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Petersburg, the Land of Antiques
By Christine Stoddard
With early English settlements, presidential mansions, and battlefields all bundled into one state, why wouldn't Virginia feel like antiquers' paradise? The little city of Petersburg embodies Virginia's long history in miniature, both its victories and humiliations, making it an enticingly honest portal to the past. Of course, it's also just plain fun and adorable, too.
As you approach Petersburg from U.S. I-95, the ghosts of yesteryear prickle your skin. You sense the city sighing for the glory that bathed it a century ago. Petersburg's multitude of empty brick warehouses and factory spaces point to an economically depressed place—a status that likely would've surprised our ancestors. Once, Petersburg was prosperous.
Founded in 1748, Petersburg was an industrial city and became a major transportation hub in the 1830s. Today Petersburg is a city of 32,500 spread out over 23 square-miles. Its 12% unemployment rate is one of the highest in Virginia.
Petersburg mainly attracts tourists for the Petersburg National Battlefield, the site of the Siege of Petersburg during the American Civil War. Families of high school-aged children may also come to Petersburg to tour nearby Virginia State University and Richard Bland College. However, Petersburg warrants a visit not just for its educational gifts. Come to Petersburg for its sheer entertainment value. Albeit modest, Petersburg has its own share of beauty, art, shopping, and dining perfect for a weekend get-away.
My last trip to Petersburg was a late afternoon breather in celebration of my five-year anniversary with my significant other. We started by walking around Old Towne, cooing over worn row houses and uneven sidewalks. Inevitably, we ended up in an antique shop.
It was The Oak Antique Mall, to be exact, with an emphasis on the word “mall.” The Oak boasts over 10,000 square feet bursting with wares from 50 dealers. Individual dealers' idiosyncrasies reveal themselves through the content of their booths. Some love maps; others love hens; still others love guitars. My S.O. and I wandered through the mall until we felt overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of stuff, ranging from the spectacular to the mundane, but all quite old.
A tangerine cocktail dress with a '60s vibe, a real carousel pony, and a set of globular terrariums were among my favorite finds, though my S.O. and I left without spending a penny. Taking home a framed “Purple Rain” album cover, an ancient Singer sewing machine, or other trinkets and oddities hadn't really been part of our plan for the trip. But we knew that if we ever needed such things, Old Towne Petersburg would not fail us. Apart from The Oak, we could've chosen Penniston's Alley Antiques, Woody's Antiques, The Trading Post, Second Hand Rose, The Funky Lamm Consignment Shop, or perhaps a dozen others throughout the city.
Once we'd gotten our antiques fix, we trotted over to the placid Appomattox River for a quick look. White geese honked from a muddy bank before splashing into the green-gold water. It was a comforting almost rustic scene that temporarily removed us from the stress of urban living.
After hunger overcame our desire to take snapshots of every cute nook and cranny in sight, we closed the evening with cucina Siciliana authentica at Maria's Cafe.
Across the street from Sycamore Rouge, a professional theater and music venue, the Italian restaurant offered heaping dishes of rich pasta, meat, and cheese with few financial demands. We ordered ravioli ripieno (essentially fried ravioli) for our antipasti. After munching on that, we dutifully ate our garden salads and greedily buttered our bread. For entrees, I went with vitello, while my S.O. opted for pollo. The veal piccata--described as “medallions of veal flavored in a white wine lemon sauce, sauteed with mushrooms, served over spaghetti”--was succulent. I stole a nibble of chicken parmigiana from my S.O. and determined that it, too, was delicious. A hearty dinner for the both of us cost under $40 with tip. We even had enough leftovers for lunch the next day.
Given the short time we had in Petersburg and the nature of our trip, we did not see Petersburg's key attractions. We could have also visited the Petersburg Regional Art Center, the Farmer's Bank Museum, the Petersburg Farmer's Market, or the Civil War sites. There's also a smattering of galleries, shops, and restaurants we could've seen had we arrived earlier in the day.
If it seems hard to justify a week-long vacation in Petersburg, rest assured that the city, while small, is not isolated. The general area, known as the Appomattox Basin, offers plenty of diversions. One of Virginia's “Tri-cities,” Petersburg sits close to Colonial Heights and Hopewell. The metro area also includes parts of Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, and Prince George counties, all of which are located in south-central Virginia. 21 miles away from Petersburg lies the quirky state capital, Richmond. Richmond alone could keep you up and at 'em for several action-packed days, especially if you're a punk and/or history nerd.
On that note, you might consider packaging the following places with your Petersburg trip: Henricus Historical Park, Dodd Park at Point of Rocks, Castlewood Plantation, Magnolia Grange, Swift Creek Mill, Pocahontas State Park, and Chesterfield Historical Society, among others. (And, again, I'm going to plug Richmond if you have the chance to go.) The state's travel site, Virginia is for Lovers (www.virginia.org), won't let you down in your quest for vacation information.
For lovers of Civil War jackets, 1950s dance cards, iron kettles, or just good food, Petersburg, Virginia promises quaint adventures among 19th-century ruins.
Old Towne Petersburg Merchants Group