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This is a belated blog as I’ve been back a few days now. Let’s be
honest – it’s difficult to type when you’ve got a tapa in one hand and a
glass of Rioja in the other.The trip started in San Sebastian in the Basque country in the far North
East of Spain, though I went a day early to take a look at Bilbao and in
particular the Guggenheim (the city is very underrated and the Guggenheim is
sensational – go!). The first meal was just a couple of hours after the
group’s plane landed at Santiago Calatrava’s sensational airport (which
looks like a white bird about to take flight). It was cooked for us by the
Basque Gordon Ramsey, Martin Berasategui – a spectacular 6-courses, the
highlights of which were wild mushroom ravioli, hake baked to perfection and
a melt-in-your-mouth french toast dessert. It took place in Rafael Moneo’s
sensational Kursaal building on the sea front, a second bonus in one day for
us lovers of modern architecture.

The balance of our time in SS was tasting more rustic fare – a delicious
salt cod omelette followed by wonderfully tasty beef cooked by a delightful
amazonian Basque woman called Roxario (whose husband made cider the likes of
which I haven’t tasted since hazy evenings at the Coronation Tap in Bristol
more years ago than I am prepared to admit to) and pintxos (the Basque
version of tapas) in a Friday night pintxo bar crawl during which we only
went to one bar as we were having too much fun to move on. In SS, we were
lucky enough to be invited into one of the gentlemen’s gastronomic societies
– sort of old school clubs where the gents cook meals for their friends with
no women allowed. Of course, I thought this was all dreadfully un-PC and
nodded disapprovingly (whilst secretly wishing I had a chum who was a
member).

From the Basque country we moved on to Rioja, so you can imagine what we got
up to there – picking wild flowers and studying the finer points of medieval
carvings, of course. In fact, the one tasting was disappointing from a wine
point of view but the bodega had built a new wine museum which put Vinopolis
to shame and was well worth a visit – nothing to do with the serrano ham,
mancheco cheese, leak soup, veal and fois gras which was washed down with
the rioja, of course. Our stops included the hill town of La Guardia with a
Calatrava bodega on its doorstep (more spectacular modern architecture) and
the pilgrim route of St. James town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada. Our
overnight stop was in Ezcaray, for another 6 course gastronomic blow-out at
a Michelin starred restaurant.

Our route to El Burgo de Osma (no relation!), through Castille Leon, took us
through a delightful village called Covarrubias where the rustic Sunday
lunch was a gut-busting bean stew followed by cholesterol on a plate – all
sorts of meat plus chorizo and black pudding in a heavy sauce – more of an
interesting gastronomic experience than fine cuisine. This evening’s
restaurant was opened specially for us, as it was a Sunday. We broke the
number-of-courses record with 13, though it’s fair to say the first 9 were
tapa portions. A wonderful combination of flavours, though I’m struggling to
remember them now.

The next days destination was Belmonte, with stops at Siguenza and Cuenca en
route. Plans started unravelling when our bus disagreed with a wall on one
of those narrow streets in Siguenza; a window shattered. We had to get a
temporary bus and then wait for the original bus to be repaired and to catch
up with us in Cuenca. The result was late meals, even by Spanish standards,
but they turned out to be amongst the best meals of their type on the trip –
a tapas lunch in a bar in Cuenca at 5pm and another 9 course gastronomic
experience in Las Pedroneras at 10.30pm. Siguenza was a hill town with
lovely windy streets. Cuenca had a dramatic setting with houses seemingly
hanging onto the side of the promontory on which the old town is built.
Belmonte also turned out to be a lovely town, the first white-washed one –
telling us we were now south of Madrid – which we explored on foot the
following morning (just as well after the previous days meals).

We were now in Castille La Mancha – Don Quixote country, all lowlands and
windmills – and the temperature was rising. Back in Las Pedroneras we went
in search of the world’s best garlic. We found the factory (but it was off
season) but got lost trying to find the garlic fields (even though the
farmer was on now the bus). A brief stop followed in the Don Quixote ‘theme
town’ of El Toboso which we didn’t like, so we made a hasty exit. I loved
the visit to the Mancheco cheese factory and couldn’t resist a purchase;
it’s one of my two favourite cheeses. Our destination today was Almagro,
which had a fine arcaded square and a 16th Century theatre where you could
imagine the golden age plays being performed at the same time as Shakespeare
was filling the Globe and the Rose in London (except women were allowed to
act in Spain, which was just as well given the number of plays with
virtually women-only casts). Tonight’s meal was another of those 6-course
banquets which were becoming the norm, though each one featured different
local produce and cuisine.

The following day’s drive was exhausting – too long, really – though the
landscape was sensational. Lunch in Sierra de Cazalla was in a gorgeous
palace with a courtyard of ceramic tiles, fountains, pools and shady nooks.
They cooked our garlic with scrambled eggs and produced our first gazpacho
(we were now in Andalucia). We managed a brief visit to an aquavit maker –
not to my taste, I’m afraid. When we eventually made it, our destination
turned out to be a delightful mountain town called Almonstar la Real where
the fare was more rustic, the most memorable part of which was tomatoes with
a flavour to die for.

After a walking tour of Almonstar, we moved on to Cortegana where we visited
a lovely gentleman’s club in an art nouveau building, where the only people
they would serve other than members were travellers. The few members were
curious but welcoming; I wanted to join and stay. Fortunately I didn’t, as
lunch was in the ham capital of Jabugo. The very best ham comes from pigs
fed exclusively on acorns. We visited the huge rooms where the hams were
hanging, being cured, and then sat town to a lunch of every type of ham and
ham product you can imagine; this was a real treat. After a brief stop in
Aracena, we headed for Sanlucar de Barrameda on the Atlantic coast,
completing a journey from the coast in far North East close to the border
with France, to the South West coast. Of course, it was fish and seafood
tonight, the highlight being langoustine and baby squid, though I was
surprised that they battered and fried most fish – apparently we picked this
up from the Spanish.

