Since arriving in the USA 40 days ago, we’ve travelled from its southern coast on the Golf of Mexico to its northern boarder with Canada and back again. Today, we set off to travel the length of it again; a 3 legged journey from south to north on our last 3 trains of our tour of the east coast. The starting point was New Orleans, where we have spent the past 4 nights in the midst of its crazy Mardi Gras celebrations.We’ve eaten local delicacies of oysters (at 25 cent a pop), French beignets and “Americas Best” fried chicken (it did live up to its name). We’ve watched dancers and marching bands parade through the streets and caught beads being thrown out by accompanying floats. We’ve spent and evening on a busy bourbon street, taking advantage of Louisiana’s liberal street drinking laws. And we’ve explored the architecture of this heavily French and Spanish influenced city. Mardi Gras, French for “Fat Tuesday” is technically the celebration of shrove Tuesday before the beginning of lent so we thought we were going to just miss the start of it when we were looking at the dates of our stay. Turns out the city of New Orleans celebrates Mardi Gras for at least 2 weeks, if not longer, before Ash Wednesday with all the celebrations increasing in intensity until one big party day on shrove Tuesday itself. When we arrived at our Airbnb our host, Jay, gave us lots of tips about what would be going on during our stay. Our stay also coincided with Presidents’ Day on the Monday which meant we were in the city for a long weekend, making all the celebrations that little bit bigger. So, on our first morning we walked the mile from our house to the parade route to check it out. It was bonkers, people had lined the streets and were enjoying drinks, picnics and barbecues as the parades rolled by. Some had brought gazebos and camping chairs to make themselves comfortable, others had brought their sofas down (if your gunna do it, do it right. I guess) and were revelling in the party atmosphere. As the parades made their way towards the city centre floats of a variety of themes threw out beads in the Louisiana colours of purple, green and gold for us all to wear. It seemed by the time we got to the city centre that the whole town had a set of beads to wear. We wore ours for the remainder of the night as we enjoyed the bars along bourbon street, and their take out policy that blurred the line between bar and street and made the whole place seem like one big night club.
Once the weekend was over and the place calmed down (a little) we strolled around the French Quarter that has the cities best architecture, a distinctly European feel makes it seem a world away from many other American cities we’ve been too. And each street has its own character and speciality, from some with bars, some with art galleries and others with markets. All, though, were decked out in decorations for Mardi Gras and ensured that each street felt part of the celebration. The quarter runs right up the the banks of the Mississippi that flows around, and in parts above, the town. We clambered up the banked dyke to get a view of old muddy which was huge. Although I am disappointed no one asked me to spell it having spent years rope learning the two double s’s and the double p’s! We also got the chance to have a bit of an explore of the cites park catching the “streetcar” (I’d call it a tram but whatevs) away from the hustle and bustle to the nicely landscaped area around the art museum. The streetcar also takes you across town along the beautiful Saint Charles avenue through the garden district which is really picturesque with large houses standing either side of the wide straight road that’s covered by low hanging oak trees. It really was the city showing off, but its easy to see why.
Before New Orleans we’d had a great time in Birmingham, perhaps somewhat unexpectedly. We had planned a few days there as a gateway to drive to the Jack Daniels Distillery in Lynchburg but other than that we weren’t too sure what else there would be to do. As it turned out the city is bustling with life and the people in it are keen for you to enjoy it as much as them. We had a great Airbnb host, Antoine, who took us out to get local southern soul food (BBQ style, melt in the mouth pork) and give us lots of other tips of things to do. We were able to hire (boris style) bikes and explore the city on a different mode of transport from the rest of the trip so far. Like many cities around it, Birmingham was important to the civil rights movement. It was just as humbling and horrifying to hear the stories of people who suffered but ultimately succeeded in their struggle and the sacrifices many made.
Before it was a key battle ground in the civil rights movement, Birmingham was an industrial heartland. With numerous iron works dotted around the city. Now all closed, one remains and has been converted into a museum. We explorde the machinery on a self guided tour along the production line. The place pretty much remains how it was when it closed down and you can walk freely around to explore the site. It was probably one of the most surreal hours of the trip so far. It was earily quiet and there was the constant nag in the back of my head that I shouldn’t really be there or that someone would any minute walk over and ask you to leave or that we’d gotten off track. No one did, and we explored the whole rusting site as we pleased. Ironically cycling over to it, Suzanne bike pedal broke and we could have done with some new iron, but obviously there was none in site, so we had to just push the bike back and exchange it for another one. On our last morning, as we headed to the train station, a local took pity on us carrying our bags and pulled over to offer us a lift. It turned out he had spent 400 days traveling round the world a few years ago and wanted to know what we were up to. He drove us right to the station doors and saved us a bit of time heaving our bags on the buses. It was a great way for us to finish our visit to Birmingham.
As good as Birmingham was, the best part of the few days was definitely our drive north to the whiskey distillery. We hired cars in the morning and tentatively followed a map on our phone into Tennessee. We were a bit apprehensive about driving on the right hand side of the road and driving a left hand drive. As it turned out, most of the roads were duel carriageway so driving on the right wasn’t an issue. Driving a left had drive was a bit trickier. My mind obviously thoughts something wasn’t quite right and kept dragging me back over to the right hand side of the lane so I spent the first half an hour or so feeling like I was steering back the other way. We got to Lynchburg fine and dandy and in good time in the end after driving over rolling hills housing typical American barns surrounded with white picket fences and through leafy forrests to find a lovely little town engulfed by the Jack Daniels brand. The town literally consists of one square and the tour guide made a point of telling us its population was only 361. By contrast the distillery seems much bigger, impressively it is the only place in the world to churn out the famous drink and so it has its slick operation down to a tee. We were shown round buildings from barrel houses to Jack’s original office and it was amazing to see and hear about the process. To finish the tour we were treated to a tasting session of some of the best known drinks created at the distillery. We were even thanked by the tour guide for the UK importing so much of the drink (the UK is its largest export market. Lads.) before we set back off one the road to Birmingham and successfully returned the car unharmed. Suzanne had driven back, I’d drunk her whiskey, a fair deal if you ask me!