Bulldogs are everywhere.
They’re snarling on car-window stickers, growling from bar menus, staring out from red hoodies and popping up in plush. The red-shirted mascot of the University of Georgia is a ubiquitous sight in Athens — a classic Southern city that’s also a vibrant, quirky college town.
And on a “game” Saturday? The town’s a sea of red and black, the Bulldogs’ colors. Fans of all ages storm the bars, line up for tailgate and cheer “Go Dawgs!” at Sanford Stadium. You can pretty much have the rest of Athens to yourself.
Football aside, there’s a lot to cheer about here. Just over an hour from sprawling, congested Atlanta, Athens has a relaxed, white-pillared charm that makes it an ideal weekend getaway. It’s also a town with a lot of history: in addition to the classical name, Athens is a stop on Georgia’s Antebellum Trail, with 15 neighborhoods on the National Register, Greek Revival house museums to tour, and a Civil War-era canon in front of City Hall.
The dogwoods are just budding as a Southern spring unfolds. This month, the Classic Center — Athens’ downtown convention and event space — holds its grand re-opening after a major renovation that includes an 8,000-square foot atrium with art installations; a Feb. 27 gala fete will feature the Boston Pops.
Next month, the Athens Jewish Film Festival celebrates its fifth anniversary, magnolias burst into bloom at the State Botanical Garden, and seasonal house tours invite the public into classical mansions.
Still, it’s the more than 30,000 students at the University of Georgia who give Athens its youthful energy — as they have since 1785, when UGA (as it’s known) became the first state university chartered in America.
That energy is palpable in the historic districts just north of campus. It’s easy to feel old while strolling amid teenaged co-eds on Clayton Street, where the boutiques feature youthful styles and the coffee shops are full of laptops in mid-morning.
As warm afternoons give way to shady dusk, beer-sipping crowds flock to live music at the clubs on Washington and Broad streets. It won’t be long before you hear a reference to the two most successful acts to come out of Athens, R.E.M. and the B-52s, whose worldwide success launched the city’s reputation as a rock-and-roll incubator.
I’m more of a classical fan, so I was excited to see a lineup at the UGA Performing Arts Center that includes Brooklyn’s own Robert Spano conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra later this month.
Also right on campus is the state’s signature art institution, the Georgia Museum of Art. Two years ago, the museum re-opened after a renovation that tripled its exhibition space and added a sculpture garden to its holdings of 19th- and 20th-century American paintings, Italian Renaissance works and Asian decorative arts.
The Museum is also where the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival will celebrate its fifth anniversary at the opening gala on March 16. Unlike its month-long cousin, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival (going on right now, through late February), the Athens event is held during a single week — but it’s no less ambitious as a cultural beacon.
Opening night for “Jewish films, Universal themes” features a screening of “Hava Nagila,” last year’s celebrity-dotted documentary about the evolution of our bat-mitzvah anthem. Filmgoers enjoy a daily “nosh” of snacks donated by local eateries; a selection of movies from Europe, Israel, and the Americas reflects a community with diverse roots.
Immigrant Jewish families from Europe were an early part of the Athens mix, with Jewish retailers playing a large role in the local economy, and Jewish patrons and intellectuals in the development of UGA.
Congregation Children of Israel was founded shortly after the Civil War. Today, the Reform temple takes its role as the nexus for Jewish life in Northeast Georgia seriously. Its on-campus counterparts are the UGA Hillel, which serves up kosher Shabbat dinners and holiday events for 2,000 Jewish “Dawgs,” and a recently opened Chabad House.
While the five-day film festival is a major event on the Jewish calendar, the festival organizers have established a year-round presence, drawing on both a growing Jewish population and a cosmopolitan spirit. The Festival now holds screenings year-round at theaters around town, as well as a contest for emerging Jewish filmmakers.
So don’t let those white columns, or the statue of Athena, fool you. Athens may be historic — but it’s most definitely not a place where time stands still.