Sanlucar was a real surprise – a working town on the coast with not a hint
of tourism. We explored the market and visited the Bodego Barbadillo –
manzanilla rather than sherry; dry, less strong and rather Moorish. The
tapas lunch in the main square was one of the best meals of our tour. We’d
seen tiny live prawns in the market and nicknamed them jumping prawns; now
we had the jumping prawn omelette plus sea urchin, sea snails and anchovies
(which I usually don’t like, but these were an exception). We took the ferry
to Cadiz for a walking tour and museum visit before ending the day at
another renowned fish restaurant in Sanlucar which did not disappoint.

Here I parted with most of the group, but with our tour leader (travel
writer Michael Jacobs), our Sevillian fixer Pepe and two delightful Chinese
ladies, we headed for Seville and the Feria, where Anne’s duaghter Eleanor,
who is studying in Granada, joined me. The Feria is Seville’s main festival
which I can only describe as ‘networking with flamenco and sherry’. It’s a
veritable city of casetas (tents) each of which are fitted out like a living room (including pictures on the walls) and a bar. They are all privately owned – by individuals, families, societies, companies, unions…. so unless you have an invitation,
you are limited to watching the afternoon parade of riders and carriages
showing off in their finery. We, of course, were invited to Pepe’s caseta
and later on a caseta crawl to four others (I think; it gets a bit blurry
here) for an endless round of drinking, snacking and flamenco
(non-participatory, thank god) as we were adopted by a variety of Spaniards
to whom we were introduced by Pepe and Michael. After 9 hours or so, we were
exhausted and had to get a taxi home – and it was just hotting up !

My last 1.5 days were quieter, renewing my acquaintance with Seville (I was
last there in 1980). It is a lovely city with lots to see – its cathedral
and alcazar, palaces and monasteries. By now the temperature had hit 28 / 82
which was unseasonably hot.

I’ve had a love affair with Spain for some time, with previous trips to
Barcelona, Santiago de Compostella, Madrid/Escorial/Toledo, Extremedura,
Basque country, Segovia/Avilla/Salamanca and Granada/Seville. This trip
served to strengthen the bond and introduced a new (gastronomic) dimension.
It’s as interesting as any cuisine in the world, even though it isn’t feted
as much as France and Italy. Find out for yourselves – hotel and restaurant
consultancy available for a modest fee! Sorry this has been so long-winded,
but we packed a lot into 12 days.

 

 

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Well, no time or opportunity for e.postcards in our final 10 days – too much  to see, too much to do, far too much fun……….so here’s a resume of the rest of the trip.
 
Our final day in NO was blighted by heavy rain, so the walking tour of the garden district was replaced by the mardi gras museum, the jazz museum and the voodoo museum – a trio which just about sums up the city and a fittingly learned end to the NO leg of the trip.
 
In the evening we boarded the American Queen steamboat – a modern version of the ones which have been plying the Mississippi for over 150 years – for a 3-night cruise. It was big (c. 400 passengers) with ersatz 19th century design throughout – state rooms (no cabins here!), parlours, grand dining rooms, and a saloon / ballroom(!). On the ten-point ‘twee’ scale it rated an 11 and we giggled from the minute we got on.

 

This was the academic portion of the trip – research for my forthcoming thesis on ‘the Americans at play’ – so we shalln’t say too much…..except that it was very relaxing after the manic pace of the first 12 days, the food was excellent, much of the entertainment was very good (particularly the blues band and the gospel
group which came aboard) and we met lots of people from Texas! Lance, the ‘dining captain’ (this is a different role to a maitre’d, a bus boy or a waiter and yet another person to tip!) took to calling us Miss Libby and Mr Garrett (he couldn’t really cope with the ‘h’) which made us feel as if we should have both dressed up even more, me smoking cigars and Miss Libby feinting occasionally in the southern way.
 
The Mississippi is very much a working river, so you see life rather than scenery. We stepped off twice, to visit a lovely 19th century plantation home at Oak Alley and to see both the old (very old) and new (also old) state capitol buildings at Baton Rouge – both architectural gems. But above all it was an opportunity to catch our breath before we embarked on the 1200  mile road journey back to Atlanta.
 
The first leg to Natchez was fairly dull – until we came to a restaurant near Natchez called ‘Fat Mamas Kitchen’ which was built in the shape of…….you guessed, a fat mama – you entered through a door in the frock and the top of the building was mamas head ! Natchez was where the cotton plantation owners built their spectacular 19th century homes in Greek revival, Victorian or other period styles. Their plantations were across the river in Louisiana, but here in the Mississippi capital they socially climbed (when they weren’t expiring in the oppressive heat). Our accommodation was a B & B in a lovely 1830’s house where the hostess had a southern belle air about her – very Tennessee Williams – but produced spectacular southern breakfasts that included sausages in sweet buttermilk gravy with scones (biscuits in American) and cheese grits. There was a feeling of ‘old south’ about Natchez and an undercurrent of racial division. We were there during the local elections and could sense that loyalties followed racial lines. We  visited four of the homes and took a side trip to Frogmore LA to visit a cotton plantation where you could see both the historical and the modern – this was fascinating.
 
Natchez was the part of the trip which didn’t fit the musical theme, but seemed worth the stop. From here we were back on the musical road along highway 61 – but now moving from jazz, cajun and zydeco to the blues. We stayed in Clarksdale, which many consider to be the home of the blues. Here highway 61
and highway 49 intersect at the point where Robert Johnson is alleged to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his talent as a guitarist. We stayed at the Shack-up Inn, a handful of converted sharecroppers shacks. In all my travels I have to say this is the most original place I have ever stayed in (look up
www.shackupinn.com) and the man that runs it is clearly bonkers – but delightfully bonkers. My shack was the Cadillac shack, complete with a Cadillac parked outside, an electric piano, hi fi system with c. 50 CD’s, piped 24-hours blues music, and walls covered in notes, tat and grot which would take days to fully absorb. Libby’s was the Crossroads shack – altogether more sober but with a proper piano and a friendly ghost (who unfortunately didn’t make an appearance). The whole compound was littered with old vehicles, signs and buildings which seemed to have turned up and just placed themselves there – it was a wonderfully eccentric place to stay and we loved it.
 
