Nashville, Tennessee, is many things.
Tennessee is unhurried. It remains unphased by the quickening of the world, all notions of hustle suffocated in the wake of the humidity with its corresponding bustle drowned in sweat beneath a pitiless sun. Oppressive even in the early morning hours, this heat beats down on Nashville’s streets, leaving little room for flights of fancy.
Nashville is the land of guitars; guitars picked and tuned or dusty and forgotten. It’s the land of cowboy boots stylishly complementing their ensemble or standing horribly cliched against a backdrop of stereotypes. It’s the land of flaming hot chicken commercialized and spread within its borders to be enjoyed with peanuts swimming in chilled Coca-Cola.
Nashville is also the land of fairy tales; everyone is one hook away from realizing their dreams. Dubbed Music City through its rich history of “picking and grinning,” Nashville enjoys throngs of these starry-eyed musicians and songwriters that fill her streets to bursting. Many found within her neon streets begging the blessing of famed ghosts from years past leave her concrete edifices with nothing but those dreams to catch dust along with their guitars once the city is done with them.
Good old Nashville—breaking hearts and records since the days of silver screens.
Yet, none of these were reasons I’d had for visiting. Nashville, Tennesee, has been a long-awaited destination of my own for other reasons; there, in the unlikeliest of places, sits a full-scale replica of the original Parthenon of Athens in Centennial Park.
Nashville, Tennessee: a Brief History
Nashville houses a heady population of nearly two million in its greater metropolitan areas as of the 2017 U.S. Census Bureau. Located in the northern corner of Middle Tennesee, it was named for Francis Nash, the Continental Army’s general during the American Revolutionary War.
Though we may refer to it as Tennesee today, Tennesee was once a holding of North Carolina and the Southwest Territory. Bordered by eight other states, it is tied with Missouri as a state bordering the largest number of other states and is trisected by the Tennesee River. As a southeastern territory, its inhabitants are treated to a humid, subtropical climate, generously heaping highs of 90 °F on her three grand divisions: East, Middle, and West.
In East Tennesee the emblematic sheers of the Great Smoky Mountains and the Cumberland Plateau rise, home to the state’s mountain traditions. There, you’ll find Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Kingsport. Out in Middle Tennesee, level, fertile land is punctuated by gently rolling hills, standing as the region’s agricultural epicenter. Further, into West Tennesee, the landscape sweeps into low flatlands which furnish the rich soil its agricultural economy is built on.
Tennesee owes its rich heritage born from the Chickasaw and Cherokee, leaving a palpable legacy in the eastern region despite colonist encroachment. In fact, the earliest known variant of its name comes from a small community of Yuchi who inhabited the mouth of the Hiwassee River near the Overhill Cherokee. There, a village called Tanasqui (ᏔᎾᏏ / Tanasi) sat, becoming the first interaction with settlers in what would later become Tennessee.
Yet, this territory changed hands many times before its eventual colonization, passing from Creek to Yuchi (one of the many tribes constituting the Creek Confederacy). To that end, it may be correct to say that Tanasqui is a Yuchi modification of a Creek word, eventually becoming vernacularized as Tennesee.
Places to Eat in Nashville, Tennessee
My favorite part of a road trip—any road trip—is the drive. But not because I enjoy the scenery or get to subject my unwitting passengers to spectacularly loud music they don’t enjoy. No, the drive is my favorite because I get to sleep the entire way there. Any long-time veteran of my acquaintance, especially my best friend, will tell you that it’s no use spending any time making road trip playlists or expecting a rousing conversation with me along the way. After an hour at best, I’m out.
This trip was no different in that regard, except that I’d come prepared. Hauling my favorite Sourpuss blanket and a body pillow into the back seat of our rented minivan, I carefully prepared my customary car-nest with a book I had every intention of reading on the drive. I managed to get an entire chapter into True Grit before I closed my eyes and woke up riding through Nashville. In hindsight, not even a classic Western novel could prepare me for all the leather boots, Stetson hats, and sundresses I was yet to encounter.
Our reason for this trip was twofold; first, we wanted to get out of dodge on our anniversary, and two, we wanted to catch Demon Night Fest at Mercy Lounge. This excursion saw us on the road with long-time friends, Alan and Elisa. The festivities were slated to begin the night we arrived, however, so soon after we deposited our belongings in our AirBnB, we were off again to grab dinner.
We settled on Etch, a reasonably priced upscale globally-inspired restaurant. After my Celiac diagnosis, I was forced to abandon notions of dietary catechism; namely, my predominantly vegetarian diet. It’s nigh impossible to find vegetarian food that does not include wheat unless you prepare it yourself. While I did eat fish when out and about in years past, I have now become more of a “flexitarian”; if I can’t find vegetarian food I can safely eat in public settings, anything else I can find will have to do. With this in mind, I carefully read Etch’s menu in advance and settled on their venison plate without the feta filo clutch. Much to my surprise, the waitstaff assured us that the kitchen thoughtfully pre-prepared Celiac friendly options in a safe in an allergen-free pan. Etch’s setting and dedication to providing allergy-free options made this place memorable, and I can’t endorse them enough.
