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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

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Many quiet delights to be found in Atlanta

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Dusk canopy walk in Atlanta Botanical Gardens

Eighty-nine million airline passengers arrive each year in Atlanta, at one of the busiest airports in the world. A modern metropolis of gleaming high-rises and multiple expressways, Atlanta, like its bustling airport, can seem daunting, but a city stopover yields many quiet delights: you just need to know where to look.

Last fall, I chose the easiest and cheapest ($2.50 US per ride) route to midtown, the MARTA train (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit), which took me from the airport to Art Center station, midtown. A short walk away, on Peachtree West, was my boutique hotel, the Artmore – not your usual glass-and-steel affair but a Spanish colonial building painted ochre and cream. A central courtyard, with couches and an open-pit fire, completes the cosy-chic atmosphere.

On my first night in town, an old friend and I meet for dinner about two blocks away, at the Woodruff Arts Center, a collection of galleries and workshops designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. The Italian theme is carried on in the large “piazza” where we ensconced ourselves for a chat and a nosh under the trees at Table 1280 Restaurant and Tapas Lounge, across from the High Museum of Art. A few steps away, at the Woodruff’s Alliance Theatre, rush seats were available ($20 each) for a terrific performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. What an auspicious start to my 36 hours in Atlanta.

Next morning, May B. Hollis, champion of local preservation, drives me to one of the city’s top attractions, Historic Oakland Cemetery. On the way, Hollis explains Atlanta’s geographical roots. “Peachtree Street [a main artery] follows an old Indian trail. It’s on a ridge, higher than the land around it. MARTA also runs along old Indian trails.” As Native American trails follow nature’s paths, so does modern Atlanta. “This is not a grid.”

Soon we arrived at the “original six acres” of Oakland Cemetery, a historical burying ground transformed into one of Atlanta’s favourite attractions – with carriage rides, special events like Sunday in the Park (a Victorian street festival), a “Run Like Hell” 5-kilometre run, and “Tunes from the Tombs,” a benefit that features 100 different acts and attracts thousands to Oakland’s current 48 acres.

Most days, 90-minute walking tours are available. The shop is a curiosity in itself, with cookbooks (Drop Dead Delicious), tomes on history and gardening – serious pursuits throughout the South – as well as humorous signs (“Hard Work Must Have Killed Someone”). “This was always intended to be a place to be enjoyed,” says Hollis.

Besides being the final resting place for thousands of Confederate and Union soldiers, Oakland reflects Atlanta’s wider social history: African-American citizens include the city’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson; there’s a large and intriguing section of Jewish graves, as well as those of pioneer families and the nameless poor, in potter’s field. Novelist Margaret Mitchell is buried here, as are Grand Slam-winning golfer Bobby Jones, a  raft of politicians, and notables like the Rich brothers, whose family department store was eventually bought out by Macy’s, and Dr. Joseph Jacobs, whose downtown pharmacy sold the first-ever Coca-Cola.

After a morning in what Hollis, echoing the Victorians, describes as a landscape reflecting “heaven on earth,” we adjourn to Six Feet Under, a nearby café-restaurant. My next stop is the regal Rev. Martin Luther

King Jr. National Historic Site, a monument to the civil rights hero with a museum-like building that showcases items of a personal nature, including the wallet Rev. King was carrying the night he was killed in Memphis. There are also rooms devoted to his wife, Coretta, to Rosa Parks, and to Ghandi, whose non-violent philosophy influenced Rev. King’s politics.

The 1909 home where he grew up is just down the road on Auburn Avenue, and here you’ll feel the presence of the hardworking, pious family that produced this famous son. His father, “Daddy” King, ran a tight ship, and although his sons’ rooms are realistically messy, their father’s rules were not to be messed with. The King children – two boys and a girl – dressed for dinner, recited Bible verses daily, and prepared to answer questions on the daily papers that were required reading. If unsuccessful – after two tries – they were sent from the dinner table.

Yet Rev. King’s “birth home” exudes warmth and a strong sense of family. African visitors insist on the family resemblance they see in guide Robert Vogel, although Vogel is unrelated to the famous family. “You’re a King,” they tell him, and he just smiles. The shop has an assemblage of souvenirs and books: Dr. King’s works, plus cookbooks, including the Vegan Soul Cookbook – you’re never far from food in the South – as well as books by W.E.B. du Bois and Booker T. Washington. Passing Ebenezer Baptist, the famous church where Rev. King and his father and grandfather preached, I take the bus and then the MARTA back to midtown.

My afternoon ends with a walk around the enchanting Botanical Gardens, a popular beauty spot, conveniently close to the Zagat-recommended Central American restaurant, Terra. Sheltered by the canopy of trees on the outdoor terrace, I feel I’m still in the gardens, far from the high-rise canyons that seemed to define the city just yesterday. “The city’s energy is back,” proclaims my server, whose chef-husband is busy cooking stuffed plantains and other Central American specialties. Afterward, she offers to call me a taxi, but I decide a mile walk back to the hotel on these quiet streets will do me good. I only get lost once, and am soon redirected by a cellphone-carrying student from Singapore.

Next morning I chat over breakfast with a European guitarist, in town for a “ProgRock” festival, and then with an art curator from Chicago, who has just taken down an exhibit at the High Museum, a 312,000-square-foot art showcase. Its permanent collection is complemented by touring shows like the current Picasso to Warhol (till April 28). The High turns out to be a gorgeous, light-filled structure popular with a wide spectrum of visitors – from giggling teenagers to mothers and toddlers and tourists like me. 

I end my visit chatting with Logan, a museum guard, who confides that he worked for 22 years for Bethlehem Steel in Baltimore. He then tells me about a sculpture we’re looking at – how it absorbs sounds so it seems to be speaking to you across the room.  His explanation of another sculpture, a kangaroo, is so intriguing that I return upstairs to re-examine it.

Soon it’s time to check out of my hotel, where I’m delighted to be presented with the sunglasses I’d assumed were lost.  Atlanta, I’ve decided, is a very friendly town indeed.

For more information, visit www.Atlanta.net.

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