Columbus!

By on 5 November, 2018 in Fun, Kate and Stephen with 0 Comments

Last weekend, we had the opportunity to cross the border to the east and visit Columbus, Georgia. Stephen was there for a work event that would take up most of our Saturday, and the dog and I tagged along for the ride. It’s a quick trip, just about an hour and a half. Columbus adjoins Alabama’s own Phenix City, which has long labored under the image of being a place of ill repute.

We were on the company dime for lodging, so we stayed at one of Columbus’ two Microtels. We’d never stayed at a Microtel, but we chose it because it was inexpensive and dog friendly. We can’t, alas, recommend the place to you for your next trip to Columbus. When we checked in, there was most of a case of Coors Light in our bathroom. On the one hand, free (warm) beer! But, shoddy housekeeping aside, this was a room that wouldn’t keep cool in a place where the walls were paper thin. But, fine, you get what you pay for. And the dog was happy to come along.

Friday night we wanted to have a nice dinner, so we made a reservation at Epic, which says it serves a kind of modern American cuisine, whatever that is. We went downtown a little early to check out the scene, and the place was packed. There was a rock band playing in the expansive median on the main street, which was blocked off to accommodate the folks walking around and setting up camp chairs and the like. There weren’t any coolers allowed, and many establishments had set up outside operations serving beer and such. It was a pretty nice scene, even though the band wasn’t that great, and we appreciated their attempt to evoke the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The important thing was that people were outside on a lovely Fall Friday night, having fun, enjoying live music. We decided to have a drink on the rooftop bar at Smoke Bourbon and BBQ, and we ended up wondering why our city doesn’t have this kind of place. We wondered a lot, over the next 24 hours, why our city doesn’t have all kinds of stuff.

We found our restaurant tucked into the back of one of the many renovated industrial buildings that back onto the river and seem to be in the process of remodeling into a kind of mixed-use situation. These buildings are, in general, absolutely stunning, set back a good block from Front Street, and are in the process of being converted into lofts above with retail below. The building Epic is in had a lot of residential above, but seemed to still be working on the store fronts underneath.

In any case, the folks at Epic were extremely nice and professional. The place itself is upscale, so we were glad we’d worn something other than t-shirts. They seated us in a gigantic booth that made us feel like we were in a Frank Sinatra movie. Our server was plainly disappointed that we didn’t want to order anything off the place’s extremely expansive wine/beer/cocktail/liquor menu, but he soldiered on. We started with an heirloom tomato salad that was a sweet reminder of the recently-departed summer. There was also a bread course with two kinds of butter and an amazing tapenade.

Our food was overall a somewhat mixed bag. I asked the kitchen to make me a vegetarian plate, which is always a dicey option – but they didn’t have any entrees on the menu that didn’t feature meat, so I gave them the opportunity to improvise. What they brought was basically a medley of their sides – truffled mac and cheese, Brussels sprouts, risotto, and ratatouille. Although this might sound good, and the waiter was plenty reassuring about the abilities of the chef, the overall assembly and execution was disappointing. The ratatouille was excellent, but the other three items were lackluster for the price and pretension. Stephen, who sometimes will eat fish, described his seared Wahoo as “amazing.” Our dessert was pretty good – a “Study in Chocolate.” The night was beautiful, and we retired to the Microtel for a restless night.

The next morning, Stephen went to the surprisingly palatial Columbus Public Library for his meeting, and I took the dog to go exploring. I’d hoped to go the Lunchbox Museum, but it was either gone or my GPS wasn’t working, so I gave up on it after a few passes through the warehouse section of town. I went to see the Bo Bartlett Center over by the Riverwalk instead. I parked across the street and left the dog while I went to see some art.

Jonah

It’s a lovely gallery, a whisper-quiet place whose tall walls perfectly curate the art inside. The bulk of the place is dedicated to Bartlett’s work. We weren’t familiar with him until Stephen went to the gallery on a recent trip, and said I absolutely must go. Reader, you should too. His paintings are astonishing and moving. Many are wall-sized, with photorealistic depictions of people and their surroundings. There’s an accompanying exhibition of the artist’s diaries and personal ephemera that reveals, among other things, that he was a master anatomist. And this shows – the people he paints are so carefully portrayed that it might be easy to simply take in their situations without paying attention to the dazzling skill needed to render them at all, let alone at near-life sizes. The works themselves speak to classic and enduring human emotions while still reaching beyond shared experiences and challenging the viewer to imagine something new about the world and its possibilities (both sunny and dark).

Afterwards, I caught my breath and retrieved the dog to check out the riverwalk. Columbus has done an amazing job of developing its downtown and using the river as a public good. There’s an extended greenspace with places to walk, playgrounds, a place to rent bikes or watercraft, and a zip line operation that was having some kind of Zombie theme in honor of Halloween. The day we were there, the place was packed for a festival celebrating the river. Scout troops were out in force. The dog was repeatedly mobbed by children who wanted to pet her, and she loved the attention. You can walk down to the river here, along a wheelchair-accessible trail that gives a great view of the rapids and the rafts of people floating down the Chattahoochee. It made me wish that our city had a similar relationship to its river.

We were hungry, so we walked a few blocks to the downtown area. This is a place in transition – there are a number of places that are out of business (probably good that they got rid of their predatory rent-to-own store), and some going out of business (a pawn shop, a few clothing stores including one that might be a branch of Montgomery’s own Looking Good), but otherwise the main street is thriving. On a football Saturday in the South, hundreds of people were out and about. Every restaurant had outdoor seating, and there were dogs everywhere. We finally found a table at the Japanese restaurant. Though the food wasn’t very good, the service was great, and the dog was happy to be outside in the shade with some water that our server brought her.

Next, we went to the bookstore. The owner of Judy Bugs books was happy to let the dog come in and check out the place. Our dog doesn’t have a lot of experience in bookstores, but was happy to smell around while I browsed. I came away with a few things, and was especially impressed by the recent releases section that the owner curated. Also he had a lot of treats for the dog, and many patrons wanted to pet her.

Across the street, we checked out an antique shop that turned out to carry mostly (well, entirely) jewelry. The sign said they were pet friendly, so in we went. Fortunately there wasn’t anything to break at dog level, and she was well-received. The selection was really incredible, and I’m someone who’s pretty cynical about jewelry. There were items at just about every price point, and some amazing estate pieces that you couldn’t find anywhere else. I was especially taken by their selection in amber, and ended up taking something home for myself.

Then we got some coffee at Iron Bank Coffee next door. This place actually used to be a bank, and you can go sit in the still-extant vaults to read or hang out. After wandering around in the sun, we were tired and hot, so we sat to watch a musician singing on the corner for a little while before leaving to pick Stephen up and go home in time for the evening Bama football game.

Columbus, like us, a city with a large military base and a river, is a really nice town. They have a great downtown full of well-preserved old buildings that makes terrific use of its old mill and warehouse buildings, as well as a walkable and inviting riverfront. Here in Montgomery, we hear a lot about how we want our city to be more like Chattanooga, and we’ve never been there, so we can’t really say about that. But we’d do a lot worse to be more like Columbus, especially this part of town, which gives a glimpse of what things could be like if we had a truly functional downtown area.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with two cats, a dog, ten fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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