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Monday, September 22, 2014

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Athens, Ga: The other classic city

Tags: Travel Athens Georgia
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Enjoying a beer in Athens, Ga.

As we drive along the shady streets of this college town 97 kilometres northeast of Atlanta, the soothing tones of a radio announcer welcome us to “Athens, the Classic City.” He seems to speak directly to us, as we gaze at the town’s neoclassical architecture – they seem to have a thing for white columns in these parts. 

Recent Athens accolades include Coolest College Town, Bicycle Friendly Community, and One of 25 Best Places to Retire. Whether you’re 20 or 60, Athens has much to offer.

This former cotton trading hub has been home to the University of Georgia since 1785. In the south, college means football, and when UGA’s legendary team, the Bulldogs – known as the Dawgs – dominates life on football weekends, the town gets overrun with fans. Better, therefore, to visit in summer or during school breaks, to savour the quiet beauty of a town (pop: 115,000) that opens windows both on the historic past and the quirky present.

Our mellow-voiced announcer predicts another hot one tomorrow, but Athens’ fabulous cafes and restaurants, public and private gardens, music clubs, vintage shops and art museum more than compensate for a bit of heat. (Most venues are, of course, air conditioned.) 

We begin the weekend with a visit to the Athens Farmer’s Market in Bishop’s Park, where organic blue potatoes, tiny perfect carrots, jewel-like beets, fresh-cut flowers in Mason jars and fresh croissants – plus homemade foods from India and Lebanon – are as tempting as gems in a shop window. 

Croissants in hand, we queue for coffee at the 1,000 Faces Coffee stand. Our day kicks into gear. From the market’s far corner live music attracts a small crowd. Every Saturday bands entertain market shoppers, and we’re lucky on this June weekend: a polished and professional group is playing funky New Orleans fare. But it could be folk or bluegrass – they say you couldn’t throw a stone in Athens without hitting a musician.

Athens’ reputation as a music hub was established in the days when greats like Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington performed downtown at The Morton Theater (195 W. Washington), a restored vaudeville house. Things took off again in the 1980s and 90s, with alternative rock bands like R.E.M., Widespread Panic, The B-52s, and Drive-by Truckers. Their success inspired a host of local independent music studios. 

Many alternative rockers are based in Athens: Neutral Milk Hotel kicked off its current tour at the 40 Watt Club, a popular downtown venue. I once shared the shuttle bus from Atlanta with a member of the Athens group, Of Montreal (the name recalls the founder’s failed romance with a woman “of Montreal”). The young musician was returning from a tour of Japan. 

After our market visit, we head downtown. Our musical son heads directly to Wuxtry’s Records (197 E. Clayton St) a self-described “walk-in museum,” founded in 1976, where vinyl records (buy, sell, trade) dominate an eclectic selection. I inspect local vintage shops – Athens is famous for them – such as the Agora (arts, antiques, clothes), at 250 W. Clayton St, and Community (redesigned and artisanal clothing), 119 N. Jackson. Flush with our purchases and hungry for lunch, we head along Prince Ave. to the Boulevard district: our destination, White Tiger (Boulevard and Hiawasee). 

This former corner grocery store specializes in barbecue, but with new variations like a delicious barbecue tofu sandwich. White Tiger’s laid back ambience is reminiscent of Montreal’s Mile End, southern version. A picket fence is interspersed with brightly painted recycled skateboards, and a large outdoor seating area features shaded picnic tables covered with plastic table cloths. It’s not the chicest place in town, but, hands down, it’s one of the funkiest. 

A friend who grew up in Athens in the 1960s recalls a “little redneck town” that has changed considerably, while retaining its attractive qualities. Folks passing the cool of the evening on their wooden porches call friendly “hellos” to passing strangers. Boulevard’s streets (there’s an adjacent quarter called Normal, another called Buena Vista) are worth a wander. A few homes imitate Tara from Gone with the Wind, but many are small “shotgun” cottages. Artistic types have painted them yellow, pink, and purple. Over the railway tracks, abandoned brick warehouses have found new lives as popular eateries, art galleries, and wine emporia. 

Townsfolk share a passion for gardens: we saw everything from flowering magnolias, pecan and dogwood trees to exotic groves of bamboo. Athenians’ penchant for quirkiness is evident in gardens: shells, ornaments, clay tiles, shiny ornaments and original artwork are common decorative touches. The spectacular State Botanical Garden (2459 S. Milledge) is close to town, and, on S. Finley Street and Dearing St, you’ll find the famed “Tree That Owns Itself.” No ordinary tree, this white oak comes with a legend. Seems a 19th century UGA professor so loved his tree, that he willed a plot of land to it in perpetuity. When a storm destroyed the original, the garden club stepped up in 1942 to nurture a new oak from a scion of the old. 

Recent legends, naturally, include the recently retired R.E.M. The title of the band’s 1992 mega-hit album, Automatic for the People, paid homage to local restaurant Weaver D’s (1016 E. Broad) and its promise of prompt service of “fine delicious food.” This nod to a local eatery seems prescient now, for Athens has become a foodie destination, a change largely credited to a Canadian named Hugh Acheson.  

Acheson’s first restaurant, The Five&Ten, opened in March 2000, changing the local food scene forever. A few years ago his award-winning cookbook, A New Turn in the South, was graced with an introduction from R.E.M. manager Bertis Downs, who claimed Acheson led a “culinary and cultural shift that had transformed a gastronomic wasteland.”

In his introduction, Acheson said, “I am from Ottawa, Canada, and have spent almost a third of my life cooking food inspired by the southern United States. To me this is a happy strange situation.” Happy strange describes the Athens experience perfectly.

On our last night in town, we enjoyed the vegetarian prix fixe meal at The National, a restored art deco bistro in the Acheson family of eateries (www.hughacheson.com). With dinner we also got tickets to the movies next door at Ciné, the town’s art house movie venue. That afternoon we had visited the Georgia Museum of Art (90 Carlton St., free admission) on the UGA campus and hugely enjoyed roaming through room after room of the museum’s fine collection of American art. Almost as enjoyable was the air conditioning.  

If You Go: more information, www.visitathensga.com n

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