Jamestown Settlement Museum and Historic Jamestowne

John Smith statue at Historic Jamestowne settlement archeological site. Photo by Richard Varr

Virginia’s Historic Triangle brings history to life through excellent museums and open air, living history on or near the sights of Jamestown, Yorktown and Colonial Williamsburg. During my April trip, I toured the very grounds where Captain John Smith and colonists established the first English settlement in the New World at Jamestown in 1607. Rugged wooden ramparts on the Yorktown Battlefield clearly mark where General George Washington’s Continental Army and the French navy surrounded the British to end the American Revolution. And I walked in the footsteps of Washington and Thomas Jefferson in Colonial Williamsburg, once Virginia’s capital.

Living history Powhatan Indian village at the Jamestown Settlement museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Jamestown Settlement and the recently opened American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, both operated by the state-funded Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, and Colonial Williamsburg highlight these key historic periods with artifacts, interactive digital technology and outdoor living history exhibits manned by costumed interpreters.

Susan Constant replica on the James River. Photo by Richard Varr

Jamestown Settlement Museum and Historic Jamestowne

Three 17th century wooden ships sit berthed along a quiet cove on the James River. Actually, they’re fully operation replicas – with rope ladders, sails and creaking wooden floors – of the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery, the three ships that brought the first English Settlers to Jamestown. Small and even a touch claustrophobic once you descend into the lower decks, the ships offer a glimpse of the hardships endured during the four and a half months by the 144 colonists who dared to cross the Atlantic.

Godspeed and Discovery replicas. Photo by Richard Varr

Below deck on the Susan Constant. Photo by Richard Varr

“Crowded, cramped, boring and relatively miserable,” says Lara Templin, the Assistant Interpretive Site Manager at Jamestown Settlement, a living history museum detailing England’s first permanent settlement in North America. “You’re eating pickles, salt pork, salt fish, dry bread, hard biscuits. And the water turned green and smelled so foul that no man could abide it. So they drank beer because that’s what would last.”

Replica bow of the Susan Constant inside the Jamestown Settlement Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

With 900 or so original 16th and 17 century artifacts including portraits, muskets, tools, furniture and more, Jamestown Settlement’s main museum building highlights the early colony’s complete history through the entire 17th century – from the 1606-1607 voyage, confrontations with local Powhatan Indian tribes, Virginia’s first Africans and the burgeoning tobacco trade. There’s a replica 17th century London street and reconstruction to scale of the Susan Constant’s bow. “The illusion is you’re coming down a London street toward the docks and the ship is being loaded,” says Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation’s Senior Curator Tom Davidson.

Pocahontas statue in the Jamestown Settlement museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Another exhibit explores the life and legend of Pocahontas. “She’s the one 17th century Virginian everyone knows,” explains Davidson. “Pocahontas was the linking personality between the English and the Powhatan and becomes a kind of cultural emissary between the two peoples.”

Musket firing demonstration at the James at the replica of Fort. Photo by Richard Varr

Outside the museum building are recreations of the colonists’ fort with an Anglican church, Governor’s House and other buildings, and of a Powhatan Indian village with huts recreated with water reeds weaved into mats and secured on a framework of sapling branches.

Powhatan village recreation. Photo by Richard Varr

James Fort recreation with cannon. Photo by Richard Varr

Historic Interpreter inside James Fort replica. Photo by Richard Varr

Just a five minute drive away is Historic Jamestowne, part of Colonial National Historical Park and the actual James Fort settlement site. Excavations on the grounds reveal signs of an often brutal and grisly quest to survive harsh winters and starvation, especially when surrounded by hostile Indians, with archeologists locating many graves and evidence of cannibalism.

Archeological within Historic Jamestowne. Photo by Richard Varr

A statue of John Smith stands over the grounds adjacent to the outline of the church where Pocahontas, daughter of the Indian chief Powhatan, married planter John Rolfe in 1614.

