Washington, District of Columbia, USA (21st May 2008)
One of the reasons why we chose to stay where we did, apart from the ultra budget price was the transport links, we had a subway station down the street and one of the city's major buses stops right outside our door every 6 minutes. To our surprise the metro and bus system is really quite expensive compared to other places we have been (Chicago and Atlanta) and rather than buy a week pass like we usually do, we instead found out it would be better to just pay the single fares, so with a $1.35 in hand we set off into the city for our first day of sightseeing.
Washington DC, is an easy place to get to know; it's a small city, where walking will actually get you places and with building height restrictions in place, it creates a landscape in which a pair of lost tourists (us) can easily get bearings from tall landmark such as The Capitol and the Washington Monument which loom into view from different vantage points. On the other hand, when you do need help, it's hard to find. The city lacks a single, large, comprehensive, and easy to find visitor centre. Making your way around with maps isn't much use either really as street signs are often missing or frustratingly inadequate; this coupled with confusing signage to tourist attractions and Metro stations makes getting around very confusing. Finally, in the wake of September 11, touring procedures at individual sightseeing attractions are constantly changing as new security precautions take effect, and these changes can be disorienting, which is where we will pick up one of our most disappointing stories.
We had heard from some guys at the hostel that the building on the corner near the White House did have a proper visitor centre, so after clearing security and showing two forms of ID we were allowed to enter the building. Inside and things got off to a bad start, this wasn't an information centre or anything like one it was merely a small museum all about the White House that had a few leaflets. One of the major things we wanted to do in DC was a tour of the white house which we had seen in our book and on posters and online as being a free guided tour that could be booked a few days in advance. Now maybe this is partly our fault for being foolish enough to think that we could just go strolling into the White House and get a tour, but after doing it in Australia and New Zealand we didn't see why not? When we asked the elderly lady who was working the desk inside about such a tour, this is what she had to say, "Sorry... but if you want to get inside the White House you need to book at least six months in advance through your congressman or I guess for you guys the British Embassy, Sorry" and as if that wasn't enough, just as we were going to ask about the other big thing we came to do, the Pentagon she said, "and by the way, you can't go to the Pentagon either, its closed now indefinitely and will probably never ever ever open to the public again, have a great day"!
With our two major things attractions taken from us we went for dinner so we could mull over a new plan and rearrange our schedule for the next few days. We decided after much jigging around of dates and attractions that we may as well, since it was such a nice clear day, go and see some of the capital's major memorials which have been built here to honour esteemed presidents, war veterans, founding fathers and people such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Things ended up going from bad to worse and after 2minutes of walking around the base of the Washington Monument our camera battery died, which for us was the finally straw and to cut a long story short, we went home and sulked hoping for a better tomorrow.
Overnight we managed to get ourselves together and figure out a new plan of action, which meant an early start, so that along with the hundreds of other people we could queue to get a ticket for a ranger guided tour of the Washington Monument which included a ride to the top to the viewing level. We arrived at sometime just before 8am and it wasn't a second too soon as when we finally reached the ticket booth the woman there only had 10 tickets left for the 3pm tour. We knew that this was likely to happen so we had planned that we would make this day the day that we went to see all the monuments, statues and memorials which the city has become famous for among other things.
Since we were there anyway we thought that we might as well have a look around and take some pictures of the monument briefly before heading off on our circuit. We were both really surprised when we first came into the city to see just how big the monument is as every time you see a picture or a video clip you never give it too much thought and the height was becoming a big pain for us as we tried to photograph it; we had to walk nearly a quarter mile away to be able to get it in its entirety into the frame.
First up on our checklist was the National Mall's newest memorial, the National World War II Memorial which is at the end of the Reflecting Pool between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. Just so everyone who reads this has a bit of information we have decided that for this entry we are going to try and include a brief description of each of the monuments and memorials we visit so to give you a better understanding of what it is and what it is all about.
"The memorial honors the 16 million who served in the armed forces of the U.S. during World War II, the more than 400,000 who died, and the millions who supported the war effort from home. Symbolic of the defining event of the 20th Century, the memorial is a monument to the spirit, sacrifice, and commitment of the American people to the common defense of the nation and to the broader causes of peace and freedom from tyranny throughout the world".
