Wednesday, March 28, 2012



1 Tom climbing on Lookout Mountain
2 Ruby Falls
3 Saint Thomas
4 Adele squeezing through "weight watchers alley" in Rock City
5 Viewing 7 States from Rock City
6 Pardon me this the Chattanooga Choo-Choo?
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1 Batman Building
2 Cherry Blossom Time
3 Adele at Symphony Hall
4 Cool Dude on a Harley
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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Nashville and Chattanooga

In all we spent 5 days in Nashville a big city and you all know that we don't usually visit cities. The building industry in Nashville is literally booming…the public buildings are modern and beautiful; a new convention center being constructed looks remarkably similar to the new part of San Jose Airport with an undulating roof, lots of metal and glass and its smack bang right in the center of town. The Ice Hockey arena is another beautiful building while the center for Performing Arts which we thought was going to be big is just a regular size building; the building that really took our fancy is the AT&T building locally known as Batman's building (photo to follow).

Our RV Park was very near the Grand Ole Opry and the Gaylord Hotel. On our first night we went to a tribute to Elvis in a local theatre where John Beardsley did a great job singing over 30 Elvis songs and changing costumes four times; John also gave us some history of Elvis's changing singing style as he progressed through his career. What amazes us most is how Elvis meshed Bible belt Gospel, jazz and country music into his own unique genre!
Next night we went to The Grand Ole Opry where Little Jimmy Dickens aged 92, opened the show…he sang and cracked jokes for 15 minutes, wonder will Mick Jagger be still around when he is 92?  What we had not realized is that the show is a live Radio & TV show. The commentator has a voice like our Tony, deep and resonating, he read the sponsors adds every 15 minutes after which a new group or solo artist entertained for the next 15 minutes – a delightful surprise for us was the appearance of a young Irish girl Lisa McHugh who sang one song – she met Gene Watson in London and he invited her to sing at the Grand Ole Opry; it must have been wonderful for her and hopefully for her career. In all we saw six different acts, all very talented and very different. Tom's favorite was a group called Night Riders in the Sky while Adele's was the last group 4 fantastic musicians called the McCoury Band

Next day we drove to a town called Franklin about 40 miles south of Nashville, another town that was not burned during the civil war, yet had many ferocious battles – in one 6 generals and 8,000 troops were killed in a few hours.  There is a large private cemetery near Carter House for Confederate soldiers.  As in all wars the men just slaughtered one another and the outcome is still not fully resolved as many in the South still think they were entitled to withdraw from the Union if they so wished. We had lunch in a Cajun restaurant called Papa Boudreau's on the recommendation of the local tourist office where we had a dish called Étouffée - absolutely yummy, the Chef came to our table to see if we liked our choice of food which started a half hour conversation about Cajun cuisine and music. There was music playing and we asked if they were singing English and he told us it was Cajun Music, we didn't understand a word! The chef was from New Orleans and he told us of his experience during Katrina - he left New Orleans and will never to go back, which says it all.
Our Nashville program included a desire to go to the Ryman Auditorium one night; Adele had looked online 3 weeks beforehand, when we got to Nashville we called into the Auditorium where they confirmed that there were no tickets available so we went to the movies and saw The Artist. On our last day we went into town to explore the city and its hotels, we dined at the Hard Rock Cafe which is nearly a museum in itself afterwards we went to the Nashville Symphony in the Schermerhorn Symphony Center a beautiful classical looking building that was recently built. We bought the tickets at the symphony center where they gave us great seats at a special visitor bargain price.  We saw Cho-Liang Lin play a concerto on his Stradivarius Violin.  All in all we enjoyed the city of Nashville which boasts a population of 1,500,000.

From Nashville we drove about a 100 miles to Chattanooga - a stop Toms choosing and Adele was not expecting much - it turned out to be a great stop with plenty of thing to do.  On day one we went on the Incline Railway that climbs Lookout Mountain - it claims a 73% grade at the top of the climb. While on Lookout Mountain we walked to Point Park a scene of one of the many battles for Chattanooga, in the park we met a ranger and when we remarked on the numbers killed in the Civil War he told us that Observers came from Europe and when they saw the way the battles were fought they threw their hands in the air and went home; they had never seen battles fought by so many untrained soldiers who had been issued weapons but not trained on how to use them. Point Park is an 8000 acre battlefield and the first to be made into a National Park on a par with Gettysburg and Vicksburg.
Ruby Falls, called after the original owner's wife is in a cave under Lookout Mountain, was our next tour.  Descending by elevator for 260ft into the mountain one then walks along a narrow passage for about a mile into an enormous high cave with the water falling from the roof of the cave 200ft above - it is spectacular!

