The old Manatee County Courthouse in downtown Bradenton

Bradenton is a bright and shiny city on the southern banks of the Manatee River, just south of Tampa Bay. The history books say Hernando De Soto landed at Shaw's Point on the Manatee River in 1539 and disembarked his crew and all their trappings in preparation for his famous search for El Dorado. The story was solid enough that the De Soto National Memorial, a reconstruction of his first camp, is now located near Shaw's Point (on 75th Street NW). The National Memorial offers exhibits and interpretive panels with a trail leading down to a likely landing place. The biggest exhibit is a living history "display" where people in period dress demonstrate what we know of the lifestyle, clothing, armaments and daily chores of that era.

Bradenton got its name from a Dr. Joseph Braden, an early settler who had the foresight to build a house that was more like a fort. During the Seminole Wars a lot of other local settlers holed up at Braden's "house" and made it through the worst of the attacks. However, his home was built in what later became the town of Manatee (incorporated in 1888) while Bradentown (incorporated in 1903) was further to the west. The Florida Legislature merged the two towns in 1943 and now we have this modern city of Bradenton.

Bradenton is almost surrounded by waterways, both freshwater and saltwater. That makes for almost 20 miles of beaches with marinas and lots of water sports available. To the west is Palma Sola Bay and across that (via the Palma Sola Scenic Byway), Anna Maria Island with the towns of Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach and Anna Maria. To the southwest is Sarasota Bay and across that is Longboat Key. The city of Sarasota is about 12 miles to the south.

The main business district in Bradenton is a bit west of the center of the city. You can tell downtown because that's where most of the high-rise office buildings and one-way streets are. There's also a nice historic district down there, just to the north of Manatee Avenue. Courthouse Square with its flagpoles, monuments, memorials and old County Courthouse are in the middle of it all. A few blocks north of downtown is where I came across Bradenton City Hall and what looks like the main city marina on the Manatee River. That's also where I found the theatre of the Manatee Players, a locally famous repertory theatre group.

East of downtown is where the more recently built residential subdivisions are. Some of these have won awards for their layouts, open space dedications and environmental considerations. However, this area has also been hard hit by the mortgage banking/foreclosure crisis and home values have dropped much more here than in the older West Bradenton areas closer to the beaches.

One thing I noticed as I went through Bradenton: there are large plastic, multi-colored geckos hanging off trees and buildings everywhere. (It turns out the geckos are part of a charity drive held every year in Bradenton.)