Clarksdale was the childhood home of Tennessee Williams, so it was of double interest (though these is little evidence of TW’s presence). The
Delta Blues Museum gave us a good immersion into our new musical theme. In the evening we went to Ground Zero – a club jointly owned by local boy Morgan Freeman –
which had been recommended by some Australians we met in Cajun country. The blues band that night (with the unfortunate name Howl n Madd) were very good.
 
We made a side trip to Helena, Arkansas – again recommended by the Aussies – to visit a new blues museum. We discovered that the US’s long-running blues radio programme was broadcast from there live at 12.15pm each day, so we were encouraged to stay as foreign guests. Just before noon they called the
host (who hadn’t turned up) to discover that it had been gazumped by a ball game that day, but when he discovered there were visitors from the UK he drove to the studio to greet us. The show is called ‘King Biscuit Time’ (named after the sponsor) and has been running since 1941. Sonny Payne has hosted it since 1951 and is a delightful man in his late 70’s. Despite the fact we know comparatively little about the blues, it was clearly a privilege to meet him and he gave us some great club recommendations for the next stop. His last UK visitor was Elvis Costello, a premiere league Gareth James hero, so we were in good company. The museum was excellent, and it had been a great impulsive side trip.
 
Our first stop in Memphis was Sun Studios where Elvis, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and many more recorded – it is still a working studio so it hasn’t really been tarted up for the tourists. Our second stop was to see 5 ducks leave their daytime home in the fountain pool of the lobby of the Peabody Hotel to take the lift to their night-time home in the penthouse – and we hadn’t even had a drink ! It started as a joke but has now become a Memphis tradition and was a suitably quirky end to our
first day there. In the evening we took the first of Sonny’s recommendations and saw a sensational performance by Ruby Wilson and the B. B. King big band – blues and soul in an irresistible combination performed by a real pro.
 
If it’s Friday in Memphis, it must be Graceland. We were expecting to be underwhelmed, even to laugh at it, but it has to be said it’s a fascinating insight into the man’s life and feels like a pilgrimage, even if you’re not a big fan. The house is modest though the costumes, cars and planes are not. The 7 shops rather overdid the merchandising, but it was well worth a visit.
 
We followed it by a visit to the Stax studios – re-created rather than original this time, due to the label’s sad demise. So much good music came out of Stax, but we hadn’t really grasped it’s multi-racial importance,
providing Memphis with an ‘incubator’ for music from the streets. Suffice to say the big boys – Atlantic, then CBS – screwed them and they now don’t even own the back catalogue and the founders are penniless. You get a real sense of music as music not as business in Memphis – few people make much money but there’s bags of creativity and everyone is having fun. Our final evening picked up Sonny’s second recommendation – a blues singer called Barbara Blue, who sang great blues / soul music with just a pianist for accompaniment. She was a real ballsy Janis Joplin character who called herself a musical prostitute and did requests for $5 ($20 to stop!).
 
Our accommodation in Memphis was an apartment – great location just 1.5 blocks from Beale Street, but the air-conditioning didn’t work on the first night, so we had mixed views.
 
The contrast couldn’t have been greater between the journey to Memphis and the journey to Nashville and the city of Memphis and the city of Nashville. The road to Memphis is flat with few trees; the road to Nashville is hilly, wooded and lushly green. Memphis is very poor and run down, Nashville is amongst the most prosperous cities in the US. It comes through in the music too – in Nashville it’s business and showbiz rather than music.
 
Our first stop was the wonderfully atmospheric RCA studio B – again where Elvis and many others laid down many many songs (and where the other Elvis made his Almost Blue album) – and our second stop was the Country Music Museum; here our ignorance really showed. C&W is mega in the US, but many of the big names are completely unknown elsewhere. Imagine learning about someone whose last CD sold two million copies and you’ve never heard of them! The excellent new building was in the shape of a bass clef with all sorts of musical motifs incorporated so it was an architectural treat as well as a museum proper.
 
Things began to go a bit pear-shaped when our B&B was double-booked. We had 90 minutes to get an alternative, find it, check in, wash & change and get to the Grand Ole Opry! We impulsively decided to sell our souls to Gaylord Enterprises and check in at the Opryland Hotel. Well, a town rather than a hotel with thousands of rooms around four giant atriums / courtyards, the largest of which has a complete town surrounded by a lake on which you could take a boat trip. This was excess with a capital X – Las Vegas Nashville style. This will be part two of my forthcoming thesis.
 
The Grand Ole Opry was jolly good fun – 5 x 30-minute live radio shows recorded back-to-back, each with a different host, a different sponsor and c. 3 different acts. The sponsor announcements were a hoot – Martha White biscuits, Tootsies Orchid Lounge, Odoms’ Tennessee Pride flour and our favourite – Goo Goo candy. The acts were mixed, but there was some great bluegrass and ‘new’ country (as opposed to ‘showbiz’ country).
 
Our last day started magnificently with the Nash Trash tour. This is 2 comediennes dressed in pink driving you around the city in a pink bus. You don’t see much of Nashville, but you laugh until you ache. They sing funny songs and have very funny routines, they dish the dirt on anyone and everyone and shout out of the bus window at passers-by, re-inventing them as country stars. It’s often gross, always funny and is a truly unique experience (look up
www.nashtrash.com ). We followed this with a walking tour so that we really could see some of Nashville, with a couple of stops in clubs / bars for live country music and a beer. We ended the trip with a visit to the Bluebird Cafe, a very small club which is a favourite of many great musicians like Steve Earle, Loudon Wainwright III, Emmylou Harris etc.
 
Sunday was a new writers showcase so after a very good featured band we got 9 short 3-song sets. This is where the difference between country music and blues / jazz / soul etc. was driven home to us. The ‘business’ encouraged uniformity at the expense of originality – we had 9 people each trying to do
the same as each other and all those who had already been successful – this is business not music. Even though there are great modern country singers, the genre as a whole is no better than boy bands and pop idol. Give us the jazz, cajun, zydeco, blues, soul……
 
So that’s it – 22 days, 16 with live music. 2000 miles by car, bus, train and steamboat. Lots of great southern food (too much). Accommodation in B&B’s, motels, apartments, steamboats, sharecroppers shacks…and Opryland ! A wonderful trip of contrasts with music still ringing in our ears (and 15 cd’s to help us remember it all).

