E Pluribus Tourum

In General on May 16, 2011 at 11:31 pm

I have been slacking, and I apologise. But! I shall write a  double whammy this evening (and hopefully knock a dissertation plan out of the park as well. Don’t worry – I won’t make you read that) and you shall have two Washington sights to ponder, one good, and one bad. But which will be which?! First – the Capitol…

This is a slightly famous building. It’s also slightly huge, and very imposing as you look at it down the National Mall or down Pennsylvania avenue. Quick history lesson – The Capitol was laid out by architect Benjamin Latrobe (you all know him from Decatur House) and at some point, like much of Washington, was torched by the British (which makes visiting all these places a little bit embarrassing). It is home to the US Senate (there are two Senators for each state) and the House of Representatives, which comprises of over 400 Congressmen and women who represent constituencies around the country. This makes Congress, the Legislative branch of the American government (the Executive Branch is the head honchos in the White House and the Supreme Court and its accoutrements are the Judiciary branch). It is also where President Bartlett walked to and waited to see Senator Haffley, but was rebuffed:

Thus endeth the History lesson.

You have to go through some pretty tedious security to get in to the Capitol (which you can just walk up to, but to be guaranteed a tour you need to book online beforehand), but that is the way of the world, unfortunately – especially in DC (and I’m comforted by that). After the queue, you’re shown into the visitor centre, which is pretty awesome.

It’s new, and sits neatly underneath the building with perfectly matching marble and stone all around (DC is a city of off-white, make no mistake).The café deserves special mention – I did not dine there (food was sold by the ounce, and seemed a tad expensive) but they had Mexican, BBQ, Italian, Tapas, Salad, Vegetarian, Vegan, all manner of Asian food and a formidable selection of candy and cookies (although the deserts seemed scant) so if you’re killing time before a tour, odds are they will have something you fancy. Worth noting, you cannot take ANY food or drink in with you, not even bottled water, so leave that pack of $500 caviar at home.

Tours begin at your appointed time and you watch a thirteen-minute film explaining the history of the building, and what it is used for. I imagine Americans find this a bit more tedious than the rest of us – even if you come with a decent knowledge of how Congress works (which after paragraph two of this post, you have no excuse not to have) it’s a handy refresher for foreigners and youngsters especially, although I can’t imagine it being too jarring if you’re on your third term in the Senate, even. It’s quick, to the point, and rather emotional in that special, proud-to-be-American way.

After the film, you leave via the rear and queue up to receive your headsets. “Oh god,” I thought, “a &%$!!£%$ audioguide.” – the one thing I hate more than Natural History museums. But, I was pleasantly surprised! I put my headphones on, and a lady in a snappy red jacket walked up and down our particular lane in the queing hall speaking to us, but we could hear her through the headphones! AMAZING! I was mighty impressed, and will be insisting on the installation of these nifty gadgets at Tredegar House upon my return home. Even for tours of one person.

A tour of one person is not something that Heather, our witty guide, had to worry about. The reason for the headsets is that there are around 20-30 tours of the Capitol running simultaeneously, and I’m talking groups of 20-40 people. It was bloody chaos in there! Still, the headsets were a fab idea, and the other people didn’t bother me in any way.

Heather was an excellent guide, funny, good with the kids at the front, and engaging when talking about essentially very boring things (the building blocks of all government). She had a good rapport with us immediately, which is no small feat considering the tour couldn’t have been longer than 20-25 minutes (not including the film). You only get to see a few rooms, but you get to see the dome, complete with the Apotheosis of George Washington (who ranks just above Jesus in the hearts of most American museums, I find):

It’s short, but it’s bloody good, especially if you’re a geek (that goes for most of the places I’ve written about, actually). It’s also free as a bird, and if you’re an American, you can go visit your Congressman across the road and get a pass for the gallery, to watch the Legislative Branch in (largely sedentary) action. I saw Speaker John Boehner (not pronounced as amusingly as you’d think, sadly) adjourn something or other from the gallery, which was cool. “BUT”, I hear you cry, “THIS IMPOSTER IS NO MORE OF AN AMERICAN THAN BARACK OBAMA!”.

Well, as I have already said, Heather was excellent. I toddled up after the tour, and with my biggest puppy-dog eyes asked if there was any way for Foreigners to go to the gallery. Heather seemed surprised that I wanted to go and sit and listen to Congress rather than burn it down, but took me to a desk where they just handed over a pass after I showed photo ID. Woohoo! Significantly easier than if I actually had a Congressman to visit (the Americans had to leave the building and queue for security all over again! Ha!). This went some way to making up for (but did not completely negate) the pain I feel at being denied access to the White House.

I would wholeheartedly recommend a buzz around the Capitol – plan ahead and it won’t take up much of your day, and is right on top of the National Mall, so near everything you could ever need or want to see. Oh, and the Gift Shop – everything you’ll ever need with the constitution printed on it, and a cookbook written over time by many a fame-hungry political wife. What more could you want?!

So, that was a positive experience, which leaves the negative one. But what could that possibly be?! Tune in next time, folks…

  1. […] of bigger establishments (NMAM, I’m talking to YOU). It’s also pretty far from the Capitol Tour experience, but I’m all about giving you guys […]

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