Sure, it's been a little bit
country. But contemporary Nashville can also be stylish and
sophisticated. We check up on this surprisingly modern
Now don't get me wrong:
There is still a lot of country in Nashville. Big-hatted pickers twang at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge on Broadway, and across the way, at the Original Ernest Tubb Record Shop, the guitar-shaped sign is lit up, as it has been since 1947. Music Row is still pumping out hits, and the Grand Ole Opry House remains the Promised Land for country music fans and thousands of star-struck musicians who flock to Music City, U.S.A.
The giant red neon Bruton Snuff sign still dominates part of the downtown skyline, but there is so much more to Nashville these days. With booming educational, medical, insurance, and music industries, Nashville is a prosperous, sophisticated town, with its share of trendy neighborhoods and bourgeois-bohemian hangouts that are the harbingers of hip entertainment and fine dining. Extraordinary art experiences are tucked around the city - some in counter-intuitive spots. No wonder folks around here like to call the town the "Brand New Nashville."
Hillsboro Village, over by Vanderbilt University, is the bellwether for the new Nashville. A steady stream of smiling people emerges from the rustic ochre- and-mustard-colored environs of Provence Breads and Cafe, bearing baguettes and loaves of fougasse under their arms, as couples sip lattes at sidewalk tables. Across the street, folks queue up for the best breakfast in Nashville at the Pancake Pantry, as they have for more than 40 years. Standing at the end of a 50-person line, I ask the man in front of me if it is always this long. "Oh, no," he replies. "It's normally way around the corner." He points back another 100 feet.
Sleek young women climb the stairs to the second-floor office of the Casablanca Modeling Agency, above the Peabody Shoe Repair, where the front window displays dozens of battered brogans and oxfords awaiting their owners. Pierced postmodern beatniks and guys in khakis and golf shirts quaff Bongo Java, the favorite local haute-coffee, at FIDO, with its red, Rube Goldberg-ish coffee roaster.
The Zeitgeist Gallery shows contemporary art and photographs in its austere urban showroom, and Outside the Lines - "Art that won't match your sofa" - shares space with Antics, which offers a quirky range of architectural artifacts, high-style antiques, and garage-sale escapees. The showroom at Carissa's Armoires and Antiques is chockablock with European- and Southwestern-style furniture, antiques, and accessories.
As Tennessee's sultry afternoon air drifts into the cool velvet evening, Hillsboro's lanes begin to fill with Porsches and BMWs, and Nashville's bright young things and corporate power brokers emerge for some social interaction at The Trace, the throbbing boîte of the moment. With the restaurant's enormous glass front doors rolled up, pretty couples sit admiring the passing scene as they wine and dine. There is nary a cowboy hat or sequin in sight, the sartorial benchmark being Brioni blazers and little black designer dresses.
A few blocks away, dinner patrons don't begin to arrive at Bound'ry until an urbane European dinner hour. Then the place begins to jump with the young professional set. The decor alone would draw a crowd: In the Fellini-esque two-story dining room, mythological murals depict bacchanals and bucolic market scenes, fish leap three-dimensionally from paintings, and anarchic mosaics wander across walls and mantels and floors. The background music rises in pitch and intensity through the meal until the diners look ready to break into fevered applause.
Nashville's upper-end restaurants understand their culinary roots and season them with some imaginative additions. Bound'ry offers such fare as sweet-potato hummus with chile oil, grilled Tennessee ostrich, and manicotti stuffed with barbecued chicken and crawfish. But this is not one of those over-the-top restaurants where Southern fusion becomes a gastronomic collision: Bound'ry's food is delicious and harmonious, served by a friendly, professional staff. Another Nashville favorite, the Capitol Grill, also draws on its Southern roots with dishes like Tennessee Nut Cave trout with cornmeal-encrusted shrimp.
