Tracking the Bieb and the Bard

Updated: 2012-09-04 09:29


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Today's festival is a far cry from its beginnings - in a single tent erected in 1953. For decades, the city had been an important railway junction, a busy hub for the Canadian National Railroad, with a maintenance yard for steam engines.

In the 1950s, when diesel began to replace steam, Stratford's key business began to ebb, and the economy did, too.

Enter the journalist Tom Patterson, who saw a Shakespeare festival as a possible savior. Though he had no background in the theater, he surrounded himself with people who did. And Alec Guinness brought star power to that opening production when he played the title role in Richard III.

The festival that Patterson spawned is now sprawling, and it would be easy to spend an entire weekend seeing shows each afternoon and evening.

Throw in a tour of the costume and prop warehouse, a visit to the festival's extensive archive - is that Christopher Walken as Romeo!? - and a stroll through the special 60th-anniversary exhibition on the festival's history, and you might miss the rest of what Stratford has to offer. That would be a mistake.

Since one of the town's major industries is catering to hordes of tourists, Stratford has a vibrant culinary culture dedicated to feeding them, much of it located around Market Square (actually a triangle), the hub of downtown.

The trick is positioning yourself near it, a strategy my partner and I followed by staying at the Three Houses, a bed-and-breakfast run by the very amiable David James Lester.

We stayed at the main house, an 1870s Italianate building with a large common area for daily breakfast, where we were assigned the Yellow Room, a spacious and serene place tastefully appointed in its namesake color with a view onto quiet Brunswick Street.

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Three Houses is only a few blocks from Market Square, where every Sunday morning in the summer, a Slow Food Market takes over the small open area, not too far from the Stratford Chef's School and a high concentration of restaurants and some remarkable specialty food stores - Chocolate Barr's alone could make the trip to the town worth it - along Downie and Ontario Streets.

Our guide for a culinary walking tour led a two-hour stroll that included stops at - and snacks from - a handful of places, including the Milky Whey, Jenn and Larry's Brittle & Shakes and Revel Caffe. Some will want to check out the bronze star embedded in the street near a spot - on the steps of the festival's Avon Theater on Downie Street, on the perimeter of Market Square - where Bieber used to play his guitar and seek donations from passers-by.

Bieber is of course the most famous musician to hail from Stratford, but he's not the only one.

A vibrant (for a relatively small town) music and busking scene continues today, on the streets and in bars like the year-old Evergreen Terrace Cafe, just off Market Square, which is becoming a local hot spot. The bar music scene is a varied one, from bluegrass to folk to heavy metal.

Stratford is the type of town that makes you want to stay longer, but if your schedule permits, leave a little time on the way back to Toronto for a quick stop in the town of Shakespeare.

There, along with several antiques shops, are the Best Little Pork Shoppe (where the spicy pepperettes - sticks of cured meat - are addictive) and the Perth County Welcome Center and artisan market.

That was where I found my most durable souvenir from the trip: a T-shirt with a cartoon illustration of Justin Bieber and William Shakespeare together, smiling. "Bill and Biebs", it reads.

In a sense, the shirt captures the modern-day essence of the small town that was about eight miles (12.90 km) behind us - its unslick marketing wins you over. My conversion didn't end with Stratford itself. I had arrived there a serious Shakespeare enthusiast and not so much a Justin Bieber fan. After I left, I bought his new album.

The New York Times

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