Charlottesville: And the learning is easy

At first glance, Charlottesville seems like a town that's almost annoyingly pleased with itself. Lest we forget for a moment that it was home to three presidents, Thomas Jefferson, and the Jameses Madison and Monroe form a huddled welcoming committee on signs pointing to historic downtown, looking more like bowling pins than leaders of the nation. But they do look quite pleased with themselves, and it's not hard to see why.

They realized how easy it is to live the good life here; gardening in front of their mansions as they looked out at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, sipping (or tending) the fruits of their vines, and of course, enjoying the beauty of their homes. Two centuries later, we can still do all these things at Jefferson's Monticello, Madison's Montpelier and Monroe's Ash Lawn-Highland.

Of the three presidents who lived around Charlottesville, Jefferson is the one whose spirit towers over so much that goes on here. And as a visit to Monticello will reveal, his achievements went beyond authoring the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, achieving the Louisiana Purchase, serving as President or founding the University of Virginia; he knew how to live really well.

Charlottesvillians still do, and so can their guests. With quality of life rated among the highest in the country, the sightseeing is correspondingly easy. And while the list of sights to cross off on your checklist may not be terribly long, it is a rewarding one nevertheless, and there isn't a single one that can't easily be combined with a picnic or a scenic stroll. Certainly, there's the occasional queue in high season, but parking agonies and swarms of umbrella-toting tour groups are a rarity.

For those more interested in the present, a visit to the Downtown Mall is a must, as is a trip to one of the many local wineries. Sometimes you'll tour some cellars or presses, sometimes you'll simply enjoy a glass and a view. And lest it's been too long since you heard about Thomas Jefferson, let it be known that he spent one third of his presidential income on wine.