Things to See in Nashville, Tennessee
Following dinner, we pulled into the parking lot of Mercy Lounge for the Demon Night Fest. I didn’t recognize anyone on the billing, but Alan and Sean were on their second show by the Wingtips. Mercy Lounge is an independent and locally-owned venue situated in a repurposed warehouse found on the second floor. Its raw exposed elements reflected its industrial character, peppered with vending artists and milling patrons sipping freshly made cocktails.
For the remainder of the evening, we waded through dimly lit wafts of machinated fog with our performings intoning melodies ranging from New Wave revival to Synthpop. I was not the only one in attendance prone to narcolepsy, however. Elisa found herself a corner to prop herself into long enough to doze off, which was our cue to head back to our AirBnB.
The next day’s activities were on a tight schedule; we planned our return to Georgia for that evening. After a quick brunch at Clean Eatz (which was stocked with plenty of Celiac-friendly food), we set our sights on our first target: Nashville’s own Parthenon. Many things may spring to mind when considering Nashville, but a perfect replica of the Greek Parthenon stands apart from the Country Music Hall of Fame or heaps of smoky BBQ. Yet, its construction was intentional. As Centennial Park’s crown jewel, the Parthenon was built for Tennessee’s 1897 Centennial Exposition, designed to feature highlights from around the world. In an era where global transit was vastly prohibitive, this attraction allowed the everyman an opportunity to experience a centerpiece from other cultures and world marvels, though the Parthenon alone remains.
An admission price of $6 grants you access to a 42-foot statue of the goddess Athena, gilt with more than 8 pounds of gold leaf. Beside her, her tutelary animal, the serpent, coils between her and her shield. This statue was carefully reconstructed according to scholarly standards of its long-lost inspiration:
Athena stands battle-ready, cuirassed, shield in hand, holding a 6-foot statue of the goddess Nike (Victory) in her right palm. Its plaster replicas are direct casts of the original sculptures, which adorn the pediments just as it does on the original. In case you’re wondering, you can visit the surviving originals either at the British Museum of London or the Acropolis Museum in Athens.
Nashville’s Parthenon is not built from marble, like its predecessor. In fact, it was originally built from plaster, wood, and brick, because it was not intended to be a permanent installment. The cost of demolishing it proved far too costly in addition to it being a popular fixture for Nashville’s residents, prompting its renovation well into the mid-1900s.
I’d been wanting to visit Athena for years up until this point and it was well worth the wait. Not only was she impressive in stature, but the attention to detail and craftsmanship was truly remarkable.
Places to Go in Nashville, Tennessee
Time was running short by this point, which meant we had precious little time left for the most important part of the trip: the Broadway Strip. With a sweltering afternoon sun treating us to 90° weather, we decided we couldn’t leave Nashville without the following:
- A quick nosey in a hat store.
- A drink from a dirty honky-tonk dive.
The first destination was easy to find: Mr. Hat’s Boots Company is heralded by a garish, neon cowboy sign positioned in full view of the street. Because it was Sunday, the strip was packed to bursting with hordes of partly drunk and mostly loud people. Mr. Hat’s Boots Company is found within an old, historic building which is appropriately outfitted for the theme; smelling strongly of new leather and freshly cut timber, you’ll find wall-to-wall rows of cowboy hats and boots alike. Though I had no intention of buying anything for myself at that time, I still entertained myself by inspecting everything on their floor. From gaudy, sequined flag boots sporting patriotic colors to the more subdued variants in earthen tones, there was no shortage of the footwear Nashville seems to treat as a state insignia.
There were far more boots than hats and nothing called to me, prompting us to head for our next destination: Honky Tonk Central. This was largely by accident than design; not only was it the first bar we saw when we stepped outside, it was also the most obnoxiously loud one within walking distance. There, we were treated to three floors—which means three stories packed full of simultaneous bachelorette parties and excitable patrons tossing their new cowboys hats around—cold drinks, and loud music you could hear three streets over. This spot was entertaining and enjoyable with great service and booming live music, making it an appropriate send-off to our brief visit to Music City.
I have compiled a list of additional resources regarding this entry and its contents for researching the topics therein:
Centennial Park: a downtown park where apart from the Parthenon, you can enjoy a one-mile walking trail, an exercise trail, Lake Watauga, the Centennial Art Center, historical monuments, an arts activity center, a sunken garden, sand volleyball courts, a dog park, and an events shelter.
Nashville Parthenon: the flagship attraction of Centennial Park, home to a reconstructed Greek temple.
Mercy Lounge: a great live-music venue found in a repurposed warehouse.
Etch: sit-down dining with an extensive menu of Celiac-friendly food.
Clean Eatz: “slow” fast food that has something for everyone—from traditional diets to those with Celiac Disease, to vegetarians.
Mr. Hat’s Boots Company: a great place to stop in if you’re just burning for a new cowboy hat and boots (or to escape the heat while wandering the strip).
Honky Tonk Central: an appropriately large and in charge country music bar right in the middle of the strip. They have ciders if you can’t drink beer, but their menu is standard bar fare and shouldn’t be considered allergen-friendly.
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