Church perimeter where Pocahontas was married in 1614. Photo by Richard Varr






The American Revolution Museum and the Yorktown Battlefield

George Washington in the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. Photo by Richard Varr

Cooking pit outside the American Revolution Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Tents, cooking pits and surgeons’ quarters offer visitors to the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown a realistic look of what a typical Continental Army soldiers’ camp may have looked like. It’s all part of the museum’s outdoor living history, along with a recreated Virginia farm is based on an actual homestead.

This historic interpreter will draft you into the Continental Army. Photo by Richard Varr

“The tastes, the smells, and even the ducks and chickens are the same breeds as in the 18th century,” says Interpretive Program Manager Homer Lanier. “We’re a hands-on museum.” Gunshots echo through the camp with flintlock musket demonstrations.

Victory Monument on the Yorktown Battlefield. Photo by Richard Varr

With 500 original artifacts including weapons, documents, period furniture and more, the main museum building details the entire American Revolution from the French and Indian War to the start of the new nation. Original portraits include England’s King George III, British General Charles Cornwallis, Founding Fathers and what’s believed to be the earliest painting of an enslaved African.

Pistols once owned by the Marquis de Lafayette. Photo by Richard Varr

The extensive musket and pistol collection includes the ornately-trimmed pistols once carried by the Marquis de Lafayette, the French military officer who came to the aid of the American rebels. There’s also an original copy of a 1776 Declaration of Independence printed in Boston from a Philadelphia copy.

Patrick Henry. Photo by Richard Varr

Inside the museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Short video clips highlight key American Revolution battles, but most impressive is the Battle of Yorktown presented in the museum’s 180-degree surround sound experiential theater. Seats shake with each cannon fire, with cannon balls seemingly flying directly towards you.

Redoubts on the Yorktown Battlefield. Photo by Richard Varr

Yorktown Battlefield. Photo by Richard Varr

A driving tour of the actual 1781 Yorktown Battlefield, part of Colonial National Historical Park, traces the British fortifications or redoubts. American and French forces had cornered the British with no escape against the York River. The battlefield’s Visitor Center houses General Washington’s original sleeping tent and an original British cannon that was dented by cannonball fire. “It’s called the Lafayette Cannon because when he came back to the United States and toured the East Coast, he saw that cannon, recognized it and got quite emotional,” explains Park Ranger Linda Williams.

Costumed Interpreter at the American Revolution Museum. Photo by Richard Varr




Colonial Williamsburg: George Washington Slept Here Too

Governor’s Palace. Photo by Richard Varr

Fife and Drum. Photo by Richard Varr

Interpreters with costumes representing 18th century British colonists welcome visitors along the very streets where George Washington and Thomas Jefferson once walked, making it easy to imagine what it was like in the mid 1700s. And some of the structures are the actual buildings from that time period with the same facades and wooden floors.

Costumed Interpreters. Photo by Richard Varr

Thanks to support from philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. starting in the late 1920s, 88 restored original 18th and early 19th century buildings stand today, with others reconstructed on actual foundations. They include the Capitol with its upper and lower houses of the legislature, Governor’s Palace, Courthouse and original 1715 Bruxton Parish church.

Along Duke of Gloucester Street. Photo by Richard Varr

Raleigh Tavern. Photo by Richard Varr

Taverns were community centers of sorts as venues for lectures, plays, dining and private gambling and parties. I visited the reconstructed Raleigh Tavern and the original Wetherburn’s Tavern, which served as an informal town hall. Also original are the Wythe House where Jefferson studied law under owner George Wythe, and the maroon-tinted Peyton Randolph House, where you can see the very room where Washington, Jefferson and patriot Patrick Henry sat down for dinner. Other prominent buildings include the Courthouse where visitors can watch mock court cases. Cannon firing demonstrations take place outside the more than 300-year-old Public Magazine which has an impressive weapons collection.

Peyton Randolph House. Photo by Richard Varr

Silversmith shop. Photo by Richard Varr

Costumed interpreters also explain how tradesmen and women were a part of everyday 18th century life – blacksmiths, cabinet makers, tailors and printers. The wigmaker’s shop, for example, displays powdered white wigs and others made from human, horse, yak and goat hair. Silversmiths demonstrate how such colonial-era workshops made common everyday wares.

