JUST INSIDE MONTICELLO, Thomas Jefferson’s marvel of a home in Charlottesville, Virginia, a tour guide draws visitors’ attention to the clock over the door — a device that hints at some of the personal qualities that made Jefferson unique. The clock, which Jefferson designed, is built into an exterior wall and displays the time to people inside and outside the home. It uses a specially procured Chinese gong to sound the hour to field workers. Wound once a week, the clock uses two sets of 18-pound cannonball weights for power, and down one wall Jefferson devised a system where the weights point to the corresponding day of the week. But it turns out he miscalculated. When the entrance hall proved tall enough to fit only six days, Jefferson adapted: He cut a hole in the floor, allowing the weights to descend into the cellar, where Saturday is marked along the basement wall. “Jefferson loved gadgets,” the guide tells us. “He was the Steve Jobs of his age.”
Were it not for Jefferson, Charlottesville would be an unremarkable place — but thanks to him, it is anything but. Within a short drive of Jefferson’s home lie two other presidential estates — those of James Madison and James Monroe, both Jefferson proteges. Downtown, life is centered on the University of Virginia, which Jefferson founded a decade after his presidency, in 1819. Around Charlottesville, the rural landscape is dotted with wineries, which may also owe their existence to Jefferson, who developed a taste for wine while living in France in the 1780s and traveling extensively throughout Europe.
Charlottesville is more than 500 miles from Boston and lacks a major airport, so at first blush it’s not particularly convenient as a weekend destination. But when planning weekend travel, there’s one consideration that can trump accessibility: a wedding invitation. So when a dear cousin invited our family (including my children, 8, 12, and 14) to a marriage celebration in Virginia in July, we decided to make time to explore Charlottesville. Boston may rank as one of the nation’s greatest college cities, but this was a chance to expose my kids to one of America’s great college “towns.” And getting there isn’t as hard as you might think: There are inexpensive direct flights from Logan to Dulles Airport, and then it’s just about a 100-mile drive through the countryside to Charlottesville.
In theory, visitors might spend a full day at Monticello (434-984-9800, monticello.org), whose design reflects how Jefferson was influenced by his observations in Europe. In addition to a comprehensive look at the home, guides lead two additional tours: One covers the estate’s gardens, the second focuses on slavery at Monticello. (These outdoor tours run primarily from April 1 to October 31; the slavery tour is also available in February.) We stuck to the basics, however, walking the grounds ourselves, visiting Jefferson’s burial site, and then touring the red brick home. For my family, the highlights were the personal objects on display. My youngest child, a budding chess player, stood a few feet from Jefferson’s ornate chess set; my oldest, who rides horses, spied Jefferson’s boots, which he wore while riding daily into his 80s. My favorite item: In Jefferson’s study sits his “polygraph,” a mechanical writing contraption that allowed him to simultaneously produce a copy of each of the 19,000 handwritten letters he produced during his lifetime — letters that have become the lifeblood of his biographers. After touring the house, we stopped in the museum store to grab bottles of Monticello root beer, sweetened with honey and based on a recipe for the sassafras drink that was popular during Jefferson’s time.
It’s a short drive down Jefferson’s mountain to the heart of Charlottesville, where we arrive just as the weekly farmers’ market is shutting down. In our locavore economy, every community now has a farmers’ market, but Charlottesville’s City Market (434-970-3371, charlottesvillecitymarket.com), which runs Saturdays from 7 a.m. to noon April to October and from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. in November and December on Water Street, has been around since 1973. Today vendors sell a wide range of products — tacos, flowers, artisanal laundry soap, pesto. We buy bars of olive oil-and-oatmeal bath soap and head across Water Street to get in line for lunch.
One attribute of a great college town is food that’s tasty and cheap. The Flat (434-978-3528, theflatdowntown.com), a takeout creperie housed in a tiny brick building, qualifies on both counts. It’s cash or check only, and the service can be a little slow, but lines form nonetheless. We stand alongside students, many of whom order the Hangover Relief (a crepe with local ham, cheese, and eggs for $7.50). I try The Return of the King (a chicken, avocado, and feta crepe for $6.50) and the tangy rosemary lemonade ($2); my children go for gooey chocolate crepes ($4). The Flat has just a couple of outdoor tables (many customers sit on curbs to eat), so we opt to eat and walk, wandering around the corner into Charlottesville Historic Downtown Mall (434-295-9073, downtowncharlottesville.net).Continued...