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I’ve been lucky enough to have a friend trace my ancestry back to the middle of the nineteenth century (I have neither the patience or the organisational skills required) – thank you, Janice! This picked up a few surprises as I never realised that my maternal grandfather (who died before I was born) came from Mid Wales and that branch of the family were farmers, flannel weavers, railway labourers and slate miners from Mid Wales.

I didn’t want to find relatives, but I decided to take a look at the villages and towns where they were all born, married, lived or died so I spent four nights based near Newtown. I visited almost all the places of significance – Llanidloes, Trefeglwys, Newtown, Carno, Llanbrynmair, Darowen, Machynthleth, Pennant, Talyllyn, Abergonolwen, and Dolgellau – and found graveyards full of significant names like Humphreys (my mother’s maiden name), Rowlands, Bennet, and Tibbot. I took the nopportunity of meeting my friend Judith for a nice lunch at Penhellig on the coast, visiting Powis Castle (a magnificent national Trust property and gardens), and seeing a lot of this beautiful countryside.

My base was a magnificent Guest House called The Old Vicarage at Dolfor which had wonderful food and the weather was mostly lovely, so it really was a great experience. I’ve been jokingly calling in ‘getting in touch with my inner Welshness’ after watching a Rob Brydon programme where he coined the phrase. In truth, though, there was something moving about it all.

During my brief visit to Liverpool for Macca at Anfield, I managed to fit in a lot of art. The Klimt exhibition at Tate Liverpool was terrific, mixing his pictures with art and design pieces from his contemporaries. At the Walker gallery, an interesting exhibition – The Age of Steam – linking together 19th century pictures of steam trains and stations from around the world, plus modern cityscapes (including Liverpool) from Ben Johnson. By train to Crosby to see Anthony Gormley’s cast iron men along the beach, which I’d first seen on the Belgian coast a few years back and I can’t say a second visit added much to the experience. The highlight of the day-of-art was another one of Richard Wilson’s inventive ‘sculptures’ – ‘Turning the Place Over’ – where he has cut a large sphere out of the side of a disused building and mounted it on a rotor. As you look up from the pavement outside Moorfields Station, it completes a 360 turn in just over a minute. 

Back in London it was a lean month for art. Psycho Buildings at the Hayward Gallery was a fascinating collection of installations on the theme of architecture. There’s a boating lake on the roof, a room full of doll’s houses lit like a minature vilage at nightime and an inflatable sphere you can go into or bounce on top of. After a few excuses-for-exhibitions, this is the Hayward back on form. The RA’s Summer Exhibition, with the exception of the room curated by Tracy Emin!, is better than usual and worth a visit. This year it seems very bright and summery and it made me smile.

The annual pilgrimage to Taste of London, where restaurants showcase small portions of their signature dishes surrounded by food and wine related stalls, was my third and it was again fun, if a little expensive. The gang is growing and this year we numbered five.

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Well here we are back in BA after visiting 13 wineries in Uruguay, Chile and Argentina – more of that later!
 
There should be signs at the airport announcing ‘Carnivores Only’ and ‘No Tee-totals’ as this city – indeed, these countries – live for red meat and wine. By the time we left for Uruguay, 3 days after we arrived, my body was already re-acting to the dietary changes (well, maybe not the wine!).
 
It´s 27 years since I was here and it´s mostly unrecognisable or just so long ago I can´t remember. After a severe economic crisis at the beginning of this decade, Argentina seems to be settling down, though it has been over-taken by Chile´s tiger economy. The main sign of what happened is that the banks are all now overseas names like HSBC, Santander etc. plus queues of people outside them on paydays determined to convert their salary into cash – just in case it all happens again.
 
We decided to rent an apartment rather than stay in a hotel; it’s situated in the residential Recoleta neighbourhood and is very comfortable. The first 36 hours were a bit disorientating – we were allowed to check in surprisingly early, the mothers of the disappeared ones had gone by the time we arrived at Plaza de Mayo 15 minutes before they were due to begin their vigil, breakfast arrived 45 mins early…..it was only after a taxi arrived to collect us an hour early did we learn that we were operating our own time zone one hour behind the rest of BA!  
 
Our 3 days of sightseeing took in Recoleta cemetery (an astonishing  ‘city for the dead’ containing a maze of streets of mausoleums of many architectural styles and sizes), the colourful La Boca quarter (the former port), the Evita museum and some lovely Latin American art at MALBA (the new modern art gallery), the Fine Arts Museum and a gallery in La Boca dedicated to a local artist Quinquela Martin who I fell in love with (thanks, Joanna!). We managed to take in a terrific tango show – so much hair grease and hairspray!, but as sexy as you can get with clothes on – and far too much red meat for our own good before we met the wine tour group at the hydrofoil terminal and headed for Uruguay.

Tango, dog-walkers (students who get paid to walk up to 15 dogs at the same time!)  the mothers of the disappeared ones weekly vigil (I found it deeply moving when I caught it two weeks later) and the personality cult that is Evita completely define Argentina. It is in many ways very European, but these things make it unique.
 