The site is set out in the shape of an ellipse with the Pacific to one side and the Atlantic on the other; huge pillars with bronze wreaths represent each State and territory in the United States at the time of the war. The pillars encircle the main feature, a huge water fountain / pool which is in the middle at the back of which is a huge row of stars, 4000 in total, each of which symbolizes 100 fallen American soldiers (400000) who died in the war. It was a nice place to walk around and probably the most relevant to us, only spoiled by some stupid kids on a school trip who were messing about splashing the water from the fountain and pulling stupid poses where it's really not appropriate, but hey what can you do?
Next up was the Lincoln Memorial, which lies at the opposite end of the Reflecting Pool to the WW II memorial. The Reflecting Pool itself is quite a nice little attraction which does what it says on the tin, reflects, firstly the Lincoln Memorial itself as you are walking toward it and then the Washington Monument as you look back towards it. The first thing you notice about the building is the massive statue that is inside of Lincoln sitting in a chair; it looks although he is just sat watching the world go by but it is also quite menacing due to the sheer size and the expression on his face.
"This beautiful and moving testament to the nation's greatest president attracts millions of visitors annually. Like its fellow presidential memorials, this one was a long time in the making. Although it was planned as early as 1867, 2 years after Lincoln's death, it was not until 1912 that it was completed, and the memorial itself was dedicated in 1922. The neoclassical temple-like structure, similar in architectural design to the Parthenon in Greece, has 36 fluted Doric columns representing the states of the Union at the time of Lincoln's death, plus two at the entrance. On the attic parapet are 48 festoons symbolizing the number of states in 1922, when the monument was erected".
Inside the memorial chamber (which is gimongous) the walls are inscribed with the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, along with some murals that have been painted depicting his views and believes of how America should be run. Most powerful, however, is the 20 foot high seated statue of Lincoln. Lincoln's legacy has made his memorial the site of numerous demonstrations by those seeking justice, most famously (and fresh in our memories from Atlanta) was when 200,000 people on August 28, 1963 gathered to hear Martin Luther King Jr. proclaim those famous words, "I have a dream". As a tribute to MLK Jr the words "I have a dream. Martin Luther King, Jr., The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963," is inscribed on the centre of one of the granite step and marks the precise spot where King stood to deliver his famous speech; it was impossible to get anywhere near the step itself with all the other hundreds of people pushing and shoving to get close.
Third up was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial which Kara thought was possibly the most poignant sight in Washington, two long, black granite walls in the shape of a V, each inscribed with the names of the men and women who gave their lives, or remain missing, in the longest war in American history. It is when we arrived at this memorial that things started to fall into place for us and we realised what was going on; we had noticed a much increased police and military presence from the previous day and only when we got here did we realise that the weekend coming up was Memorial Day, the US bank holiday which commemorates US men and women who have died while in military service to their country.
"Yale senior Maya Lin's design was chosen in a national competition open to all citizens over 18 years of age. The two walls are angled at 125° to point to the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. The wall's mirror like surface reflects surrounding trees, lawns, and monuments. The names are inscribed in chronological order, documenting an epoch in American history as a series of individual sacrifices from the date of the first casualty in 1959. The park service continues to add names over the years, of those Vietnam veterans who die eventually of injuries sustained during the war. The wall was erected in 1982. In 1984, a life-size sculpture of three Vietnam soldiers by Frederick Hart was installed at the entrance plaza. Near the statue, a flag flies from a 60-foot staff".
As we started the walk down the first slope it was gut wrenching to watch the elderly visitors / mourners who were grimly studying the directories to find out where their loved ones are listed, or rubbing pencil on paper held against a name etched into the wall or simply laying a wreath or flower. Because of the raging conflict over US involvement in the war, Vietnam veterans had received almost no recognition of their service before the memorial was conceived and by separating the issue of the wartime service of individuals from the issue of US policy in Vietnam, the veterans who donated to the build cost of the memorial ($7 million) can now honour their friends and family in at what we think is one of the most amazing sights in DC.
