What i Liked
With Paris and New Delhi, Washington is one of the great ceremonial capitals of the world. It was created de novo, on a grid pattern cut across-to confuse the visitor-with broad avenues that are focused on monuments, such as the Capitol (left). In an age of intense architectural, as well as political, rivalry, Pierre L’Enfant had less than a year to prepare the plan before being dismissed, but it was visionary in quality-‘drawn,’ as George Washington wished, ‘on such a scale as to leave room for that aggrandizement and embellishment which the increase of the wealth of the nation will permit it to pursue’. The width of the streets anticipated future requirements. The result is the Athens of the Motor Age.
For the first century of its existence, Washington consisted of a small number of monuments, set in an expanse of mud. Most of the public architecture dates from the first half of the 20th century and is astonishingly consistent in idiom. Classicism had been chosen for the civic architecture of the Republic, and architects stuck with it. Government departments, Arts buildings and the former post office all shelter behind epic porticos and are decorated with mighty sculptures. The railway station must have been built for a race of Titans and the elevator doors of the Bank of America alone would be worth coming for.
Although Classicism has largely fallen out of the repertoire for Washington’s modern architecture, it still respects a height restriction, which preserves the unity of the whole.
What i did
For the most part, I walked. Washington is a green city and, at the time I was there, around Halloween, it was tinted with amber from the leaves of the many trees. At two miles long, the Mall is a sublime landscape park. Rising above all is the towering (555ft) obelisk of the Washington Monument (left), which is lit up at night. Begun in 1848, work was interrupted by the Civil War and didn’t end until 1884.
It is joined by Parthenons, rotundas, tempietti and loggias, sometimes on an equally epic scale. The most recent memorial is to the fallen of Vietnam: two planes of polished black marble, evoking, to my mind at least, the wings of a bomber, on which have been inscribed the names of the more than 58,000 soldiers who died. The lettering is appropriately Roman.
Where i Stayed
Donovan House, owned by the Kimpton chain of boutique hotels: stylish and brilliantly located
a 10-minute walk from the White House.
What i Saw
This is a city of museums. The Smithsonian Institution comprises no fewer than 19 museums, all of them free, as is the National Gallery of Art, begun, in Washing-ton’s grand Classical manner, as late as 1941. There’s no shortage of space. Immense columns of green marble surround the first-floor rotunda; the weary can find armchairs. The National Gallery of Art not only contains great treasures-van Eyck, Titian, van Gogh, Rembrandt (left), Vermeer, Impressionists-but they’re displayed with incomparable elegance, sometimes against wooden panelling or in period rooms. In this setting, even relatively minor works, such as Gaetano Monti’s 1824 Head of a Bull and the Art Deco sculptures of Paul Manship, seem to be masterpieces.
A short cab ride from the Federal Triangle are the house museums (such as Dunbarton Oaks) and brick-paved streets of Georgetown. Georgetown pre-dates the capital city. Tall Colonial and gingerbread trimmed houses link arms as they descend the hill to the Potomac River. The shoreline narrowly escaped a 1960s scheme to put a highway along it. It’s now a linear park. Strollers can refresh themselves at cafes while watching the joggers pant pass or the rowing eights gliding more elegantly along the river.
What i ate
You can eat as much as you like in Washington, because you’re sure to walk it off. I was strongly urged to try Maryland crab, which is different from British brown crab in that the meat comes in chunkier pieces. Cooked in a cream sauce, it was served on toast, with a morsel of sherry poured over the top. Delicious, but I defy anybody to finish a serving and live.
The National Gallery of Art gave me menu cards for the dishes on the buffet, including a local version of bouillabaisse (can anyone tell me where to get clam juice?). I continued the fish theme at DC Coast with a fried oyster, scallops served with a purée of beetroot, half a Maine lobster and pumpkin pie. By the time I left, my feet had almost recovered.
What i want to do next
The area around Washington was crucial to the Civil War. Next time, I’ll hire a car and visit the battlefields, including Gettysburg and Antietam, both displayed by the excellent National Parks Service. If with child-ren, I would also go to the International Spy Museum.
The big misconception
New Yorkers say that Washington is boring. For me, the flashing lights of police cars and the helicopters flying low over the Potomac (the President of Iran was in town) were excitement enough.
This article was first published in Country Life magazine on July 9 2014