked into unexpected nooks all over the city are some of Richmond's hidden jewels. It's easy to eat well during a long visit to the city and never get anywhere near a chain.
Outside of Richmond, the surrounding Virginia countryside includes the rolling horse country of Charlottesville to the west and the restored colonial beauty of Williamsburg to the east. The nearby James River plantations offer visitors a chance to step inside 18th-century mansions owned by some of the nation's oldest and most powerful families.
Without a doubt, the finest time to visit Richmond and central Virginia is the fall. It's pretty breathtaking. For a weekend jaunt or an extended visit, Richmond and central Virginia are a perfect quiet getaway.
Just don't tell 'em the new light bulb looks better.
For more information on Richmond, check out the city's Convention and Visitor's Bureau at www.richmondva.org or call (800) 365-7272.