As we left the VVM we got caught up amongst a group of bikers who were here on a trip to pay homage to, we presume, friends and or family. They were all wearing leather jackets with a big dragon on the back and other various military patches; they were the Nam Knights. We stopped and listened for a while as one guy gave a speech and then just as we were going to move on they had an old guy in full military uniform come and play his bugle as a tribute. Everyone was saluting and it all got a bit much for us, but on the other hand we felt very privileged to have been here in DC at this special time of year, a time which means so much to so many and when everything was in full swing.
The last stop in regards to memorials was the Korean War Veterans Memorial, another privately funded memorial, which was built in 1995 to honour those who served in Korea (1950-53), a war that produced almost as many casualties as Vietnam.
"It consists of a circular Pool of Remembrance in a grove of trees and a triangular Field of Service, highlighted by lifelike statues of 19 infantrymen, who appear to be trudging across fields. In addition, a 164 foot long black granite wall depicts the array of combat and support troops that served in Korea (nurses, chaplains, airmen, gunners, mechanics, cooks, and others); a raised granite curb lists the 22 nations that contributed to the U.N.'s effort there; and a commemorative area honors KIAs, MIAs, and POWs".
Visually this is a really impressive memorial and you really can get a picture built in your head of what it must have been like serving at the time, slogging your way through a horrible battlefield covered in blood and dirt. The figures that fill the "Field of Service" look so troubled and although not particularly lifelike you still get a clear message of what the memorial is trying to say.
Still having a couple of hours to kill before going on our Washington Monument tour we decided to go and check out one of the 15 Smithsonian museums. The sprawling Smithsonian institution comprises of 15 museums, 10 of which on the Mall, we shall not name them all. Mark thinks that probably the most interesting fact he has ever heard is that even with 15 museums the Smithsonian's collection is so vast that its displays only about 1% or 2% of the collection's holdings at any given time. We chose the one that seemed the most interesting, to us at least, to visit first, The National Air and Space Museum.
"This museum chronicles the story of the mastery of flight, from Kitty Hawk to outer space. It holds the largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft in the world. To supplement its space, the National Air and Space Museum has opened an extension gallery, at Washington Dulles International Airport to display more; it also serves as the Air and Space Museum's primary restoration facility. 2003 marked the 100th anniversary of Orville and Wilbur Wright's 12 second flight in 1903 so the National Air and Space Museum commemorated the event at this location by staging a special exhibit, The Wright Brothers and The Invention of the Aerial Age".
Inside the main doors it is hard not to want to act like a kid as they have dozens of interactive exhibits that demonstrate principles of flight, aerodynamics, and propulsion etc with buttons to press and switches to flick. The ceiling is covered with aircraft, as you might expect, all the aircraft, by the way, are originals. Although it was extremely busy we couldn't really complain since you get such a wonderful chance to see priceless artefacts for free like the Spirit of St. Louis and The Wright Flyer. Admittedly it was starting to show a bit of age and the space section wasn't a patch on our trip to NASA but we enjoyed it regardless, it is a must see and is somewhere we would love to go again when it's a little less busy so you can really take it all in, in your own time. We also know now that next time we come to DC that we have got to go and see the extension museum at the airport as they have the space shuttle Enterprise there, there's a stealth jet, the Enola Gay is there, a Concorde, and lots of other cool things. At 2.45pm of what had already seemed like the longest day ever we left the museum and made our way back over to the Washington Monument.
"The idea of a tribute to George Washington first arose 16 years before his death, at the Continental Congress of 1783. But the new nation had more pressing problems and funds were not readily available. It wasn't until the early 1830s, with the 100th anniversary of Washington's birth approaching, that any action was taken. Then there were several fiascos. The cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1848, and for the next 37 years, watching the monument grow, or not grow, was a local pastime. Declining contributions and the Civil War brought construction to a halt at an awkward 150 feet (you can still see a change in the colour of the stone about halfway up). The unsightly stump remained until 1876, when President Grant approved federal monies to complete the project. Dedicated in 1885, it was opened to the public in 1888".
Climbing the 897 steps is not allowed anymore (not that we would have done it anyway), so we crammed into the lift with about 30 other visitors and got to the top in just 70 seconds. The Washington Monument is the world's tallest freestanding work of masonry (555 feet 5 1/8 inches) and if you haven't figured it out yet, it stands at the very centre of Washington DC landmarks. Up on the top deck the 360° views are spectacular. Due east are the Capitol and Smithsonian buildings; due north is the White House; due west is the Lincoln Memorial and due south is the Jefferson Memorial, overlooking the Potomac River. It felt like being at the centre of a compass, and it provides a marvellous orientation to the city (no more getting lost). We managed to get pictures of everything DC has to offer from the top, so as a tip to anyone who only has one day here, do this, it's like a buy one get ten free!
