A Small Town with a Lot to Offer ; Middlebury, Vt., Offers a Peek into the Past with a Cultural Emphasis on the Present

Article excerpt

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. …