High-class Southern with a side of grits
Located on a bluff overlooking the Tennessee River, Florence, Ala., was named in 1818 after Florence, Italy, by the town’s original surveyor.
Gen. Andrew Jackson was among the buyers who purchased the first 180 lots in the community that soon became a thriving textile center. Regrettably, nearly all the industrial base was destroyed during the Civil War because the town repeatedly changed hands between Confederate and Union forces. Today, as one of the largest and most progressive cities in North Alabama, Florence is home to the University of North Alabama, as well as host to numerous art and music venues, historic sites and a calendar of events to highlight the best of it all.
Why go now: Now that summer’s sweltering heat and humidity are past, take advantage of the South’s “pleasant season,” which is not necessarily disconnected from Southeastern Conference football. And because the holidays are upon us, you’ll find plenty of boutiques to shop. My favorite — not just in Florence, but anywhere I’ve been this year — is Billy Reid (www.billyreid.com), a clothing store stocked with luxury goods for men and women. Beautiful fabrics, exquisite construction and classic style in the context of “cool community.”
Spend your day: Muscle Shoals, Ala., next door neighbor to Florence, is hallowed ground for music buffs. Start out with a studio tour at FAME (http://www. fame2.com), where during the past 50 years, they have been involved with recording or publishing records that have sold more than 350 million copies worldwide – including “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Otis Redding, plus artists Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Otis Redding, the Osmonds, Jerry Reed, Alabama, Mac Davis, the Gatlin Brothers, Bobbie Gentry and many others. More recently, FAME has recorded projects for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Matisyahu, Band of Horses, Drive by Truckers, Bettye Lavette, Cyril Neville the Civil Wars and Jamie Johnson.
Alabama Music Hall of Fame (http://www.alamhof.org ) Step inside Alabama’s tour bus. Record your own song in the studio. Take selfies with the legends of music greats who call Alabama home. Not a lot of bells and whistles here, but plenty of nostalgia and memorabilia to keep you busy for a couple of hours. Special events here are vibrant and fun.
The W. C. Handy House, Library and Museum (http://www.florenceal.org/Community_Arts/Local_Attractions/index. html) Best known for having composed “Memphis Blues” and “St. Louis Blues,” W. C. Handy (1873-1958) was eventually recognized as “Father of the Blues.” Historians have curated a plethora of memorabilia that are a testament to Handy’s talent, tenacity and tenure as an icon of American music.
Helen Keller’s Birthplace (www.helenkellerbirthplace.org) Docents say people from around the world continue to seek out the attraction — especially to touch the actual well-pump where Anne Sullivan reached into the dark silent world of young Helen Keller’s mind and opened the window of communication. Check the 2016 schedule for performances of “Miracle Worker,” held on site, usually during June.
Must do: The Wichahpi Commemorative Stone Wall — Just outside Florence is one of the most remarkable sites I have ever visited, a person I hope to meet again and a pilgrimage I recommend to everyone. Known simply as “Tom’s Wall,” the memorial — actually the largest unmortared stone wall in the U.S. — was built solely with the hands of Tom Hendrix over the course of more than a quarter century to honor his great-great-grandmother, a Yuchi Indian who was part of the American Indian removal to Oklahoma. Every step along the 8 million pounds of sandstone and limestone is sacred and soul-satisfying.
Where to eat: Swamper’s Bar and Grill — Honoring Alabama’s rich cultural heritage, Swampers Bar and Grill is named for the original house band at Muscle Shoals’ FAME studio. As such, this casual restaurant inside the Marriott Shoals doubles as virtual music heritage museum, with pictures and memorabilia on every wall. The pimento BLT — made with fried green tomatoes — is a favorite. Two-handed hamburgers with thick cut fries are also popular. Their shrimp and cheddar grits are served with Creole sauce and topped with crispy housemade tasso and the “holy trinity:” celery, onions and bell pepper.
City Hardware — A two-story restaurant downtown, this is a good spot for comfort food with a twist, with starters like fried chicken benedict: cornbread topped with buttermilk fried chicken, fried egg, sliced tomato, baby spinach, chipotle hollandaise and grilled asparagus.
Where to stay: Marriott Shoals Hotel, Spa & Conference Center — I’m all for getting a big bang for my hotel buck, and this Marriott property delivers in a big way. An airport shuttle is available to deliver you to this sprawling property that hugs the Tennessee River. Rooms and suites are designed with a generous array of luxury amenities. If you’re a golfer, you’ll want to play one of two courses on the nearby Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. The Shoals’ full-service spa, staffed with great ambassadors for Southern hospitality, will pamper you from head to toe — if you can pull yourself out of their swanky gift shop! Top-floor fine dining offers spectacular 360-degree views of the area; and first-floor casual dining features live local music every night.
Getting around: Downtown Florence is completely walkable, but you’ll definitely need wheels to navigate the Florence-Muscle Shoals scene.
So you know: When you visit Tom’s Wall, consider taking a rock or stone to add to the hundreds which other pilgrims have added — crystals, ancient boundary markers, cornerstones, geodes, etc.
More information: Florence/Lauderdale Tourism (www. VisitFlorenceAL.com); 200 Jim Spain Drive; Florence, AL 35630. Phone 256-740-4141 or Toll Free 888-356-8687.