By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
"The streets of Vienna are paved with culture," wrote 20th-century Austrian journalist Karl Kraus, "the streets of other cities with asphalt."
Vienna! Thy name bespeaks history, beauty, music and distinctive cuisine.
Okay, so Vienna, Maryland, is not that Vienna. Or even the suburban Virginia one.
But it is old, and it's closer than the one in Austria and, on inspection, is possessed of a certain history, beauty, music and distinctive cuisine all its own.
On the banks of the Nanticoke River, Vienna is a small Eastern Shore village just 100 miles from Washington. If you've ever complained about early American towns being touristy, you should have been there on a recent weekend.
On a beautiful Saturday afternoon, the tall marsh grasses all around bowed in the stiff bay winds. The sun gleamed white on the shimmering river that runs like an underscore along the town. You can walk Vienna easily, pausing to admire the old homes, stately churches and small cemeteries. No hustle and bustle. No carriage tours or people in period costumes. But there is a real sense of history and of a once-thriving river town.
The town is bypassed by the highway that connects the burgeoning 'burbs of Cambridge and Salisbury. You feel far away from urbanity and modernity, yet close at the same time.
Capt. John Smith referred to the in-betweenness -- and the dramatic weather -- of the area when he explored the Chesapeake Bay in the early 1600s. He noted the "Nantaquak" river and wrote in his journal, "Two dayes we were inforced to inhabite these uninhabited Isles which for the extremitie of gusts, thunder, raine, stormes, and ill wether we called Limbo."
On June 2, Vienna will join a bay-wide celebration of the 400th anniversary of Smith's journey. A band of rower-sailors, including scientists and historians, will land at Vienna in an oar-driven, 28-foot open boat called a shallop. They will answer questions, talk about the history of Dorchester County and give tours of the boat from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Ever since the county was formed in 1669, there has been some kind of settlement on the spot that is now Vienna. During the Revolutionary War, British soldiers blitzed through the town five times, destroying Colonial ships and stealing provisions. The Brits sent boats up the river again during the War of 1812, and a protective breastwork of rocks can still be seen on the riverside near the corner of Church and Water streets.
It was at that corner that I began my walking tour. I could see the Customs House, which served the state until 1865. The grand three-story brick home -- with a seven-pillared front porch -- on the west side of Church Street is the Nanticoke Manor House. The 4,000-square-foot dwelling was built in 1861 for a ship's captain. (It's for sale, by the way: only $859,000 for the six-bedroom, three-bath house -- if you're interested.)
Nearby is the Tavern House, where the ferrymen lived. It's a bed-and-breakfast now. Harvey and Elise Altergott have been running the four-bedroom inn since the mid-1980s. They will happily tell you all about Vienna history, airplanes, Germany -- you name it. Harvey says guests usually get up and eat around 8 a.m. but don't leave until late morning. "I like to talk," he says, laughing.
Inside, you can sit in the living room and envision Colonials drinking rum and ruminating about fishing conditions. This is a great base for exploring Vienna and the nearby Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and Salisbury Zoo (see "Escape Keys" at right).
I tarried at a couple of cemeteries and churches, including St. Paul's Episcopal Church, a charming white-clapboard sanctuary with red doors, which was built in 1892. It's got a snazzy bell in the steeple, as does the Methodist church across Church Street.
With a head full of history, I turned my attention to the town's beauty. As the setting sun changed the color of the river, I stood at the point where I started my walking tour and dreamed of settlers gliding across the water. They no doubt had dreamed of a bridge that would connect the road between Cambridge and Salisbury. The bridge is here; the ferry is gone. Dreams come and go.
Back in the car, I drove just a few blocks to the only full-blown restaurant in town: Millie's Roadhouse Bar & Grill on Old Highway 50. I ordered the daily special (broiled flounder stuffed with crab), jawed with Angie, the waitress, and enjoyed listening to a trio of fishermen swapping stories. My dinner was delicious, right down to the coleslaw and corn pudding. I loved Millie's, but if you don't want to sit in a dark bar, watch NASCAR and hear guys debate minnows vs. bloodworms, you can call ahead for takeout.
Or you can grab a sandwich at the nearby Vienna Market. Yes, I checked. They have Vienna sausage and Vienna Fingers. The short links are packed in a can and the cookies in a red package, the way the town is packed in the past, ready to be opened by any passerby with a little time and imagination.
I asked the man behind the counter if Vienna items are popular. "We are known for the sausage," he said as he rang me up. Then he smiled. "Just kidding."