On the way back down in the lift our operator somehow made the opaque windows in the lift turn clear and we got to see the 193 carved stones inserted into the interior walls. The stones are gifts from foreign countries, all 50 states, organizations, and individuals. The most expensive stone was given by the state of Alaska in 1982, it is made from pure jade and worth millions of dollars. This was a real nice bonus as we had no idea they were even there; pre 9/11 you could take a walking tour inside to see all of these but that is now not allowed and it's a shame as would both really have like to have done it and seen the stones closer up.
After a tiring, full day of sightseeing we needed a good lie in to recover, so it wasn't until after 11 that we ended up back in the city and we decided that we would take it easy today and not try to fit in as much. We headed back to the Mall to check out a couple more of the Smithsonian museums, mainly the Natural History Museum.
"The Smithsonian Museums were made possible by wealthy English scientist James Smithson (1765-1829), who for unknown reasons willed his vast fortune to the United States, a country he had never visited. Speculation is that he felt the new nation, lacking established cultural institutions, most needed his bequest. Smithson died in Genoa, Italy, in 1829. Congress accepted his gift in 1836; 2 years later, half a million dollars' worth of gold sovereigns (a considerable sum in the 19th century) arrived at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. For the next 8 years, Congress debated the best possible use for these funds. Finally, in 1846, James Polk signed an act into law establishing the Smithsonian Institution and authorizing a board to receive "all objects of art and of foreign and curious research, and all objects of natural history, plants, and geological and mineralogical specimens . . . for research and museum purposes." Since then, private donations have swelled Smithson's original legacy many times over. Lately, the Smithsonian's pursuit of contributions has been criticized by people both within (some long time Smithsonian curators and directors have resigned) and without the organization, who fear that donors are given too much say in curatorial matters, that important research is underfunded, and that the institution itself is being crassly commercialized as its new wings and exhibits open bearing the names of the companies and individuals who have paid for them".
It made sense for us to make the Smithsonian Information Centre aka the "Castle" our first stop; the beautiful red sandstone building, popularly known as the Castle is the oldest building on the Mall, yet it holds an impressively high tech and comprehensive array of computers, touch screens and the like. We picked up a map and a leaflet or two at the information desk and figured out that most of the museums are within easy walking distance and are free which is always a bonus when you're on a budget.
On our way to the main attraction, The Natural History Museum, we decided that we might as well check out the interesting looking Hirshhorn Museum. The building was the main draw, it is built on sculptured supports about 20 feet in the air in the shape of a doughnut.
"A rotating show of about 600 pieces is on view at all times. The collection features just about every well-known 20th-century artist and touches on most of the major trends in Western art since the late 19th century, with particular emphasis on our contemporary period. Among the best-known pieces are Rodin's The Burghers of Calais in the Sculpture Garden, Hopper's First Row Orchestra, de Kooning's Two Women in the Country, and Warhol's Marilyn Monroe's Lips."
We thought it was absolutely rubbish, the middle floor, which looked like it had the most interesting exhibit, was closed and the rest was pure garbage. It was hard to believe that such paintings were considered art, 90% looked like it was where artists have mixed there paints and some was even worse than that. It wasn't all rubbish but most of it was, maybe were just not in touch with our inner artist, so we moved swiftly on...
The National Museum of Natural History is the Smithsonian's showcase museum. The first thing that see if you enter the museum from the Mall is a huge African bush elephant, which is why some leaflets advertise it with pictures as being the "Elephant Museum" or the "Dinosaur Museum" respectively. Whatever you call it, the National Museum of Natural History is the largest of its kind in the world, and one of the most visited museums in Washington. It contains more than 124 million artifacts and specimens, everything from Ice Age mammoths to the legendary Hope Diamond.
