On a rainy day, I drove 28 miles south on the Antebellum Trail, U.S. 441, to lovely little Madison, stopping along the way in Watkinsville, which has antiques and gift shops and Tea Roses, where traditional English tea is served from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays in rooms strewn with vintage hats and those fur pieces that snap at themselves. (Reservations:  769-0024.) The welcome center, in a former tavern and stagecoach stop dating to 1801, has a little museum with old chests, a spinning wheel and loom and an antique corn sheller. The gift shop sells grits and pecans.
Between Watkinsville and Madison, the highway slices through wooded country dotted with roadside stands selling boiled peanuts, peaches and Vidalia onions. Madison, which calls itself "the town Sherman refused to burn" (it seems a local Unionist had influence with the general's brother), is a picture-postcard place with its brick sidewalks and town square.
The only jarring note is the disconcerting number of cars and trucks whizzing through on magnolia-shaded Main Street. Main and Academy Street, paralleling it, are a feast of antebellum homes. The welcome center on the square is a good starting point for seeing the town, which has 100 structures on the National Register of Historic Places.
Across from Madison's 1905 Beaux Arts brick courthouse is a plaque noting that Oliver Norvell Hardy (of Laurel and Hardy) once lived on the site. His mother owned a hotel in Madison, and young Oliver attended the grammar school.
Even though it was after hours, Wauline Baptiste answered my knock at the Morgan County African-American Museum at 156 Academy St. The simple four-room house, left to a former slave by his master, displays West African art, drums, masks and clothing and 93 pieces of contemporary Shona sculpture from Zimbabwe.
The Madison-Morgan Cultural Center at 434 S. Main St. is in an 1895 Romanesque Revival building that was a schoolhouse until the mid-1950s. Today it's sort of a museum within a museum. One room is a re-creation of an 1896 classroom; on the original desks are copies of McGuffey's Readers, which taught generations of children reading, writing and morality. Another room depicts life in the region 150 years ago. There are tools, a Confederate rifle, a lightning rod, a carpet bag and a pine rope bed.
I couldn't resist a detour to Social Circle (population 2,755), about 20 minutes west of Madison off Interstate 20. It's said that an early visitor to this onetime railroad stopover remarked, "This sure is a social circle." The town, with its vintage storefronts, doesn't seem to have changed much since 1869, when it was illegal to be out past 10 p.m. It's home to the Blue Willow Inn at 294 N. Cherokee Road, which serves up bountiful lunch and supper buffets of Southern specialties. The evening I looked in, steam tables were laden with macaroni and cheese, liver and onions, fried chicken and fried green tomatoes. When this Greek Revival mansion was a private home, "Gone With the Wind" author Margaret Mitchell came often with her first husband-to-be, Red Upshaw, a relative of the home's owner. Rhett Butler is said to be based on him.
I had booked a night at Southern Cross Guest Ranch near Madison, where I was shown to Scarlett O'Hara, a big, comfortable room with lacy curtains and a portrait of Herself.
The ranch house is a brick Colonial that can't decide whether to be Versailles, France, or Big Sky, Mont. I liked the juxtaposition of Versailles and Big Sky with public rooms awash in Louis-something furnishings.
But it's also bucolic, with horses, cows, dogs and acres of pasture. There's a swimming pool and a pond stocked with bass and catfish. The TV room is done up like a Wild West bar. Before leaving, I stopped by the on-site Valhalla Farms stable to see a newborn colt.
The main meal is at noon, a buffet that proprietor Noel Detienne calls "kind of what you'd expect to have at Grandma's on Sunday." No alcohol is served, but guests may stash their own in a community fridge. There are mountain bikes and daily horse rides. If I were a kid vacationing with my parents, I think I'd love this place. As a grown-up who's never had a great relationship with horses, it's not on my return-to list.
A drive through history
On my last day in Athens I finally took that classic city tour, which includes Milledge Avenue mansions that now are fraternity and sorority houses. We skirted Five Points, where trendy shops and restaurants include Jittery Joe's coffee spot in a former gas station and the upscale Five and Ten restaurant.
We saw historic homes along Dearing Street, one of 14 historic districts with 19th and 20th century buildings. (Athens-Clarke County has 31 homes and other buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.)
I still had time to do part of the self-guided walking tour of historic music sites dear to the hearts of rock fans. Unfortunately, many sites have been demolished or, like the 40 Watt Club, have made multiple moves. St. Mary's Church, 394 Oconee St., where R.E.M. played its first public gig, has been replaced by condos. The 40 Watt, originally in a space above what is now the Grill at 171 College Ave. (and lighted by a 40-watt bulb), today occupies a former furniture mart at 285 W. Washington St., next to Pain and Wonder tattoo studio.
The Georgia Theater, a former movie house at 215 N. Lumpkin St., is a music hall where headliners have included the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Wynton Marsalis and Hootie and the Blowfish. R.E.M.'s Peter Buck once clerked at Wuxtry Records at 197 E. Clayton St.
Tourism is second only to agriculture in Athens-Clarke County, and the welcome center in Athens is stocked with brochures and maps. A walking guide to the painted bulldogs will soon be available there. As UGA fans say, "Go, Dawgs, sic 'em!"