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Well, here we are back from our Cajun tour with so much to talk about! The Cajuns came here from Acadia (Nova Scotia) when the English chucked them out in the middle of the 18th century. Many found their way to Louisiana, some settling in the swamps and some on the prairies. Our tour is focused mostly
on the prairie area, where the French language and their unique musical heritage thrives. The French has been americanised and the cuisine adapted to the local produce and conditions. The other people of the area are creoles, mostly black but also singing in americanised French and sharing much of the heritage.
 
We started Monday with a swamp tour, expecting to see the odd alligator. Well it was alligators-a-go-go and we eventually lost count. We even got to hold a 10 inch / 8-month old one – one of our group (a Jewish mom from Boston) in fact held it for a rather long time and when asked to pass it on declared
‘it’s the closest I’m gonna get to a grandchild so I’m hanging on to it’! We also visited our first plantation home (the first of many I suspect, given our subsequent route) which brought alive the history of Louisiana.
 
The first musical stop was a BBQ at Geno Delafosse’s home – The Double D Ranch. His band played on the back of a trailer in the paddock and were great – Libby danced with his brother and I danced, but we don’t talk any more about that as attention had not been paid at the dancing classes at the welcome dinner. Geno is a lovely man and we were made very welcome by his family and neighbours. He is the greatest zydeco musician of them all; much of modern zydeco has been mixed with funk and rap, but he’s true to the
zydeco sound.
 
The following day in Eunice we were greeted by the mayor, a lady with big hair and big….and were followed by the local paper (we’re big news in small town Eunice). The highlight was a visit to the restored Liberty theatre, where they now have a live Cajun broadcast every Saturday – the mayor’s assistant said ‘we ripped it off from the Grand Ole Opry but did it in French so they wouldn’t notice’. The rest of the day was spent with the Savoy family, at their music centre and then at their home. Marc is a real polymath who makes accordions, cooks, plays music and makes regular pronouncements about anything and everything – many of which end up scrawled on his workshop walls. Before the crawfsih boil, some went crawfish fishing – well, wading in, pulling up a trap and wading out actually. Libby joined in; my excuse was my self-appointed role as official photographer. We had 500 lbs of crawfish between us but given that you just eat their tails, that’s not as much as it sounds. Lots of friends and neighbours turned up, together with a contingent from Australia (who have a music magazine and radio show in Melbourne) who Nancy had bumped into in New Orleans – they were a great bunch. The accompanying music was a long jam session including a couple of Savoy’s and Michael Doucet (more of him later).
 
Wednesday started with a Cajun cooking demonstration by Patrick Mould, who has a cooking school, which ended with us eating all he’d cooked – oyster bisque, seafood creole, zuccine & cheese bread and chocolate bread pudding with a mind-blowing bloody mary. Patrick was hysterical and Michael Doucet –
THE best Cajun fiddle player – and his wife Sharon accompanied the demonstration on fiddle and guitar (more whipping music, Michael) ! This all took place in a lovely mansion in Breaux Bridge.
 
We weren’t sure what was going to happen at our final stop, the home of D L Menard, now in his 70’s but very much a father figure of Cajun music. What greeted us was a fabulous welcome and a thoroughly charming man. His family and friends had also been invited and they had set up the band in the backyard. In addition to DL and his band, we were also entertained by his grandson and some local kids with a country / Cajun band who were a sensation. Meatballs, home-made cookies, boudin…..just after Patrick’s lunch! Libby got to hug DL! This was a wonderful end to a magnificent trip.

 

Back in the big easy we managed to stay awake long enough to go clubbing on Frenchman Street – and landed on our feet again seeing a great local country bluegrass band.
 
Yesterday we visited the workshops and storerooms of the premier mardi grass float maker which was very colourful – we couldn’t stop smiling. They were at work on floats and props for the 2005 mardi gras – one man was turning last year’s horse into next year’s unicorn with a styrofoam horn! We then went back to JazzFest, primarily to see Beausoleil, Micheal Doucet’s band, and to have some more snacks (pheasant, quail and boudin gumbo!) and buy some more colourful goodies – wait ‘til you see the shirts (Keith, I’m about to challenge you!). Yesterday ended with another gastronomic experience – this time at a restaurant I visited in 1992 – Commanders Palace – and it didn’t disappoint (even if I had to wear a jacket and tie).
 
The group was really great – we have new best friends in Chicago,
New Jersey, California, Nevada, and Boston. Lynne from California (of course) was a predatory dancer so the former mayor of Eunice (we met two as well as the present mayor with big…), the bus driver (a lovely guy called Floyd), ……and me! …..were not safe when it came to dancing.
 
Today the rain has come back so our walking tour of the garden district has been delayed. This evening we board the American Queen for our steamboat trip up the Mississippi, so the next epistle will have sailing tales plus our journey up highway 61 to the Mississippi delta – blues country – and Memphis.

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Here we are at the end of our first week and what a week it’s been!

 

Atlanta was a very pleasant surprise. The accommodation was great – a late 19th century house where we had a lovely suite – with Jacuzzi and veranda! Our hosts were very helpful and the breakfasts were highly original. We ate very well – a former work colleague of mine took us to a great American restaurant and we followed this with a gastronomic experience courtesy of the Zagat guide, which more than lived up to its reputation in Atlanta’s top 3.

 

The weather was great so we walked a lot. Atlanta has lots of lovely street art and some good architecture. For architecture buffs (hello, Douglas) the high museum is an excellent 20-year-old Richard Meir (?spelling) prototype for the Getty centre in LA. The visit to CNN studios newsroom was fascinating and the Atlanta history centre has some restored period homes where the guide did all those ‘where this expression comes from’ things. THE E.POSTCARD QUIZ –

1. What’s the origin of  ‘spinster’ ?

2. Where does ‘sleep tight’ come from ?

 

The journey to New Orleans by train took 12 hours. It wasn’t scenically particularly exciting, but we did have lunch with a nice man from Tuscaloosa and when we got close to New Orleans we crossed Lake Ponticharian and you couldn’t see the tracks, so it was looked as if we were sailing across on the train.