East Nashville used to be the raffish side of the Cumberland River, but over the last decade, as young couples have pioneered old Arts and Crafts and Victorian neighborhoods like Lockeland Springs, some attention-getting establishments have followed. Sasso is the rising star, a stark restaurant tucked into an old Victorian clapboard building. With a staff whose food and wine sophistication is normally found in major foodie centers like New York or San Francisco, Sasso delivers an inspired fusion menu of Southwestern, Asian, and Southern cooking, such as honey-soy glazed duck over curried Singapore-style noodles with shiitakes and napa.
Rock, Blues, and Beyond
In a town of 45,000 registered songwriters, there are plenty of live-music venues that book more than country. Radio Cafe, across the street from Sasso, offers live music six nights a week, in an old pharmacy building where vintage radios line the walls. The extraordinary singer-songwriters who belt out tunes to 20 people there could be in the big time tomorrow.
Back across the river, in a down-at-the-heels locale, the 12th & Porter Playroom hosts some great alternative music in its raw space. The 3rd & Lind- sley Bar & Grill, at a dark end of town, packs them in on weekends, sometimes with world-class studio musicians playing in pick-up bands. Over at the 328 Performance Hall, country, rap, and funk bands get the audience jumping. And at Jody's Bar Car in the rehabbed Cummins Station near Broadway, hundreds of dancers groove to the rhythms of DJ Johny Jackson during one of his legendary Saturday night Soul Satisfactions, a phenomenon that has gone on for eight years. Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar, which received the Blues Foundation's Blues Club of the Year 2000 Award, is a party venue for national and regional blues performers.
Nashville has always had more than just country music. In addition to Vanderbilt, the city is home to Fisk University, a premier African-American college in a modest neighborhood near downtown. Famed scholar W.E.B. DuBois was an alumnus, as were the Jubilee Singers, the student spiritual music chorus whose triumphant tour of the United States and Europe in the 1870s financed the construction of
Jubilee Hall, a massive six-story Victorian Gothic pile on campus.
Fisk is home to the Carl Van Vechten Gallery, one of the largest and best art collections in the Southeast, somewhat incongruously housed in a modest brick Victorian structure that was the university's original gymnasium. The gallery's shining light is the Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 101 masterpieces of 20th-century art, including works by Paul Cézanne, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Diego Rivera, Pablo Picasso, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Stieglitz himself.
O'Keeffe was responsible for these remarkable works being so far away
from the power nodes of the art world. When her husband, photographer and art impresario Alfred Stieglitz, died, O'Keeffe divided his art collection into five portions. Four parts went to major museums in American megalopolises, but the fifth went to Fisk to honor Carl Van Vechten, a New York art dealer, patron of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, and close friend of Fisk's first African-American president, Charles Spurgeon Johnson.
Past Into Present
More than a hundred years before country stars began warbling in the Ryman Auditorium in the 1940s, Tennesseans voted Nashville as their state capital. The 1850s-era capitol building, austere in its Greek Revival dignity, still dominates the downtown. The Hermitage, President Andrew Jackson's 1830s Greek Revival mansion, sits on the parklike remnant of Jackson's 700-acre plantation just 11 miles from downtown. Visitors to The Hermitage saunter back into a quieter, slower-paced time, winding their way up a shady lane to the mansion with its imposing columns and friezes bespeaking dignity and gravitas. The interior is much as Jackson knew it, reflecting the refined world of the antebellum South.
A few miles southwest of downtown, in the posh old suburb of Belle Meade, is Cheekwood, another grand vestige of opulent 1920s living. The 55-acre former estate of the Maxwell House coffee magnate is now a city museum known as Nashville's Home of Art and Gardens. The 25-room mansion, with its fine collection of high-end decorative arts, is just right for an hour's peruse. The botanical gardens feature 11 different horticultural areas, including a Dogwood Trail, a Japanese garden, and the award-winning Howe Wildflower Garden.
But the real symbol of Nashville is the Parthenon in Centennial Park. Erected as the centerpiece of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in 1897, the structure - the world's only full-scale replica of the Athenian temple - was intended to memorialize Nashville's self-proclaimed status as the Athens of the South. However, the city fathers didn't build it to last very long, and the wood and stucco ex-terior quickly began to resemble the decay of the Greek original.
