Culpeper, Virginia

For many people visiting this part of Virginia, the town of Culpeper is just one of those small towns you must drive through on your way to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the many hiking trails that dotting its cliffs.  This is understandable, as the town is quite small and no one would really describe it as a “party town.”  But like in most small Virginia communities, the wonders of towns like Culpeper lie not in experiencing them at great speeds, but rather enjoying them by dramatically slowing down.  This may be a hard thing to do for most city-slickers zooming down Route 522 in their BMW’s on their way to lunch at The Inn of Little Washington, but if you take the time to get your foot off that accelerator long enough to sit down and relax at such pieces of Americana as the Frost Cafe downtown (see photo above), you’ll find yourself immediately making friends and enjoying some great down-home cooking.  And if a little high-end dining is what you have in mind, then just keep on walking down East Davis Street for about a block or so and you’ll come up to the Zagat-rated Foti’s restaurant.  You can also have a great alfresco dining experience by visiting the quaint It’s About Thyme cafe and restaurant (see photo above), with an outdoor alleyway dining area that will make you believe you are across the water in Europe somewhere.

On a Saturday afternoon, though, the town did feel as if the vast majority of the 15,000 or so people living within the town proper were off somewhere doing something else.  It was quiet and somewhat desolate, which on this particular day could be attributed to the ever-changing Virginia weather report predicting some severe thunderstorms.  But the lack of crowds downtown resulted in some added benefit to us visiting people: the locals actually took time to talk to you.  From waiters standing outside their restaurants to the owner of the well-supplied local hardware store, people seemed extremely friendly and more than willing to share tidbits of information about the town with you.  They also didn’t mind you taking photographs, which for a roving photographer lime me is like music to his ears.  I don’t know this for sure, but people in Culpeper must live longer than their city counterparts, for within a couple of hours of roaming around town I found my city-induced stress level disappearing and my enjoyment of the simple things that surround us increasing exponentially.  Score one for the slow life.

Winchester, Virginia

Winchester, Virginia is one of those places that is easy to miss when you visit the this part of the world, but that would be a serious omission.  Granted that judging from the many “For Sale or Lease” signs in town you could be forgiven for thinking that this is a place where more people are headed out than headed in, but economic hardships aside, Winchester is a pleasure to visit at any time of the year.  One of the unique features of this Rout 81 town is Loudoun Street, the downtown pedestrian walkway lined with restaurants, great architecture, and a surprisingly active art scene.   One rather interesting gallery is the small, but quaint Sleepy House Studio, which showcases a rather eclectic number of art pieces and where the resident artist can be found outside working on the next art piece (see photo above) while enjoying a warm spring day.  And if it is history that you have in mind, then you should head on down to 32 West Cork Street to visit the George Washington Office Museum where the General himself spent about 15 months while supervising the construction of Fort Loudoun.  However, hanging around the pedestrian Loudoun Street will be good enough for most photographers.  From young jugglers practicing their skills to musicians trying to get some rent money, it seemed that this is the sort of town where the arts don’t stay inside when the sun is shining.

What remains a challenge is getting to the place.  If you drive there from the Washington, DC area, plan for a good hour-and-a-half to two hours worth of driving west on  Interstate 66 and north on Interstate 81, depending on traffic.  Alternatively, you can get there via the old Route 50 that crosses the horse-crazy communities of Middleburg and Upperville, and where some of the area’s best restaurants can be found, not to mention a slew of new wineries trying to transform the Virginia countryside (and Route 50) into the next big thing for wine lovers.  So while it may take some patience to drive to Winchester,  you will be amply rewarded by scenic countryside, a photo-friendly community with a flourishing art scene, and a handful of wineries that are eager to show you what they have been up to lately.  Not a bad to spend a day on a weekend.

