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By Jeremy Schiffres, Daily and Sunday Freeman, Kingston, N.Y.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

D.C. days

Got home Friday night from a six-day family vacation in Washington, D.C.

Some thoughts on the trip:

* The Metro is a great subway system – clean, safe, comfortable, easy to navigate, not too expensive and laid out in such a way that virtually all points of interest in the city and its immediate suburbs are accessible by rail. Our hotel was two blocks from a Metro station, and we never had to use our car. It stayed in a parking garage the entire time we were in D.C.

* The White House tour is a waste of time. You go through a ton of security for a self-guided walk in the building that allows you access to only a few rooms and is over in less than 20 minutes. Looking at the building from the outside is more interesting.

* The Capitol tour is a little better, but not much. A guide takes you through the Rotunda, Statuary Hall and a downstairs area known as The Crypt (which includes – gee, what a shock – the Capitol gift shop). We also had passes to the House gallery, which was cool to sit in, even with Congress out of session. Looking down into the chamber where countless historic votes and speeches have taken place was a humbling experience.

* Despite all the hype over the Vietnam wall, it’s the weakest of the three war monuments surrounding the Reflecting Pool. The Korean War memorial is the best, with World War II coming in a close second.

* Halfway up the steps to the Lincoln Memorial, we noticed a group of teenagers (presumably on a school trip) sitting on the grass just to our right. A man standing in front of them was holding a boom box that was playing – you guessed it – Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The tape had just begun, so we sat down at the edge of the steps and listened to almost the entire speech – less than 50 feet from where Dr. King delivered it on Aug. 28, 1963. That was very cool.

* For all the talk about post-9/11 security, Washington is surprisingly unprotected. There are metal detectors and armed guards at places like the Capitol and the White House, of course, and numerous government buildings now are surrounded by concrete barriers (so that vehicles can’t get close enough to do any damage), but there is no visible security at the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, in the National Cathedral or anywhere in the subway system, to name just a few vulnerable spots. Sadly, if a suicide bomber wanted to detonate an explosives belt on the main floor of the Lincoln Memorial, he’d have no trouble pulling it off – and would kill hundreds of people in the process.

* The National Cathedral is an amazing building. I can’t even begin to describe it in the confines of a few words, but suffice it to say, if you’re impressed by St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, this place will blow you away.

* The Tidal Basin – the large pond that has the FDR and Jefferson memorials and all the cherry trees on its rim – is much bigger than it looks. Walk around it. You’ll see what I mean.

* The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is a must-see. It’s not quite as powerful as Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel, but it doesn’t miss by much. The stark images, chilling videos and disturbing artifacts (including shoes and hair collected from Jews murdered by Hitler) are no joy to look at, but the experience is a necessary one.

* Lastly, a quick shout-out to friends and relatives who made time for us on four of the five nights we were in town (and picked us up at the Metro stations in their respective suburbs): Rhona’s cousin Jennifer in Bethesda, Md., on Monday; my high school friends David and Ellen in Ballston, Va., on Tuesday (with special thanks to David for driving us back to our hotel that night); Rhona’s college roommate Rita (and Rita’s husband Chuck) in Silver Spring, Md., on Wednesday; and my friend and former musical partner David (and his wife Marie) in Vienna, Va., on Thursday. It was great to see all of them, and having dinner with each was a nice respite after the rather hectic pace of sightseeing. And thanks, too, to our niece Elyssa, who drove more than an hour from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., to the Metro stop in Vienna, then rode the train for 40 minutes so she could meet us for lunch in Washington before we left on Friday. That was a long trip for a relatively short visit, and we truly appreciated it.



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