The following day we went to Rock City and strolled through its gardens of large boulders, squeezing between them, walking over them, under them (one was a 1000 ton rock balanced precariously on the edge of two boulders), over crevices that were deep, one so much so that one had to traverse a rope bridge. Adele made everyone wait until she could cross on her own - no shaky, shaky, for her! We had noticed on our way to Chattanooga numerous red barns with “Visit Rock City” painted in white on their roofs - this was an advertising brainchild (in the 1930’s) of the founder Garnet Carter still employed today. They are now a part of the tourist attraction of the area. Freida his wife had developed the walk through Rock City and planted its garden with many indigenous plants – most abundant were Rhododendrons and Azaleas.

In the afternoon we took a free shuttle tour of Chattanooga including a visit to the Chattanooga Hotel.  This hotel is the old railway station where they have kept as much of the original as possible, some of the bedrooms are in old railway carriages as are some of the restaurants; the lobby is the original, enormous station entrance much like Grand Central in NY -  we fell in love with the whole concept. We also learned that there was no Chattanooga ChooChoo train, the hit song immortalized by the Glenn Miller Band certainly placed Chattanooga on the map and the Hotel squeezes as much as it can on the theme.

Tupelo, Memphis

The house where Elvis was born  
Adele with Elvis's second cousin  
Part of the garden wall of Graceland 
3 of Elvis's guitars 
 Inside Elvis's smaller plane 
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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Natchez Trace, Tupelo and Graceland

We spent most of the journey to Tupelo and Memphis on the Natchez Trace. Most pleasant, as no commercial traffic is allowed on the trace, the speed limit is 55mph; there are no shops or gas stations - just farms which must grow traditional crops like, cotton, rice, potatoes or for animal pasture. 

Along the trace ½ mile markers alert one to historical points of interest. At one, a burial mound there were lots of red ant nests in the area. Adele noticed a sea of beautiful wild flowers near the pathway and stopped to admire them and stepped right into an ant nest and boy do those little ants move fast – by the time she lifted her foot there were hundreds swarming, biting on her foot and leg driving her crazy. She then proceeded to do a dervish dance hopping about on one foot trying to get her shoe off, going crazy as those little *** are running up her leg while she shouts at them. They listen too, right? Everyone else is! Eventually, she gets them off and by now her foot looks like she has the measles, covered in little pin prick red spots. Adele sprayed her shoes with ant killer, wrapped them in a plastic bag and put them in one of the outside compartments. Since then she pays attention to where she’s putting her feet.
We passed Oprah Winfrey's birthplace Kosciusko, MS the town is called after a Polish General who volunteered to fight in the Revolutionary War; an engineer he fortified West Point and built bridges and public buildings. He returned to Poland fought in their revolution, was imprisoned and later released on condition he leave Poland; he returned to the US and lived here for the rest of his life. Intriguingly to us this is the only place where he is honored.

We stayed for two nights in Tupelo and toured the little shotgun house where Elvis was born and Adele had her photo taken with Elvis's second cousin (he had lots of cousins). The weather was beautiful 80F but the forecast was for a bad storm the next afternoon. The afternoon came; we tuned the TV and radio to the weather station who were broadcasting continuous storm, high wind and tornado warnings. Waiting and wondering is the difficult part, we were ready to head to a Hotel for the night and the safety of a solid structure.  Thankfully, Tupelo is never hit nor do we get any bad weather other than a huge drop in temperature. Lucky us! Sadly, many were killed in Indiana, Arkansas and Illinois.
On Saturday we traveled from Tupelo to Graceland in Memphis home of the Blues and where Elvis lived from age 13. To reach our RV Park we drove down Elvis Presley Boulevard turned right onto Lonely Street and parked RamblingRover behind the Heartbreak Hotel, Graceland between Hound Dog Way and Allshookup Lane. That night we caught the shuttle from the Hotel to downtown Memphis this being a Saturday night Beale Street was jam-packed with revelers and people heading for a Grizzly basketball game. We took a Trolley tour around town which cost us $1 after which we ventured further down Beale Street which remained busy and alive with music. For a while we enjoyed listening to a number of bands who were singing their hearts out; then we went to “Pig on Beale” for a traditional Memphis Pork Dinner (sorry Gerry), on our way back to the shuttle we visited a the 130+ year old Schwab’s department store – it was like stepping back in time, some of the goods for sale must be original 130 year old stock. Some items we spotted were: corn smoking pipes, men's stiff collars in many styles, belts that would circumvent the state of Texas, the largest we saw was for waist 82 inches. All merchandise was laid out on counters, behind which an assistant would stand long ago. Window photographs illustrated the “good old days” when ladies would queue/line outside the shop waiting for the doors to open for a ribbon or button sale.

