Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Just 135 miles away, old world of Vienna on Eastern Shore

A Maryland Eastern Shore town, on a site occupied since 1669, has lots of history.

VIENNA, Md. - "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.

OK, so Vienna, Maryland, is not that Vienna. But it is old; it's closer than the one in Austria, and it's 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 135 miles from Philadelphia. If you've ever complained about early American towns being touristy, you should have been there on a spring weekend. 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.

On a beautiful Saturday afternoon, the tall marsh grasses bowed in 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.

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."

Ever since Dorchester 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 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.

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 as they drink rum and ruminate about fishing conditions. This is a great base for exploring Vienna and the nearby Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and Salisbury Zoo.

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 envisioned settlers as they glided 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), chatted with Angie, the waitress, and enjoyed listening to three 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.


A Vienna Closer to Home

Getting there

Vienna, Md., is about 135 miles from Philadelphia, and 100 miles from downtown Washington. Take Route 50 east through Annapolis and across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Stay on Route 50 as it goes south through Cambridge, Md. About 15 miles past Cambridge, look for the Vienna exit: Route 331. If you cross the Nanticoke River, you've gone too far.

Where to stay

Tavern House Bed & Breakfast (111 Water St., 410-376-3347). Doubles are $85. All the rooms are comfortable and homey. If you're not a B&B fan, Cambridge and Salisbury (16 to 18 miles down Route 50 in either direction) have plenty of chain hotels. Try the Country Inns & Suites (1804 Sweetbay Dr., 410-742-2688) in Salisbury. Rooms from $89 to $169.

Where to eat

For breakfast, go to the Cambridge Diner & Restaurant (2924 Old Route 50, Cambridge, 410-228-8898). A plate of steak and eggs is $14. Take a piece of coconut custard pie ($2.79) for later. For lunch, you can grab some crackers, a tin of Vienna sausage, and a pack of Vienna Fingers (all for less than $5) at the Vienna Market (307 Ocean Gateway, Vienna, 410-376-3299). Or you can check out Brew River Restaurant & Bar (502 W. Main St., Salisbury, 410-677-6757) and sample the cheeseburgers (about $7). For dinner, Millie's Roadhouse Bar & Grill (200 Middle St., Vienna, 410-376-3130) serves crabcake platters ($16) and fried oyster combos ($18).

What to do

If you are looking for action outside Vienna, you can explore the Salisbury Zoo (755 S. Park Dr., Salisbury, 410-548-3188, www.salisburyzoo.org). The small park is clean, airy, and open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. There's a box for donations at the front gate and just beyond that a pen full of parrots and another with a good-looking bobcat. The morning I was there, the peacocks were strutting around, and every once in a while a prairie dog would stick its head out like a Whac-A-Mole.

Also nearby is Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (2145 Key Wallace Dr., Cambridge, 410-228-2677, www.fws.gov/blackwater). This is a wonderful place to see birds and all kinds of critters. Ospreys nest there; so do eagles.

- Linton Weeks

Linton Weeks Washington Post
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