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Taking a day trip to ... Athens

By Justin Boron

jboron@news-daily.com

Whether for the vibrancy of late night festivals, like the cycling race this weekend, or the demure colonial buildings at Georgia's flagship university, the small city of Athens provides a spectrum of reasons for a one-day getaway.

The Athens Twilight Criterium is one of those reasons.

Local cyclist and Stockbridge Bike Center employee Jon Cheaves will participate in the annual event this Saturday, which encircles Athens' downtown in a closed circuit track and draws crowds as large as 25,000 people.

"It's the biggest race in the Southeast," Cheaves, 26, said.

With its $1.25 million economic impact, the Athens Twilight Criterium is an explosive event for the city about 70 miles northeast of Atlanta, said Gene Dixon, the founder and director of the race.

About 2,500 people are expected to participate in the daytime events that lead up to the evening main event with 125 cyclists, he said.

One of the best parts of the day is the open air beer gardens, said Athens resident Josh Erwin, 25.

Situated on the track, spectators can eat and drink while cyclists whiz by.

The race first ran in 1980, a time when the downtown area was in decline, Dixon said.

"The big fear was that Athens would be a ghost town," he said.

Since 1980, the race has gradually grown into a nationally recognized event that fuses cycling with music, another one of Athens' pastimes garnering national attention.

Throughout the day of races, local musical acts play on a nearby stage. The event serves as a prelude to the AthFest Music &Arts Festival beginning June 18. The three day event features an amalgam of local and regional acts.

University of Georgia

Bordering the flurry of downtown nightlife and the University of Georgia campus is the Arch.

Through the university's gateway and trademark icon, the campus opens up to dozens of seemingly ancient oaks and lush green grass in North Campus. The area of campus contains much of the university's long history, which begins with its state charter in 1785.

Some of the university's original buildings draw people from out of state, said John Flibotte, 54, of Kingston, Mass.

"It's a lot older than a lot of Massachusetts," he said. "This (campus) has a lot of character."

North Campus also includes Herty Field, the original football field for the university.

Other places to visit on the campus are the Creamery in the South Campus and the Georgia Museum of Art, said Brandon Addison, 23, a visitors guide for the university's welcome center.

Daily tours can be arranged through the visitors center at 706-542-0842.

Parking

Like most cities, Athens' parking is metered on-street or pay decks. During the day, the best bet is a parking lot or deck with hourly and flat rates.

One of the city's major decks is on College Avenue. Another is on Hancock Avenue, near the county courthouse. And there is a deck on Thomas Street at the Classic Center, Athens' convention center and major theater.

Most students will tell visitors definitely not to park in university lots, where during the weekdays fines can run between $30 and $40. However, the city isn't as stringent. There is only a $3 fine for a parking violation downtown and a maximum fine of $6 per day. At night, university and city parking are free with the exception of the decks.

Food

Downtown Athens features nearly 100 bars and restaurants that range from fine dining to hole-in-the wall dives.

Places like the Porterhouse Grill, DePalmas, East-West Bistro, and the Last Resort Bar and Grill offer an elegant dining experience for reasonable prices. Dinner entrees range from $10 to $25. Reservations aren't typically needed downtown, but visitors can expect a wait on a Friday or Saturday night as students, out-of-towners, and locals crawl into the area to begin the night.

There are also dozens of cafes and delis to pick up a quick bite. Angelo's, Barberito's, and Five Star Day offer more than ample portions for a few dollars.

Nightlife

From Thomas Street on the east to Pulaski Street on the west, an open bar is never more than half a block away. At around 10 p.m. on a Friday, the downtown district is humming with the chatter of bar-hoppers who comb the street as late as 3 a.m. sometimes.

The bar scene is split down the center, east and west, by College Avenue, where hot dog vendors, street musicians, and panhandlers set up to catch the passersby.

On the east side of downtown places like Firehouse and Flanagan's offer ebullient crowds and dirt cheap drinks.

But for a more casual setting, the docile west side has several places with a sit down atmosphere like the Manhattan Cafe or Room 13's outdoor patio.

The west side also is home to Athens' renown entertainment venues such as the 40 Watt, The Caledonia Lounge, and the Morton Theatre, which, built in 1910, is one of the oldest surviving vaudeville theaters to have been owned and operated by an African American.

Last call for bars is at 2 a.m. Don't venture too far out of a bar with a drink, bike cops keep a sharp eye for any divergence from the few rules that exist.

The Antebellum Trail

The trail runs the gamut of historical, educational, and entertainment sites, with everything from museums to bed n' breakfasts. The state designated trail, which grew out of a University of Georgia student project, extends south from Athens along Ga. Highway 441. It links up historic communities of Athens, Watkinsville, Madison, Eatonton, Milledgeville, Old Clinton, and Macon.

Just south of Athens, Watkinsville is the county seat in the largely rural Oconee County. The small historic downtown area is home to the Eagle Tavern Museum, which is one of the county's earlier surviving structures and now serves as a welcome center.

About 20 miles south, Madison is known for its bed and breakfast lodging. Historically, it was one of the towns to narrowly miss the singe of Sherman's March to the Sea. Directly in Sherman's path, Madison resident and Senator Joshua Hill convinced him not to burn the town.

Filled with more than 100 Antebellum and Victorian structures, Eatonton claims to be the home of the Br'er Rabbit and the Uncle Remus Tales. Brochures for the town say one of its buildings, Panola Hall is haunted.

The former state capital, Milledgeville is laid out in gridiron pattern like Washington D.C. In 1803, it was selected. It is now home to the Georgia College & State University. The on campus library features the Flannery O'Connor Room, where visitors can read and study the works of the late writer.

Described in tourism brochures as "the town that time forgot," Old Clinton is a small rural village, originally settled by New Englanders. The town plan, architecture, and homes close to the street reflect the northeastern influence.

Taking on the entire trail may require four spare days. But the close to 95 miles of the trail could be covered in a day by the expedient traveler.

For more information about the Antebellum trail and Athens tours, call the Athens Welcome Center at (706)-353-1820.