Uruguay was also re-tracing steps and though the old city of Colonia had stood the test of time, Montevideo – which I fell in love with all those years ago – looked shabby. It´s a small wine producing country, with little exported to Europe, but we had two great and contrasting visits – Uruguay´s largest and ‘flagship´producer Juanico (www.juanico.com) who had the best wines (though still a family business with the 21-year old son in his 6th year of wine-making!) and the Pisano family winery (www.pisanowines.com) which was like visitng your eccentric uncle who got everything out of the cupboard for an impromptu party – the welcome was extraordinary. Their distinctive grape variety is Tannat but there are many more being grown today. In addition to our winery visits, we also had a dinner where we tasted wines from wineries we couldn´t get to during this whistle-stop visit to Uruguay.
 
Next stop was Santiago de Chile, which has turned into a booming sophisticated city and quite took my breath away. The pre-colombian (before Columbus) art museum was a terrific diversion from wine – wonderful 1500-3000 year old sculptures and pottery with a special exhibition on ‘sex and power!- but we were soon into Chilean wines with a dinner at the Torres Wine Bar (their winery was too far south for our visit) and then on the road to seven very different wineries.
 
Chile has been known mostly for budget Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon, but in the last 10-15 years there has been much investment in premium wineries and they are now getting global reputations.Their distinctive grape variety is Carmenere, but there are many more grown, and the distinctive wine-making feature is the big range in temperature from hot days to cool night.
 
My favourite was Montes (www.monteswines.com) where their values permeated everything from the team-working in the vineyard to the feng shui-ed building. They even played Gregorian chants in their cellar to provide the right atmosphere for the wines to age! They gave us a tour of their magnificent new $6m winery, spectacular wines to taste in a room overlooking the mountain vineyard and a wonderful BBQ, with more wines, in the vineyard which we reached on trailers driven by tractor. If you have a Waitrose near you, buy Montes Alpha Syrah @ 10 pounds and you´ll see what I mean.
 
Another favoutite was Antiyal (www.antiyal.com), a small boutique winery set up by a wine maker who also works for bigger ‘corporate’ wineries but whose heart is in his organic & bio-dynamic project. His wife prepared an alfresco lunch in their home to accompany our tasting. Again, such magnificent hospitality and lovely people.
 
My third favourite was De Martino (www.demartino.cl) whose scientific approach and openness to knowledge and learning makes them stand out. Look out for their wines in the UK as they represent great value for money.
 
We also visited Casa Silva (www.casasilva.cl) who were very hospitable (though I didn´t take to being filmed for Chilean television!) but whose wines were a bit bog standard; Matetic (www.mateticvinyards.com) with another wonderful new winery and some great wines; and Lapostolle (www.casalapostolle.com) which is an absurd attempt by the Grand Marnier family to make French wines in Chile – a brand new winery which felt like a factory, a wine-maker who seemed unhappy with a lack of autonomy (now, why does that sound familiar?) and wines which are over-rated and over-priced.
 
For the middle weekend we took over the house on the Tarapaca Estate (www.tarapaca.cl) and tasted virtually all of their wines with great lunches and dinners and just chilled the rest of the time. By now the group had really gelled and it was like a house-party at an English country house / Spanish estancia / French chateau (not that I’ve ever experienced any of them!).
 
The drive over the Andes back to Argentina was spectacular, though with roadworks and lengthy border procedures it took the best part of 12.5 hours. We did of course manage to fit in a lunch overlooking a lake and high peaks with a tasting of Chilean wines we’d missed and an on-bus blind tasting of wines we each bought for the purpose ! 
 
Argentina has also been developing premium wines; the distinctive feature of this region is that it’s a desert irrigated by the snow melt from the Andes and the distinctive grape variety is Malbec, but again there are many more.  2008 will probably be a poor harvest as they have had unseasonable rain (so buy up 2006 and 2007 while you can!).
 
Our time in Argentina’s Mendosa wine region was more limited but we managed to take in 4 wineries. My favourite was the small Cassone Family winery (www.familiacassone.com.ar) who produce great Malbec for c. 8 pounds (only available in the UK direct from their distributors – Justinieri and Brooks). They were lovely people who were so proud of their wine and their country and so grateful for our visit and our positive comments.
 
The architecture at the Catena winery (www.catenawines.com), where Helen and I (and out new friend Margo) made a private visit, was better than the wines. It was built as a Mayan pyramid (why? we’re in Argentina!) and was truely spectacular. The same at Salentein (www.kilkisalentein.com) where they had a great art collection and the buildings were like temples – the wine tasting room tables were like alters! We had been told that hail occasionally damaged crops – then over lunch at Salentein we had the most extraordinary hailstorm! The Zuccardi family’s hospitality was wonderful (www.familiazuccardi.com), Here we had a tour, tasting, dinner and tango !

The tour group were great and our ‘wine guide’ terrific. I learned a lot and despite my pre-tour gung-ho ‘I’m a wine drinker not a taster’ I learned to drink less and enjoy more (I didn’t spit much but I did leave a lot); that there’s no correlation between price, quality and taste (some of my favourites were cheap and some of the expensive ones were disappointing); and that food is as important to the enjoyment of wine is as wine is to the enjoyment of food.

Take a look at my picasa album by following this link:

http://picasaweb.google.com/peopleplus/SouthAmericanWineTour?authkey=9gwSezZNIeI

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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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