I have not spent a lot of time in “The South.” 3 months of basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia; a couple of trips to New Orleans; a trip to Nashville and Memphis (BBQ and Blues); and a few trips to southern Florida. It is not that I have had no interest in that part of the country, but as someone who grew up in the 60’s/70’s and who is in an interracial relationship, I have to say that I have also have had my reservations. It is not that I believe that there is no racism in NYC, god knows I have seen it, and done what I can to oppose it. But I know where I can go in the north, in NYC, and what areas to avoid. So when The Amazing Ms. D was invited to speak at the University of Georgia I was really looking forward to seeing the city of Athens GA, but I wasn’t sure what I would find. What I found was an interesting mix of old and new. A city that definitely has a past, and that is looking ahead to its future.
The town of Athens Georgia developed along with the University of Georgia. It was founded as construction started on the school in 1801, and its name was chosen to reflect its role as a home to education. Along with the growth of the university, the city of Athens also grew to be a center of local industry. By the 1840’s there were cotton mills, flour mills, and textile mills in Athens. The mills were located along the Oconee River, which provided both water and power to run them. In 1845 The Georgia Railroad opened, connecting the industry of Athens with the Augusta, Georgia where goods could be transferred to boats and floated down the Savannah river to the coast.
One of the things that impressed me was how genuinely friendly people were. Starting with the bus driver who took us from the airport in Atlanta. A transplant from California, he was really interested in why we were visiting Athens and what our plans were. Everywhere I went, from the breakfast service at the Holiday Inn, to the University, just walking around the town, people were friendly and helpful.
By Boston Public Library [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
If you want to know about the history of the city, there are still 4 antebellum mansions in town. I visited the Ware-Lyndon House in downtown Athens. Built in 1840’s, today the Ware-Lyndon House has been restored as a museum and there is an arts and performance center attached to it. There is a lot of history in the home, both of the families that lived there and of the city of Athens. There are also exhibits of contemporary artists in the new addition. It is worth the visit.
In terms of history, I found three things interesting. First, there was almost no mention of slavery in the history of the town. At the Ware-Lyndon House there were references to the land that was owned and other buildings that were sold, but no mention that say whether or not the family (one of the richest in the town) owned slaves or not. Second, were the references to “The War between the States”. At least I didn’t see anything that used the term “The War of Northern Aggression.” Thirdly, for a town with a 200 year history, I was surprised by how much of downtown Athens had been rebuilt during the 20th century. Most of the oldest building in in downtown Athens look to me to be from the 1920’s-1950’s. They are almost all commercial buildings. So that, like many cities, there is no one living in the downtown area, or so it seemed to me.
One final thing that impressed me was the variety and quality of food available. I ate at four very different restaurants, all of which were excellent in their own way:
DePalma’s Italian Café – This is a wonderful Italian restaurant and pizza shop. Three of us had lunch here on our first afternoon in Athens. We feasted on delicious homemade pasta and wonderful salads. The décor is dark polished wood mixed with somethings that made us feel at home.
Cali N Titos – This is a funky pan-Latin restaurant, in the new fast-casual style. You come in and place your order and then the food is brought to your table. The menu covers several Latin cuisines both Caribbean and Central American, offering Cuban sandwiches, Tacitos, yucca, and miniature mofungo stuffed with shrimp. The food was fresh, authentic and sabroso! The décor was interesting to say the least. Piñatas line the wall and hang from the ceiling. The light are covered by Bustelo cans, and there is row boat in the front yard with a fountain in it.
Weaver D’s – Simply a down home, riverside soul food shack serving up wonderful eats. Don’t expect dietetic food, we are talking about fried chicken, fried pork chops, greens and the an excellent cobbler. Nothing fancy, just 2 long tables and a counter in the back where you place your order. On the table are bottles of chow-chow along with other condiments. Worth a visit for the food, a must see for fans of REM – “Automatic for the People”.
The National – Local chef Peter Dale and partner Hugh Acheson have a wonderful spot here in Athens. Serving locally sourced, Mediterranean inspired food, this is definitely the place to come for a special night out. I had the stuffed dates appetizer and roasted chicken breast (served over a savory bread pudding). Both were excellent!
So if you are coming to Georgia, Athens is a destination that should be on your list of MUST SEE places.