Alabama Wonders: Ave Maria Grotto, Cathedral Caverns, Jesse Owens
Travel is a voyage of discovery, an opportunity to explore wonders that may come in big and small packages, or may be special people, or simply amazing places. And in northern Alabama we discovered wonders of both places and people.
Ave Maria GrottoThe Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman was created not by the forces of nature but by the fire of creativity of man. By all accounts Brother Joseph Zoettel was a simple man, a monk in St. Bernard Abbey praying and keeping the furnaces supplied with coal to provide power. And somehow he found another kind of power within himself, the power of creativity, wonder and love. Over the years Brother Joseph created 125 small stone and cement structures, some of the finest folk art in Alabama, and perhaps the country. He started in 1912 when he was about 34 years old and finished his last one in 1958 when we was 80.
The Abbey, which is also a prep school and retreat center as well as a monastery, has embraced the work of Brother Joseph and set these charming interpretations amid 4 beautifully landscaped acres.
Many have a religious theme, the ten commandments, shrines and churches, but Brother Joseph also had a sense of whimsy creating a temple of the fairies out of cold cream jars and tiny children and a dragon to visit the temple. As a tribute to his adopted country of United States of America, he constructed a Statue of Liberty after the original in New York City's harbor. Walk a few steps and you could shift from a Roman aqueduct, to the Jewish temple of Jerusalem, to the learning tower of Pisa, and more.
One of the highlights is surely the grotto (or cave) dedicated to the Virgin Mary with its life-size statue set in a space 27 feet high, 27 feet wide and 27 feet deep filled with glittering stalactites of colored glass, stone and shells.
It is clearly a place dedicated to God, but it is also a place that is infused with a kindly and loving spirit, and one that resonates for everyone.
Cathedral Caverns"Do you want to see what a real cave looks like?" asked our tour guide. Then, after a warning to hold onto to something, we were plunged into a darkness so complete that it seemed eternal. Then, just as suddenly, light was restored. It provided a jolt of reality into the romance of exploring.
Northern Alabama is rich with limestone caves, but the one discovered by Jay Gurley in 1952 is the most majestic of all. Gurley reportedly put all his assets on the line to buy the land, blast and clear the rubble, pave the walkways and wire the paths for light. Originally called Bat Cave, his wife took one look at the huge vista of unearthly beauty and said it looked like a cathedral. Recognizing his wife's wisdom, Gurley changed the name. They operated Cathedral Caverns until financial problems forced its closure. The State of Alabama bought the 14-acre cave in 1987, performed much-needed upgrading, and opened it as part of the Alabama State Park system in 2000.
Immense, and immensely impressive at one point we plunged through an eerie forest of stalagmites (dripstones pointing upwards from the cave floor) melding with stalactites (hanging from the ceiling formed by water seeping through cracks in the limestone). Frozen 'waterfalls' flowed over rocks. It seemed that we stopped every few feet as another subterranean wonder was revealed. Oddly shaped formations, an underground river, pencil thin creations, towers stretching as tall a city building. As much as we explored there was still more that had not yet been opened to the public, unwired and hardly explored.
In addition to its beauty, the caverns have one other aspect that sets it apart. It's one of the more accessible caverns with a huge opening and paved walkways. Although some areas are reached only by steps but most of the beauty is easily reached.
Jesse OwensAnother Alabama wonder is Jesse Owens. Read about a visit to the Jesse Owens Museum
If You GoHuntsville makes a great central location as well as offering a wide range of great lodging, fascinating attractions, and excellent restaurants. We enjoyed our stay at the Country Inn & Suites -- lovely rooms around a central courtyard. Humphreys Bar & Grill in downtown Huntsville serves a delicious range of dishes from southern comfort to Tex-Mex and certified angus beef. You can learn more about visiting this charming city at Huntsville.org.
An excellent choice is the Marriot Shoals Hotel & Spa which just opened -- beautiful rooms, lovely dining, inviting bar, and a family-friendly pool.
The Claunch Cafe in Tuscumbia's Spring Park serves lip-smacking delicious country cookin' so good you won't want to leave. Also in Tuscumbia is Hester's Rocking Chair Restaurant with downhome delicious country fried steak with gravy (and more). Tuscumbia is also home to Ivy Green, Hellen Keller's house and the incredible Miracle Worker play performed each summer. This is a don't miss event. For more information on lovely Tuscumbia visit ColbertCountyTourism.org.Cullman's All Steak Restaurant serves steaks, and more, and their biscuits are heavenly. In Florence, enjoy the casual brick friendliness of Ricatoni's and their Italian cuisine. The building dates back to the 1880s. And, of course, the award-winning BBQ of Big Bob Gibson in Decatur. What can we say? The food in Alabama was fabulous, and we enjoyed every pound we gained on the trip.
There's no shortage of other places to visit. The Alabama Music Hall of Fame was filled with incredible memorabilia, a chance to make your own recording, and the music of Alabama (the group and the state). The Wright-Rosenbaum House in Florence was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and is the only structure in Alabama designed by Wright. Also in Florence is the W.C. Handy Birthplace Museum and Library, each year the site of the weeklong jazz and blues music festival W C Handy Music Festival.
For the truly offbeat, you can't go wrong with the Coon Dog Cemetery, the final resting place of over 100 coon dogs. And for those who can't resist a bargain, it's the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro.