Nashville's Flip Side Country-music capital has sights as well as sounds

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Nashville -- On stage at Opryland USA, Pam Tillis was proclaiming in song that she was "Cleopatra, Queen of Denial." And in the audience, her fans were whooping and hollering, their dreams, hopes and wishes right up on stage with her.

That is how it should be in Nashville, the country-music capital of the world, home of the famed recording studios of Music Row and the spangled exhibits of the Country Music Hall of Fame. But there's another, less expected Nashville out there, too, -- one of historic homes, delightful dining and surprising sights. For every Kenny Rogers quick-chicken outlet, there are restaurants where the dining ranges from funky to superb. And for every Barbara Mandrell museum and its kin, there are graceful buildings of stone and brick, filled with statues and stories.

There is, for example, Belmont Mansion, home of Adelicia Acklen, the original "Steel Magnolia." She was aristocratic, beautiful, wealthy and endowed with the gift of perseverance. That gift carried her through the deaths of a fiance, two of her three husbands and six of her 10 children, as well as the upheaval of the Civil War. During the war, in fact, she was so savvy that she outwitted Union and Confederate troops alike and made almost a million dollars running blockades and selling cotton to England. Tennesseans will tell you that if Scarlett O'Hara had actually existed, she would have been Adelicia Acklen.

The estate, an Italian villa, was built in 1850. An hourlong tour takes you through 15 restored rooms, filled with marble statues, gaseliers (chandeliers that sprout gas jets), ornamental mirrors and the nation's largest collection of 19th-century cast-iron garden ornaments. The Grand Salon is considered to be the most elaborate domestic room in antebellum Tennessee; you can almost imagine yourself at one of the lavish gatherings Acklen often held. The mansion stands on the campus of Belmont University, one of 16 colleges and universities in metro Nashville, including Vanderbilt and Fisk.

The Belle Meade Plantation also takes you to the Civil War era, with its cannonball-dented columns and air of quiet gentility. Known as the "Queen of the Tennessee Plantations," it was a thoroughbred horse farm of some repute in the 19th century.

The estate includes eight historic buildings and an antique-carriage collection in the huge carriage house and stables. But it is the main building, with its sweeping front lawn and colonnaded facade, that your eyes fall on first. Guides in period dress take you through, and more clothing of the 1800s -- bustles and all -- can be seen on mannequins. In addition to paintings of riders and horses, and other equine exhibits, there are such sights as a pane of glass inscribed with a name -- the writer was testing a diamond to see if it was real.

There are dozens of stories about Belle Meade, too, including the one about how William Howard Taft, who would become our most corpulent president, got stuck in the tub there and needed the help of four men to haul him out.

Many more historic buildings, and battlegrounds, too, can be found in the area -- an Antebellum Trail Guide lists 54 of them. And the homes of presidents Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk are near Nashville. But who would expect to visit a park near the heart of the city and see the Parthenon? Well, there it is, in Centennial Park.

This Parthenon is a re-creation, built for the city's Centennial Celebration in 1897. (The actual 100th anniversary was a year earlier, but what the heck. We are assured, however, that Nashville's bicentennial celebration will be on time, in 1996.)

The Parthenon replica, the only one of its kind in the world, contains the largest bronze doors in the world, weighing 7.5 tons, and houses the tallest indoor sculpture in the Western world -- that of Athena, who stands 42 feet tall. Inside is a variety of art, a reproduction of the original Parthenon interior and even castings of the famed Elgin Marbles from the British Museum.

Bring on the food

Nashville, too, is rapidly gaining a reputation as a city of dining experiences. Some of the credit for that goes to Tom Allen, an entrepreneur who a few years back turned his attention to restaurants and now has three. One of them, the Wild Boar, resembles a country chateau in Germany's Black Forest, with art works and such artifacts as ornate 16th-century Austrian throne chairs and medieval-style lances. The food is contemporary European, and, for a bit extra, gold table settings are available. The wine list fills 100 pages and includes 3,000 selections. Mr. Allen's other Nashville restaurants are Valentino's, specializing in Italian cuisine and also containing some of Mr. Allen's art collection; and F. Scott's, featuring contemporary American cuisine in a 1920s art deco setting. Nashville's four-star restaurants are the Wild Boar, Arthur's and Mario's.

And there are other kinds -- all kinds -- of dining in Nashville, including the Elliston Place Soda Shop, a downtown landmark for more than a half-century, where the atmosphere is 1950s, the cooking is home-style and the malts are memorable. The Pancake Pantry is another favorite for Southern food, as are Jack's Barbecue, Swett's and several more. So bring on the grits, okra, catfish and barbecue.

Among other popular spots for fun dining: the Cakewalk Cafe, Belle Meade Brasserie, the Blue Moon Waterfront Cafe, Hap Townes and, inevitably, the Hard Rock Cafe. Two new restaurants that have really taken off are Cafe 123 and the Bandry.

And for snacks there are always those nutty, chocolatey Southern treats, Goo Goos. You'll like them or you won't.

A changing downtown

Nashville is unusual in that it has two city centers: the Opryland area and downtown. Opryland, of course, is country-music heaven. It's home to Nashville on Stage, where stars perform; the legendary Grand Ole Opry radio show; the 120-acre Opryland theme park, with rides such as the Old Mill Scream; and the ever-expanding Opryland Hotel, with its indoor gardens, waterfalls and walking paths. Ten minutes away -- joined by trolleys and river taxis -- is the historic downtown area, home to such landmarks as the Ryman Auditorium, original home of the Opry and now a nicely renovated museum and performance center; Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, where for years country singers have sipped and commiserated; and Ernest Tubbs' record shop.

But going beyond the country attractions, you will find an area in transition. As in most downtowns, there are closed buildings, but there are also new ones and revamped areas such as the District, on the banks of the Cumberland River, with its specialty shops, dining spots, night clubs and dancing spots. There, too, is City Walk, inspired by Boston's Freedom Trail, which takes you on a pleasant stroll through the city's urban history.

When you visit Tennessee's capital city, country music will be always on your mind -- Nashville didn't earn the moniker Music City for nothing. But the moral of this story is, don't stop there. Taking in the "other" Nashville could add a lot of enjoyment to your stay.

IF YOU GO . . .

Belmont Mansion is at 1900 Belmont Blvd., Nashville, Tenn. 37212; (615) 386-4459. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. During June, July and August, the house is open Mondays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is charged.

Belle Meade Plantation is at 5025 Harding Road, Nashville, Tenn. 37205; (615) 356-0501. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission is charged.

The Parthenon is in Centennial Park, Nashville, Tenn., 37201; (615) 862-8431. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Call for extended summer hours. Admission is charged.

The Nashville area also has attractions such as riverboat rides, dinner-train excursions, a science museum, a wildlife park and a zoo. For more information on any of the city's attractions, write to the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau, 161 Fourth Ave. North, Nashville Tenn. 37219; or call (615) 259-4730.

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