Although I do not hail from the charming little town of Charlottesville, Virginia, I have spent the greater part of the last three years there, studying at the University of Virginia. I will spend two more years there, finishing my degree in poetry. It’s that kind of town, where poets, coffee aficionados, and street artists run amok among the business inclinations of an economic hotspot and political groundings of a Jeffersonian atmosphere (Charlottesville was home to the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson).
In my three years there, I have done a plausible amount of exploration for a student with a full schedule. Even so, I would not be able to capture the sprawling contradictions of a town such as Charlottesville. Indeed, it is a small town with the rustic offerings of small towns in America, but having been sheltered from the tourist influx around the Shenandoah Valley, it is also a pocket of vastly dynamic experiences at the edge of the South. So, instead of describing an exhaustive jaunt to the town, I will describe the town’s two best times, summer around the months of May and June, and autumn, from the end of August to the beginning of November. These might be just as exhaustive, because the town prides itself on its seasonal offerings. And since I am from cities where the seasons fall between ‘hot’ and ‘hotter’, the chance to appreciate such distinct seasons must be taken.
When I was younger, I visited Charlottesville, or Cville as it is fondly called, in the middle of a mountain summer. If nothing else, the drive through Albermarle County, where Charlottesville is located, imprinted itself on my mental viewfinder. Virginia is known for being an unusually pretty state, and Charlottesville is consequently known as one of its loveliest locations. The town, posing in the image of an unknown rustic getaway, actually falls in several annual aesthetic rankings of American cities. And why shouldn’t it, when surrounding town views include endless mountain circles, multitudes of historical lawns, and the looming oak forests Virginia is so famous for. Summers are generally in 14C – 30C range, so nothing too horrible, especially if you have an air conditioner on hand.
Charlottesville is nestled within the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains and plays host to a gaggle of bikers, hikers, and outdoor enthusiasts throughout the year – so a summer visit to the ville must include some natural sprees. Hikes up Humpback Rock and Old Rag Mountain, both going off the Blue Ride trail, are popular with students. But in my opinion, summer is reserved for hidden oases and cliff jumps, both of which can be found on a hike to the ‘Blue Hole’, which is a small swimming creek in a scenic section of the Moorman’s River. If the water is too cold, and a hike too tiresome, there is always the option of close in-town trails. My personal favourite has thus far been the Rivanna trail going from Riverview Park near downtown. A clear natural path right next to the James River, the beautiful path is shaded by a forest and goes up to a natural housing community on a less-frequented side of Charlottesville. ‘Natural housing’ and ‘sustainable architecture’ are big in a town where people eagerly await the arrival of the Sunday Farmer’s Market and which has been repeatedly recognized for its organic local initiatives. Take a walk through some local farms, or sit in the many parks at sunset, but in a Charlottesville summer, don’t forget to go outside!
Summer in Charlottesville, or really, anytime in Charlottesville is a foodie’s paradise. To compensate for my lacking in executing a thorough appraisal of the region’s famous vineyards, I have attempted to visit as many local eateries as possible so far. The town’s food scene brings in a huge crowd every year, and summer is the best town to sit on natural porticos and indulge in a local treat. The Downtown Mall, which has historically been around for almost two centuries, appears after a stroll down West Main Street and is home to a multitude of restaurants and shops. Over meals of grits at Escafe and during the defiantly Eastern Coast practice of Sunday brunch, I have discovered slivers of enlightenment. And because Charlottesville is, at heart, a college town, a lot of the best food spots are relatively affordable. But while food is a big deal, it’s not really the point. The point is the sheer pleasure of ambling down the tiled Mall with some gelato in hand under the shade of summer trees, not knowing what you’ll find. In the past, while downtown, I have stumbled upon a wheelbarrow full of puppies and a shop that sells only cat-related items. It’s quirky.
Now, autumn. This entire post might have been about the Charlottesville fall, because I have never seen a town that embraces the month of October so intimately. Charlottesville is where the American autumn comes to breathe. Of course, there is the usual amber rainfall of leaves as the trees lose their coverings, and the seasonal smell of pumpkin spice is ubiquitous to the point of illusion. But how to describe Cville in the fall? It’s utterly charming. The most popular activity is probably picking apples in their peak season at Carter’s Mountain Orchard. Thousands of visitors come out every fall to pick an assortment of apples, eat apple donuts, and drink cider, or just take pretty photos of the high orchard points. You can do this in the spring as well, but there is definitely more artistic value in the fall. Or, alternatively, the fall plays host to some of the best visiting musicians for all kinds of tastes, but especially if you’re a fan of the bluegrass or folk genres.
Everything you did in the summer, you can do in the fall, as long as you have a nice cardigan to wear outside and don’t mind the change of seasonal vegetables. My personal favourite event of the season is without a doubt, the Virginia Film Festival. Yet another event that might deserve it’s own post. I was closely involved with the Festival last year, and can verify that over 400 films played in local theatres, including pre-release shows of Cannes and Sundance films. I was understandably excited. The Festival brings in several movie personalities as well as an inane amount of tourists and visitors for the four-day extravaganza, and is pretty much the best time to be in Charlottesville. There are horse races, pro bono theatre shows, family days, and celebrity panels. Hotels sell out fast, but if you’re adventurous, there’s always Couchsurfing™ with students and locals. It’s events like this that really combine the small town surprises of Charlottesville with its privilege as the home of an influential University. Ever watched a vintage showing of All The President’s Men in an 80 year old gilded theatre with Bob Woodward himself? I have.
That is Charlottesville at the height of its most beautiful seasons. Intellectualism, commerce, and community come to meet in Charlottesville. Or at least that is the impression I’ve received thus far. Those three words. Yes, you should go to Monticello and see Jefferson’s crown jewel, and yes, you should tour the Grounds of the evergreen University. But really, I think that Charlottesville is best in all its static and picturesque glory and even if you just spend an afternoon looking at the mountains from the balcony of your tea-shop or hotel, it’s still pretty nice for a town that claims relative anonymity.
All photos courtesy of me and Experience Charlottesville.