Palace Green with Governor’s Palace. Photo by Richard Varr

Along Palace Green. Photo by Richard Varr

What I found particularly informative was a tour led by Martha Dandridge Custis Washington – actually, a historic interpreter portraying Mrs. Washington around the mid 1700s when George Washington served as an elected representative. “We have a tendency especially with our Founding Fathers to cast them in marble, and we forget they’re real people,” says interpreter Katharine Pittman, dressed in a yellow colonial-style dress and a flat-crowned hat. “With Mrs. Washington, one of my goals is to make her human… and that she wasn’t this very stoic person you see in a portrait.”

Interpreter in the role of Mrs. Washington. Photo by Richard Varr





Seville: Lost in Santa Cruz, Finding Columbus and the Amazing Azulejos

Narrow streets in barrio Santa Cruz. Photo by Richard Varr

I always thought it was easy to get “lost” on the curving alleyways of Venice – between centuries old walls and walking on footbridges over snaking canals – UNTIL I visited Seville for four days and stayed in a hotel within the narrow and cobbled streets in the Santa Cruz barrio. It’s pretty much the same scenario but without the canals. I made mental notes of storefronts at corners to find my way, and after four days there, I still got lost.

Giralda. Photo Richard Varr

It didn’t take long, however, to learn the best route to the landmark Cathedral and Moorish Giralda Tower which dominate the skyline, adjacent to the horse and carriage-lined Plaza Virgin de los Reyes. I took the trek up Giralda – no steps involved, but instead a brisk walk up about three dozen walkways or ramps lining each side of the square tower until you reach the top for great city views (much easier than climbing typical European towers with maybe 100-200 winding steps, usually up narrow stonewalled passageways).

Columbus’ Tomb. Photo by Richard Varr

Columbus’ Tomb. Photo by Richard Varr

The Gothic Cathedral with its expansive nave dates back to the 12th century. The must see is the grand tomb of Christopher Columbus carried by four figures representing the kingdoms that made up Spain at the time of his voyages. But is it really his tomb? As the story goes, his remains bounced around between Seville, Santo Domingo and Havana, with both Spain and the Dominican Republic claiming they have his real bones. Recent DNA testing, however, has suggested at least some of the remains in Seville are indeed those of the great explorer.

Azulejos on bar facade. Photo by Richard Varr

Azulejos. Photo by Richard Varr

Azulejos. Photo by Richard Varr

What catches my eye seemingly on every street are the beautiful and artistically painted Andalusian ceramic tiles call azulejos, used in particular for street signs, wall decorations and as storefront signs as well. The technique for creating the colorful tiles seen all over Seville and other parts of Andalusia was first brought to the region by the Moors. The tiles add gleaming color to the Gothic balustrades and walls of palaces. Many sport Mudéjar-style geometric designs, while others grouped together create murals and billboards of images. And in the bohemian Triana neighborhood, stores and craft shops sell tiles and pottery with such colorful azulejos.

Azulejos store in Triana neighborhood. Photo by Richard Varr

Torre del Oro along the Guadalquivir River. Photo by Richard Varr

Torre del Oro. Photo by Richard Varr

Other important sights include the Real Alcázar or Royal Palace with its Mudéjar patios and halls. I walked along the Guadalquivir River with the rounded, landmark 13th century Torre del Oro (Gold Tower), now housing a small maritime museum. A tour of the bullfighting ring and museum known as the Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza, dating back to 1761, is well worth the visit – even if you don’t agree with the tradition. The expansive and heavily treed Parque Maria Luisa with its semi-circular Plaza de España lures crowds in warmer months for events, and is also where the city’s archeological and folk art museums are located.

Bullfighting Ring. Photo by Richard Varr

Azulejos. Photo by Richard Varr

But some of my best memories were evenings spent in lively tapas bars in Santa Cruz or attending Flamenco music and dancing concerts. Flamenco reveals the soul of Andalusia with its forceful artistic expression through foot-stomping dance accompanied with strumming Spanish guitars, highlighting both the happy and sad moments in life. The music style consists of the rhythm tapped out by wooden castanets clicked together by the fingers, as well as dramatic guitar rhythms.