 

Our New Orleans hotel is about the best location you can get. Since I was here 12 years ago, though, Bourbon Street has become awfully cheap and tacky with karaoke and rock taking over from jazz and blues. However, the rest of the French quarter has got better. Our first day here was exploring it on foot, including a guided cemetery and voodoo walking tour. In St Louis Cemetery No. 1 we came across the Aubry tomb (Libby Aubry is my traveling companion), which was very spooky – but it was well looked after and there’s still room! The Schwab tomb was nowhere near as impressive (sorry, Douglas). Our encounter with a voodoo priestess might have been fascinating – if we could have understood a word she said!

 

The first two days of JazzFest were spectacularly good. It’s more of a jazz / Cajun / bluegrass / blues / rock / Zydeco / gospel / soul / funk festival really with c.50 acts on each of 6 days on 10 stages from 11am ‘til 7pm. The food is wonderful – not a burger or hotdog in sight, but every manner of gumbo, crawfish, alligator, shrimp, jambalaya and lots lots more – the idea is to snack ‘til you drop, but as we had two gastronomic experiences planned for the evenings we took it a bit easier. It’s superbly organised and costs just $20 a day. The highlights were the Savoy family Cajun band (we’re at their home on Tuesday), Geno Delafosse (we’re at his ranch on Monday), the Red Stick Ramblers, the Louisiana Purchase Bluegrass Band (thanks, Keith), Balfa Toujours, Irma Thomas, and Lil’ Brian and the Zydeco Travellers (thanks, Joe). We learned quickly that it’s more fun at the small stages so we just ‘sampled’ the big acts like Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Rait and Macy Gray.

 

On the shuttle on the way to JazzFest we discovered Aubry Street (tomb AND street – famous in New Orleans it seems) and a laundry advertising ‘pants pressed in the rear while you wait’; haven’t tried that yet.

 

The two gastronomic experiences have been excellent – the Upperline on Friday and Nola’s last night. The former did an exquisite duck with sweet potato and pecans and the latter paired fillet steak with crawfish mashed potato – and it worked. Libby wanted to take home the waiter in the latter – to share with Hazel, of course – but he refused to come.

 

Today it rained buckets so we skipped the festival as we didn’t fancy a mudbath; instead we went to the new museum of southern art which was great – the best selection of American art I’ve seen anywhere in this country.

 

Tomorrow we start the Cajun trip. The group (who we had dinner with on Thursday and members of which we bump into in the morning around the pool and at the JazzFest) seem fun, so we’re really looking forward to it. The next epistle will no doubt contain blow-by-blow details of alligators, crawfish broils, BBQ’s and a lot of music. Until then…..

 

Laissez les bonne temps roulet mes amis

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I have meant to send this last e.postcard for a couple of days, but events overtook me.
 
Anyway………..if the House of Blues was cool, The Hudson in NYC was positively freezing! Liz had taken me there for lunch last August and as her and Gordon had deserted NYC and deprived me of my second home, I decided to give it a try. It’s an Ian Schrager / Philip Stark hotel, so the design is amazing (Helen and I had stayed in his first venture – Paramount City – back in 1995). It was a fun place, though the food and drink prices were steep and in the evenings it got a bit ‘young’ – even for me! The rooms had everything you could possibly need, including sewing kit, corkscrew, and an ‘intimacy kit’!
 
After 80’s in California, 90’s in New Mexico, 100’s in Dodge City and 80’s in Chicago, I wasn’t expecting NYC to be so oppressive – it was only in the 80’s, but the humidity was 95-100%. I don’t know whether it was that, or maybe I was burning out by now, but I did less on this leg than the others. The first day, before Steve & Julie arrived, was particularly slack with little more than a visit to the Guggenheim, lunch and an afternoon nap! The highlight of Saturday was a foodie walking tour of Greenwich Village where you popped in and out of delicatessens, bakeries and restaurants sampling things – not my cup of tea at all, of course! We also went to the
Lower East Side Tenement Museum where they have reconstructed apartments from various periods to illustrate the life of immigrants from Germany, Poland, Italy etc. I went there last year, but this time we did a tour centring on the garment industry, which was fascinating. A re-visit to the Met. Museum completed the sightseeing.
 
The cultural highlight was the Mel Brooks’ musical The Producers. The film is one of my favourites, but I thought the show improved upon it – even more hilarious. It’s about two people who work out that by staging a Broadway flop they can make much more money than with a hit. The show within a show –
Springtime for Hitler – has the most amazing routines with jack-booted ’tiller girls’ and dancers dressed as various Nazi symbols; it’s impossible not to fall about laughing. The revival of Gypsy was good, though I shared the critics disappointment with the leading lady. Urinetown was an off-the-wall show about a town with such a water shortage that people have to use public loos, which are in the hands of large corporations which exploit them. Fun, but not as good as the hype.
 
I have to say, after pristine Chicago I found NYC somewhat shabby this time. I gather the post 9/11 economy is struggling – and it shows.
 
I feel more out-of-touch after this trip than any of my more exotic trips. The only news has been the California recall and Schwarzenegger’s candidature, some baseball star’s alleged sexual assault and the latest from Iraq. Surely there has been something else happening in the world?
 
I shall end with a summary of what I like (and don’t like) about the US….
 
I LIKE……orderly queues, clean and well-stocked loos, high customer service standards (except Amtrak), rock concerts that start on time, galleries with few people in them, the ease and low price of car hire, the
accessibility of art, driving (outside cities), the fact you can do anything with a credit card and internet access, the lack of elitism in things like opera, it’s hard to get a bad meal, and people are positive and enthusiastic and always happy to strike up a conversation.
 