But Nashvillians loved their Parthenon so much they started building another one of concrete in 1920, and it continues as a symbol for the city. In a local magazine's "You're so Nashville if ..." contest, a winning entry read: "You're so Nashville if you think our Parthenon is better because theirs is falling down."
The Parthenon is where Old and New Nashville come together. Those classical pediments and columns also adorn plantation mansions, banks, colleges, and aspiring suburban houses in a 100-mile radius of the Parthenon, and are as much the symbol of the Old South as the Dixie flag.
Yet Nashville's Parthenon is as reinvented as anything else here. In 1990, a 42-foot-high re-creation of the Athena Parthenos, the goddess' statue in ancient Athens, was added to the interior of the building, making it the largest indoor statue in the Western world. A fine little art museum in the heart of the building is an impressive modernist space exhibiting a wide range of art, from 19th-century American paintings to cutting-edge contemporary work.
Nashvillians of all stripes consider the Parthenon their own. At lunchtime, fami- lies walk their babies, and tattooed skateboarders trundle past the few artisans hawk- ing their wares. A guitar player strums under a tree as workingmen tear into barbecued ribs from a stand just across the way and runners from nearby Vanderbilt jog by in lollipop-colored Lycra. A clot of school kids flows into the Parthe-non, and their teachers implore them to "stay together, please" - as teachers probably did in ancient Athens. That is Nashville, new and old and all mixed up, but all together.
writes for National Geographic Traveler, Condé Nast Traveler, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post.
PERU ON THE RUN
Pack your running shoes and take the scenic route to the lost city of Machu Picchu.
By Ken McAlpine
To truly understand a place, you must see it through many eyes: your own, those of your fellow travelers, the locals you meet, and the locals you never will. Do this, and you may come home with your perspective forever changed. There you have the magic of travel.
Keeping your eyes open has practical benefits, too. Say, when you are jogging along a narrow, rock-strewn trail bordered on one edge by free-fall space spiraling far, far down to a ribbon of smoky river that could cradle your broken body and sweep you northward through Peru until you join the Amazon, and eventually the Atlantic Ocean.
Perhaps the only thing more mind-bending than the thought of that epic journey is the Inca Trail on which I now jog. Carved into the side of the mountain, the trail looks out to higher mountains still. These are covered with snow and here, in late afternoon, are cloaked in dark clouds shot through with misty gold bands of sunlight. While the Spanish who conquered the Incas simply coveted the stuff, gold was, to the Incas, the teardrops of the sun.
This trail is but a fraction of a vast 14,000-mile network that, in the words of one dumbstruck Spanish conquistador, "excels the constructions of Egypt and the monuments of Rome." More numbing still, no one will ever really know how this vast web of trails and the cities and temples they linked were constructed. The Incas didn't keep records, and their Spanish conquerors, intent on wiping out all reminders of Inca presence, wouldn't have left them intact if they did.
What is known is this: An Inca messenger, chasqui in the Quechua language, probably ran this very trail 500 years ago, headed, maybe, as we are, to Wayllabamba, or Ollantaytambo, or perhaps the legendary city of Machu Picchu. And he did so a lot faster than I.
We are here, seventeen of us, to enjoy the natural splendors of Peru, explore the local culture, and learn about Peru's Inca past. This is not unusual. Since the government has largely quashed its number-one public-relations stumbling block (the now-subdued Shining Path terrorist group), tourists these days are coming to Peru in droves, most of them making the pilgrimage to Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas.
But these visitors generally travel by bus, helicopter, or train. Our itinerary calls for us to run, and not because we are late for our bus. We have signed on to run the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and beyond - along wind-swept rivers, through damp cloud forests, up and over blustery mountain passes - because we want to.
At least running is what my new friends came to do.
As Bob Graham, a fifty-six-year-old emergency-room doctor from Connecticut, tells me, "Running is a great way to explore a place. You see things you wouldn't normally see."
