A small town with a lot to offer

Middlebury, Vt., offers a peek into the past with a cultural emphasis on the present.

When people think of the "real New England," they tend to envision a town like Middlebury, with its quaint white churches and brick storefronts. They imagine Victorian homes, rolling hills, and well-tended farms.

Middlebury does have all of these things. But look beyond the picture-postcard New England-village appearance, and you'll discover that there is nothing middlebrow or bucolic about this tiny Vermont college town located on US Route 7 between Rutland and Burlington.

In fact, it's something of a cultural oasis.

The village brims with museums, fine dining, charming accommodations, and great shopping. No small feat for a small town. Visitors can also steep themselves in history in Middlebury – 329 houses and buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

What's more, there are more than 250 performances of dance, music, and theater each year at Middlebury College, home of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference (which will take place Aug. 14 to 25 this year).

You might attend a performance of pan-Arabic music, hear a talk by a well-known artist, or meet the director of a foreign-language film.

The town even has a little bit of Hollywood. The Waybury Inn, a few miles east of Middlebury, was the setting for TV's "Newhart," a popular sitcom about a Vermont innkeeper, his wife, and their neighbors.

And – to make it even easier for visitors to see all the sights – almost everything is within walking distance from inns and bed and breakfasts.

The best way to get a sense of the charms of this 233-year-old New England town is to take a stroll. A good place to start your walk is at the top of Main Street, at the 194-year-old white clapboard Congregational Church that is the town's centerpiece. Its tiered steeple dominates the downtown and can be seen for miles around.

Same place, new face

Crossing the street in front of the church brings you to the diamond-shaped village green. The white latticework bandstand is the setting for Fourth of July speeches and summer band concerts with people picnicking on the grass.

But the green wasn't always such a peaceful place. In 1790, town father Gamalial Painter deeded the land to the town to be used as a place for the stocks and the flogging post.

Thieves were flogged on the green on a regular basis, and, back then, if a woman argued with her husband, he could have her placed in the stocks for several days. A marble post marks the spot where the stocks once stood.

Just beyond the green is the 107-year-old Main Street bridge, which spans the churning Middlebury Falls and Otter Creek, the longest waterway in the state. The falls and creek were once a major power source for mills that produced marble, cotton, wool, nails, flour, and grain, making Middlebury a prosperous town in the 18th and 19th centuries.

When you get hungry, you'll find that Middlebury offers plenty of regional culinary delights. The Swift House Inn is known for its grilled duck sausage with polenta and chutney and its toffee pecan torte.

Dining at the Middlebury Inn, which has been a town fixture since 1827, might begin with an appetizer of Tempura Woodland Mushrooms. Entrees may include veal sautéed with shitake mushrooms and sole stuffed with spinach and crabmeat.

A short drive out of town on Route 7 south brings you to the Waybury Inn. Over a meal of swordfish with mango chutney, you can imagine three of the Newhart show characters – Larry, his brother Darryl, and his other brother Darryl – coming through the front door.

Nearby is the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History, a three-story brick house built in 1829 by marble merchants. Its six black-marble fireplaces were all crafted from stone quarried in Middlebury. The clothing, furnishings, and pictures give visitors a greater understanding of what life was like for early settlers of the town.

Opening on July 13 will be an exhibit of contemporary furniture by the Guild of Vermont Furniture Makers.

Also worth a visit is the Gamalial Painter house, built in 1802. Now the home of the Vermont Folk Life Center, this small museum offers interesting exhibits of Vermont life past and present.

Feast for the eyes

The Vermont State Craft Center at Frog Hollow is housed in a converted mill next to rushing Otter Creek Falls. This nonprofit shop has a magnificent selection of art and crafts work by Vermont artisans: hand-blown and stained glass, pottery, jewelry, woven clothing, and woodwork. You can come away with anything from a $10 Christmas ornament to a handcrafted $3,500 drop-leaf table.

From May through August, the craft center offers adult classes in ceramics, jewelrymaking, photography, sculpture, and other artistic disciplines.

Fans of old-fashioned covered bridges will find two spans of interest in Middlebury. Halpin Bridge (circa 1824 to 1850) crosses Muddy Branch, off Halpin Road, with a waterfall below. Pulpmill Bridge, which likely dates to sometime between 1808 and 1824, is one of only six two-lane covered bridges in the US.

Should you still have a few days' vacation remaining and be reluctant to leave this beautiful area, nearby attractions include the University of Vermont Morgan Horse Farm (located 2-1/2 miles from Middlebury); Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Basin Harbor, Vt.; Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vt.; and New York's Fort Ticonderoga, which dates to the French and Indian War.

With an abundance of museums, historic sites, good food, and beautiful scenery, Middlebury is a good spot to savor both the past and the present.

More on Middlebury

For more information:

• Mid Vermont for All Seasons, 800-733-8376.

• Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing, (802) 828-3237.

• Middlebury College Center for the Arts, www.middlebury.edu/cfa.

• The Middlebury Inn, 800-842-4666.

• The Waybury Inn, 800-348-1810.

• The Swift House Inn, (802) 388-9925.

• Frog Hollow Vermont State Craft Center, (802) 388-4074 or www.froghollow.org.

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