Sunday was a day of Elvis pilgrimage for Adele, escorted by her dutiful husband. We were literally yards from the ticket office and entrance to the “shrine” and did (as Judy had suggested) the full tour which starts at the mansion. Elvis’s favorite colors were blue, yellow and green; most of the house is furnished and decorated in these bright colors. To the side of the house he had a trophy room containing his collection of platinum and gold records. Another building housed a racquet ball court which had a lounge for spectators and a piano (Elvis played and sang at this piano on the day he died); the ball court is now a museum for his costumes and more awards. There were some nice horses in a paddock behind the house - Elvis liked to ride. A beautiful meditation garden set around a fountain is the site of his grave and also those of his mother, father and grandmother. The garden has a plaque memorializing his still born twin brother – his cousin, whom we met at Tupelo told us that throughout his life Elvis felt guilty that his brother died before Elvis was born 35 minutes later.
Next, we toured two of his planes, one a large 707 size the other a corporate jet size – both elaborate with some gold finishing; then we went to the car museum and saw his pink Cadillac, his 2 Rolls Royce’s, motorbikes, the tractor he used drive down to the gate to greet his fans - the walls and pillars are totally covered with so many signatures it’s amazing. Another museum shows excerpts from his tours, a movie documentary and here his most elaborate costumes are displayed. 

Needless to say Adele had a heavenly, enjoyable day and is now an even bigger fan of Elvis after this pilgrimage to Graceland.

 1 Atchafalaya flood basin between Baton Rouge and Layfette
 2 Cannonball in the wall of Cedar Grove House from Civil war
3 Cypress swamp on the Natchez Trace                               
4 Walking on part of the origional Trace                                 
5  Information at one of the many stops along the Trace          
6 The forest after a tornedo in 2011 along the Trace               

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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Lafayette, Natchez & Vicksburg

All paraded out…we headed over to Lafayette to get a better sense of Louisiana, but more particularly to visit Vermillion Ville to learn the history of the Cajun and Creole people. We spent a very enjoyable day in an authentically reconstructed village where talented local people portrayed through handicrafts and stories the culture of the Cajun people who lived in the Vermillion Bayou around the year 1765. The “period clothed” men and women were very knowledgeable and demonstrated how the people worked, spoke about the culture and explained their way of life. We were surprised to learn how useful Spanish moss was in everyday life - it was picked, soaked in water until the green rotted off - the result is very strong fiber from which the people made rope (if coiled) and mattress stuffing (when teased out), it was also used in house building by mixing it into the clay. Spanish moss was used as filling for car seats in the early 1900s.  We met a musician in the school house playing the fiddle, a carpenter making little boxes with a secret drawer (Adele purchased one) and a lady making baskets and corn husk dolls. A fisherman was making a fishnet – it takes 30 minutes to “weave” one inch - what tedious work. This was fascinating to us as we both come from port towns and often wondered why fishermen spent so long repairing their nets.

The National Parks Service has a visitors center just at the entrance to the village where we saw an enlightening movie on the history of the Cajun people, the adjacent museum was well worth the visit.
On our drive over to Lafayette and back (through Baton Rouge on our way to Natchez) we drove over Atchafalaya Basin an intracoastal waterway quite similar to the Everglades;  it’s a shallow river 40 miles wide in which trees grow, we’ve since learned these are bald cypress and pine trees. Some of the bridges we drove over are way longer than the bridges they boast about in Florida.

