Friday dawned clear and beautiful, but the morning was one of disappointments. Our appointed time for the White House tour was 11:00 AM, so we took our time getting started in the morning and presented ourselves promptly at the recommended hour of 10:30, only to be told that all tours had been canceled for the day as about 10:00AM. As it appeared from a reporter who wandered into the visitor’s entrance while we were there, a Presidential press conference was imminent, and, apparently, when such events are on, tours are canceled so that security isn’t overloaded trying to keep track of both visitors and press. We left, wondering what sort of crisis was in progress, and were quite a bit disappointed to later find that this was a “routine” press conference (although the first one since May). We decided to walk the eight blocks over to the National Portrait Gallery, which was on our list of things to see, and got there by 10:45. However, unlike every other Smithsonian museum, this one doesn’t open until 11:30AM instead of 10:00AM! We didn’t feel like hanging around in the street for forty-five minutes, and so hopped the Metro back to our hotel to pick up cameras (not permitted in the White House) and start the day over.
We still weren’t quite done with disappointments, however. The local guide had listed a Smithsonian Store at 6th Street south of the Mall, but it is evidently no longer there (oh, well—the various individual gift shops were dangerous enough--). We had an appointment for our Capitol tour at 2:40PM and so had time to kill and did so pleasantly at the National Botanical Garden and Conservatory, which was on our way to the Capitol building. The Conservatory is an old-style glass pavilion, subdivided into a main “jungle” room, and a number of smaller indoor and outdoor habitats. There was an indoor orchid room which was quite beautiful and interesting. The large outdoor garden featured native plants of the southeastern USA, plus a nice rose garden, much of which was still in bloom.
Getting up to the Capitol visitor’s entrance was rather a walk, since it is on the far side and uphill from the Mall, so, if you are coming from that direction (as I expect many are) you have to walk all the way around the sprawling building to find the entrance to the underground visitor’s center.
Once you go through the very thorough security check, you are admitted into an area with restrooms, gift shops, check-in, and staging area ornamented with statutes. You are advised to have left an hour just to get into the building under normal circumstances, but we had a bit of luck in that this was a very slow day for tourists, so we just walked right in. The volunteer recommended that, since there was no waiting, we could go through earlier than our tickets indicated, which was confirmed by the entrance staff—another example of everyone we met being helpful and friendly.
The tour starts off with a short movie about the history of the building and the country, which was quite nice. Then, you get marshaled into groups and assigned a docent. The docents have transmitter microphones and the visitors are offered headsets so you can hear them in the rather echoey spaces without either them having to yell or several groups interfering with one another. We generally hate headsets, and would rather murmur to one another about what we see, so passed on the headsets, and didn’t miss much from what we did hear. The tour covered the very impressive and beautiful Rotonda, the Hall of Statues, the original Supreme Court chambers *, and a space called “Washington’s crypt” which is a sort of undercroft of the Rotonda, and not the first President’s burial place. The regular tour does not include the House or Senate galleries, which you now need special permission for, so we didn’t see those. (* The old Supreme Court chambers are a dark and windowless space in the bowels of the building, so it’s no wonder they eventually got their own building--.)
By this time, we were feeling rather footsore, so we skipped the other historical exhibits off the visitor’s center, checked the gift shop (very uninspired compared with the Smithsonian shops) and went out to make note of the location of the Library of Congress, which was on our list for the following day. Again, we hopped on the nearby Metro stop to go back to the hotel and then out to dinner.
This evening, we went to the Meiwan Chinese restaurant, just down the street and next door to Grillfish. Food was very tasty and good, although it seemed to take a bit longer to get served than most Chinese places we have been. We had an appetizer of very nice “pot stickers” followed by twice-cooked duck for me and an unbuttered sesame chicken for Georgie. Both dishes were very good, although the duck was surprisingly spicy.
After that, we went back to the hotel and put our feet up with our books. We toyed with the notion of going out for a movie, but checked local listings and found nothing playing we cared about, so made an early night of it.
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