Virginia Hunt Country: Lovely, Lively and Local

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Photo credit: Town of Middleburg Facebook page (@townofmiddleburgva).

Georgetown’s favorite country getaway — Middleburg, The Plains, Marshall and the farms and wineries that abound in Loudoun and Fauquier Counties — is about an hour away, depending on traffic. Exiting Route 66 at The Plains lands you right in the heart and soul of Virginia hunt country.

Thick grass pastures lined by rail and stone fences stretch for rolling mile after mile. Grand homes in the Southern Colonial, Federal and Victorian styles are visible at the end of long, tree-lined entrance drives.

If you’re driving the winding country roads around 9 a.m. or earlier on most days in the fall, you may suddenly come upon the proverbial Middleburg sight: dozens of elegant horses and riders galloping through lush fields and over hills, jumping fences and following several dozen excitedly running, barking foxhounds.

Look sharply and you may spy a large red furry running animal — a lithe Virginia fox. It’susually way out in front of the pack. But often you’ll see (as I did) the neck-jerking sight of the fox running directly past the hounds going the other way. It seems the clever animal often leads the hunt to a dense forest, then doubles back past the hounds and horses, surely with a grin on its face.

“The dogs are trained to just blindly follow the scent,” said Emily Ristau with a laugh. Ristau is an ardent member of the Orange Hunt Club (Jacqueline Kennedy’s regular group, still going strong). “Their noses are to the ground, blindly following the scent and not thesight of the fox, who, it seems, enjoys taunting the dogs in a chase that can last up to four hours. It is extremely rare that a fox is ever caught. They usually go underground when they get tired, or the hunt master calls off the ride when he sees the horses and dogs tiring.”

Indeed, the whole goal of the “hunt” seems to be to enjoy a companionable and sometimes exciting ride in the country with friends on beautiful, strong horses — along with the winsome dogs they all know and love.

The hunt often divides into three groups. Some riders never jump; some don’t evengallop. They are all ages, from the early teens to the early 90s. In all cases, they are extremely careful to ride only on land which the owners have given them permission to cross.

That’s where Middleburg’s unusual local dynamic comes in. “The hunt only exists becauseof the generosity of the farm owners, only some of whom even keep horses these days,”said Ristau, a successful real estate broker in Middleburg. “But there are lots of generousowners who sign a proviso on their deeds that the property is open to riders and hikers. We all depend on an engaged local community here that all have one thing in common —love of the land.”

That is likewise the foundation of the area’s burgeoning retail and dining culture: local engagement, friendliness and country hospitality. Almost all the shops, cafes, restaurants and even museums are locally owned and operated.

“We don’t have chain restaurants here — not even chain-restaurant food,” said Brian Lichorowic, a former Olympic athlete from a three-generation restaurateur family. On Oct. 11, he opened up his unique eatery, Johnny Monarch’s, at the back of an open lot in Marshall.

“It’s the first restaurant in a double-decker British bus in this area, and understandably so,”the effervescent owner said with a grin. “She weighs 16 tons and is 15 feet high. She can’tdrive, so she can’t leave her site. It took almost two years to get the permits because they didn’t know how to classify the 1962 Leyland Titan.”

Lichorowic, who has also been a food writer, plans to serve “high-end Olympian food — the best ingredients in the best American food.” That includes American Pie (an elite sloppy Joe), macaroni and cheese, overstuffed ribs and a tomato pie made from special varieties grown in the property’s hothouse, next to the former bus. A stage is being built for family shows and activities at the surrounding picnic tables. One of the events planned in the bus is “Senior Speed Dating”: “If you can get up the winding narrow stairs to the second floor of the double-decker, you qualify.”

Another new local shop — which drew over 200 people to its first month’s special event —is Baileywyck Antiques in The Plains. Owner Lisa Vella once ran her antique shop out of her barn, but in September she opened an airy, white, tony multi-room store at 4274 Loudoun Ave. to house the hundreds of items she has personally selected from around the United States and Europe.

Vella spent almost a year cleaning, scrubbing and de-oiling the former garage. At her Oct. 5 opening event — an evening of French art, objets d’art and artful French food, wine and music — she sold every table in the store, including some century-old pieces. Now she plans a themed event on the first Friday of every month. Next up is “Fall into Fall,” with ciders and wines and, of course, horse-and-hound-themed antiques.

The local touch is especially visible in the shops in Middleburg. Some of the most popular stores, such as the White Elephant, a thriving consignment business; the Fun Store, a 6,000-square-foot home décor and gift department store; and Second Chapter Books, are owned by sisters who grew up in the area and reflect Middleburg history and tastes.

Several locals told The Georgetowner that they drop into the White Elephant every day tosee what’s the latest, because everything gets bought up so quickly. The Fun Store is for sale and everyone hopes it will be kept as is by the new owners. The current owners say, philosophically, that their children, who grew up in the store, “have their own lives” — as teachers, a police officer and a nurse in nearby communities.

It was different for Julien’s Café, the French bakery and restaurant on Washington Street for years. Newlywed Julien Lacaze plans to carry on his family’s local entrepreneurial heritage.He took over his parents’ establishment last spring and in a matter of weeks opened with new décor as a French wine bistro called Bord’ô, a meld of old menus and new.

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