"Displays include the fossil collection, which traces evolution back billions of years and includes a 3.5-billion-year-old stromatolite (blue-green algae clump) fossil, one of the earliest signs of life on Earth—and a 70-million-year-old dinosaur egg. Life in the Ancient Seas features a 100 foot-long mural depicting primitive whales, a life-size walk-around diorama of a 230 million year old coral reef, and more than 2000 fossils that chronicle the evolution of marine life. The Dinosaur Hall displays giant skeletons of creatures that dominated the earth for 140 million years before their extinction about 65 million years ago. Suspended from the ceiling over Dinosaur Hall are replicas of ancient birds, including a life-size model of the pterosaur, which had a 40 foot wingspan. Also residing above this hall is the jaw of an ancient shark, the Carcharodon megalodon, which lived in the oceans 5 million years ago. A monstrous 40 foot long predator, with teeth 5 to 6 inches long, it could have consumed a Volkswagen Bug in one gulp".
It was easy, as it always is in these kinds of places, to suffer artefact overload, so to avoid this we made a point of only visiting the exhibits that we were really interested in. The Natural History museum, like its sister Smithsonian museums, it seems is struggling to overhaul and modernize its exhibits, some of which are quite dated in appearance, if not in the facts presented. However one thing that is sparkling (pardon the pun) is the Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals which we really enjoyed looking around. You can learn all you want about earth science, from volcanology to the importance of mining in our daily lives. Interactive computers, animated graphics, and a multimedia presentation of the "big picture" story of the earth are some of the things that have moved the exhibit and the museum a bit further into the 21st century.
We had noticed the day before that along with an increased police and military presence that there was now random people (security) stood around on the lawns near the White House and other important buildings and we thought they all looked slightly suspicious as they all seemed to have a blanket draped over them; it finally clicked when we saw the flag flying on the top of the White House, George was home. As we walked over to get a proper glimpse of the White House we realised what it was the security guards had hidden under their blankets, machine guns, big shiny black machine guns.
We had already seen the front, less famously known side of the White House on our first day in the city, it was actually the first thing we saw but now it was time to see the south portico, the White House we all know an imagine when we hear the name. The White House is amazing when you think about it, 1400 Pennsylvania Avenue has served as a residence, office, reception site, and world embassy for every US president since John Adams (2nd President); since then presidents and their families have put their own stamp on the White House, the most recent example being President Bush's addition of the T-ball (mini baseball) field to the South Lawn.
"An Act of Congress in 1790 established the city, now known as Washington, District of Columbia, as the seat of the federal government. George Washington and city planner Pierre L'Enfant chose the site for the White House (or "President's House" as it was called before whitewashing brought the name White House into use) and staged a contest to find a builder. Although Washington picked the winner, Irishman James Hoban, he was the only president never to live in the White House. The structure took 8 years to build, starting in 1792, when its cornerstone was laid, and its facade is made of the same stone as that used to construct the Capitol. Alterations over the years have incorporated the South Portico in 1824, the North Portico in 1829, and electricity in 1891, during Benjamin Harrison's presidency. In 1902, repairs and refurnishing of the White House cost nearly $500,000. No other great change took place until Harry Truman's presidency, when the interior was completely renovated, after the leg of Margaret Truman's piano cut through the dining room ceiling. The Truman's lived at Blair House across the street for nearly 4 years while the White House interior was shored up with steel girders and concrete". It's as solid as Gibraltar now, or so they say!
The White House is surprisingly small compared to all the other grand buildings around it, particularly its neighbour and Marks favourite building in town the Eisenhower building, which is amazing; never the less it was another world famous sight to cross off our list. We managed with a bit of pushing and shoving to get close enough to the fence to poke our camera through and get a few pictures before things got a bit too much and we had to leave as we were getting increasingly annoyed at both the foot traffic and the people who were able to book six months in advance and were getting to do the tour.
After a nice night's sleep and a decent lie in we got up and back into the city just after diner to try and do a few more things before going to the Memorial Day concert which we had seen advertised the day before as being free. The concert is held every year on the lawn at the Capitol building to remember and celebrate the people who are currently, have in the past or whom died in the armed forces, but this didn't start until 6 so we had time to kill.
