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Lovely, little, and lively Truro

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Globe Correspondent / June 3, 2007

TRURO -- The thing people will tell you about Truro is, there's no "there" there.

"When I moved here nine years ago," says resident Pat Wheeler, "I was driving around to find Truro Center. This big green state highway sign directed you down off Route 6. But what you see is a crossroads with a post office and deli only open in summer. So you think, I missed something, go back onto the highway, and try again."

There is another town center five miles up the highway in North Truro. But there's not much more there, beyond a corner store, a few small restaurants, gas station, church, library, and post office. "We have two ZIP codes, two phone exchanges, and two town centers, both nondescript," says Guy Strauss , artistic director of Truro's Payomet Performing Arts Center.

But most people come to the Cape's smallest and most rural town (year-round population 2,087, with about 70 percent of the land owned by the Cape Cod National Seashore ) not for a hopping scene but for the lack of one. They want to climb down the steep cliffs overlooking the Atlantic and walk the beaches, watch the flashing beacon of Cape Cod Light , bike the winding back roads, put in a kayak at Pamet Harbor, or just lie in the sun.

That said, it's worth noting that little Truro has an amazing array of cultural happenings, though many of them are tucked out of sight.

Take the Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill . It's hidden away down a bucolic side road, just a half mile walk from the Truro Center/Pamet Roads exit. (The center has a new second location near the exit at the corner of Depot Road.) This year Castle Hill is offering 100 workshops, for various age groups, in painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramics, photography, jewelry, mosaic and glass, bookmaking, printmaking, and writing. Special events this summer include a sand castle building workshop July 23-27 on one of the bay beaches, and a visit Aug. 15 by Billy Collins , a former US poet laureate .

Up the road and across the highway in North Truro is the Payomet Performing Arts Center , where offerings include one-person historical shows, stand-up comedy, independent films, and classes for both adults and children. One of this year's highlights is "Lillian," a new play about Lillian Hellman by William Luce , author of "The Belle of Amherst ."

For its first several years, Payomet took place under a large tent set up just off Route 6. Last year it moved to a former Air Force base. The site, which overlooks the ocean, is slowly becoming the Highlands Center, a planned center for the arts and sciences. Payomet is one of its first tenants.

"We're going to be rehabbing one of the buildings on the site, and the drawings are done for it," says Strauss. In the meantime, they've got a new, 2,500-square-foot tent, which they erect and strike with each season. "We're the only theater around that has to put everything together and then take everything apart," he says.

One of Truro's most distinctive attractions, the Susan Baker Memorial Museum , is easy to find in North Truro center. Baker is, in fact, very much alive; her standard line is that she didn't want to wait till she was dead to have a museum named after her.

Longtime aficionados will remember her penchant for papier mâché renditions of engorged ticks, and paintings depicting her views of contemporary life, with titles like "Too Mean to Marry" and "Death by Donuts ," some of which made their way into book and T-shirt form. For the last several years, Baker has moved in a different direction, often painting scenes of Europe with sculpted frames using the architectural details of the paintings. "I'm really absorbed in these European churches, which for a militant atheist is quite a stretch," she says. "I have a few works of Cape Cod, mostly landscape paintings of Truro. Is there any other place?"

Baker says the biggest phenomenon in town is its new restaurants. "We feel we're having a rebirth as the restaurant capital of Cape Cod." That may be an overstatement but talk to locals about what's happening and they all mention restaurants.

That's not to say it's an easy trade to ply in Truro. More than one eating establishment has closed here after a season or two. Ask people about Babe's and for years they'd say the same thing: "That place is always closed." But Peter Thrasher weathered his first season at Babe's in 2006, and reopened in May, offering what he calls Mediterranean home cooking that covers dishes from France, Italy, Spain, the Middle East, and North Africa. "This is 20 years of traveling in the Mediterranean and collecting recipes," he explains. "I came to Provincetown and would work all summer, save money, and then travel all winter. I just talked my way into kitchens around the world."

He has renamed the restaurant Babe's Mediterranean Bistro , focusing on North African and Persian-influenced cuisine with dishes like Moroccan chicken tagine with preserved lemons and olives. He will offer a build-your-own meze plate of appetizers, "so you can have as many tastes as possible."

Another restaurateur people are watching is Truro resident Eric Jansen who recently sold his share of the Wicked Oyster in Wellfleet, which he opened in 2004. He's opening Blackfish, a new restaurant in Truro Center, in the former Blacksmith Shop. Fans of the Wicked Oyster's cast concrete bar will find one here, also made by Wellfleet's Derek Oliver. As for food, Jansen's calling it a gastro pub : "cool funky atmosphere with high-end food."

If Truro has a central gathering spot in summer, it's probably the Village Green , across from the post office and visible from the Truro Center/Pamet Roads overpass.There's been a longstanding croquet game here for years on Sunday mornings. For the last 10 years, the town has put on free lawn concerts on Thursday evenings. This year, they run from June 28- Aug. 30.

Wheeler, co-chair of the committee that plans the event, says anywhere from 200 to 400 people show up each week, settling onto blankets and lawn chairs. This year's the lineup includes names familiar to people here, like Andy and Dick Solberg , Tim Dickey , Zoë Lewis , Big Jazz, the steel drum band Magic of Steel , and Willy and the Po' Boys.

"It's a slice of Americana you don't see much anymore," says Wheeler. People sit on blankets, children get up and dance. It's just a happy outing for anybody who happens to be around."

The summer season wraps up with the annual Truro Treasures Gala Weekend Sept. 14-16. It has many of the events that have become ubiquitous at festivals in any town: a pancake breakfast, craft show, raffle, games, concerts, and a community-wide dance. What's different about Truro's? The dance is at the dump.

There's live music, and as many as 700 people show up. The dump might sound like a weird spot, but according to volunteer Marsha Joseph , it offers something that's hard to come by: "It's a big flat area, and there's parking."

Kathy Shorr, a freelance writer in Wellfleet, can be reached at kshorr@mail2.gis.net.

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