Wilds Child: Exploring historic Bellefonte
Imagine yourself strolling down a charming, brick-walked avenue in Europe. France, say.
Perhaps Prague. The air is chilly, but the sun is bright and the locals are busy preparing for the upcoming holiday season – hanging garlands from the eaves of their shop signs and mounting candles in their windows. You window shop for a while, peering up at mannequins wearing handwoven shawls or hats, until the tips of your fingers are red and stinging, and then you duck into a small cafe to sample locally-roasted espresso with fresh biscotti for dunking. Beside your cafe table is a large glass case stuffed full of food gifts for sharing – bowls of truffled olives, enormous wedges of sheep’s milk cheese, and freshly-baked boules of bread. The windows have steamed with warmth and the sound of others meeting for a drink and a chat. As you head back out into the cold street, you’re sorry to leave that hospitality, but excited to see what other small treasures await you on your trip through the quaint streets and past the historic buildings. Darkness falls early this time of year, but the streets are full and there’s still much light and merriness abounding.
Many of us dream of wandering in the kind of charming, provincial communities we see on holiday cards at this time of year, but one needn’t travel overseas to London, Brussels, or Paris to make that vision a reality. While the “wilds” aspect of the PA Wilds gets much of the focus in our modern tourism industries, the storied towns that comprise the PA Wilds are just as worthy of a visit, offering guests the chance to unplug, reset and experience the holidays in places that welcome strangers and foster a genuine sense of community during the time of year that we crave it most.
It was an unseasonably cold day in late November when my boys and I made the trip to historic Bellefonte, a dreamy little community nestled in the mountains of central Pennsylvania, just along the southern edge of the PA Wilds.
The high at midday in the sun was scarcely 25 degrees Fahrenheit, but the sunshine was radiant, and to sit cooped up in the house felt like a sin, especially knowing that only shorter, darker days were on the horizon. Besides, we had Christmas gifts to buy and, as always, we were intent upon forgoing the Big Box Store merchandise and buying local.
If you’re looking for a community to get you into the holiday spirit, look no further than Bellefonte. The Borough of Bellefonte is, itself, like a town out of a Christmas card, with streets full of boutiques, artisan shops, cafes, museums, restaurants, history, and culture. The houses are sprawling, Victorian-era beauties, whose owners have taken great care to decorate for the season. Stepping out of our car was a bit like stepping into another world, particularly in contrast to the hustle and bustle of interstate 80, the mega freeway that had led us there.
First up on our stop was the Bellefonte Art Museum for Centre County. We arrived just as the gallery was opening and were ushered through an arched wooden door into bright, colorful rooms paying homage to local art and culture. Built in 1810 and often called the Linn House in local histories, the building was once home to several prominent families in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and even includes important ties to the Underground Railroad. With tall ceilings, wide windows, and floor-to-ceiling gallery walls, the museum deftly walks the line between local history and modern culture, managing to both respect the past and honor the modern artists and creators shaping the community of tomorrow. That Sunday the rooms were brimming with art, the clerk explaining that they keep it well stocked for the holiday season. Over 165+ artists, all with ties to our region, are represented by the gallery, with mediums spanning acrylic painting, sculpture, mixed media, photography, jewelry, pottery, and more.
The boys were appropriately entranced, if not a little over-enthusiastic in their dedication to trying to touch each piece. I’ve written before about the struggles of telling children to look, not touch – recognizing that little ones learn through tactile and sensory play, while acknowledging that so much of what museums and educational centers curate is decidedly not for touching. Fortunately, the Bellefonte Art Museum offers children the chance to flex their own artistic muscles in house with a dedicated makerspace designed for little artists and their families on the second floor. Provided courtesy of The Makery in State College, PA, the Makery at the Museum offers visitors to the museum a chance to create their own pieces, connecting the art on display to their own artistic intuition and process. Even if viewing art isn’t your kids’ thing, there’s a strong chance that doing art is, and the makerspace in the museum is worth the trip alone. Brightly-lit and brimming with craft supplies of all stripes, the self-led art activities in the space are a perfect way to spend an hour or two on a chilly day while also serving as an important reminder to children that the arts and culture are alive and well in their own neck of the woods.
The same can be said for the vibrant downtown community we were treated to as we set off from the museum, bundled against the cold, and intent upon exploring the shops and buying some local wares. As we wandered into and out of shops, chatting with customers and vendors alike, it was plain to see the downtown growth and economic development that folks had been raving about. There was no other way to put it – Bellefonte was up-and-coming in a super cool way.
And the stores were more than ready for Christmas shoppers, offering a variety of handmade, local, independent, artisan, and vintage finds for everyone – and I mean everyone – on your Christmas list. There were bath and body luxuries and paper and desk novelties at Smith and Front, growlers of cider (and cider-centric swag) at Good Intent Cider, coffee and pastry delicacies at Bonfatto’s Italian Market and Corner Cafe, and a menagerie of gifts so expansive and comprehensive at Belle Mercantile that you literally – literally – could have done all of your Christmas shopping there. I knew the time I had to shop was brief — my boys can only stomach a small amount of shopping before they grow bored and resort to their favorite pastime, causing mischief – but that brevity wasn’t a problem. The shops had everything I needed – and then some. Whereas the nearest Big Box Store offered rows of forgettable gifts and the easy promise of a gift receipt, the shops in downtown Bellefonte were full of quality treasures that I was excited to give. Even my boys found something to love at the shops – we spent far more money than we intended at the children’s bookstore in Belle Mercantile, and loved every second.
The final stop of the day was Bellefonte’s picturesque waterfront and Tallyrand Park, which offered stunning views of the town’s historic architecture silhouetted against the sun-soaked surrounding mountains. The air off of Spring Creek was close to frigid, but the boys and I couldn’t help but explore the park’s 3.5 acres, laughing at the presumptuous geese and ducks as they strutted from the water to seek breadcrumbs in our outstretched hands, and taking in the pieces in the George Grey Barnard Sculpture Garden. The cable bridge that crosses the water was festooned in evergreen garlands and crimson bows, and the boys ran across it multiple times, marveling at how it swayed with their footsteps and pausing to gaze into the inky blue water below.
There is a reason that the concept of “home for the holidays” carries such import in our collective imagination, and it has just as much to do with grandma’s pumpkin pie or mom’s Christmas tree trimmings as it does with appreciating the small communities that raised us.
Walking around Bellefonte with my boys, I got the impression of love and care in so many details, and the effect was enchanting. When we stumbled into Bonfatto’s for warmth and caffeine before we hit the road home, I found myself sorry to say goodbye to the small community that had captivated us for the afternoon.
I promised the boys we would return – this time, in the summer to seek picnics and play at the park and perhaps stay overnight in one of the numerous bed and breakfasts that line the streets. Our journey had been brief, but impactful, and we weren’t likely to forget Bellefonte’s charm and culture anytime soon.
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