Alabama gets a tough rap. Often, when told that it's where my mother currently lives and where I spend summers (and every other Christmas), I get one of two reactions:
A.) People begin to sing Sweet Home Alabama.
B.) People give me a sad look and/or say "Poor you!"
It's true that in comparison to Northern Virginia (where I (mostly) grew up) it couldn't be more of a culture shock. Here rush hour doesn't mean sitting in traffic for four hours and Sunday is the emptiest day on the road. Here tornadoes can and do happen. Here rodeos, country music, and beauty pageants, and fishing are more than just hobbies.
Where am I going with this?
Northern Alabama is full of small towns, many far older than you would ever imagine. These small towns are full of history and thus perfect for day trips. It is in this fashion that my parents stumbled across Cullman, Alabama, home of the Ave Maria Grotto.
They were on their way back from Atlanta and in the sort of strange, spontaneous mood that generally leads to interesting stories. Having seen the sign for the grotto on the highway many times, they decided to check it out. Afterwards, I got the full description, and yesterday, I got to see it for myself.
The Ave Maria Grotto is the work of a Benedictine Monk named Br. Joseph Zötl. He came from Bavaria and became a monk at the St. Bernard Abbey in the 1890's. In his spare time, he built replicas of religious sites out of any and every sort of spare material he could find. As news of the models spread, people began to bring (and even send) leftover materials to him. Most of the models are doll-house-sized, with intricate details. It's crazy to think that out of all of the models that he built (approximately 125!) that he had only actually seen about five or six of the places in real life. The grotto is a beautiful, peaceful place, in the middle of a forest, full of wildlife (we saw newts, snakes, and field mice). The pictures I took truly don't do it justice. This is one place you have to see to believe.