Roanoke: It’s a hodge-podge

By | Category: Travel destinations
the hike to Roaring Run Falls

the hike to Roaring Run Falls

“Hey, Y’all, we’ll move over. Come sit on down,” the scruffy bearded man called over to us. Entering the miniscule Texas Tavern eatery in Roanoke, Virginia, we had heard it was small, but didn’t realize it was THIS small. A tiny hallway of a café, the Tavern’s loyal clientele flocks to it, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, no matter that they have to stand outside and wait for one of the ten bar stools. After all, those $1.70 bowls of chile (that’s how they spell their ‘con carne’) and $1.30 burgers and hot- dogs just fill the spot, as they have for Roanokers and others since the 1930’s. On this day, the stools were occupied by an extroverted South African, two burly bikers from Miami, our bearded new friend and his buddy, the three of us, and a spiffily dressed businessman. All races, all professions, all income levels rest their feet on the now flattened old foot rail. The Tavern even sports an ancient cigarette vending machine – when’s the last time you saw one of those relics?

Just as the Texas Tavern surprised me, I was delightfully pleased during a recent visit to Roanoke and it’s surrounding areas. It’s a hodge-podge – with unexpected discoveries at every turn. The “Star City,” affectionately known as that due to the enormous, 100-foot-high man-made star towering over it from Mill Mountain, overlooking ten miles of trails and the sweeping vistas below of the lush valley. Not to be confused with North Carolina’s ‘lost colony of Roanoke,’ (the site of a 16th century English settlement that disappeared mysteriously,) this Roanoke is very much alive.

Virginia’s Roanoke Valley encompasses a lovely Grandma Moses-like patchwork of the city itself and the surrounding villages of Bedford, Catawba, Fincastle, Salem, Troutville, and others along the densely wooded Blue Ridge Parkway region. By the way, the word Roanoke comes from a Native American term meaning ‘shell beads.’ It is the largest metropolitan centre (some 300,000+ population) in the Blue Ridge Mountains, offering a heady mix of outdoor beauty and recreation, culture, folk heritage, history and Southern hospitality. Ranging from the awe-inspiring top of McAfee Knob, to an eclectic, yet very professional, performance of Opera Roanoke, to a moving film about a man with a passion for steam locomotives, I had experiences I’d never had elsewhere.


The famous Roanoke star looks out over the valley

The famous Roanoke star looks out over the valley

Center in the Square, in the heart of downtown Roanoke, is a rarity – housing three museums, along with a state-of-the-art theatre and butterfly pavilion all in the same space. Recently reopened after an expansive renovation, the Center is home to The Science Museum of Western Virginia with hands-on and interactive exhibits, the History Museum of Western Virginia (with permanent and travelling exhibits about Roanoke area,) and Harrison Museum of African American Culture – worthy and very well-presented. The Mill Mountain Theatre is a regional professional venue, presenting plays and musicals year round.

Downtown Roanoke is resplendent in its renovation – just twenty years ago, almost no one lived in the then-dilapidated area. Urban renewal kicked in and today, there are 70 bustling restaurants, a multitude of shops, bustling sidewalks, and the restored lofts and condos are filled with residents who enjoy the easy pedestrian access to the famous Farmers Market selling wares daily from 8-3. Check out Thelma’s Chicken and Waffles café for its southern-style  soul food  (ahh, that fried chicken!)  – as the sign outside tells you, “Run tell dat!” A special shop is Appalachia Press, with an antique letterpress that the owner combines with modern design techniques to make unique stationery and artwork. The store is supposedly open to the public only on Saturdays (or by appointment,) but I walked right in on a Wednesday without a problem.

The Roanoke Valley was built on railways, specifically the Norfolk & Southern, with its fiery steam locomotives, carrying coal and cargo, which inspired the passion of railroad photographer O. Winston Link. I hadn’t heard of Link, and didn’t think I’d be too interested in him, until I saw the captivating and moving documentary of his somewhat tragic life at the O. Winston Link Museum.  After the film, I was mesmerised by the museum’s collection of his photographs of this era – gone forever but captured beautifully by Link for posterity. For those who want to know more about trains, and other types of vehicles, the vast Virginia Museum of Transportation is located in Roanoke’s historic Norfolk & Western Railway Freight Station.

©  Virginia Museum of Transportation

© Virginia Museum of Transportation

The collection includes some 2,500 objects, more than 50 carriages and the largest collection of diesel locomotives in the South, including two of the engines depicted so lovingly in the Link documentary. Oh, and there is an incredible life-sized Styrofoam replica of the engine in the beloved book and movie, “Polar Express.” Making the museum truly captivating is its volunteer staff, comprised of train buffs and former railroaders. I was touched by one of the trained guides,  Charles Hardy, who recalled seeing his first steam locomotive at just 8 years old, and being frightened by it. Later, as a Norfolk & Southern railroad employee for many years, Hardy spoke about coming to love and respect the engines. “You actually feel their heartbeat,” he mused, standing next to one of the long-dormant, majestic locomotives in the museum yard. “Here, put your hand on the side and wait. They’ve got souls. Oh yes, they’ve got souls.” Indeed, his emotion moved me to put my hand on it – and imagine.

