story and photo by Dot Helling
While cruising the streets of Montpelier I am often struck by the impacts on my senses. In Montpelier we have an inordinate array of sensory experiences to gratify and challenge the five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. Most of those experiences are palliative, some creatively stimulating and a few flare my nostrils. Want to be inspired? Settle yourself into a downtown bench or stroll around and take in the following.
In the sight department, the lofty steeples and spires of the downtown fill our horizon and cityscape with breathtaking, soaring architectural beauty. There is also the Statehouse with its golden dome topped by Ceres and its beautiful surrounding seasonal gardens. Montpelier is embraced by the green hills and forests of Hubbard and North Branch parks and by distant views of Camel’s Hump, Worcester and Hunger mountains. But over and above these features, this city in the spring with all of its blossoming trees in full regalia is breath-taking, as when the pink peonies later bloom. The beauty of flowers is carried on in the downtown planters and in people’s gardens. This year, the wildly pink petunias on State Street were beautiful and fun. Year round there is beauty to behold in our buildings and parks, in the many talents of Montpelier artists at venues such as the T.W. Wood Gallery and Arts Center, and simply in the characteristic faces of our residents.
Notable sounds of the city include the chiming of the courthouse clock tower on the hour, every hour, twenty-four seven. Some may remember chimes from City Hall, although not always in sync. We have ringing church bells on Sundays. The Montrealer sounds its horn as it approaches town and it and the granite trains chug as they pass through. Not too long ago, the fire department sounded a siren every workday at noon, and in earlier days the siren also wailed at curfew. Montpelier is a city of talented musicians of all kinds, from Kathleen Keenan belting out Patsy Cline, to Patty Casey and Colin McCaffrey doing folk, the country and juke joint sounds of the Starline Rhythm Boys, world-renowned classical pianist Michael Arnowitt and many others with a myriad of styles, from the porch picker to the professional. A wide variety of affordable music venues including Charlie O’s, Sweet Melissa’s, Positive Pie, Bagito’s, The Skinny Pancake, the Christ Church courtyard and City Hall stage these performers. We have the migrational sounds of geese and other avians including seemingly thousands of cawing crows resting on the way to their winter homes. The sound of running water from falls and the brook can be found within the city proper. And then there are sounds that are not so appealing, but necessary, such as the Monday morning garbage trucks, snowplows, early morning construction, fire truck and ambulance emergency responses and the crosswalk beeps and directionals that often “forget” to give pedestrians the green light.
Taste is a given in this city. The plethora of ethnically diverse and tasty restaurants cater to every palate. Morning breakfast options include southern fare, traditional American, French pastries, coffee shops, bagels and diner menus. Lunch and dinner brings out the Asian fusion. We have an influx of Asian eateries including Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai and sushi in the downtown. We also have excellent Cuban, Italian, Mexican and other eclectic and organic choices. An array of bars, burger joints and a steakhouse rounds out the downtown epicurian scene. In addition to our restaurants, we have culinary delights available in our local supermarket, neighborhood markets, co-op, sidewalk carts and at the weekly farmers market.
The highlight of smell in the downtown includes those blossoming trees in spring and the early summer peonies. In the mornings the aroma of bread from the ovens at Manghi’s and New England Culinary Institute wafts through the air. I miss the Capitol Grounds coffee roaster that made Montpelier smell like Waterbury with its Green Mountain Roasters plant (Capitol Grounds moved its roaster to East Montpelier several years ago). If you take a morning walk up the hill above Liberty Street you can savor the baking smells coming out of Heaton House. What doesn’t smell so great is the exhaust pipe on lower East State Street, the sanitation plant near Dog River on hot, still dog days of summer, second hand smoke in establishment doorways and the “skunk patrol.” You can still enjoy wood smoke on cold nights, although the heavy coal and smoky fire smells of the olden days are gone.
In town I relish the touch of hugs from friends and acquaintances. There are also lovely sensations associated with brushes or taps from others and solid handshakes. Such contacts are a large piece of what makes this city friendly and special. These contacts are especially dear when you encounter friends who have been in hibernation, or perhaps when you yourself have come out of a winter den. We all know the feel of a cold, dark winter. The other touch I am responsive to is the rays of the sun, especially when joined with balmy breezes. The sun warms our hearts and raises our spirits. We soak it in when it’s here and wait longingly for it to reappear and touch us again. And so, with the shortest days of the year upon us, we shall await this satisfying touch of Montpelier life. Hopefully it will bring on a shorter, warmer winter.
I myself am escaping the winter as a different kind of snowbird. I leave soon to work in the Colorado mountains. It’s not as warm as Florida but sunnier and warmer than here. I can’t promise any columns while I’m away, but expect me back in the spring with lots of juicy pieces!