Route 211 Wineries, Virginia

It is often said that the state of Virginia has a great future when it comes to wine production, and a quick wine jaunt down the scenic Route 211 between the towns of Warrenton and Sperryville will soon introduce you to that future.  In some way, the future is already here for some Virginia vintners, as the quality of their wines continues to show a dramatic improvement from what came out of those vines a decade or two ago.  In fact, many of these wine ventures did not even exist a decade ago and their presence along Route 211 today represents a new breed of wine entrepreneur that is trying to find some room in the crowded wine world.  Along this winding road you will be able to visit five of these wineries: Gray Ghost Vineyards, Unicorn Winery, Narmada Winery, Rappahannock Cellars, and Gadino Cellars.  When you visit, though, be prepared to be introduced to some wine names you have never heard of before.  Among these you will find names like Imagine, Luminoso, Midnight, Adieu, and Slightly Embarrassed blush.  But this shouldn’t scare you, because behind these labels you will find grapes that you will most likely be familiar with: Cabernet Franc, Vidal Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Viognier, Chardonel, and Chardonnay, among others.

Unlike certain wine regions of the world, the Route 211 vintners do seem genuinely happy to welcome you to their facilities, where in some cases you will be able to taste up to nine different wines for a few dollars.  These facilities do vary in size and scale, from the impressive Narmada Winery with its grandiose bar and scenic landscape, to the more petite Unicorn Winery at the end of a tree-lined country road in Amissville.  All of them have their charm and interesting portfolio of wines, and if you happen to find yourself at Narmada on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, you will be able to enjoy some live entertainment while sipping a few glasses of Viognier.  Our journey, however, started at the far end of Route 211 near Sperryville with a visit to Gadino Cellars, where its friendly owner was kind enough to let us taste his wines before the scheduled opening time.  This was a great start to the day, specially after tasting one of the most impressive Cabernet Franc I have had in a long time.  We then veered off into the Zachary Taylor Highway for eight miles in search of the Rappahannock Cellars winery and its impressive facilities a few miles from Front Royal.  Curiously, though, the old Oasis Winery located just a few miles from Rappahannock Cellars seemed to be a thing of the past.  It looks like a winery, but I couldn’t tell whether the place was work in progress or not.  Judging by the state of the vines, I’m not sure what’s going on there.  Our day ended close to the town of Warrenton with a visit to the Gray Ghost winery in search of one of the great wines in the area: the award-wining, late harvest Vidal Blanc wonder that goes by the name of Adieu.  Who would have known that Route 211 would turn out to be the embodiment of a perfect spring day.

Up Close, Out There

Not sure why, but lately I am beginning to notice things up close.  Granted that my eyesight is not what it used to be and that any level of magnification in the world out there is a welcomed event.  The thing is that after spending most of my days taking photos of people and places at a distance, getting close is beginning to appeal to me.  Normally I carry with me a variety of lenses designed primarily for scenic and portrait photography.  This is no accident, as this is where my primary interest always seem to take me: to the macro world out there.  However, like many other photographers who revisit their long-forgotten photographs from time to time, I came across the photos above recently and decided to take a second look at them.   After doing a little cropping just for fun I began to appreciate more and more why I had taken these pictures in the first place.  I’ve read many articles from professional photographers saying that the crop tool was their favorite tool in their photographic arsenal, and lately  I’m beginning to realize why they feel that way.  This ability to remove unwanted objects from photographs is being put on steroids by the newly released Adobe Photoshop CS5 content aware fill capabilities.  For those who lean more to the purist side of the photographic spectrum, I’m sure cropping may not be as big of a sin as rendering some object invisible within the photo.  Personally, I think there’s room in the world for both of these approaches, so I’ll leave that fight for someone else to fight.

In the end, what really matters is the visual impact of our photographs.  In our attempt to record the larger events and places we come across, it is sometimes easy to forget that amongst all those great scenes out there lies a world of small objects possessing stories all onto themselves.  This up-close photographic scenes seem to demand more of our attention and make it harder for the average person to just give a passing glance to a photograph.  In some strange sense, they make us linger over them, scrutinizing shapes, colors, and structures that make us feel as if we are seeing the whole thing for the first time.  They also create a strange sense of exclusion by not allowing us to look at anything else, forcing us to look through some reality frame where nothing exists outside of that photo.  This is definitely one dimension of photography that I will be visiting more often in the future.