I DON’T LIKE…..the fact that everything costs 25-35% more when you’ve added the sales tax and tip

(c. 17%!), lots of TV channels and they’re all crap, too many rules, Amtrak customer service standards, noisy theatre audiences (even more than London!), it’s hard to get a great meal, and sometimes the enthusiasm and positivity gets on your nerves!…..and the stars and stripes have replaced the flags of the world at the Rockerfeller Plaza……..

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Well, here I am almost back where I started a month ago – 4000 miles by road, 4000 miles by air, 2000 miles by rail and 50 miles by sea (not counting the 20,000 miles return trip to get here). Little did I know exactly how much scenic spectacle I had planned in to the last leg….

 

Cairns was my first contact with tourists (as opposed to travelers – snooty eh?) and I was glad to head off the morning after I arrived on my jeep trip to Cooktown. I was accompanied by two Germans on the way

up and by 4 Aussies on the way back. Our driver/guide was of Irish-Tahitian descent called Christopher Seamus O’Connor who was filling in time during the quiet time on his banana farm ! The trip up was through the outback, the most notable part of which was lunch at a magnificent outback pub called The Lions Den – real crocodile dundee stuff that one.

 

I completely fell in love with Cooktown. The mangrove comes right down to the river and the river enters the Pacific with the Great Barrier Reef just 25 miles off the coast. Captain Cook had spent 48 days there

repairing the Endeavour after it ran aground on the reef during his first voyage. The place really inspired me to find out more about Cook. After a visit to their lovely museum, I got even more fascinated and have just finished a slim volume on the man and his voyages. What a hero !

 

I got talking to a lady estate agent over dinner. She was selling a 3-bedroom property overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the Great Barrier Reef and the mouth of the Endeavour river for 68,000 pounds (Aussie

computers don’t have the pound sign – outrageous). Chris reckoned I could have negotiated her down to 55,000. The place is 200 miles north of Cairns (currently by 4WD only, but with the road due to be sealed

within 2 years so probably a good investment). Believe me I was tempted. But in the morning I was sober again and realised 10,000 miles was a long way to come for a weekend at the seaside. If a company purchase was permitted though, People Plus might still have bought it !

 

The journey back through the rainforest and along the Pacific coast was spectacular. The beaches were beautiful and deserted and the rainforest dense and imposing. There was even a fish & chip shop half-way selling what could possible be the best fish and chips in the southern hemisphere !

 

My cruise to the reef was almost an anti-climax after this. To be honest, it is probably much better for divers and snorkellers and I am neither. I was glad I went though as viewing the coral and the fish from a glass-bottomed boat and a semi-submersible (almost-but-not-quite-a-submarine) was lovely.

 

Then it was time to head to the ‘red centre’. Well actually, they had flooding earlier this year so it’s the green / brown / yellow / mauve / blue / white and red centre at the moment. Alice Springs was a funny

little place. I wish it had been the first week of October when they ave the Henley-on-Todd regatta. The Todd is their river, except that it’s permanently dry. Apparently, they run along the river bed in

bottomless boats going ‘yahoo’ a lot. Sounds much more fun than the Henley-on-Thames regatta (sorry Patrick). The best bit is the old telegraph station. It was one of a number linking Adelaide with Darwin

and hence the rest of the world. They’ve turned it into a great museum. As I was walking around it I was reflecting on the fact that less than 70 years ago there was a man there 24 hours a day relaying messages in morse code that had originated in London and were destined for Adelaide and here was I with a tiny device in my pocket that enabled me to talk to anyone anywhere in the world real time. It was Lynne’s hour at the time (a secret hour when it was on each day just in case !) and I was hoping it would ring at that moment.

 

The journey to Ayers Rock (herinafter referred to by its proper aboriginal name Uluru) was through carpets of wild flowers – as a result of the change from red centre to green / brown / etc. centre. It was one of those places I was expecting to be underwhelmed by, but I wasn’t. Both Uluru and The Olgas (hereinafter referred to by its aboriginal name Kata Tjuta) were spectacular – at sunrise, sunset…the usual round of

having to watch them change colour at different times of the day. On the trip back to Alice I visited Kings Canyon where in addition to walks in the canyon I took a great helicopter trip. The journey back was much rougher, on dirt road rather than sealed road, but it was even more beautiful than the route there.

 

Then it was time to head for Freemantle, Perth’s port – a small, historically interesting and charming place. Here I am at an Indian Ocean port just 5 days after cruising on the Pacific Ocean. I think it’s the vastness of Australia I love most. There’s just such a wonderful feeling of space and openness with an ever-changing

landscape. I’m already hatching plots for my next trip – the far north ! Now I understand the difference between the outback and the bush I want to spend more time in the outback. I’ve done as much as any man

could in a month to taste every Australian wine, but I haven’t finished yet. And I’ve at last grasped that ‘no worries’ is basically an expression of aussieness – positive, easy going, live for today…..It’s a real cocktail of people and you’re forever making connections. So it’s a vast place in a very small world.

 

The great thing about traveling in an English-speaking country is that you can watch the news and understand what’s pre-occupying people. Here it’s been the introduction of sales tax, the price of

petrol, the banning of IVF for single women, but above all else the Olympics. It’s great that it’s coming to a sports-mad country but sad that they’re being ripped off so badly for tickets to something they’ve already paid for. Even so, it’s the subject on every news programme, in every paper and in almost every conversation – and not just in Sydney, but absolutely everywhere. Can you imagine people in London getting as  excited about the games in Athens as people in Perth are about the Games in Sydney – much further away.

 

Despite the presence of a few on this mailing list, I will be honest enough to say that I find the Australian attitude to Britain bizarre. It’s a combination of affection and contempt which I have decide to call national adolescence. There is a tendency to blame everything on the 19th century and forget the 20th century ever existed.

 

The problem that still haunts this country is the aboriginal issue. To me it feels just like Ireland or the Middle East – impossible to see the solution. The indigenous community is not really part of 21st Century Australia and for as long as it isn’t it will hang like a cloud over a magnificent place.

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Well, I was having far too much fun in Sydney to write from there…..

 

Where was I ….Melbourne, if I’m not mistaken……..