Flamenco dancers and guitarist. Photo by Richard Varr

Andalusia’s Granada: Last Moorish Holdout and the Catholic Kings

Alhambra at nightfall as seen from the Nirador de San Nicolas. Photo by Richard Varr

There’s no better view of Granada’s imposing Alhambra – the fortified hilltop Moorish castle fronting the dramatic snow-capped peaks of Spain’s Sierra Nevada – than from the hilltop lookout known as Mirador de San Nicolás. The best views are at dusk, when the waning sunlight casts a golden glow on the 14th century palace, the last Moorish holdout in Europe.  And as the sun sets, the spotlights illuminate the palace walls. I enjoyed the view with a beer in one of the several restaurants and cafes lining the adjacent street, all with clear views of the Alhambra and across the valley. On the way up to Mirador de San Nicolás, you’ll walk up the central streets of the Albayzín Moorish Quarter with its Moroccan cafes and shops lining the hillside’s narrow streets.

Alhambra’s Courtyard of the Myrtles. Photo by Richard Varr

Islamic calligraphy in the Alhambra. Photo by Richard Varr

Granada was the last Moorish stronghold which fell to the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. Alhambra’s stone walls shelter several structures including a museum, a fort with ruins and dominant tower, and the elegant Moorish Royal Palace with its courtyards, pools and seemingly starlit domed ceilings, where it’s likely that Columbus pitched his voyage to the Orient by traveling west, but instead ended up discovering the New World.

Courtyard of the Lions with the circular lions fountain in the Alhambra. Photo by Richard Varr

Part of Palicio Nazaries in the Alhambra. Photo by Richard Varr

I would recommend spending at least a half day or more touring and walking the Alhambra’s grounds. Timed entry tickets that should be reserved a few months in advance are required to get into the Royal Palace; or, you can take a guided tour usually the day you arrive. I would also recommend purchasing the Granada Card for access into the Alhambra and other sights around the city. http://en.granadatur.com/page/5-que-incluye-la-granada-card-bono-turistico/

Plaza Nueva, central Granada. Photo by Richard Varr

View from the Alhambra. Photo by Richard Varr

What I liked most about Granada was in the town center – the Royal Chapel of Granada with its Isabelline Gothic-style architecture. This extension of the Cathedral holds the tombs of the Catholic Kings who brought Spain together after defeating the Moors. Grandiose marble tombs are the nave’s centerpieces, while a small stairwell leads to the actual underground crypt with a window to see their coffins inside. The chapel’s alter glitters with golden trim and features statues of the monarchs and Old Masters’ paintings, while Isabella’s crown and Ferdinand’s sword can be seen in glass display cases. The Cathedral, meanwhile, is vastly cavernous with Renaissance design and with Baroque-style side chapels. Unfortunately, taking photos inside the Royal Chapel is prohibited so none are posted here.

Gibraltar’s World War II and Great Siege Tunnels: ‘City in the Rock’

Rock of Gibraltar from the Spanish border. Photo by Richard Varr

A closer look at the famous Rock of Gibraltar reveals a peculiar façade. From a distance, I can see what look like tiny holes in the rocky mountainside ascending in a line of sorts. I soon learn those holes are actually cannon ports in the so-called Great Siege Tunnels, dug and blasted out of the Rock in the late 18th century.  The very next day, I’m inside the Great Siege and World War II Tunnels network, actually looking peering out several of those cannon holes onto dramatic waterside views.

Great Siege Tunnels with cannons and diorama. Photo by Richard Varr

View from Rock lookout with Gibraltar airport and onward toward Spain. Photo by Richard Varr

Since colonial days, the Rock has been a strategic military point – a British stronghold since 1704. Located on a narrow peninsula along the coast of southern Spain, it stands tall over the Strait of Gibraltar, the waterway connecting the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, and separating Europe from Africa.

View from the Queen’s Lookout. Photo by Richard Varr

Great Siege Tunnels. Photo by Richard Varr

Spain made several failed attempts to drive out the British, but it was during the 14th and last attempt, the 1779-1783 Great Siege, when the British decided there was apparently no better defense than hiding within the belly of the Rock. So they began digging and igniting gunpowder blasts to create what’s now the Great Siege Tunnels, taking only five weeks to tunnel 80 feet into the mountain. The British held their ground, afterwards extending the tunnel to 370 feet with cannons facing the southern border.