Like everyone else's rump disappearing up the trail. Only a few days into the trip, we have already established a pecking order, and I am right at the back. Not that anyone cares. My fellow runners - and, unlike me, most of them really are runners - are distinguished less by their impressive athletic accomplishments - marathons, 100-mile races, a rim-to-rim-and-back run of the Grand Canyon with only two pretzels' worth of supplies - than by their plucky mind-set.
Our first night in Cuzco, our starting point before we set out on our run, I sat next to Amanda Zuckerman at dinner. A soon-to-be Harvard graduate, Amanda seemed quiet and shy. She had recently spent six weeks trekking in remote Nepal, an experience that included a close look at the butchering of a goat.
My heart went out to this delicate girl. "Surely," I commiserated politely, "that must have been a hard thing to watch?"
"Six weeks without protein," said Amanda. "I would have butchered it myself."
Earlier that same day, Becky Warren, another member of our group, had been hit by a taxi.
"I got up," said Becky, "and everything seemed to be fine, so why not just move on?"
No doubt these are folks not prone to whining, good news considering what lay ahead. Our itinerary: fifteen days traipsing through Peru's southern highlands. We spend some time touring ruins, shopping at outdoor markets, or traveling by bus to the next trailhead. But most days we are on the run, anywhere from four to eighteen miles, most of them at altitudes ranging from 7,000 to 16,000 feet.
Something else about altitude. It requires climbing to get there.
"There will be a few climbs," warns Devy Reinstein before we start. "Nothing is completely flat in the Andes."
Owner of Andes Adventures, purveyor of this unique tour and traditional hiking trips as well, Devy proves to be an organizational genius. Wherever we go, Devy is barking into radios and cell phones, managing hotel and restaurant reservations (seven nights of the trip are spent camping, the remaining nights in towns along the way), setting up bus and helicopter shuttles, and orchestrating the movements of fifty-seven porters who somehow have camp and a hot Peruvian meal ready and waiting when we arrive in nosebleed places.
Though possessed of the energy and organizational skills of George Patton, Devy apparently lacks the gene for judging difficulty, time, or distance.
Eventually we settle on a system for deciphering Devy's assessment of our upcoming day.
"Take anything he says and double it," suggests Bob's wife, Betsy.
The fact that we might be longer on the trail than Devy suspected bothers no one. Like any wise adven-turers, my companions recognize an elemental fact of exploration. The longer you are out there, the more time you have to enjoy it.
And there is plenty to enjoy. We spend our first two days in Cuzco. Once the capital of the Inca Empire, Cuzco remains South America's oldest continuously inhabited city, a place where present and past swirl about each other in a sea of red-tile roofs, 500-year-old churches, and even older stone streets. We tour cavernous Spanish churches heavy with gold and wander about museums where mummified royal families squat in the fetal position so that they might be easily reborn.
The history is interesting, but I enjoy present-day Cuzco more, which is why, when Devy hands us a pass to Cuzco's rash of museums, I stuff it in my pocket and discover a lively town instead. The Incas knew Cuzco as "the navel of the world," and it remains a maelstrom of activity today, with frying meat smells spilling from restaurants, boys kicking soccer balls up steep sidewalks, painters working inside shadowy doorways, and streets upon which no auto insurer in its right mind would ever venture.
In Cuzco we also meet Eddie Pizarro. Our guide for the trip, Eddie is a native of Cuzco. He studied tourism and Inca history at the Universidad Andina Del Cuzco, and is a wealth of Inca information, at least what information there is to tell.
What is known? Without formal tools or written instruction, workers and craftsmen quarried stones, hauled them improbable distances, and then cut them so they folded upon each other like lovers, creating buildings solid enough to withstand the fervent wrath of nature (Peru has suffered powerful earthquakes) and the Spanish.
"So perfect," Eddie says, "the Spanish thought the Incas were devils."