The first thing we decided on doing was going to the National Archives Gallery which has recently reopened after a second phase of restoration, and at first we were annoyed to be joining a massive queue which stretched around the block in the blistering hot sun, but that soon changed as a "Rolling Thunder" tribute started to circle the entire Washington Mall. Basically for all of those who are reading this and asking, What is a Rolling Thunder? It this, about 2000 people on Harley Davidson's and other such motorcycles, who gather and ride around in a huge convoy to raise awareness about POW (Prisoners of War) and MIA (Missing in Action) troop, and it's hard not to notice them and the noise (thunder). Their official website sums the organisation us as this:
"The major function of the Rolling Thunder is to publicize POW-MIA issues: To educate the public that many American prisoners of war were left behind after all previous wars and to help correct the past and to protect future veterans from being left behind should they become prisoners of war-missing in action. Rolling Thunder is a non-profit organization whose members donate their time because they believe in the issues we are working on".
We couldn't believe the turn out and we managed to get a video of just a short part in which we counted over 400 bikes in 3minutes. The most surprising thing was the amount of diversity in the riders, white, black, men, women, old, young, gay and straight, they were all there turned out to show support for their cause and everyone seemed to love them, even if it was just for the bikes. We were really impressed and liked to see all the different flags they had flying from the backs of the bikes, the different paint jobs and the varying volume of "thunder" from enthusiastic bikers who revved their engines for the crowd. Watching the bikes made time fly and before we knew it we were going through the doors of the Archive Building.
"After being closed for renovation the Rotunda of the National Archives has now reopened andonce again, the country's most important original documents, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights collectively known as the Charters of Freedom) are on public view. New cases allow for better viewing, especially for children and those in wheelchairs, and, for the first time, you will be able to view all four pages of the Constitution in one visit. Also added are 14 new document cases tracing the story of the creation of the Charters and the ongoing influence of these fundamental documents on the nation and the world. Two larger-than-life murals painted by Barry Faulkner have also been restored. One, entitled The Declaration of Independence, shows Thomas Jefferson presenting a draft of the Declaration to John Hancock, the presiding officer of the Continental Congress; the other, entitled The Constitution, shows James Madison submitting the Constitution to George Washington and the Constitutional Convention".
The above text pretty much sums up what we saw and to be honest although we got to see what is essentially the most important documents in the United States history it wasn't that impressive and maybe because to us they don't really mean that much and we aren't as clued up on American History as we maybe should be? The murals on the walls were very good though and we also liked that they had a copy of the Magna Carta, one of only four which still exists today, which they acquired in an auction in 2007.
As we mentioned, we had found out that we were going to be in DC for Memorial Day, on which, every year they hold a concert at the US Capitol which is free and broadcast nationwide, so around tea time (5.30pm) we gathered ourselves a little picnic and made our way down to the end of the mall. We, along with everyone else in Washington, had to queue for half an hour in the heat until we were finally let in the grounds where we had to wait even longer (until eight) for the concert to begin.
The show was to be broadcast live across America but before it could begin one of the producers came onstage and gave us all a briefing on what would be happening and gave us directions for what to do in particular segments of the show including clapping where appropriate and always looking interested and presentable as a camera could be on the audience at any given time. Once the briefing was over it was time for the concert to begin. The host was Gary Sinise, the guy from CSI New York, one of Marks favourite shows along with another American actor who Kara recognised from a film called Baby's Day Out.
The concert went on for two hours or more during which we saw several famous performers including Sarah Brightman and Gladys Knight who were both amazing but it was the stories of real life triumph and tragedy that had the biggest impact on us. One in particular saw actors recount a real life story of a soldier who saved his commanders life only to then be shot in the neck by a sniper one week later, just days before his pregnant wife gave birth. The story was upsetting enough but then the camera showed the soldier's widow, eight month old daughter and his commander all sat in the audience, tears clearly visible. The whole experience was extremely patriotic but we wouldn't expect anything less of an American event such as this and it even left us feeling extremely moved and thankful for how lucky we are not to have gone through what so many families in the very same audience as us have.
After the concert ended we finally got the opportunity to go and see all of the memorials and monuments by night, all lit up and looking even more amazing, especially the Washington monument which seemed to climb into the heavens. It took us a good hour to walk around and see what we wanted to, the Lincoln, Vietnam and WW2 but it was well worth it, and on the bus ride home we felt very satisfied and happy with our entire day and what we had been a part of.
