A tour around a nation's monuments, museums and national cemetery
03.06.2013 28 °C
I wanted to see the US Capitol and White House while I was on the US East Coast so shortly before the end of my round the world trip I booked myself into a hotel for a few days in Washington and got myself a train ticket there on AMTRAK.
Arriving on my own in a strange city I started my stay with an open top bus tour to get my bearings; an approach I had also used earlier in my trip in Zurich and Sydney. The tour began from Washington's Union Station and soon after drove past the front of the US Capitol a short distance away for which I had a visit booked in a couple of days.
Washington is laid out with the Capitol Building atop Capitol Hill as its focal point and the 1.9 mile (3 kilometre) long open space of the National Mall stretching westwards to the needle like Washington Monument a little over half way along its length and then beyond to the Lincoln Memorial close to the Potomac River.
I'd heard of the Smithsonian Institute but never appreciated before that it was a collective term for the national museums of the USA. The 19 museums that make up the nucleus of the Institute line each side of top end of the National Mall, making it the largest museum campus in the world. I later managed to visit two of its most popular museums while I was in Washington - the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of Natural History.
About half way down the National Mall (where the White House faces onto it from the north) is the Washington Monument, the 555 feet (169 metre) high obelisk completed in 1884 in honour of George Washington the 1st US President. Unfortunately it was closed for repairs and covered in scaffolding while I was there having been damaged by the 2011 Virginia Earthquake and then Hurricane Irene later the same year.
A change of tour bus took us from the Washington Monument out to the Arlington National Cemetery just over the Potomac River where more than 400,000 military personnel from every US war since the American War of Independence right up until current day Afghanistan are buried. The cemetery was originally the home of Confederate Commander-in-Chief Robert E. Lee and was occupied by Union troops early in the Civil War in May 1861. In 1863 a village for freed and runaway slaves was created and then the following year for both practical and symbolic reasons it started being used as a military cemetery.
Deep in the heart of the cemetery with a terrific view over Washington are the Tombs of the Unknowns guarded by a honor guard from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment who also provide the ceremonial escort for the US President. None of the guards wear rank insignia so as not to outrank the unknowns and they perform a Changing of the Guard Ceremony by the tombs every half hour. There are four tombs; the original tomb from WWI with tombs from WWII, Korea and Vietnam in the plaza alongside it. The Vietnam Tomb is empty as modern DNA meant it was possible to identify who it was and return his remains to his family.
What I didn't appreciate beforehand is that all US military personnel who have seen active service and have been honourably discharged are eligible for burial at the cemetery if they so wish and this means it has on average seven burials per day. It took me a bit by surprise when I saw a Honor Band and Guard march past followed by a horse-drawn flag draped caisson and funeral cortege for one of these burials.
Arlington House itself was built in 1802 on high ground in the estate by Robert E. Lee's father-in-law George Washington Parke Custis (the step grandson of George Washington). The now restored house has a terrific view of Washington to its front with the wide boulevard of Memorial Drive and Arlington Memorial Bridge leading straight to the Lincoln Memorial.
On the hillside directly below the house is the grave and eternal flame of President John F. Kennedy who was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22nd 1963. His wife Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was buried alongside him 1994 and his younger brother Senator Robert F. Kennedy (assassinated in LA, California June 5th 1968) is buried in an adjacent grave plot.
The cemetery has lots of other memorials of interest including a pair of memorials behind the Tombs of the Unknowns Amphitheatre to the crews of the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttles lost in 1986 and 2003.
As we returned to the Washington we drove past the Pentagon, the headquarters of the US Ministry of Defence and the largest office building in the world. Unfortunately (but perhaps not surprisingly) we were not allowed to take any close up photographs!
Returning to the Washington Memorial I took the opportunity before getting back onto the main tour bus to have a look around the nearby Federal Bureau of Printing and Engraving. I had so far been unsuccessful in my attempts to see coins being minted at the US Mints in Denver and Philadelphia so when there was an opportunity to see US bank notes being printed instead I was keen to take it! Not surprisingly for security reasons we were not allowed to take photographs of the printing presses running although in the gift shop on the way out there was a case containing a million dollars and you could also measure your height in $100 bills (I'm $1,607,700 tall!).
I then got back on the main tour bus and we made our way around the numerous national memorials that pepper the lower section of the National Mall. Immediately behind the Washington Monument is the National World War II Memorial at the top end of the Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
The neo-classical Lincoln Memorial dedicated in 1922 to honour the 16th US President anchors the west end of the National Mall. Inside the memorial is the famous 19 feet (5.8 metre) high statue of Abraham Lincoln with words of his 1863 Gettysburg Address and 1865 Second Inaugural Address engraved on two of its walls.
The memorial has been the site of many famous speeches with hundreds of thousands of people gathered around its Reflecting Pool, including African-American Civil Rights Movement leader Martin Luther King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963 and anti-Vietnam War Protests in the late 1960s. It has also been used a backdrop in numerous films including Logan's Run (1976), Forest Gump (1994) and Planet of the Apes (2001) amongst many others.
Just to the south of the Lincoln Memorial beside the Tidal Basin are the Martin Luther King Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial (32nd US President between 1933-1945) and picturesquely on the other side of the Basin the Thomas Jefferson Memorial (3rd US President between 1803-1809).
Amongst the other memorials nearby was the Korean War Veterans Memorial depicting a patrol of soldiers from the conflict and the Albert Einstein Memorial with him holding a manuscript engraved with the formulas of his three most important scientific advances (the theory of general relativity, the photoelectric effect and the equivalence of energy and matter).
In addition to a grid of north/south (numeric) and east/west (alphabetic) streets Washington also has diagonal avenues named after states and the final leg of our bus tour took us along Pennsylvania Avenue which is probably the most famous and busiest of them. This is where a lot of the federal government buildings such as the Internal Revenue, Department of Justice and FBI Headquarters are and is usually referred to as the Federal Triangle.
One of the final buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue before the Capitol is the Newseum which apparently contains loads of footage of major events over recent years and looks like something the media mogul baddie in the James Bond Film "Tomorrow Never Dies" would have dreamt up. It looked a fascinating place to visit with terrific reviews but unfortunately I didn't have time to fit it in.