Alexandria: seeing Old Town anew

UP FRONT

November 08, 2001|By Sloane Brown | Sloane Brown,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

GOT an entire day free coming up, and no plans? Don't want to just fritter that precious time away? Hmmm. Recently facing that prospect, I pondered the possibilities. Where could I go? What should I do? Should I take the educational/enriching route, learning something new, expanding my knowledge? Or give in -- once again -- to the self-indulgence of good shopping and good food? Was it possible to do both -- appeasing both conscience and desire?

And where was it possible to do both? It had been several years since I had visited Old Town in Alexandria, Va. But I had always liked my sojourns there -- lots of shops and great eateries in a quaint village setting. And it is only a 1 1/2 -hour drive or less from Baltimore by car -- barring any of the D.C. Beltway's infamous traffic tie-ups.

All those beautifully preserved 18th- and 19th-century structures I'd seen on previous visits indicated that Alexandria was chock-full of history, but I had no idea what that history was. Perhaps now was the time to combine all of Alexandria's aspects -- history, shopping, food -- and see if I could cram them all into one day.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Nov. 8 LIVE section incorrectly described the decor of the Majestic Cafe in the Old Town section of Alexandria, Va. The cafe, at 911 King St., features an art deco facade, a terrazzo floor, a granite-topped bar, a 1960s phone booth, a tin ceiling and an open kitchen.
The Sun regrets the error.

8:45 a.m.

On a recent Wednesday, my friend Karen and I pile into the car in Baltimore. We stop to get gas and coffee and then head through the Fort McHenry Tunnel and down Interstate 95. East onto the D.C. Beltway -- clear sailing there, for once. Over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, then right at the Route 1 North exit. Six blocks later, we hang a right on King Street, drive down toward the waterfront and turn left onto North Union Street.

10 a.m.

Record time. We pull into an Alexandria parking garage, across North Union Street from the Torpedo Factory. But this was not the time to stop at that arts-and-crafts shopping mecca. We had decided to get our history lesson first. We head up King Street -- Old Town's main drag. On the corner of Fairfax Street, we run smack into the Ramsay House, 221 King St. -- home once upon a time to one of Alexandria's founding fathers, Scottish merchant William Ramsay. It's now home to the city's visitors center.

A couple of very helpful folks are there to answer any questions we may have and give us a handful of fliers. What proves to be essential to us as the day unfolds is the free 2001 Official Visitors Guide, a wealth of historical, shopping and dining info, as well as a map and do-it-yourself walking guide through Old Town.

But what luck! The daily guided walking tour (10:30 a.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays) is about to begin.

Karen and I each hand Dell -- our matronly tour guide -- 10 bucks, and we're off. We begin the history lesson at Market Square -- up the road apiece (a half-block actually, but apiece has a nice historic ring to it).

Dell informs us that Alexandria -- founded in 1749 -- played important roles in both the Revolutionary and Civil wars. It was a planned city and port, laid out in a perfect grid. In fact, she says, a 17-year-old George Washington helped survey the land.

In olden days, Market Square was commerce central. These days, it's paved and lavishly landscaped, and still holds a market every Saturday morning. We learn that a slightly older George Washington drilled his troops here.

We backtrack to the cross street, Fairfax, turn right, and on the corner with Cameron Street, we view the Georgian Palladian manor house built in 1752 by another city founder, John Carlyle. Dell tells us that "The seeds of revolution were planted here at Carlyle House," but says we'll have to take the house tour to find out how. But not now.

Up Cameron Street a block, we come across Gadsby's Tavern, 134 N. Royal St. -- the 18th-century equivalent of a five-star hotel, according to Dell. She also points out that it still houses a restaurant. Karen and I make a mental note of this and move on.

Farther up Cameron, Dell draws our attention to the replica of George Washington's townhouse. It was built on the spot were the original was -- the place where Washington stayed overnight in town, rather than travel the then-long distance of eight miles to his Mount Vernon estate. No tours inside here; it's a private residence.

Two more blocks up Cameron and across busy Washington Street, we are introduced to the Georgian Colonial-style Christ Church, 118 N. Washington St. It's Alexandria's oldest church. Dell -- who's a member -- says it was founded in 1773, and both George Washington and Robert E. Lee attended Episcopal services here. We sit in George Washington's pew and learn about the heated bricks 18th-century folks used to bring to church as foot warmers.

Our tour ends on Fairfax Street, at the Stabler-Leadbetter Apothecary Shop Museum. Pharmacist Edward Stabler opened the apothecary in 1792. It continued to operate until forced to close during the Depression (1933). When it shut down, its contents -- some 8,000 medical artifacts -- stayed in place, and remain on display today.

12:45 p.m.

We are only a half-block away from our Ramsay House starting point. Dell bids us adieu.

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