Our final day started as so many do, early... We headed out in hope of being able to get tickets to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum which remains a top draw, as it has been since it opened in 1993. We had tried on one of the other days to get tickets but had arrived too late and missed out and to be certain this wouldn't happen again we joined the back of an already long queue at just after 7am because even though the museum opens its doors at 10am, tickets are usually gone by 08:30am.
When we finally got through the doors we were issued an identity card of an actual victim of the Holocaust (By 1945, 66% of those whose lives are documented on these cards were dead). The tour begins on the fourth floor and works downwards in chronological order; the exhibits on the fourth floor portray the events of 1933 to 1939, and the years of the Nazi rise to power. Most of this section is TV screens which are showing propaganda footage from back in the 30's and show how Hitler gained his popularity, we couldn't understand how the people could have been tricked and manipulated by him to believe he could help the people back to stability?
On the third floor (documenting 1940-44), exhibits illustrate the narrowing choices of people caught up in the Nazi machine along with some quite moving pieces such as an actual Polish freight car (the type used to transport Jews from the Warsaw ghettos) which exits straight into a open space where they have a replica cast of the sign which is above the gates of Auschwitz, "Arbeit Macht Frei" and it's scary to think that this is one of the first and last things the Jews who died there saw. This part of the museum documents the details of the Nazis' "Final Solution" for the Jews.
The second floor recounts a more heartening story and depicts how non Jews throughout Europe, by exercising individual action and responsibility, saved Jews at great personal risk. One thing we thought was really interesting was about how the King of Denmark managed to hide and save 90% of its countries Jews who by saying if any of his "subjects" wore a yellow star, so would he! They also have a huge wall that is carved with the names of known people who helped to save Jews, England, disappointingly only has 6 names, where as Italy has metre after metre of names...
The tour finishes off in a room which has walls made from the tombstones of Jewish people that died in the Holocaust and had been smashed by Hitler's men, it was quite moving to see all the fragments pieced together with partial names, stars etc. This room leads into the hexagonal Hall of Remembrance, where you can meditate on what you've experienced and light a candle for the victims (which we both did).
Not surprisingly the museum recommends not bringing children under 11 because of what they'll see and in parts it is quite gruesome and sickening to think that people were treated in such a way for no real reason other than their beliefs. We both really enjoyed being able to see all of the interesting artefacts, propaganda material, videos etc and feel we learned a lot about how bad it was back then. Since it was our last day in DC it meant it was going to be nonstop with our next stop being at the Jefferson memorial which was just around the corner.
"President John F. Kennedy, at a 1962 dinner honouring 29 Nobel Prize winners, told his guests that they were "the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence and served as George Washington's secretary of state, John Adams's vice president, and America's third president. He spoke out against slavery, although, like many of his countrymen, he kept slaves himself. The site for the Jefferson Memorial was of extraordinary importance. The Capitol, the White House, and the Mall were already located in accordance with architect Pierre L'Enfant's master plan for the city, but there was no spot for such a project that would maintain L'Enfant's symmetry. So the memorial was built on land reclaimed from the Potomac River, now known as the Tidal Basin. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who laid the cornerstone in 1939, had all the trees between the Jefferson Memorial and the White House cut down so that he could see the memorial every morning".
Inside the dome he (Jefferson) stands tall in the middle cast in bronze at an impressive 19 feet tall; interestingly Jefferson is depicted wearing a fur collared coat which we found out was supposed to be the one given to him by his close friend, the Polish general Tadeusz Kosciuszko. The building is the most impressive part about the memorial, or at least we thought so, it is a columned rotunda in the style of the Pantheon in Rome, whose classical architecture Jefferson is credited with as having himself introduced to the country.
Moving swiftly on, we started out on a hike out to DC's neighbouring state, Virginia, to the Arlington Cemetery and after what seemed like an eternity we made it and headed straight over to the Visitor Centre. Instead of picking up a map or looking at information boards, we went and stood next to a couple of huge fans and gulped down some horrible warm water from the fountains. Once we had cooled down a little we headed out into the main grounds to watch the changing of the guards and to try and find some of the famous people that have been buried here. Straight away it was clear to see that some people had obviously forgotten that this is a memorial for people attending burial services or visiting the graves of beloved relatives and friends who are buried here as so many people were running around on the grass over graves and just fooling around acting really quite inappropriately for a cemetery; it must be hard to really grieve at the site quietly as it's mobbed and there are hardly any security to police things.
