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The town the Bard built

More than a half century ago, local journalist Tom Patterson suggested this town open a Shakespearean theater. The idea was to capitalize on the similarity of his town's name to William Shakespeare's birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Patterson kept working at it, and the theater's first season opened on July 13, 1953. Performances were held in a tent. Things have changed since then.

Today, The Stratford Festival is one of the most renowned Shakespearean events outside England. Last year more than 625,000 tickets were sold, proving Patterson more astute than even he realized.

This season, which runs to November, the play list includes such Shakespearean works as Romeo and Juliet, King Lear and Richard III. There is also My Fair Lady and The Three Penny Opera. Performances take place at four theaters: The 1,800-seat Festival, the smaller Tom Patterson, the Avon and, new this year, the Studio. This last is dedicated to staging less-performed works, from classics to the avant garde.

Stratford is a little more than an hour's drive west from Toronto's Pearson International Airport. While the city has grown in the past 50 years, it retains the feel of a small town. A flowered and shaded place of Victorian beauty with a peaceful river gliding through it, Stratford's economy has been boosted annually by tens of millions of dollars spent by festival-goers.

Stratford's appeal was certified in 1997 when it was named "The World's Most Beautiful City" in an international competition. Among the attributes are its Shakespearean Gardens, created in 1936, and the Avon River, with its gently sloping banks and contented swans always near. Its heritage neighborhoods have tree-shaded streets that mix Victorian, Italianate and Edwardian homes. The City Hall, Stratford's red brick landmark, has stood since 1899 and is topped by cupolas, arches and a clock tower.

When the festival began, Stratford had few restaurants and fewer hotels. Theater patrons often were served meals in local churches. Today, the city has almost 100 restaurants, about 20 hotels and motels, and 250 bed and breakfasts. Room rates run from about $70 in the B&Bs to luxury hotel suites at $185.

In 1983, James Morris and Eleanor Kane, owners of restaurants here, came up with an idea that has touched their city's life in ways they may never expected. They created the nonprofit Stratford Chefs' School. Its students are taught by local and visiting chefs at the top of their form; graduates have become chefs or restaurant owners all over Canada and in the United States. And because many graduates stay to cook in Stratford, the school's legacy is tasted at many a table.

Beyond the city, the scenic countryside includes hamlets named Shakespeare, Baden and Heidelberg. There are fields of Old Order Mennonite farms, where women in bonnets and their children offer vegetables and cheeses at their driveway gates.

Towns worth a visit include: Dundee, with its 125-year-old Castle Kilbride; Shakespeare, with a single traffic light and about 20 antique shops at that intersection; and further out, St. Jacob's, which can be crowded in summer as visitors drive out to buy Mennonite-baked bread or to have dinner in the three fine restaurants _ Benjamin's, Vidalia's and the Stone Crock _ owned by a Mennonite family.

Freelance writer Kenneth Bagnell drives out from his home in Toronto for the festival.

If you go

FOR MORE INFORMATION: for reservations or accommodations, call the Stratford Festival toll-free, 1-800-567-1600; www.stratfordfestival.ca. Or call Stratford Tourism toll-free, 1-800-561-7926.

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