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by Susan Purdy


I was recently invited to Nashville, Tennessee and really wanted to decline. What could there possibly be of interest in Nashville? I had visited this city twenty-five years ago and was disappointed then, so why go back? But George said I would like it, and George is right almost 20 percent of the time. When your expectations are low, be it a dinner party you werent looking forward to attending, or a trip you thought you would not like, Fortuna blows her charmed breath over you, and you end up having the time of your life.

Fortuna must have been in rare form when I visited Nashville, as I had a truly wonderful trip. In fact, I was so impressed, Im recommending this city as one of my top USA picks. Heres why.

This is Music City USA, home to the Grand Ole Opry, and some of the best music in the world. I denied liking this music until I checked my CD collection and found I had several country artists tucked between Italians like Vivaldi, Sinatra, and Martin (Dean not Ricky). At 76, the Opry is the worlds longest-running live radio show, and the Ryman Auditorium, the original site of this musical institution, is still open for tours. When the Opry moved from the Ryman to its present home on Opryland Drive, an eight-foot circle of hardwood was removed and placed center stage at the new location. Todays stars still tread the boards of the country music greats who came before them. I felt a little star-struck when I saw Porter Wagoner backstage at the Opry just before he set foot on that famous stage.

The Nashville skyline has changed since I first visited. Downtown Nashville, an area to be avoided then, now pulses with shoppers and visitors due to the $900 million invested here during the last five years. Even honky tonks like Tootsies are enjoying a resurgence in popularity as they host hot bands and encourage fast dancing. The Bell South skyscraper looms large over the city, and is called the Batman building because of its resemblance to the caped crusader -- Holy Architecture Robin!

The new Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, designed by Seab Tuck, softly graces the skyline, and reflects the story of country music. The building has a large sweeping wall, hung with billboards, like signage in a country general store, and the long vertical windows look like black piano keys. The replicated WSM-AM radio tower that carried the tunes along its airwaves reaches for the sky, while the bottom half functions as a chandelier inside.

The Gaylord Entertainment Center is a convenient downtown stop, home to the Visitors Center, where you will find a great display of country memorabilia. It houses a full concierge service offering excellent discount tickets for events and destinations, as well as assistance in helping you choose the best places to visit. Located in this building is the exciting new Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame and Museum . An excellent and affordable stop.

Under the youre never too old, banner, I took a spin on the Tennessee Fox Trot Carousel, created by Red Grooms. The 36 brightly colored figures all represent part of Nashvilles history, and include horses carved in the image of Davy Crockett, President Andrew Jackson, Captain Thomas Ryman, and the one I chose to ride, the Everly Brothers, who sang, Wake Up Little Susie.

Nashville, called the Athens of the South, has many interesting cultural activities. The Nashville Parthenon is the only full-scale replica of the Greek Parthenon in existence, and the impressive centerpiece of Centennial Park. The Elgin Marbles, removed from the Parthenon in Greece, are housed in the British Museum in London but authentic plaster casts of these original sculptures can be seen adorning the pediments on the building here, as they once did in Greece, in 438 BC. Inside, is a majestic 42-foot statue of Athena, who, according to Greek mythology, was the goddess of wisdom, prudent warfare, and the arts. In her outstretched hand stands Nike, the winged goddess of victory, appearing to be the size of a Barbie doll, but in reality is six-foot tall. I enjoyed the excellent permanent art collection on display here, which includes works by 19th and 20th century American artists.

I caught Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandys daughter, Tandy Cronyn at the Tennessee Repertory Theater in Lillian Hellmans play, The Little Foxes. With an extravagant set to set the tone, this was a wonderful production of Ms. Hellmans inside look at the wealthy and dysfunctional Hubbard and Giddens families.

The newly opened Frist Center for the Visual Arts, is located in Nashvilles beautifully renovated Art Deco post office. How fortunate that this building, built in 1934 was available for purchase, and that architect Steve Tucker had the vision to keep the feel and tone of the period intact. The Frist family and the Frist Foundation pledged a minimum of $25 million to renovate the building to the highest museum standards.

