April 2004: Washington DC

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Washington capitol

Washington capitol

Washington mon aerialWorth travelling a quarter of a million miles for. You pass through the main entrance of the museum (it is free, unusually for America), right a bit, up the escalator, 135 degrees right, and Roger, you have landed.

The lunar module. A chariot of dreams, a craft that touched everyone’s childhood at the turn of the 1960s and 1970s, when the flickering black and white images on the telly told us that our world was truly changed for ever.

Nothing, but nothing, can convey the shock and awe one encounters in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington and the way it can take hold of our imagination. Currently, the air bit is being cooked up to celebrate the centenary of fllght, but it is the space bit that turns the vast audience who come to gape back into children. Space suits, spacecraft, moon rocks, and bits of debris to fire the imagination.

In a country where the trolley tour can take a diversion to show you a “historic homestead” that is way younger than your granny’s house and the art galleries are crammed with looted treasures from Europe and Asia, it is refreshing to come across a piece of genuine American culture that has touched us all. In America, the notion of culture is when milk turns sour. But in Washington, they seem to have settled on a compromise. All those classical white monuments pretending to be Greek and Roman sit uneasily along the riverbank, while the real city celebrates space landings, spies and political sleaze.

Each street corner is a landmark of sorts, the hotel where Ronald Reagan was shot, the restaurant where Chelsea Clinton went on her first date, a romantic evening out with an unfortunate gangly teenager and an army of secret service minders.

Nameplates are big here (have you noticed how everyone is a vice president of something or a lawyer?  70,000 lawyers in one city, oh dear). When you step into the Capital Grill on Pennsylvania Avenue the hatstands have nameplates, as if to impress the diner that, like the old medieval Royal courts of Europe, status counts for everything, more than power, more than cash. Frank Sinatra and a clatter of people we have never heard of.

If you are not impressed by that you will be by the steak, hung lovingly for days until it is served to you on a mountainous plate, a wedge of bovine flesh that has growth hormones written all over it, so you quickly cover it with sauce and devour it.

The place has been transformed into a building site by security upheavals and a touch of Texas paranoia has crept into the city, but Washington retains a cynicism that is solid as the great boulders that make up its white monuments to Lincoln and Washington. The only obelisk bigger than our one to Wellington in the Phoenix Park, it comes in two shades because they ran out of money half way through.

Like the city to which he gave his name, there is a moral here. If you are going to be a capital city, be sure to change your colours every now and again.

Must get my name-plate erected in the chippers for every time I stop by for a one and one

 

The mini tours of Washington come in many shapes and with many  itineraries. You can take a scandal tour of Washington which is conducted by actors presenting themselves as George Bush (the actor calls himself “President 47.6 per cent”) and Monica Lewinsky, aka John Simmons and Christine Timmons of an actor’s group, Gross National Product. They stop at Watergate, the White House and the spots beloved of well known philandering senators, presidential candidates, and of course the old cigar-blowing President himself. You too can touch the garage door through which Gary Hart escaped a posse of pursuing paparazzi with his mistress.

There is a swagger about Washington scandals, and that translates to the city as a whole. The trolley tour operator rhymes off the names of the 170-odd embassies in the capital with machine-gun rapidity, to impress us how America’s capital has become the epicentre of the world.

For more on Scandal tours, see www.gnpcomedy.com.

 

In the heart of the action in Washington DC is a little slice of Ireland. Or rather, three slices. On Dupont Circle you will find the Irish visitors’ favourite watering hole, Biddy Mulligan’s, and favourite place to stay, the Washington Jury’s Doyle hotel.

Jury’s have three hotels here, one which masquerades as a Marriott still has that Jury’s touch underneath.

The Dupont hotel is the bigget and most prestigious, and staffed by friendly Irish staff from home who understand the etiquette of things like singing all 17 verses of Boolavogue and a late tipple.

Just around the corner is one of the great triumphs of civilisation, a bookstore that doubles up as a bar after dark. There you can sip cocktails and work your way through your newly purchased copy of the Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce; “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”

 

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