Saturday, February 2, 2008

Village in the snow.

My ten day trip in New England had me spending most of my time in Boston and its suburbs. But on the last Sunday in January, I found myself traveling with friends to a snow-bound paradise in Vermont. We decided to travel to the tiny burg of Brattleboro.

It was a beautiful trip, smowing all the way. I saw beautiful bridges and New England style houses and all sorts of lovely things coated in snow. All along the way, my thoughts turned to my childhood. Thoughts of things like sledding and playing in the snow and the way the wind sounds when there's snow on the ground.

After nearly two hours, we rolled into Brattleboro for lunch at the Riverview Cafe. It was rather pleasant. The restaurant, just on the other side of the railroad tracks from the downtown area, looks out over the Connecticut River. The river itself was frozen over. A fine green bridge spans the distance to the first island out. Just the barest patch of water shows through under that bridge. The sight of so much ice in the snow was startling to me. Startling, brilliant, and just another reminder that I was far from home.

The inside of the Riverview Cafe was warm and spacious. We found a booth where we could look out over the frozen river and watch the snow continue to fall. The menu was diverse, with lots of different choices in beverages and hot items. Among the choices are such foreign delicacies to me as squash cakes with peanut curry sauce ($8.99), Vermont goat cheese cakes ($8.99), brick oven pizzas (starting at $7.99), and a Grass Fed Beef Burger ($7.99) that's made from locally raised beef (the restaurant's menu even tells you how to visit the farm). In fact, a lot of the offerings on the menu are made from locally-grown and raised products -- and the back of the menu shares where to find many of the farms where these products originate.

I had an "adult soda," a lemon soda that was refreshing but not really sweet. I also had the creamy ale cheddar soup (packed with lots of carrot and celery). It was something perfect and warm on such a chilly day. I also had a hummus sandwich. That's right -- a hummus sandwich, with hummus, tomato, lettuce, red onion, cucumber, all on ten-grain bread with big handcut chunky French fries. It was really good, but I couldn't do it justice.

The Riverview Cafe also boasts an impressive beer and wine list -- several offerings from local microbreweries and inexpensive wines paired with your food. You can find out more about the Riverview Cafe by checking out their website or calling (802)254-9841. It's located at 36 Bridge Street.

We went out and waited for the train to cross. I got several great snapshots of the train and the snow and waived at drivers also waiting for the train to get on with it. This is a commuter rail stop for Amtrak, and a few people boarded for points north. We then traveled into town.

There's this great Indian shop, Adivasi, with all sorts of great home furnishings and stuff. We perused the wares, and I went home with plenty of neat stuff, like saris and incense. When we stepped back out, the snow was still falling heavily.

We walked up the street, peering in to windows along the way. There's an art gallery along the east side of the street, the Windham Art Gallery. It features a lot of unusual and varied works by local artists. The first Friday of each month, this gallery and several others in the area host receptions for folks to come in and enjoy hor d'oeurves and art together.

The gallery is open from noon to five, Thursday through Sunday, and is operated by the Arts Council of Windham County. Find out more at their website or call (802) 257-1881.

After that, we walked up Main Street to Amy's Bakery Arts Cafe. It's a neat little patisserie with a lot more to offer. The shop was packed with bundled up customers when we went in. At the register, there are samples to try of the most recent deliveries from the cafe's ovens.

The restaurant has a wide variety of food choices. It does bread -- lots of different sorts of baguettes and loaves and varieties. It does pastries of all sorts. It does doughnuts and pies and custom cakes. There are enough choices to confuse even the least indecisive person.

And they have pizza -- big, oven baked beauties browned with love and topped with fresh cheese. They also offer a wide selection of coffee and tea options, with organic raw sugar cubes and cream to add in.

While I was there, I had a cafe au lait that came with its own good head of foam, and a large blueberry lemon turnover -- neither of which made it on camera.
Despite having recently dined at the Riverview Cafe, it was impossible not to inhale the delicate pastry and warming coffee drink right then and there. Maybe it was the snow.

The crowd that ebbed in and out of the cafe shows just how popular this eatery is. You can reach Amy's Bakery Arts Cafe at (802) 251-1071.