 

Well that ended on a high with a great play – and a wholly appropriate one to see in OZ – a sort of state-of-the-nation play called The Great Man by David Williamson (a bit like David Hare, for those in the know). I wish we saw more of his work at home.

 

The following morning I joined the Melbourne commuters for a while (two errors meant a while longer than planned) then headed out of the city towards the Snowy Mountains. After a couple of hours on the road

I got too excited for my own good when I saw a sign for ‘Ned Kelly’s Last Stand’. Bill Bryson mentions this in ‘Down Under’ but I didn’t realise I was going to pass it. Well, when I say pass it……for those who haven’t

read the book, it’s billed as a ‘World Class Multi-Million Dollar Attraction’ – a combination of animated models, projections, sound, smoke, gunfire…oh, I cannot begin to describe it; just put it on your own hit list as it is truly awesome. It may have helped that I was the only visitor that morning, so I had a private show with a tour of the owner’s apartment  so that I could see all his Kelly memorabilia (the coffee table, the grandfather clock drinks cabinet, and the waterfall lamp amongst them) and get a sneak preview of the

plans to add a cemetery feature to the existing four rooms. Now that will be worth coming back for !

 

I stopped overnight on the edge of the Snowy Mountains. The weather had deteriorated since I called them the day before and it wasn’t certain I could make the crossing. I had a bizarre evening as I discovered I was the only traveler at the hotel – the other eight guests were assessors or candidates at an assessment centre for engineers for the local Hydro project. One of the assessors had a business very much like mine based in Sydney, she had been using much the same tools as I do and I ended up as the dinner guest ! The next

morning, the National Parks lady (by now my very good friend Margaret Ryan) called me at the hotel and said she would let me travel but provided I waited until 11.00 am and paired up with another car ‘just

in case’. Unfortunately in the intervening two hours I heard tales of 4WD vehicles coming off the road, trees falling and blocking the road and also discovered it was against the terms of the car hire contract to go above the snow line. So I gave up and took the long way to Canberra – a 150-mile detour.

 

Canberra was worth a visit but I can’t say it’ll be on my re-visiting list. It is a fully planned city so it’s green and very livable, but it’s made for cars not people so my favorite city pastime of exploring on foot had to be abandoned fairly soon. The High Court is one of the best modern buildings anywhere, the Parliament is great on the outside but not on the inside (I sat in on PMQ and the behavior was even worse than Westminster), the war memorial very moving and it was a gorgeous day, so the photos will probably flatter it.

 

And then it was Sydney……….well, when I went there in 1991 (?) on business, I fell in love with it. Now I want to move there ! It really is a special place – a magical harbour setting which you never tire of looking at. It was also a cultural weekend as the Olympic Arts Festival had just started. I went to an opera in the Opera House about the trials and tribulations of building the opera house (another very appropriate evening), a great adaptation of The Marriage of Figaro (the play), a very original Taiwanese modern dance piece, and another dance piece which was not so much OTT as re-defining where the top is exactly ! It took as it’s starting point the first Olympics but departed as far from this as I have traveled in the last three weeks. Of course, I loved it…..My hotel room overlooked Elizabeth Bay, the sun shone for three days and it was hell leaving. I took a side trip to the Blue Mountains which in any other country would be considered a major scenic region – here it’s one of so many.

 

Well, I have to say crossing OZ overland gave me a sense of achievement (even if half of it was on a train reading Harry Potter IV and being force-fed good food & wine). It’s now back by plane with stops here in Cairns and also in Alice Springs.

 

On the linguistic front, I’ve cracked the ‘bush’ / ‘outback’ conundrum – the bush is the countryside and the outback is the back of beyond ! I have at last got a proper expresso having discovered I was getting

a ‘long black’ when asking for a double expresso. Adding ‘ie’ to everything still amuses me – barbie, veggie etc. Yesterday I heard the Grand Final of the Rugby League tournament referred to as the ‘grandie’!

 

I may send a final missive from Freemantle next week, but then again I might be having too much fun………

 

 

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Hello possums!

 

This is my second day in Melbourne and I still haven’t made my pilgrimage to Moonie Ponds – largely because I can’t find it on the map! I’ve found Moonie Ponds Creek, but that looks a bit wet. No sign

of the legendary suburb though. Her Dameness is advertising Toyotas on the TV so I feel as if we’ve connected anyway – in a spooky sort of way.

 

Well, where was I ….ah, yes Adelaide. Well the art gallery had some great Aussie paintings (how come we’ve only ever heard of Sidney Nolan back in Blighty), then the sun came out so I got to realise my fantasy of seeing the city on foot. Very British, very charming, somehow lost in a time-warp which makes a visit seem almost nostalgic (even if you haven’t been there before).

 

Then I began the big drive – 1200kms (c. 750miles)- to Melbourne along the south coast. The first part of the journey crossed the Adelaide Hills and then it was largely farmland all the way to the Coorong

National Park, which hugs the coast for 75 miles or so. It’s a large lagoon with lots of sand dunes and an abundance of birdlife. Flocks of pelicans fly overhead and you are forever distracted by many different

kinds of birds (that only a twitcher can probably name, and I’m not one!). Fortunately, there are no other cars so distractions matter not. The last part of Day One took me to the South Australia’s ‘Southern Ports’ – 19th Century landing places which not all ships got to (judging by the tales of shipwrecks which litter the coastline). I stayed overnight at the nicest of these – Robe – at the 150-year old Caledonian Inn. I was very snug in my cottage by the sea with wood-burning stove and a good book.

 

Soon on Day Two I left South Australia and entered Victoria at a town called Nelson. The first part of today’s journey was further from the ocean, but it occasionally gave glimpses of the sea and was always

attractive countryside. The second part was following the sea more closely, until my second overnight stop in the unfortunately named Port Fairy. This was a delightful town at the river’s mouth with lovely walks and interesting old buildings. The accommodation was excellent, with breakfast an impromptu UN meeting with my French, Italian, Irish and English fellow-travelers. The fresh-baked apple muffins and eggs benedict give Douglass House the breakfast-of-the-trip (so far) award.

