STRATFORD, Ont. -- Before it was even a village, Stratford had its Shakespearean connections. As early as 1832 the spot, still unnamed, had a road house called the Shakespeare Hotel and in it was a picture of the Bard given to the owner by Mercer Jones, a theatrically inclined representative of the Upper Canadian government.
Jones named the little community Stratford and, knowing a good theme when he had one, changed the name of the river from the Little Thames to the Avon. A quarter of a century later, when Stratford was incorporated as a town and it came time to name its five wards, it seemed natural enough to call them Hamlet, Romeo, Falstaff, Shakespeare and Avon.
Another 100 years passed before the establishment of the institution that would make this small Ontario city about 140 miles from Buffalo a beacon for international travelers looking for quality productions of Shakespeare's plays. The Stratford Shakespearean Festival began in a leaky tent in 1953 with Alec Guiness in the title role of "Richard III." Today the Stratford Festival of Canada (as it's now called) is one of the most revered Shakespearean repertory companies in the world.
And therein lies the root of a misunderstanding. This charming city, picturesquely situated on its lovely river, is so saturated by things Shakespearean that people who don't know the difference between a bodkin and a pushpin, and don't really care, are apt to write off Stratford as a possible tourist stopover.
This is a serious mistake. Shakespeare is only one part of the festival's story (an important part, I grant you) and only one part of the town and of the surrounding area. Walking the streets and byways of this city is a delight. A beautiful park runs along both sides of the river where you can stroll paved paths and watch the famous Stratford swans glide rhythmically on the gently rippling water or sit and observe the ducks clamoring up and down the embankment. (The ducks are tame and will willingly hold court Stratford charms visitors with awe with you.)
In the evening before show time, a barge comes down the river carrying a dixieland band. It stops for a brief concert at the Tom Paterson Theatre, about midway between downtown and the big Festival Theatre further out.
Just before you get to the Festival Theatre, where the river begins to narrow, is a perfectly round, small island with a high arched wooden walking bridge. It's an odd but beguiling place, named Tom Paterson Island in honor of the man who initiated the Stratford Festival in the 1950s.
Art in the park, an informal outdoor display of local art, is part of the summer attractions. More serious work can be seen this year in the first Stratford Sculpture Biennial featuring nine Canadian artists whose work is on view throughout the park system and at downtown locations.
Stratford and blooms have a long history. The Shakespearean Gardens - featuring plants mentioned in the plays and boasting a bust of Shakespeare sitting among the rose bushes - has been going since 1936. The Festival Theatre display is a wonder in the mode of the traditional English garden. Confederation Park follows Japanese style, right down to a waterfall and fir trees. The Horticultural Society offers tours.
Downtown is generous with its charm, and you soon forget the dreary strip plazas that you had to pass along route 7/8 on the way in. Specialty shops, clothing, shoe stores and the occasional gallery and bookstore line the main drag, Ontario Street, and crop up along Waterloo, Downie, Wellington and other downtown streets.
The city has fascinating domestic architecture - old mansions and interesting smaller houses - and a host of picturesque brick or stone commercial buildings and churches. It has two major civic buildings, City Hall and the Perth County Court House. Both have prominent towers; both are impressive.
City Hall is a quirky Queen Anne Revival structure that's topped with a clock tower and gables decorated with Dutch-inspired molding. Perth County Court House is basically in Romanesque revival style but, because of the color contrast of the stone, is lighter in mood, almost jaunty for such a massive building. Buffalonians might spot some similarities between this structure and the Buffalo Psychiatric Center's towers designed by Henry Hobson Richardson, the person who single-handedly launched the Romanesque revival period.
Eat and stay
The selection of restaurants is bountiful during the day and evening. Late-night menus are less plentiful, but Pazzo Ristorante Bar & Pizzeria and Down the Street have great post-show offerings, as well as superb lunches and dinners.
Whether you're looking for a cafe-style lunch -- my favorite is Tango Coffee Bistro -- or an upscale diner (Rundles is seriously high-end, and may eat gaping holes in your pocketbook) many fine restaurants are available. The elegant Carter's Restaurant offers an exquisite menu of finely prepared dishes, but evidently the chef is in mortal fear of marring the delicately balanced aesthetics of the plate arrangement by putting more than a few morsels of food on it. We had to fill up on bread. For the equivalent of a tiny French bistro with superb food and enough of it, opt for the Bijou.
If you're planning on staying overnight, bed and breakfasts are probably the way -- and not only for the sometimes astounding breakfasts with original touches. The ambience of some of the more tastefully designed places can be a great pleasure.
At Eleven, to take one refined example, is elegantly decked out in Matissian blues and artfully arranged objects. It even has a pool. The well-known Dufton House, nicely ensconced in an 1882 mansion, has a pleasant Victorian atmosphere that has been successfully serving visitors for many years.
If you feel vaguely like you're invading someone's home when you stay at a bed and breakfast, then look to the inns. There are many excellent ones.
One of the delightful places we stayed at was the Alban Abbey (877-799-7779). The place has a bed and breakfast ambience, but because the owners don't live on the premises it's officially categorized as an inn. And our suite was well beyond the typical bed and breakfast, anyway.
Mercer Hall (888-816-4011) is an entirely different experience. This favorite place is located over Tango Coffee Bistro, convenient for lunch or for that mid-morning cup of coffee. It offers a refined modern environment done up in a very tasteful neo-deco look. A Tango breakfast is included. More esoteric is Over the Top (519--271-7881), three suites situated over Gallery Indigena (which features Inuit sculpture and prints and other interesting items).
The Stratford story doesn't end at the city limits. A 20-minute drive will take you to many places of interest, including historic St. Mary's to the south. Known as the Stonetown, it is full of old buildings constructed from local limestone, such as Town Hall, what used to be an opera house, a water tower and railway viaducts. The quarry where they got the stone is Canada's largest natural outdoor swimming pool. We had little luck finding a good meal there, however.
To the northeast is St. Jacobs Farmers' Market -- an odd, clangorous place that mixes a sprawling flea market, pony rides and an animal barn, occasional Mennonite produce stands and a big, crowded indoor market that sells everything from smoked meats and fish to apple fritters, pies and flowers.
Furthur on, the village of St. Jacobs seems a place that has lost much of its former charm now that the Mennonite community has moved on. A drive west from St. Jacobs toward Lindwood and Millbank will reveal Mennonite farms galore, however. Out in that beautiful country, Old Order Mennonite farmers still work the land with teams of Percherons and travel the roads (at a very fast clip) in horse-drawn buggies.
In the fields you may spot gangling foal cavorting with their mothers. Or you may catch, as we did, a smiling, waving Mennonite pulling out onto the roadway expertly guiding his two massive horses so that his big harrowing machine doesn't accidently dice our front fender.
It's a cliche to say it, but these seem like images from another time. One we particularly treasure: the sight of girls dressed in colored ginghams and bonnets playing around a maypole. A maypole in this day when all children seem to be born electrified! It's nice to know that such simple pleasures still exist.