Adele acquired a new cooking talent “Southern” making great Gumbo (a soup) and a mouthwatering Jambalaya (which she has dubbed Louisiana's answer to Irish stew, a whole meal in one pot).
We then headed for Natchez to drive the Natchez Trace, once a trade route for the Natives Americans who have burial mounds along the Trace and also the Emerald Mound a manmade hill which was used for ceremonial meetings. In the 18th century the Trace then became the way for fur traders to return north as it was impossible to row against the flow up the Mississippi. The traders floated down on flat boats with their wares and then sold everything including the boat for timber. The advent of the steam boat changed all that after which the Trace almost disappeared. For a period Natchez had the largest number of millionaires in the US except for New York. It just occurred to me that ladies at that time dressed like the Native Americans - coats of animal fur and feather hats - same materials different designs! More about the Trace in another Blog…

Vicksburg was a “must see” on our visit to Mississippi as Adele had read a book about the Civil War siege of the city and wanted to see the lay of the land. The city was surrounded on land by troops and on water by the navy who blockaded the river to the north and south. After 47 days the almost starving people surrendered.
We were also interested to see if the city had been flooded last year after we had seen that Mississippi was already at flood stage when we were in Minnesota last June. It had been - Vicksburg had its worst floods since records began 75.1ft of water. The town is perched on a very steep hill on a bend in the river which has 5 old river boats converted as Casinos; they float so there’s minimal damage when the river rises during flooding. To complete our trip to Vicksburg we visited an Antebellum house Cedar Grove House, now an upscale restaurant and B&B. Built in 1840 by a jeweler John Alexander Klein for his wife Elizabeth; Elizabeth was a cousin of General Sherman who used the lower part of the house during the Civil War. There are several cannon balls embedded in the walls and under the floors, all prominently displayed as patched holes in walls and doors. It was purchased by a 24 year old woman several years ago, it has all it original furniture - even creaking floor boards - the grounds remain landscaped as the Klein's had them. It is very authentic and felt very original.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Bus tour of New Orleans

Before leaving we just had to see parts of N’Awlins other than the French Quarter so off we went to take a Grayline tour. 

The tour started by taking us through Parishes which were devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  Even today one can see the utter destruction and it’s pretty obvious that some homes will never be rebuilt while others have been nicely restored.  Worst hit was the 9th parish - the roofs of the houses are quite a bit below the level of Lake Pontchartrain, so much so that one could drown standing on the roof if the lake were to spill over. As it did in 2005 as the result of the failure of the big pumps that should have pumped out the excess water from the city – no backup generators - what incompetence!
The population of N’Awlins today is roughly half of the pre-Katrina time; lots of people moved elsewhere in Louisiana but mostly they went to Texas where they got much better paying jobs and so stayed there. As rental accommodation made up 45% of all housing in N’Awlins a combination of factors – people not returning, higher insurance rates and the cost of rebuilding with much more stringent building code requirements – landlords are not willing to rebuild.

On to the other side of the coin is the Garden District where there are beautiful large houses with huge lawned gardens which originally belonged to WASP’s from the East Coast who moved to add to their wealth and tried to change the locals’ way of life. Cajuns and Creoles who are Catholic lived, and still live, in the French Quarter in houses built close together with no lawns and call their voting areas Parishes; they also celebrate all the Catholic Holy Days and have a good time. We experienced that on Mardi Gras. It must have been like trying to mix oil and water!
There are many large cemeteries (City of the Dead) in the South where the deceased are buried above ground because the water table is so close to the surface, heavy rain was known to “raise the dead” who had been interred in-ground. Consequently, there are numerous family vaults or above-ground tombs, also there are wall crypts (approximately 9’ x 2’ x 2’) or as a local wit called them "ovens."  These wall crypts provided the best story of the tour, first of all, the Catholic Church owns and runs mostly all the cemeteries and rent out these wall crypts under a 5 years lease rental. There were many epidemics of yellow fever in the South in the 18th and 19th centuries, so when a family member died of yellow fever they were laid to rest in the family vault/tomb but regulations dictated that the vault could not then be opened for a year and a day as it was not known how yellow fever spread and they were being cautious. When the next member of a family died within the year the family faced the dilemma of where to bury their loved one; this was when a very clever priest came up with the solution of wall crypt rental. Remember the lease was for 5 years and after a year and a day the family could reinter. However, if at the end of five years no one paid the rent the facing stone with all the decedents details was pushed to the back (yes everything behind it too) so it becomes available for rent once more. What a business and idea? Many crypts have no facing stones – does this mean they’re empty or that no one paid the rent?

We are so glad we had the opportunity to visit N’Awlins at this time of the year - it was great fun!