And then I went down to the Latchis. It's an Art Deco style complex -- one of only two in that style in the state of Vermont, according to the website. The Latchis is a hotel and a theater, and a bit more than that.

The hotel was built in 1938. It was dedicated to the memory of Demetrius P. Latchis, a Greek immigrant who started out with a fruit stand and ended up opening a chain of 14 theaters in New England. His sons named the complex after him.

In its heyday, the hotel had 60 rooms, a ballroom, a dining room, a gigantic theater, and more. Today, it's organized a bit differently, but it's still very impressive. The Brattleboro Arts Initiative purchased the hotel from the Latchis family in 2003, and it's doing what it can to keep the hotel and theater operational and in good condition.

The hotel is neat. It hasn't been extensively reconstructed, just renovated enough to keep up with the times. Each of the hotel's 30 rooms comes with cable TV, phone, mini-fridge, and coffeemaker. They're spacious, and adorned with artwork from local artists. You can purchase these paintings to take home.

Rooms come in all sorts of combinations -- from a room with two twin beds to a suite with two rooms and a sitting room. Rates start at $75 a night, but increase for holidays and during the fall, when folks come up to see the foliage.

Folks who stay here can also take advantage of breakfast in the lobby and WiFi throughout the hotel. And you have to check out the old fashioned elevator -- where you push the button, wait for the external door to close, and then close the internal door. I'd never seen anything like it.

The hotel still sports a lot of period furnishings and light fixtures. But the bathrooms have been updated to modern standards. This is a really neat place. A good number of the rooms overlook Main Street and the Connecticut River, and the others look out over Flat Street.

Of course, you can't talk about the Latchis without a look in on the theater. The day I came by, an orchestra concert was just beginning. I snapped a few lowlight pictures. The theater is gorgeous -- somewhere between art deco and Greek Revival -- with lots of brass and busts and angles. Beautiful.

The theater in which the orchestra was performing is the largest of the three operating right now. It has 750 seats -- including balcony seating. The ceiling is painted into an astrological wheel, gold paint on a beautiful black and blue matte. Every wall is painted and embellished with columns and Greek imagery, a wonder for the eye to behold. When there's not a live performance, movies can also be shown here on a large screen.

The incredible artwork isn't limited to that one room, though. Out into the lobby, there are all sorts of gorgeous scenes, like marble fountains and zodiac symbols laid out on the floor. Bas relief images hang over the entrances to the theaters and in stairwells. There's even an old fashioned popcorn counter where you can still purchase Hot Tamales and Junior Mints, displayed prominently on red velvet behind glass.

The complex also houses the previously mentioned Adivasi Indian home furnishings store, a jewelry store, and the Flat Street Brew Pub -- which serves light fare and a variety of Vermont brewed beer selections. For more information about the hotel, call the Latchis at (800) 798-6301. You can also check out what's playing at the theater by calling (802) 246-1500.

Heading back up the street, I met back up with my traveling companions. We headed down Elliot Street, where I captured a shot of something that looked improbable to me -- the Hotel Pharmacy, located inside a former Methodist Church built in the 1880s. The pharmacy (that part of the name is correct; it isn't a hotel) meets the street level on the north side at Elliot. Underneath is a three story basement that faces onto Flat Street.

Cattycorner across the street is Everyone's Books, a packed-to-the-gills bookstore with all sorts of merchandise. The bookstore is geared towards those who desire social change. You can find all sorts of books there, and t-shirts, and bumper stickers. I was especially impressed by the fact that there were plenty of places to sit and read. This is a good place to pick up a quick gift or chat with one of the locals.

Unfortunately, with the oncoming evening it was time to head back to the greater Boston area. In just a few hours in the town, I had the chance to experience a very laid back community with a lot of different options for eating, shopping, and enjoying oneself. The friends who brought me to this place come up here each year for holiday shopping. I can see why this would be preferable to the hustle and bustle of a major retail development in a big city!

I still marvel at how close everything seems to be in New England. Brattleboro isn't far from the Boston area. It's a pretty drive from Manchester, NH and not all that far from Albany, NY. You can find it tucked away off Interstate 91 not far from the northern border of Massachusetts.

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