History and charm in the shadows of Washington Alexandria THE GREAT

April 17, 1994|By Mary G. Crawford | Mary G. Crawford,Dallas Morning News

Snuggled up to the west side of the Potomac River just south of Washington -- past the Jefferson Memorial and the Puzzle Palace on the Potomac (the Pentagon, what else?) -- is Alexandria.

This city of 108,000 people is a mixture of historic charm and modern amenities. It encompasses a restored waterfront historic district; many comfortable, attractive residential neighborhoods; and an inside-the-Beltway collection of sleek, modern office buildings and hotels.

Less than two hours away from Baltimore by car, Alexandria is perfect for a weekend or day trip.

Old Town Alexandria, the historic port area of the city, with shops, galleries and restaurants lining brick-paved sidewalks, is in welcome, human-scale contrast to Washington's grandiose, sometimes overwhelming public buildings. And, yes, George Washington really did sleep here.

In fact, Washington makes his ghostly presence felt all over Northern Virginia, as does Robert E. Lee. There's hardly a place you can go in the area where you don't hear that G. W. or Robert E. -- or both -- once lived here, went to church here, or visited this very spot.

Alexandria produces the largest Washington's Birthday parade in the nation. And the corner of Oronoco and Washington streets in Old Town is known as Lee Corner, because at one time houses owned by members of the Lee family stood on all four corners. And that's just for starters.

Scottish sea captains founded Alexandria in 1749 as a port for their flourishing tobacco trade. I became not only a principal Colonial shipping point, but also a social and political center.

The best introduction to Alexandria the Great is Ramsay House Visitors Center in Old Town Alexandria. The visitors center provides brochures on hotels and motels, museums and historic sites, tours and cruises, and a calendar of events, as well as lists of restaurants, galleries and shops.

A stroll down Captain's Row and Gentry Row, the 100 and 200 blocks of Prince Street, respectively, gives you a feel for residential life in Old Town a couple of hundred years ago. The townhouses of Captain's Row front a cobblestone street said to have been paved by Hessian prisoners during the American Revolution.

There's no problem with speeding cars in this block: Driving on cobblestones is a bone-rattling experience, like driving on thousands of tiny, vicious speed bumps.

Old Town's King Street is full of shops offering tempting wares in a colorful, historic streetscape. King Street is reminiscent of the Georgetown area of Washington, but without the super-high prices, the heavy traffic and the impossible parking.

For a complete Alexandria experience, you must include a visit to the farmers' market on the south plaza of City Hall, 301 King St. The market is held every Saturday from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. (Sure, that's the middle of the night, but it's worth it.)

When the city was first laid out, two adjoining lots were designated for a town hall and a market-and-social center. George What's-His-Name became a trustee of the market in 1766 and sent wagons of produce to this market from Mount Vernon.

Today, fresh produce is still for sale, along with gourmet coffee, home-baked goodies, handmade crafts and fresh-cut flowers. An inside tip: At about 8:30 a.m., the flower vendors offer two-for-the-price-of-one deals to get rid of their perishable inventory by closing time.

Before you go to the market, you need some background on ham biscuits. In Northern Virginia, the ham biscuit is everywhere, from fast-food kiosks to the most elegant wedding receptions. To you it may look like only a biscuit with some thinly sliced ham. But in Virginia, the ham biscuit is not just food, it is tradition.

A bit and a bite

When you get to the farmers' market, find the ham-biscuit vendor and grab a bit of tradition. That and a cup of French roast should fortify you for the morning.

Sprinkled among the shops on King and nearby streets are shop and house museums; one not to miss is Gadsby's Tavern Museum, which was not only a hotel and tavern in the 18th century, but also the site of social events, musical performances and meetings.

The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Shop at 107 S. Fairfax is a drugstore dating from 1792. Medicine bottles of all shapes, sizes and colors share shelf space with antique weights, scales and eyeglasses. Records and correspondence include an order from Martha Washington in 1802 for a quart of castor oil.

Christ Church, where both G. W. and Robert E. attended services, is at Cameron and Washington streets. The 1773 Georgian-style church features a fine Palladian window and a wrought-brass and crystal chandelier imported from England at W.'s expense. Plaques mark Washington's and Lee's pews.

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