Ann Arbor - city of the arts

I stepped back into my past and also delighted in the present on my recent visit to Ann Arbor, Mich., half an hour west of Detroit. Years ago, I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, living on a shoestring and spending hours studying.

This summer I experienced the creative energy in this town, which is well known for its musical events, museums and good food as well as its top academic institution.

When my 93-year-old mother heard I was going to Ann Arbor, she asked me several times to find out if her old dorm, Mosher-Jordan Hall, was still there. It was. So was the old football stadium where we both attended games, but it has expanded seating and a new name, the Big House. It's the largest football stadium in the country with seats for 109,101 fans.

My mother remembered walking around the Nichols Arboretum and botanical gardens along the Huron River a block from her old dorm, and I attended a picnic there before Shakespeare in the Arb, a fun performance of "The Merry Wives of Windsor. " The Arb itself was the stage. The audience moved from one open area to another while the actors entered and exited among the tall pines to tell the comic story.

Music, museums and entertainment

I walked around campus taking pictures of some university landmarks such as the 55-bell Baird Carillon, the law quadrangle where my uncle attended law school, the buildings where I had classes and attended a few concerts and plays, the museums I somehow missed and the wonderful restaurants that were new to me.

It felt good to be back

"Ann Arbor is a pocket of the arts," said world-renowned violin-maker Gregg Alf who designs and builds violins as well as makes copies of fine, old Italian instruments. I visited his studio on a quiet, tree-lined street.

Alf said he has a scout who searches the forests in Bosnia for the rare flame maple trees whose wood fibers grow in undulating patterns that add beauty to his violins. When a promising tree is found, he flies to Belgrade, hires a driver and bodyguard, and heads off to the woods.

"Criminals abound, and we ran into some really scary guys," he said about his recent trip there. "They know you have cash so that's why you need an escort.

"Winter is the best time to cut a tree and drag it out," he added. "The land mines (remnants from the 1990s Bosnian War) don't go off on frozen ground and the sap stays in the roots so the wood is lighter to haul out."

At Herb David Guitar Studio, David, 81, uses East India rosewood for the guitars he has been making from scratch for 50 years. John Lennon, Pete Seger and Eric Clapton were clients.

At the Kelsey Museum of Archeology I saw a stunning three-wall painting copied from the Villa of Mysteries murals in Pompeii along with an Egyptian mummy and other objects excavated by University of Michigan archeologists. The Museum of Art, one of the best college art museums in the country, has works by Picasso and Miro, a large collection of Japanese and Chinese ceramics and Tiffany glass. Then there's the Gerald Ford Presidential Library and Museum and the Museum of Natural History.

Ann Arbor also has smaller art galleries and a variety of concerts and plays for theater buffs. I attended a Rickie Lee Jones performance at the Ark, and one night, listened to a jazz pianist at the Last Word.

The art of food

The creativity in the arts extends to the food, too. Located in an historic building, Vinology offers small plate lunches that might include a lobster roll and corn soup with halibut ceviche, each paired with a wine. Frita Batidos offers Cuban-influenced street food like corn on the cob brushed with mayo and rolled in spices and cheese, and tropical shakes with or without a splash of rum. Dessert at the Grange Kitchen and Bar was a red rhubarb compote topped with a lavender meringue.

Award winning chef Alex Young at Zingerman's Roadhouse has a passion for growing his own vegetables and serving Southern specialties like barbecue ribs, pulled pork, grits and collard greens. Zingerman's also has a deli and a creamery that I toured and then sampled handmade cheeses. Dinner at Mani Osteria included pizza with ground pistachios, red onions and cheese.

While these unique restaurants are new since I was a student, the Washtenaw Dairy has been open since 1934. I stopped there for a homemade ice cream cone, knowing my mother once did the same.

Soon after this trip, I visited my mother and showed her photos of her dorm, the arb, the campus and other landmarks. She was thrilled to reminisce but sorry not to have been in Ann Arbor with me.

For more information about special events, concerts, exhibits, dining and lodging in Ann Arbor, go to www.visitannarbor.org.

Pamela O'Meara can be reached at pomeara@lillienews.com.

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