I was fascinated by the section devoted to the oral and pictorial history of African American railroad employees who were held back in lower positions no matter how well and hard they worked. Strolling afterwards on the so-called Railwalk, a third-mile walkway along the still-operating tracks, I was struck by the contrast of what once was the romantic, thunderous rolling of U.S.-made steam locomotives, and today’s dismal sight of endless multi-coloured cargo ship containers marked with Chinese names such as Yang Ming Kline and Hanjin Hapag Lloyd. How would Link have felt?

a typical country store co mplete with rocking chairs

a typical country store complete with rocking chairs

A quick stroll away, the acclaimed Taubman Museum of Art (formerly the Art Museum of Western Virginia) is housed in an impressive architectural gem, and displays American, modern, contemporary, design, decorative, folk and regional arts. With more than 2,000 pieces in its permanent collection, I wanted to spend several hours here.  Since its right downtown, visitors can easily skip out for a lunch and return, or enjoy the pleasant and well-priced museum café. Special bonus – the museum, open Tuesday – Saturday, is free to the public.

Just a block or so from the Taubman and downtown, the stately, Tudor revival-style Roanoke Hotel (built in 1882) reigns still. The “Grand Old Lady,” exquisitely restored in the mid ‘90’s by the new owners, Virginia Tech, is filled with historical photos, frescos, memorabilia and furnishings.. It is once again the site for the town’s ‘hoity toity,’ hosting debutante balls, power brunches, and, the Virginia Tech football team the nights before each home game! Originally constructed to handle the railroad industry businessmen and travellers, the Hotel Roanoke is a “must see” in Roanoke – and most will stop to savour the signature Peanut Soup (sort of a warm, savory peanut buttery concoction) with adjoining buttery spoon bread in a cast-iron skillet – one of the best comfort food duos I’ve ever had.

Roaring Run Falls

Roaring Run Falls

Beyond downtown, the valley beckons, full of Appalachian and Blue Ridge wilderness and pastoral countryside, distinctive villages and recreational offerings. The Blue Ridge Mountains are a geomorphic section of the larger Appalachian Mountain range, dividing near the Roanoke River gap. The Blue Ridge Mountains contain the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile long scenic highway connecting Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Botetourt County, resplendent in rolling hills with miles of hiking and biking trails; wide rivers, tumbling streams, and never-ending country vistas is just begging to be painted. Here there are towns as Fincastle, considered a ‘museum’ of American architecture of the late 1770’s until modern day. Fincastle is home to the pleasant easy tree-lined hike to Roaring Run Falls where there is a split waterfall and an historic 19th century iron furnace used in the Civil War. A challenging, but well-worth-it hike to McAfee Knob, a trademark hike of the Appalachian Trail, features an overhang of rock and a near 270 degree panoramic view of the Roanoke Valley below. About 8 miles for a roundtrip, I met hikers from all over the world and relished with them as we celebrated our achievements at the summit. If you’re not up to such a journey, be sure to drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway, visiting little towns like Floyd, known as part of Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail, called The Crooked Road, or visit Chateau Morrisette, one of the state’s largest wineries, producing 15 different varietals.

In just over a week’s time, the world will be remembering the 70th anniversary of D-day in WWII. The National D-Day Memorial in Bedford commemorates the country’s most severe per capita losses on the fateful day. It is believed that between 19-23 young men from the small town of 6,000 died on that day. The memorial is impressive, with a stylised English garden, invasion tableau and Victory Plaza, surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains.

My last day in the Valley ended as it should – with a feast beyond compare, at the famed Homeplace Restaurant in Catawba, (540) 384-7252, no website.) Built in 1907, set on 150 of the original 600 acres of a pretty farm, replete with meandering Angus cattle and tidy white barn, folks wait for up to three hours (without complaining!) to dine country-style (from big bowls passed down the table,) on succulent fried chicken, roast beef and country ham (also BBQ pork on Thursdays,) mashed potatoes and gravy, cole slaw, buttery biscuits and warm cobbler for dessert, all-you-can-eat for only $15 per adult for three meats, $14 for two – with lemonade, soft drinks, tea and coffee included. Best of all, we got a waitress who called each of us “Honey” when she brought our individual chunky apple butters.

Texas Tavern

Texas Tavern

Winner of the “best Southern Food in Seven States” Readers’ Vote in Blue Ridge Magazine’s 2013 edition, dining at the Homeplace is also listed  number on nearby Virginia Tech’s Bucket List of 72 Things to Do before graduation. Indeed, there were many Virginia Tech students sitting on the stairs the night we were there, enjoying the bluegrass musicians playing to the hungry folks on the wait list, while others napped in the wicker rockers on the wrap-around front porch. I found plenty of places in the Roanoke Valley touting ‘Southern-style biscuits’ and ‘peach cobbler’ but the Homeplace is the real thing – no gimmicks here, and blissfully, no gift shop. Harold C. Wingate, the white-haired gentleman owner, settles your bill, and is proud to only stay open for business Thursday and Friday from 4-8 p.m., Saturday 3-8 p.m., and Sunday 11 a.m – 6 p.m.

Nothing moves too quickly in Roanoke. This is Virginia, after all – you want a fast pace and lots of action, go elsewhere. If you want to relax, and feast your senses on Blue Ridge Mountain sights, sounds, tastes and smells, come on over to the Roanoke Valley.

Getting there:

United Airlines flies to Roanoke from London via Washington Dulles or Chicago O’Hare, whilst British Airways flies into Dulles and Virgin Atlantic flies from London via Chicago – a total of 11-12 hours travel time.

For more information, click here

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