"The cemetery honors many national heroes and more than 260,000 war dead, veterans, and dependents. Many graves of the famous at Arlington bear nothing more than simple markers. Five star Gen. John J. Pershing's is one of those, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles is buried here and so is President William Howard Taft. Cemetery highlights include: The Tomb of the Unknowns, containing the unidentified remains of service members from both world wars, the Korean War, and, until 1997, the Vietnam War. In 1997, the remains of the Unknown Soldier from Vietnam were identified as those of Air Force 1st Lt.Michael Blassie, who's A-37 was shot down in South Vietnam in 1962. Blassie's family, who had reason to believe that the body was their son's, had beseeched the Pentagon to exhume the soldier's remains and conduct DNA testing to determine if what the family suspected was true. Upon confirmation, the Blassies buried Michael in his hometown of St. Louis. The crypt honoring the dead but unidentified Vietnam War soldiers remains empty for the time being. A 24-hour honor guard watches over the tomb, with the changing of the guard taking place every half hour. Pierre Charles L'Enfant's grave was placed near Arlington House at a spot that is believed to offer the best view of Washington, the city he designed. Below Arlington House, is the Gravesite of John Fitzgerald Kennedy at which a low crescent wall embracing a marble terrace is inscribed with the 35th president's most famous utterance: "And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country".
The whole cemetery is an amazing sight, the graves stretch out for what seems like miles creating a green sea filled with immaculate little white tombstones for as far as you can see. Most are like the text above describes, plain and small stating their rank and division etc and the obvious details such as name, date of birth and date of death. We arrived just in time to catch the 4pm changing of the guards and to be honest it wasn't all it's cracked up to be and although we stood and sweated like mad for 10 minutes in the belting sun it was a bit of an anti climax. The tomb itself which they are guarding is an embellished, massive white marble block which is moving in its simplicity.
The last thing we had wanted to see before leaving Washington was The Marine Corps War Memorial which is dedicated to all Marines who have given their lives in the defence of the United States since 1775. The statue is a model of the world famous and inspiring Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of a group of Marines raising a US flag. The entire cost of the statue and developing the memorial site ($850,000) was all donated by US Marines, former Marines, Marine Corps Reservists, friends of the Marine Corps, and members of the Naval Service. No public funds were used for this memorial and yet it has become a place of immense significance to so many people and a famous image around the world. When we first walked up to the statue we couldn't believe how big it was and were only expecting it only to be life size.
"The 32-foot-high figures are shown erecting a 60-foot bronze flagpole from which a cloth flag flies 24 hours a day in accordance with Presidential proclamation of June 12, 1961. The men occupy the same positions as in Rosenthal's historic photograph. The figures, placed on a rock slope, rise about 6 feet from a 10-foot base, making the memorial 78 feet high overall. The M-l rifle and the carbine carried by two of the figures are 16 and 12 feet long, respectively. The canteen would hold 32 quarts of water. The base of the memorial is made of rough Swedish granite. Burnished in gold on the granite are the names and dates of every principal Marine Corps engagement since the founding of the Corps, as well as the inscription: "In honor and in memory of the men of the United States Marine Corps who have given their lives to their country since November 10, 1775". Also inscribed on the base is the tribute of Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz to the fighting men on Iwo Jima: "Uncommon Valor was a Common Virtue".
After taking some photos and then getting the subway home it dawned on us that it was time to pack our bags and get ready to visit another city, our 2nd to last city, Boston. Washington continues to grapple with security issues as the city meanwhile carries on as a busy business and tourist destination; on more than one occasion we encountered roadblocks, concrete barriers, and police officers directing us around town, as well as metal detectors and more intense scrutiny at most sightseeing attractions. We are now leaving with mixed feelings and its nobody's fault really, we just missed out on two of what we thought would have been the most interesting places to visit in DC (The White House and The Pentagon), that said we still had an amazing time and would maybe have liked longer here, this is somewhere we will definitely come again, maybe in the winter time when it's a bit cooler and not so busy.