11.-13.8.2008: Washington D.C.

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We needed to get information on Washington DC before we drove into the city centre. But unfortunately, all of the visitor centres outside only specialize in particular places or there is no parking. We had already tried to find a parking spot in Washington 4 years ago and had to drive out after 2 hours of fruitless searching.

We certainly didn't want to drive into the centre to one of three visitor centres listed because of the parking problems. So we decided to head for the Virginia side where there were 2 visitor centres listed.

Driving anywhere near Washington is a nightmare. Simply follow the signs and you get lost. Every time we got lost we ended up at one of the Pentagon "authorized personnel only" parking areas!!! No kidding!

One of the signs we followed said "next right" so we took the turn which ended up being quite overgrown and obviously not very well used and lead to.... yes you guessed it... the Pentagon!!! We were expecting to get surrounded any minute by blue flashing lights and machine guns aimed at us!

We finally made it to Arlington cemetery and found that although the entrance is free, the parking costs $1-75 per hour. We went to the visitor centre but, as expected, there was no info on Washington itself just the cemetery. So we walked down to the nearest Metro station to pick up info on parking at metro stations outside the city, train lines and timetables etc.

Arlington national burial ground is located on the antebellum plantation of George Washington Parker Curtis, the adopted son of George Washington, the first president of the United States and currently occupies 612 acres (248 hectares).

We went to see JFK's grave and Bobby Kennedy's too. We also took a look at the memorials for the Challenger and Columbia space crews.

We watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which was established in 1921 as the burial place for the Unknown Soldier from World War I. Unknown soldiers from World War II and the Korean War were interred there in 1958, and the Unknown Soldier from the Vietnam War was buried there with full military honours on Memorial Day in 1984. In 1998, after further investigation, including DNA testing, led to the identification of the Unknown Soldier from the Vietnam War as Captain Michael Blassie, his remains were returned to his family, and this crypt has remained empty. Because of advances in medical and other identification techniques, no further interments in the tomb are anticipated.

Arlington remains an active military cemetery, with an average of 7,000 funerals each year. By 2000 there were more than 260,000 people buried on the grounds. Based on its burial rate, the cemetery was expected to reach capacity by 2020, after which time it will operate as a national shrine.

After the cemetery we wanted to drive to Maryland on the north eastern side of Washington to get to Greenbelt Park where there is a campground we wanted to check out. First of all we got lost and ended up.... in a Pentagon car park!!! So this time we asked some Mexican workers for directions!

Then we drove through Washington never really knowing if we were going the right way. At one point we ended up going through a tunnel and as we were coming towards the other end we saw that the road divided with one lane going left and the other, right. The signs could not be seen until it was too late to change lanes!!!

Somehow we'd managed to pick the right one which took us on a short cut except that we then got stuck in slow moving traffic. We stopped to get petrol at a station that had bullet proof glass in the cashier's office complete with bullet marks!! The cashier tried to give us a $10 note in the change with the word "mutilated" stamped on it! Is this unbelievable or what!

We then spent hours driving around in the general area trying to find Greenbelt Park. When we finally found it we discovered it cost $16 just to park and there was no electricity, water or dump station. It was also too far to walk from there to the metro station and didn't make sense to pay that kind of money when we would not be parked there all day and would spend all day in Washington, only returning after dark.

So we drove to the metro station to find out about parking and then found a spot to park amongst office buildings nearby.

The next morning we drove to the metro station and parked. Then we didn't understand the rules and regulations for the metro tickets and cards etc. We needed a smart trip card for the parking which cost $10 to purchase which then gave you $5 for the parking fees which only cost $4-25 for the day and no refunds. But you can add money to the card which can also be used for the train costs.

Helen had already used the card to go through the barrier and Kirsten wasn't allowed through with the card! So she had to go and ask and found out that you need one card per person. So she bought a single ticket rather than a card. We found out later that we can park overnight and if we leave before 10-30 am the parking is free. This meant that we didn't need a card in the first place and we'd just paid out $30 with no possibility of a refund. None of this information is available of course which is why you people need to read our website and learn from our mistakes!!!

Washington is not really starting off very well - and it got worse. Our first stop was at a visitor centre where we found out that Washington is CLOSED!! There are no tours at the White House unless you go to the Ambassador for your country and get permission! The FBI building is closed. There are no tours at the Pentagon any more - we have already toured every single one of the car parks though!!

The museum of American history is closed which was one of only two museums we were going to see. There is no reflecting pool outside the Capitol building for good photos due to a new visitor centre being built and all the construction going on there. We were told that you have to start queueing at 6-30 am to get a same day ticket to see the Capitol so we were too late for today and there were also long queues for the same day tickets at the Washington Monument which we had also missed for today.

The man at the visitor centre wasn't happy when Helen laughed and said "So what can we see?"

It's a good job that we had the opportunity at the Clinton Presidential library to go on a virtual tour of the White House because we were only left with a long distance photo of the front of the building now that we'd actually made it here.

Then we walked to the Washington Monument where there were no tickets left but at least we could see it from the outside. It is an obelisk honouring George Washington made of granite and faced with Maryland marble. It is 555.5 feet (169.3 metres) high and weighs an estimated 91,000 tons. The shaft's load-bearing masonry walls are 15 feet (4.6 metres) thick at its base, tapering to a thickness of only 18 inches (46 cm) at the top. At its completion in 1884 it was the world's tallest man-made structure, though it was supplanted by the Eiffel Tower just five years later. It remains the world's tallest masonry structure.

For views over Washington we went to the Post Office Tower where we went up in a glass fronted elevator overlooking the interior of the building and then another elevator to the top.

Our next stop was the Museum of Natural History which was very interesting and had various animals from all over the world including some that we have never heard of. There was a large collection of gemstones including the Hope Diamond which is believed to have been cut from one of the French crown jewels which was stolen in a robbery in 1792.

There were also dinosaur skeletons and thousands of exhibits but unfortunately also thousands of people! To get away from the crowds we went outside looking for a bench in the shade to sit on when we were approached by Joy who was asking for donations for the homeless. Joy is from Moseley in Birmingham, England which is only 15 miles from where Helen is from. Kirsten was amazed when both Joy and Helen changed their accents and started talking in the local slang!! They then reverted back to proper English so Kirsten could understand! Small world!

We went to the Lincoln Memorial and then went to several war memorials - Korean, Vietnam and Second World War - all very impressive and tasteful in their elegance and simplicity.

We walked to the Kennedy Center and listened to a free violin and piano concert for 50 minutes. Helen was very impressed by the virtuosity of both female performers.

As it got dark we walked to various places for night shots which included the Capitol at the other end of Washington. We ended up walking 12 miles and didn't get back to Winnie until midnight when we were so hungry that we made an omelette!!

The next day, Kirsten needed to recover from a blister and we went to the library to use the internet and then went back to the metro station to park for the night.