I take a lot of photos when I travel. My digital camera can capture hundreds on each trip. But the most indelible images from my recent visit to Greenville, S.C., are the ones impressed on my mind’s eye.
Picture-perfect vignettes seemed to compose themselves before me everywhere I looked: A young woman playfully waltzing in the fading afternoon sun inside an old riverside factory. Three tykes in matching pastel green outfits posing for the camera in a garden. Two chess players ensconced in the catacomb-like coolness beneath a bridge. A solitary writer perched on a cliff overlooking the river.
This area of the South Carolina upcountry had already worked its magic on me about a year earlier when I visited nearby Spartanburg. But Greenville, I learned, hadn’t always been so picturesque.
“We used to always be told never to go downtown,” said artist Patti Rishforth, a Greenville native whom I found in her silhoutte and portrait studio on the ground level of a mixed-use development along the Reedy River. “It’s changed like night and day.”
Downtown flourished after World War I, according to a memorial on North Main Street honoring former mayor Max Heller. But it began to decline in the 1950s and ’60s with the growth of suburban shopping centers. In the 1970s, Heller and the city made revitalizing downtown a priority, and their efforts paid off. Today, the tree-lined heart of town boasts restaurants, boutiques and plazas ideal for whiling away a sunny afternoon.
Still, even as recently as a decade ago, Rishforth said, the southern end of downtown, near the Reedy, was less than charming. She recalled cutting through abandoned lots to have picnics with her young son by the river. Now, the area is a popular park, completing the flow of pedestrian-friendly attractions.
“It’s got that European feel to it,” said Diane Ludwig, who relocated from Charleston three years ago to open the dog-centric Barkery Bistro with her daughter. Such quirky, upscale storefronts are common along North and South Main Street, including one urging passersby to “get your ‘chi’ moving.”
I wasn’t sure about my chi’s mobility, but I knew that I wanted to give the rest of my body a workout on the Swamp Rabbit Tram Trail, a nearly 14-mile walking and biking path that runs north from Greenville to the city of Travelers Rest.
On my first morning in town, local outfitter Reedy Rides delivered a spiffy white bike to my hotel, the Westin Poinsett. The city is about five years into its “Bikeville” initiative, a push to become a bicycle-friendly community, and so far the Swamp Rabbit is the most prominent result of that effort. With so much enthusiasm surrounding the trail, I worried that my leisurely ride might turn into a two-wheeled game of Frogger. But although more people were out than I’d expect on a weekday morning, I wasn’t overwhelmed. In fact, my only near collisions were with one scampering lizard and a few dangling inchworms with a death wish.
The trail runs along the Reedy, which provides a soothing soundtrack of gurgling water, at least in the spots where traffic and railroad noise don’t drown it out. Similarly, the scents emanating from the abundant greenery are occasionally lost among the fertilizer-like odors that permeate the air near a number of chemical plants not far from downtown. Farther north, as the trail approaches Furman University, the landscape takes a turn for the residential.
The Furman campus is new relative to the school’s age; the university relocated to the current site in 1958 after about 100 years downtown. Boasting a lake ringed by its own biking and walking trail, the campus is a perfect scenic detour for riders on the Swamp Rabbit trail. And the students seem to be big into two-wheeling it, too.
I found plenty of reasons to hop off my bike and explore several campus attractions on foot, including a replica of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond, a vegetable garden, a Japanese temple and the university’s iconic Italian-style belltower (locked, unfortunately).
After an hour or so of pretending to be a college student again, I continued north to the aptly named Travelers Rest for lunch at the Cafe @ Williams Hardware. The restaurant, which backs up to the trail, has become a designated place for cyclists to chain up their bikes and have a good meal.
Back in Greenville that afternoon, an excursion to the city zoo took me through the heart of Falls Park on the Reedy, where the river tumbles over large rocks in gauzy patterns. On this busy spring day, I narrowly avoided so many strollers and dog-walkers that about halfway through the park, I gave up and pushed my bike out of the throngs.
Having surrendered my wheels, I returned to the park that evening to explore the area further on foot. A focal point is the Liberty Bridge, a futuristic-looking structure that, hello, bobs underfoot with every step. As the sun set, my attention turned to North and South Main Street, strung with twinkly lights. At 9 p.m. on a Wednesday, the thoroughfare was more bustling than stretches of downtown Washington generally are.
Continuing my car-less adventure the next day (I used my rental only to get between the city and the airport), I walked to the free Greenville County Museum of Art and then to Art Crossing, a series of studios where I met Rishforth and watercolor artist Ron Gillen. In addition to being a hot spot for restaurants and cycling, the region is apparently an artists’ haven. More than 140 participated in an open-studio event last fall.
Rishforth and Gillen both thrive on meeting visitors. What I’d intended as a few minutes’ chat quickly turned into a nearly hour-long conversation when Gillen, an amateur historian of Greenville, began to regale me with the story of the city’s evolution over the years. He was practically gleeful as he pulled out his watercolor depictions of the demolished old train station and explained his history-detective efforts to reproduce the architect’s original plans for it.
I finally had to leave, but it was hard to pull myself away — from his narrative, and from this equally engrossing city.