A Jeffersonian-style tour of Charlottesville
Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, is a 5,000-acre plantation atop Monticello Mountain. (Elan Fleisher/Getty)
Thomas Jefferson, one of the United States’ founding fathers, believed that learning should be a lifelong pursuit. In addition to authoring the Declaration of Independence and serving as the young country’s third president, he was also a philosopher, an inventor, an architect, a student of agricultural sciences and an avid reader, accumulating the country’s largest personal collection of books (nearly 7,000). One of his proudest accomplishments was the creation of the Academical Village, the first iteration of the University of Virginia (UVA), an entirely secular university that was built around the centrepiece of a library rather than a church. It was a place where the vibrant exchange of ideas between students and professors was a part of everyday life.
This thriving academic culture lives on today in Charlottesville, Virginia -- the town Jefferson once called home -- and its residents are living up to his legacy of intellectualism. According to the US-based Atlantic magazine, a 2012 study of US metropolitan areas found Charlottesville to be the country’s brainiest city.
Whether Charlottesville is truly the smartest city in the US is, naturally, up for debate (something Jefferson was very much in favour of). Either way, visitors to this beautiful town will find many opportunities for intellectual travel — thought-provoking enough to make the founding father proud.
Strolling around the historic downtown area, you are bound to notice a surprising number of charming, independent bookstores. (In fact, the town was ranked the fourth best city for book lovers in the US last year by Livability, a website focused on city rankings). On Main Street, a large industrial warehouse has been converted into Random Row Books, a fantastic bookshop specialising in rare, uncommon and used books. Outside, a massive mural of a Native American chief hints at the artistic vibe in the shop, which you enter through an open garage door. With an interior of exposed brick and eclectic furniture, it is no wonder that Random Row doubles as an event space, hosting concerts, film screenings, lectures and art exhibits in the evenings
Along the downtown mall, visitors can soak in more art during First Fridays, a free gallery-hopping event found in many US cities where the public can view new exhibitions while sipping complimentary wine and nibbling gratis cheese on the first Friday of each month. If you happen to miss it, opt for a more unique experience at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, one of the few museums in the US dedicated to Australian Aboriginal art. Following Jefferson’s philosophy, Kluge-Ruhe offers “Lifelong Learner” opportunities for adults interested in attending lectures or taking courses in Aboriginal art.
Part of UVA, the free museum is hosting a fascinating exhibition called Past Forward through July 2013, which showcases contemporary Aboriginal artists depicting themes of identity, history and place. One painting by Australian artist Munggurrawuy Yunupingu depicts the first moon landing, portraying US astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin using the geometric shapes and figures found in traditional Aboriginal bark paintings.
Further astronomical exploration can be embarked upon at the McCormick Observatory, also part of UVA’s campus. On the first and third Friday of each month, astronomy enthusiasts can tour the normally closed-to-the-public facility, learn about their research and view the stars and planets through the university’s powerful telescopes.
If travelling with kids, you have the perfect excuse to visit the Virginia Discovery Museum, which features an ongoing exhibition on bees with a bee hive and pollination station. Also good for children, the Lewis and Clark Exploratory Center, located on the bank of the Rivanna River, is running boat tours to help raise funds for the still under-construction building, which does not have a set date for completion. The guided tours take in docked replicas of the ships that explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark travelled in as they headed west along the Missouri River. Lewis grew up in the Charlottesville area, and Clark’s family lived near the site of the exploratory centre for several years. When the centre opens, it will offer guided nature walks, kayaking trips and a boat-building centre for kids.
Conclude your trip by following Jefferson’s own intellectual path. A self-taught architect, two of his designs, his home of Monticello and his UVA Academical Village, were just named 2012 World Wonders by National Geographic Traveler. On the scenic five mile drive to Monticello, a 5,000-acre plantation atop Monticello Mountain, listen to the radio show (or podcast) The Thomas Jefferson Hour, a weekly conversation where the humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson assumes the role of the founding father and addresses modern issues through the lens of Jeffersonian thinking.
When you arrive, begin by exploring the gardens. Agriculture, Jefferson said, “is a science of the very first order”. His reverence for agricultural sciences and botany is evident in the vegetable gardens; the apple, peach and grape orchards; the historic plants greenhouse; and the flower gardens that feature dozens of species. History is Monticello’s main selling point though, and the plantation offers several interesting tours. The Slavery at Monticello Tour takes a hard look at the people who worked on the plantation and their struggles. Wrap up your day at the visitor’s centre, which features an architecture exhibit and an exhibit explaining how Jefferson used Monticello as a laboratory for learning.