World War II Tunnels, with hospital diorama. Photo by Richard Varr

World War II Tunnels. Photo by Richard Varr

The same thought prevailed during World War II when the British feared a Nazi invasion, so 5,000 engineers and laborers drilled and blasted 24 hours a day, from 1940-1943, to dig most of the 34 miles of tunnels that remain today. The maze of tunnels housed living quarters, mess halls, communication centers and hospitals for 16,000 soldiers and the workers as well – a city within the Rock. Despite the efforts, a Nazi invasion never came.

World War II Tunnels, with diorama. Photo by Richard Varr

Today, a 45-minute World War II Tunnels tour brings visitors within the Rock, but only through less than a half mile of tunnels whose walls and concrete walkways are often slickened with rainwater filtering through the mountain. Life-sized dioramas depict living conditions for soldiers and ax and drill-wielding laborers who dug the tunnels. Panoramic views from a few mountainside lookouts stretch along the coastline all the way to Morocco.

World War II Tunnels. Photo by Richard Varr

“We have a saying in Gibraltar that there are more tunnels than roads,” says guide Kyle Gonzalez. “Visitors are amazed how the workers lived and how they survived the ordeals they went through. If you were on patrol here, you didn’t know what time of day it was. You’d never see the sunlight.”

Casemates Square. Photo by Richard Varr

Macaque monkey. Photo by Richard Varr

While in Gibraltar, hop a cable car up the Rock for stunning views of two continents. Taxi tours include the Great Siege Tunnels, the stalactite and stalagmite-clustered St. Michael’s Cave, and other mountain lookouts including the Queen’s Balcony. The territory’s macaque monkeys roam freely and often pick at tourists’ purses and food at the Apes Den. And Irish and British pubs serving fish and chips line Main Street and Grand Casemates Square in the center of town.

Main Street. Photo by Richard Varr


New York City’s 911 Memorial, a Solemn Place

Photo by Richard Varr

Photo by Richard Varr

I hadn’t been back to New York’s World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan for more than 10 years when it was – sad to say – still a hole in the ground, and well before the 911 Memorial was completed. Although it bothers me deeply to think about that tragic day in 2001, I thought it was about time I visit the site once more to see the completed memorial.

Photo by Richard Varr

It didn’t take long to feel the strong sense of sorrow as I walked along the grounds, passing others with hardly a word spoken – an awkward silence is how a local most accurately described it to me. The memorial includes the two pools in the large square footprints where the two towers once stood. Each has 30-foot waterfalls with water further plunging into a deeper center square.

Photo by Richard Varr

The names of the nearly 3,000 victims of that clear September day are inscribed in bronze panels along the perimeters of the two pools. They include not only the workers and first responders who perished in the towers, but also the victims of the Pentagon attack and the four doomed airplanes, including the one that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I saw pristine white and deep red roses wedged into some of the engraved names, later learning that victims get a rose on their birthdays.

911 Memorial Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

To one side of the grounds is the 911 Memorial Museum housed in a multi-sided, modern glass building. I just couldn’t bring myself to enter the museum. Like most of us, I watched coverage of the horrific event for three days and simply found it hard to relive it all by seeing the crushed and burned artifacts, including the recovered personal items from many of the victims.

Freedom Tower. Photo by Richard Varr

On a brighter note, I loved standing under the Freedom Tower with its twisting glass sides – a symbol of hope, recovery and resilience. As a native New Yorker, it was uplifting to see. Also on the site is the new World Trade Center Mall opened in 2016, with a sprawling white 160-foot-high “Oculus” design shaped to signify a dove being released.

Mall outer design. “Photo by Richard Varr

And a side note… adjacent to the 911 Memorial site is St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Church, dating back to 1766. The church today looks the same as I recall it years ago – seemingly untouched – having survived the devastation of September 11, 2001.

St. Paul’s Chapel. Photo by Richard Varr