Only in Nashville: 5 unique things

(CNN)Spotting a McDonald’s a few blocks from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, was the last straw. The whole world, it seems, is turning into one homogenous, capitalist playground. Oh, for the days when travel yielded experiences not available at home, things that inspired travelers to send postcards back home to report, “You will never believe what I just saw!”

To that end, I bring you this “Only in …” column with five exceptional, unexpected and singular things a traveler can find when they know where to look. Look for future installments on CNN Travel.
    I’ll start with Nashville. This Tennessee city, known for honky-tonks and country music, also happens to have North America’s largest Kurdish community, an art gallery that shares its Picassos, Renoirs and Cezannes with a Wal-Mart heiress and a mustard yellow VW bus (It’s called “I Dream of Weenie”) that serves a wicked fine Sunday brunch from the rear passenger window.
    Just in time for the November 6 Country Music Awards, here are five more things you can only find in Nashville:
    Before it became “Music City,” Nashville was known as the Athens of the South. In 1897 for Tennessee’s Centennial Exposition, city fathers built a full-scale replica of the real Athens’ most famous landmark. Originally made of plaster, wood and brick, Nashville’s Parthenon wasn’t meant to be permanent. But because it cost too much to demolish, Nashville decided, “What the heck, let’s just rebuild it with real marble floors.”
    So while the British Museum in London and the Greek government continue to duke it out over the Parthenon’s original statues (since 1817, what’s known as the Elgin Marbles, as in the Duke of Elgin who got them from the Ottomans, have been on permanent public display at the British Museum), Nashville continues to give locals and visitors the chance to gawk at a replica of one of the world pinnacles of classical architecture.
    It’s such a perfect clone that during recent renovations, the 2,500-year-old Greek Parthenon sent an architect to Nashville’s Centennial Park to snap photos of its spawn.
    In 1996, an employee at Bongo Java, a popular Nashville coffee shop, noticed, right before he was about to bite into it, that one of its signature homemade buns bore an uncanny resemblance to Mother Teresa. Before he could so much as say three “Hail Marys,” the BBC, Paul Harvey and even David Letterman (Paul Shaffer wrote a song about it) made the bun famous.
    The real Mother Teresa got wind of the “Immaculate Confection” and even though she reportedly laughed about it, her people sent a cease and desist order.
    Although copyright law was probably on owner Bob Bernstein’s side, the power on Mother Teresa’s side convinced him and his $250-an-hour lawyer to change its name to “The Nun Bun.”
    The renamed cinnamon roll was quickly dispatched to a glass-enclosed case in the front of the store, but in 2005, thieves broke in on Christmas, making off with the famed confection. Despite occasional sightings of the kidnapped bun, the $5,000 no-questions-asked-reward is still unclaimed.
    You say tomato. I say Tomato Art Fest. This costume-friendly art festival, an annual undertaking in historic East Nashville’s Five Points District, has grown faster than a tomato vine on Miracle-Gro.
    Hatched 10 years ago as “kind of an accident” by Meg and Bret MacFadyen, owners of the Art and Invention Gallery, it has become one of Nashville’s premiere hipster events. It features 2,000 square feet of floor to ceiling art interpreting the tomato.
    Not only are tomato royalty crowned (both a Tomato King and Queen who march in the parade behind a brass band), but there are Bloody Mary taste-offs, tomato bobbing, tomato beauty pageants and wet burrito competitions. That’s where competitors eat burritos as fast as they can while being hosed down by a firetruck-like hose.
    “People come up with a tomato-related idea and we say, ‘Does it hurt anybody? Great, let’s do it,’ ” Bret says.
    Bushels of art flood in from around the world. This year’s winner for Best Use of Tomato Humor was retired elementary school guidance counselor Jim Hartline, whose Roma Coliseum featured columns fashioned from real tomatoes.
    There are also tomato haiku competitions and a tomato song writing contest. And yes, there’s a CD featuring, among other top hits, Peter Cooper’s “Please Don’t Throw Tomatoes at Me.”
    From the airport to the local Target to the 10 a.m. opening of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Broadway, musicians of all stripes croon their lyric-writing hearts out.
    At Parlor Productions on Music Row in a restored bungalow once owned by Randy Travis, even the nonmusically inclined write songs at corporate team building events put on by Ultimate Event Nashville. Companies such as American Express, Bank of America and Nissan send normally reserved execs to pen lyrics with songwriters who regularly produce songs for stars such as Brad Paisley, Faith Hill and George Strait.
    “It’s a blast for these folks who normally wear suits,” says Robin Ruddy, a performer who used to tour with Rod Stewart, who owns the Grammy-producing Parlor Studio with her husband, Larry Sheridan. “We divide them into teams, each led by a hit songwriter, and then each team writes a song, which we then record. Even if they can’t sing, we get them out there singing and even line dancing.”
    After seven years of offering this “American Idol for Suits,” has Ruddy ever plucked out any potential talent?
    “Ah — no, but it’s a really great fun bonding experience,” Ruddy says.
    The Jugg Sisters — aka Sheri Lynn Bucy and Brenda Kay Wilkins — are the big-hair, blue eyeshadow and spandex behind the wackiest tour in Nashville.
    Nash Trash, their 90-minute comedy tour, rides past many of the city’s country music’s institutions. Tickets sell out months in advance to people hankering to get one of 32 seats on the sisters’ trash-talking, dirt-dishing, yeehaw-yelling tours.
    Lap-size coolers of beer and wine are allowed. Needless to say, squeezy cheese hors d’oeuvres are also served.
    This article was originally published in 2013.

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