The Foxfield Steeplechase Race
Since 1978, Charlottesville has hosted the Foxfield Steeplechase Race, an event that benefits local charities and attracts thousands of local families, students and tourists. A steeplechase race is a "distance" horse race of about two to four miles that features a combination of ditches and hurdles. Steeplechase horse racing began in the 18th century, in Ireland, where church steeples because of their height and prominence were used as the starting and ending points of the race (thus the name). Currently, steeplechase races are held throughout the United States, the most famous being the U.S. Grand National Steeplechase at Belmont Park. The most famous, yes, but perhaps not the most fun.
In Charlottesville, on April 24, in sync with the blooming pink and white dogwoods, azaleas and redbuds, ladies will don pastel-colored sundresses and hats and men will wear colorful bowties to celebrate the hometown classic Foxfield Steeplechase, a race that draws 25,000 participants.
There is no grandstand for the Foxfield Steeplechase Race, and tailgating is the popular pre-race event. But dont expect your run-of-the-mill, "football-style" tailgating party. At the Foxfield, elaborate spreads are the order of the day, often served on elegant china and linens.
"The spring race is the first big outdoor event of the season," says E. Anne Susen, marketing director of the Foxfield Races. "Family and friends gather to celebrate the horses, spring weather and enjoy this Albemarle County tradition."
In addition to the races, Charlottesville has much to offer, from its rich history to scenic drives and walks, to upscale shopping and dining. So plan to stay for the weekend and take in the sights.
Charlottesville was established by charter in 1762 and named in honor of Princess Charlotte, wife of George III. Much of the early history of Charlottesville was shaped by the presence and vision of Thomas Jefferson, who constructed his architectural masterpiece, Monticello, just outside the town and founded the University of Virginia on a hill at the citys center.
The key historical sites you will want to visit include Monticello, Jeffersons home; Ash Lawn-Highland, home of President James Monroe; and the 18th-century Michie Tavern. The Presidents Pass (available through the Charlottesville Visitors Bureau) is the best deal if you plan to visit all three. Montpelier, the home of President James Madison, is also worth a visit. It is located 35 miles north of Charlottesville.
Lunch is not included in the tour, so make reservations at Michie Tavern (near Monticello) for their excellent colonial fried chicken, hickory-smoked barbecue, buttermilk biscuits, black-eyed peas and other tasty, traditional Southern dishes. Although touristy, the Taverns buffet is quite good, and the 18th-century atmosphere is cozy and entertaining.
With so much to do, you might be tempted to skip a tour of the University of Virginia, but dont miss two key university sites: the Rotunda (based on the Pantheon in Rome), which stands as the signature landmark of the University, and the 10 Pavilions and surrounding gardens, each with a different set of classical details. Free tours and/or a self-guided map are available daily at the Rotunda. Art enthusiasts will love the Universitys museum.
Small Town Charm
Charlottesville offers small-town charm wherever you look. The smell of fresh-brewed coffee and pastries from local bakers, home-grown produce from farmers and gardeners, and beautiful creations of local crafters make up Charlottesvilles 30-year-old farmers market, which is held every Saturday morning from 7 a.m. to noon at Water and First streets.
Just around the corner, experience a taste of Charlottesvilles multi-cultural flavor at the Balkan Bakery Caf. Order a steaming Turkish coffee and traditional Balkan pastry or a burek (filo dough stuffed with cheese, meat, spinach and potatoes). Shop owners Anja and Panto Cetric left Bosnia 11 years ago to escape persecution and began making their traditional Balkan fare in their home, stretching paper-thin phyllo dough by hand on their dining room table.
A couple of blocks from the farmers market and Balkan Bakery Caf is the brick and tree-lined pedestrian Downtown Mall, with its many specialty shops, lively outdoor cafes, art galleries, live music, indoor ice rink and Paramount Theater, one of the last grand movie palaces, which was restored in 1994.
At the east end of the Mall is the Charlottesville Pavilion, an outdoor venue featuring local and national performances, as well as free Fridays after Five concerts during the spring and summer.
Art lovers will want to visit McGuffey Art Center on Second Street, with its 23 studios, three galleries and gift shop, where you can pick up a city-wide gallery guide.
Charlottesvilles annual Dogwood Festival, which features a parade, pageant, ball, carnival and other activities, runs almost the entire month of April (8-25 ). In addition, the city is one of the sites of the 77th Historic Garden Week. This statewide event features more than 250 of Virginias most beautiful gardens, homes and historic landmarks and is the nations oldest and largest statewide house-and-garden tour. From April 18-20, visitors to Charlottesville can tour numerous homes and gardens, including The Morven Estate and Gardens and the University of Virginia Pavilion Gardens and Houses.