 

The next day was the same distance as the previous two (350 km), but much harder driving along windier and hillier roads – with lots more photo stops ! I was soon at the part of the Great Ocean Road where it

travels along the cliff tops with waves crashing in to the soft brown rock cliffs continuously creating and destroying rock landscapes – islands, arches, bridges and so on. Almost without noticing, the road

left the ocean and started winding through forests and mountains to emerge an hour or so later back at the ocean at Apollo Bay. Here I had a mission to take some pictures of a friends house. This accomplished,

the last leg of Day Three brought a completely different landscape with the road down close to the sea and the trees coming down to meat the beach. Beautiful, but again hard driving – when I reached Queeencliff I was well and truly knackered. My overnight stop was a wonderful restored Victorian hotel with four-poster beds, antiques everywhere  and great food. Of course, I hated it !

 

From here I took the ferry across Port Philip Bay from the Bellarine Peninsular to the Mornington peninsular. This is very much an area of seaside resorts and wineries. I went to one winery – T’Gallant – and

tasted some excellent whites, most made with the pinot grape. When I expressed surprise that there were 28 wineries on the peninsular, I was told that was only 28 of the 180 in Victoria. I dread to think how

many there are in the whole country (this sounds like visiting them all could be a rather good retirement project!).

 

I arrived in Melbourne in the midst of the Aussie Football Finals – First Weekend (the finals constitute 9 games over 4 weekends – I had to get this explained to me over breakfast this morning as I was by

now completely confused). I felt like a real outsider as this was clearly the preoccupation of the entire city (except me). I can’t say I took to Melbourne at first, then the sun came out and it rather grew

on me (It’s only just dawned on me how our liking of places is very weather-dependent).

 

I have been somewhat pre-occupied with the route of the next leg and have today decided to cross the Snowy Mountains to Canberra. I will have to carry chains and may have to put them on (god help me – I’ve

never done that before) but it seems like a good idea to compliment my surfeit of coastal journeys with a mountain one. Wish me luck !

 

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G’day

 

Well, the first ‘pit stop’ is here in Adelaide and I’ve got some more cash, put the laundry in (even persuaded the attendant to take the shirts home and iron them!) and collected the car; so its time for the first ‘postcard’.

 

I began with three days in Perth, a very civilized place which feels more like a big town than a small city. One dry day exploring it on foot was followed by a wet one in museums and art galleries. My third

day was a real treat – I joined 3 Koreans, 3 Japanese, 1 German and 5 other Brits on a trip north through the bush to Pinnacles Desert – fascinating rock formations, my first sight of Emus and Kangaroos (two

dead ones before I got to a live one!), gorgeous Indian Ocean beaches and I even got to sand surf (sledging on the dunes).

 

The Indian Pacific train took two days and two nights to reach Adelaide. What the cabins didn’t have in luxury they made up for in ingenuity – in a space 6′ by 3’6”/ 4’6”(it was curved on one side) they managed

to fit in a seat, bed, stool, toilet, wash-basin and cupboard by making most things flip down – including the loo and the wash-basin ! The food was very good and the head waitress (who had all 30 first class passengers names memorised by the first lunch) took great pride in her seating plans, ensuring optimum socialisation !

 

The first part of the journey was through the Avon river gorge, but it didn’t take long to get into the outback. We stopped at the gold-mining town of Kalgoorlie in the evening. I couldn’t resist the

sightseeing tour in pitch darkness, with the driver shining a torch out of the bus window as he proudly told us the history of his town. They have a wonderful use for the word ‘ skimpy’ in Kalgoorlie – a

waitress in a bikini ! All the bars were competing for business from the gold miners by the quality of their ‘skimpies’.  Depending on their tips, as the evening wore on, they might replace the top with a see-through blouse.

 

When we awoke, we were some way along the Nullarbor (tree less for those of you like me without Latin) Plain. The next stop was Cook – pop. 3 – 856 km (550 miles) to the next petrol and food. If you think

you’ve already been to the back-of-beyond, believe me you haven’t (unless you’ve been to Cook, South Australia, of course). From there it was non-stop to Adelaide.

 

I changed stations and caught the Barossa Wine Train, a lovely 1952 restored two-carriage affair which proceeded most sedately (i.e. slowly), to Tanunda. I toured 4 wineries that afternoon (Wolf Blass,

Langmiel, Kaesler and Penfolds )before I was dropped at my accommodation – a lovely 19th century house full of antiques all to myself, with port in the decanter and sparkling white in the fridge.

After a nice dinner (good recommendation, Helen) I collapsed and had my longest sleep for about 5 years (well it had been 2 nights on a train and a lot of wine tasting).

 

On Monday, I had a personal winery tour in a 1960’s Pontiac which took in three more wineries (Peter Lehman, St Hallets and Saltrams) before I was delivered to Adelaide. I’d hoped to do a couple more of Helen’s recommendations (Rockford and Seppalts) but I ran out of time – my fault for having too much of a good time at the ones I did visit.

 

(Note for Helen – Kaesler Old Vine Shiraz and Saltram’s best Shiraz will give St Hallets Old Block a run for its money). Last night was the first OZ cultural experience as I went to see a good production of Equus by the State Rep. The play, a 20th century classic, has been avoiding me for 27 years, so it was good to catch up with it.

 

Today is a bit rainy so it’ll be galleries and museums mostly – pity, as Adelaide is very attractive and exploration on foot would be nice. It reminds me a bit of Edinburgh the way North Adelaide and the Centre

are separated in the same way as Princes Gardens separates the Old Town from the New Town. It feels very much more British than Perth did.

 

I’m starting the drive to Sydney via the Great Ocean Road and Melbourne either tomorrow or Thursday – I haven’t decided yet.

 

Linguistic notes:

1. I am continually baffled how ‘no worries’ has become a universal response meaning ‘you’re welcome’, ‘my pleasure’, ‘no problem’, ‘that’s fine’ – in fact, almost anything you want it to mean.

2. I still haven’t really understood the difference between ‘the bush’ and ‘the outback’ despite having asked a large number of Aussies.

Comments / suggestions welcome.

 

 

 

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