Endowed with a Zenlike calm and a ten-year-old's sense of fun and wonder, Eddie obviously enjoys the mystery that overhangs most everything he tells us. There are some things, he says, we can count as fact. For instance, that Inca was actually the name of the godlike rulers descended from the son of the Sun, and Quechua (pronounced "Catch-wa") was their culture. Beyond that, well . "People guess about everything." He shrugs. "UFOs. Aliens. You can make your own theory because nothing is proved."
Cuzco is interesting, but the real magic begins when we get out on the trail. Few places rival Peru's natural beauty, and few places give you a better gander at it than the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. From its jumping-off spot at Chilca, the trail is only thirty-three miles long.
But it winds through a potpourri of stupefying natural wonders. Peru's mountains don't hump into the sky; they sheer straight up, like mossy shark fins. Far below, amidst a broccoli-mass of trees, rivers glint like silver thread. Between the two, birds wheel gracefully in stomach-lurching space. Now and again, as we round a bend and the world drops away below us, we see, on a grassy bluff or a near-sheer terrace, temples crafted from cow-size stones, and Eddie smiles as he points out that the nearest quarry was twelve miles down and away.
"We have to change the mind just a little bit to understand these people," he says.
Or as Liz Sotoodeh puts it, grimacing as the two of us huff up toward 13,779-foot Warmiwañusqa Pass, "I just wish I was pulling a boulder."
We carry almost nothing, and I try to keep this in mind as we climb. Actually I have felt surprisingly good since we hit the trail, a spring in my step I attribute partly to the running I did before the trip, partly to my decision to walk most of the trail. Certainly it's difficult to run, especially when the trail goes mountain-goat steep. But I walk mostly because running seems to defeat the purpose. Much of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is uneven stone; running requires careful attention to footing so as not to twist an ankle.
With such scenery erupting about us, it seems silly to stare at the ground, an attitude many of my companions adopt.
"The running is secondary to the culture," says Ed Wehan, who once ran 100 miles in nineteen hours but now moves at a mall- walker's pace. "You can picture the Incas, get a feel for the country by being out in it."
Run or walk, as we ascend toward Warmiwañusqa Pass, most of our group is rasping, one is barfing, and Ed is singing.
"Tiiiiired of living, but scaaared of dying, that old man river he just keeps on rollin' ."
Cresting the pass is just part of our longest day, an eighteen-mile trek that takes us from our campsite at Llactapata to Phuyupatamarca, over three mountain passes, a trip that takes me about ten hours. This might sound like a grind but it isn't. We pass through villages where children light up when we pull colored pencils and berets from our packs; cloud forests thick with moss and cool shadow, and sprinkled with bright orchids and black butterflies; wide, grassy pampas; and, atop Warmiwañusqa Pass, a Scottish-moorlike scene in which a cold wind sends cannonballs of gray fog gusting past.
That evening, standing outside my tent at Phuyupatamarca, I watch the setting sun paint orange cloud swirls, then touch the snowy mountains soft pink. Later, over the rim of those same mountains, we see lightning detonate in bright explosions. Eddie points out the shapes of animals woven into the Milky Way while the cold stings our fingers.
"Just for us," he says.
This isn't entirely true. When we summit a last steep pitch of trail the next day and look down at Machu Picchu from the Gateway of the Sun, the lost city of the Incas has been found, by swarms of tourists in buses that belch their way up and down the mountain. The sun god sent man and woman to civilize the world, and they have done far too good a job of it.
Still, it all feels right. Later Eddie tells me that the view from the Sun Gate has, at times, moved him to tears, and I doubt they were tears of regret. Peru is far from spoiled; our merry band's second week in the wind-swept Andes will confirm this. Standing at the Gateway of the Sun, gazing out into a world of smashing blue, one could see Machu Picchu, and the world around it, as a Quechua pilgrim might have seen it. A place where one's spirit might soar.
Ken McAlpine, a frequent contributor to American Way, has also written for Sports Illustrated, Outside, and The Los Angeles Times.
PERU ON THE RUN
Please scroll down the page to read Ken McAlpine's Peru on the Run, a Silver award winner in the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards competition. The article first appeared in the February 15, 2000 issue of American Way.