I met Mrs. Patricia Frist, an elegant lady walking amid the workmen as they put the finishing touches on the Center. She said it was an exciting opportunity for her family to be able to participate in this excellent cultural center for the city. Curator, Chase W. Rynd worked day and night to make this dream a reality. Said Rynd, : Unlike other cities, we did not have a downtown facility that could accommodate major exhibits. Now, museums are opening their vaults and lending us their art. Two of the highlights here are Tintoretto's "Christ Washing His Disciples Feet," and Rembrandt's "Portrait of a Lady with a Lap Dog. "

Naturally, it wouldnt be the South without several gracious old mansions. One of the first to explore is President Andrew Jacksons home, The Hermitage. He and wife Rachel lived here and are buried in the garden. With costumed docents to lead the way, this is a lively method to learn more about Old Hickory and our countrys history.

At Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art be sure to walk the Carell Woodland Sculpture Trail. Extraordinary exhibits include artist Sophie Ryers Crawling Lady Hare sculpture, and stepping stones carved in the Latin script of Ancient Rome by Ian Hamilton Finlay that spell out The order of the present is the disorder of the future, -- Saint-Just. My order of the present entailed food, as I had worked up an appetite on my walk through these wonderful woods. I had a lovely lunch at the Pineapple Room Restaurant, conveniently located on the premises. I had known that the Pineapple was the symbol for hospitality, but I didnt know that when house guests found the pineapple in their bedroom either missing or turned up-side-down, it meant they had worn out their welcome and it was time to leave. Much nicer than leaving a stitched pillow on the bed that read, Fish and houseguest stink after three days!

Cheekwood was originally the private residence of Leslie Cheek who married Mable Wood -- hence the name Cheekwood. Leslie invested in his cousin Joels coffee business, which turned out to be Maxwell House, and Good to the last drop, as President Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed. The Georgian-style mansion has beautiful proportions and houses some wonderful art exhibits while the Botanical Gardens include seasonal specialty gardens.

The Greek Revival Mansion known as Belle Meade, Queen of the Tennessee Plantations, is known for breeding thoroughbred horses. The home is beautifully furnished with paintings of notable studs, including Iroquois and Bonnie Scotland, lining the walls. There was much to see here and Im glad I allowed myself sufficient time. Take note of the ruby colored window above the front door, a result of adding gold to the molten glass, and a way to convey your riches to the neighbors. At the end of my tour, I asked about a cane chaise lounge and was told it was a 'cooling board,' used to hold a dead body, kept cool by placing ice on the floor underneath. That gave me a chill, and I knew it was time to leave. Two other interesting homes to visit in the area are Belmont Mansion and Travelers Rest -- The Overton Plantation.

Dining in Nashville is a treat made easy by visiting a select few special restaurants. Breakfast must be at the Pancake Pantry (615-383-9333), where the famous and not-so-famous rub elbows and pass syrup. F. Scotts (615-269-5861) features rubbed pork tenderloin, dishes with an Asian influence, and an excellent Chilean Sea Bass that I thoroughly enjoyed. The wonderful paintings on the walls are by local artist Creason Clayton. At Arthurs located in the womens waiting room at Union Station, an old refurbished train station that is an architectural jewel in Nashvilles crown, note the stained glass windows that are original to the building. Owner Jaime Camara and Executive chef Emile Labrousse certainly add to the continental flavor found in both their gracious hospitality and on their wonderful menu.

When it was time to leave, I boarded my Southwest Airline flight direct to Islip's MacArthur Airport on Long Island, New York. What a treat to be landing so close to home and how easy to visit Nashville again. On Southwests website sign up for e-mail notices for excellent bargain rates across the country. For more information about Nashville, contact the Convention and Visitors Bureau and if youve had the desire to wear a Stetson, buy one here, as this is the place to do so. Mine was black with a silver band. Reba better watch her back!

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