Little Washington, Virginia

Not much can be said of Little Washington, Virginia that has not been said yet.  This place has to be one of the tourist wonders of the world, but not for the reasons you would think.  You see, the entire town is quite small and extremely low-keyed, and if it were not for its most famous (and only?) landmark, perhaps not too many people would be driving hundreds of miles to get there.  Did I say driving?  Well, how about charting a helicopter to get there.  No problem.  And what is this great magnet that brings the power brokers from DC and moguls from cities like New York and beyond to spend like they were in Vegas?  Well, none other than the world-famous Inn of Little Washington (see photo above).  Of course, not that I would know, but from what I’ve heard from some people who spent part of their 401K’s there, the Inn continues to redefine class and the gentrified country life.  Maybe someday.  Maybe.

But if a weekend tour of the Rappahannock area is what you are after, then Little Washington is an ideal base camp form where to venture out in every direction.  With its many Bed & Breakfast Inns you will not have any problems finding a place to crash for the night.  Of course, dining out is pretty much all the nightlife you will normally find in town, but with the many wineries just a few miles from the town, you may not miss those wild late-night parties after all. Besides, it you really want to enjoy the beauty of this great part of Virginia, drive a few miles down the nearby Gidbrown Hollow Road and to one of the great hiking trails in the Blue Ridge Mountains: the Little Devil’s Steps.  Or head on down the small community of Sperryville, where you’ll be able to purchase antique tables made daily and marvel at the flavors of the locally-produced apple butter.  This is civilized country living at its best.

Flint Hill, Virginia

It would be unfair to say that you could miss the small community of Flint Hill if you blinked, but if you had a long yawn, then you could surely miss it.  This is a small, one-main-street kind of place just a stone-throw away from the Skyline Drive and the more famous Little Washington.  Very few people I spoke with had ever heard of Flint Hill, or could figure out why I would want to stop by the place during one of my photo excursions on a Saturday morning.  The reason is simple: food.  Well, at least the memory of food and the meal I once had at a restaurant by the name of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds.  This was a gastronomy gem in the middle of nowhere, and the memory kind of stuck in my mind for years.  The unfortunate thing was that the restaurant was transformed by the owner about 3 years ago into a much smaller venture now called 24 Crows.  The owners and chef are still the same, the much reduced menu still reads like a mouth-watering canvas, and the good ice cream still waits patiently for you to finish with the savory lunch.  However, the few available tables now compete with wine bottles, art, and an assortment of  crafts that fill most of the restaurant.  Or is it a store?  I’m not sure.  Of course, if your entourage includes a large group of people, you may want to head on a little down the street to the larger Griffin Tavern.

The town itself sits along the Zachary Taylor Highway (OK, more like a two-lane country road) and it easily reached from Rt. 211, which connects the town of Warrenton with the mighty Shenandoah Valley.  Driving Rt. 211 feels like going surfing.  Wave after undulating wave of road makes you just want to step on that gas pedal, and if it were not for the extensive welcoming committee of  highway patrolmen that just can’t wait to greet you, this road would be reason enough to invest in that new Mustang.  But it’s not just the folks in blue patrol cars that are going to make you slow down here.  Rt. 211 is lined with some of the most popular wineries in Virginia, so your designated driver will get plenty of practice driving on dirt roads lined with beautiful, green vines.  Food, wine, incredible scenery, and great people seem to be the raw materials of this picturesque part of Virginia.  And the great thing is that the slower you move through the area, the more you will enjoy it.

Torpedo Factory, Alexandria, Virginia

If there was ever a mismatch between the name of a building and what goes on inside of it, the Torpedo Factory building near the Alexandria waterfront would undoubtedly be the poster child for this contradiction.  Of course, the place was indeed a busy torpedo factory during the period between 1918 and 1945, but since then it led a somewhat circuitous path until it began its artistic transformation about three decades later.  Today it is one of the premier art venues in the area, with a myriad of resident artists who busily go about their work while vast amounts of visitors marvel at their creations.  These pretty much run the gamut from wire sculptures to colorful abstract renditions of imaginary landscapes.  Don’t get me wrong, this is high-end art, but with a definitive modern twist.

The place is quite photo friendly too.  All the artists and gallery people I talked to had no problems with me taking some pictures, and the only restriction I heard all afternoon was that no direct closeups of the completed paintings were allowed.  But not all the galleries will allow you to snap away, so you need to look out for the “no pictures” signs that some of them had prominently displayed near their entrances.  And if it is low-light (high ISO) photography that you are after, this is certainly the place.  Next time, though, I’ll make sure I bring that big, old tripod along.