Roanoke: city of unexpected delights

01/18/2014 12:00 AM

01/16/2014 6:18 PM

“Hey, y’all, we’ll move over. Come sit on down,” the scruffy bearded man called to us. We had heard the Texas Tavern eatery in Roanoke was small, but didn’t realize it was this small — a tiny hallway of a café.

The Tavern’s loyal clientele flocks to it 24 hours a day, no matter that they have to stand outside and wait for one of the ten bar stools. Those $1.70 bowls of “chile” and $1.30 burgers and dogs hit the spot, as they have for Roanokers and others since the 1930s.

On this day, the stools were occupied by an extroverted South African, two burly bikers from Miami, our bearded new friend and his buddy, the three of us, and a spiffily dressed businessman. All races, all professions, all income levels rest their feet on the old foot rail. The Tavern even sports an ancient cigarette vending machine.

Just as the Texas Tavern surprised me, I was delighted by Roanoke during a recent visit. It’s a hodgepodge, with unexpected discoveries at every turn. “Star City” — called that because of the 100-foot-high man-made star that overlooks it from Mill Mountain — is not to be confused with North Carolina’s “lost colony of Roanoke.” This Roanoke is very much alive.

Virginia’s Roanoke Valley encompasses the lovely Grandma Moses-like patchwork of the city itself and the surrounding villages of Bedford, Catawba, Fincastle, Salem, Troutville, and others along the densely wooded Blue Ridge Parkway. With a population of more than 300,000, it is the largest metropolitan center in the Blue Ridge Mountains, offering a heady mix of outdoor beauty and recreation, culture, folk heritage, history and Southern hospitality.

From the awe-inspiring top of McAfee Knob, to an eclectic yet very professional performance of Opera Roanoke, to a moving film about a man with a passion for steam locomotives, I had experiences here I’d never had elsewhere.

Center in the Square, in the heart of Roanoke, houses three museums, state-of-the-art theater, and butterfly pavilion. Recently reopened after an expansive renovation, the Center is home to The Science Museum of Western Virginia, the History Museum of Western Virginia and Harrison Museum of African American Culture. Mill Mountain Theatre is a regional professional venue, presenting plays and musicals year round.

Just 20 years ago, almost no one lived in then-dilapidated downtown Roanoke. Urban renewal kicked in and today, there are 70 restaurants, a multitude of shops, bustling sidewalks, and restored lofts and condos filled with residents.

Check out Thelma’s Chicken and Waffles café for its soul food (aah, that fried chicken!) — as the sign tells you, “Run tell dat!” Appalachia Press uses an antique letterpress and modern design techniques to make unique stationery and artwork. The Farmers Market sells wares daily from 8 a.m.-3 p.m.

The Roanoke Valley was built on railroads, specifically the Norfolk & Southern. Its fiery steam locomotives, carrying coal and cargo, inspired railroad photographer O. Winston Link. After I saw the captivating and moving documentary of his life at the O. Winston Link Museum, I was mesmerized by the museum’s collection of his photographs of this era.

For those who want to know more about trains and other types of vehicles, the vast Virginia Museum of Transportation is located in Roanoke’s historic Norfolk & Western Railway Freight Station. The collection includes more than 50 rail cars, the largest collection of diesel locomotives in the South, including two of the engines depicted so lovingly in the Link documentary, and an incredible life-sized Styrofoam replica of the Polar Express.

I was touched by docent Charles Hardy, who recalled seeing his first steam locomotive at age 8 and being frightened by it. Later, as a Norfolk & Southern railroad employee for many years, Hardy spoke about coming to love and respect the engines. “You actually feel their heartbeat,” he mused, standing next to one of the long-dormant, majestic locomotives in the museum yard. “Here, put your hand on the side and wait. They’ve got souls. Oh yes, they’ve got souls.” Indeed, his emotion moved me to put my hand on it — and imagine.

I was fascinated by the section devoted to the oral and pictorial history of African American railroad employees who were held back in lower positions no matter how well and hard they worked. Strolling afterwards on the Railwalk along the still-operating tracks, I was struck by the contrast between yesterday’s romantic U.S.-made steam locomotives and today’s dismal stream of cargo ship containers marked with foreign names. How would Link have felt?

A quick stroll away, the Taubman Museum of Art (formerly the Art Museum of Western Virginia) is housed in an impressive architectural gem and showcases American, modern, contemporary, design, decorative, folk and regional arts. With more than 2,000 pieces in its permanent collection, I wanted to spend several hours here.

Nearby, the stately, Tudor revival-style Roanoke Hotel, built in 1882, reigns still. The “Grand Old Lady,” exquisitely restored in the mid ’90s by its new owner, Virginia Tech, is filled with historical photos, frescoes, memorabilia and furnishings. It is once again the site for debutante balls, power brunches, and the Virginia Tech football team the night before each home game.

Originally constructed to handle the railroad industry businessmen and travelers, the Hotel Roanoke is a must-see. Most will stop to savor the signature Peanut Soup (a warm, savory peanut buttery concoction) with buttery spoon bread in a cast-iron skillet — one of the best comfort food duos I’ve ever had.

Beyond downtown, the valley beckons: Fincastle, considered a museum of American architecture, offers an easy hike to Roaring Run Falls, a split waterfall, and a 19th century iron furnace used in the Civil War. A challenging hike to McAfee Knob features an overhang of rock and a panoramic view of the Roanoke Valley.

If you’d rather drive than hike, follow the Blue Ridge Parkway to Floyd, a key stop on Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail; or Chateau Morrisette, one of the state’s largest wineries, producing 15 different varietals; or Pomegranate, a sophisticated bistro in the small burg of Troutville that serves up exceptional fare.

The National D-Day Memorial in Bedford commemorates the 19 men from that small town who died in the invasion. With a population of less than 4000, Bedford had the highest per capita loss of any U.S. city or town. The memorial is impressive, with a stylized English Garden, invasion tableau and Victory Plaza, surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains.

My last day in the Valley ended with a feast at the famed Homeplace Restaurant in Catawba. Built in 1907, it sits on the grounds of a pretty farm, replete with meandering Angus cattle and tidy white barn. Folks wait for up to three hours (without complaining!) to dine country-style — big bowls passed down the table — on fried chicken, roast beef, country ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, cole slaw, buttery biscuits and warm cobbler.

Dining at the Homeplace is listed #5 on nearby Virginia Tech’s Bucket List of 72 Things to Do before graduation. Indeed, there were many Virginia Tech students sitting on the stairs the night we were there, enjoying the bluegrass musicians while they waited.

This is Virginia, after all — if you want a fast pace and lots of action, go elsewhere. If you want to relax and feast your senses on the Blue Ridge Mountain, come on over to the Roanoke Valley.   

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