Read about my train trip here.
I’m finally on the train, in Georgia, after crossing the border from Armenia. It's not quite 'Midnight train to Georgia'. The railway station is dark and embarkation is far more subdued out here, on this border outpost, than it was on my Moscow journey. Then there was a VIP lounge with champagne, a harpist and a brass band. But opulence still rules ok. We still get the cute cabin attendants standing on red carpets to help us into our cabins, which are still all swags, lace and brocade. My attendant has a husband to help her too. He lugs all the cases. I wonder if they squash into her tiny cabin together.
There’s still a huge bowl overflowing with fruit at the end of the corridor, and too much to eat. The caviar welcome dinner involves vodka and champagne in crystal glasses and tiny delicious blinis with cream. Some of the staff are the same as on my last trip. I have photos to prove it. And we have three chefs, one Russian, one Chinese and one Ukrainian on board. This trip is not cheap and my fellow passengers are an affluent bunch. Some are on the trip of a lifetime. Most are movers and shakers. Laura, for example, is a VP of one of the most well known companies in the world.
Those in Imperial Class get a separate car and guide, so they don’t have to travel in the bus with us. I’m in lowly silver class. I can’t find anywhere in my cabin to put my clothes, but otherwise it’s comfy. My compact bathroom is a wet room, which converts to a shower cubicle by unfolding a curtain all the way round. Amazingly, it works. Four of us, who occupied the back of the bus have formed a breakaway group called the Riff Raff Club. Shane, who is part of our group, was a big wig at a very large American company. Farida runs her own business in Uganda. And Tino is the train’s doctor, so that’s useful.
There is medley of architecture in Tbilisi; a startling amount of it is space-age. Here is yet another president (Mikheil Saakashvili) with a penchant for flashy prestige projects to impress foreign investors and politicians. There are towers, statues and cupolas aplenty (illuminated at night of course). There's a golden statue of (patron) saint George, slaying his dragon dominating Tbilisi's central square. It's on a 35 foot coulmn so you can't escape it.
There are also a pair of long steel and glass tubes that were going to be museums and may or may not get completed. In addition, a new parliament building - a concrete bubble, and a futuristic bridge that has unfortunately, (according to Lonely Planet), been nicknamed the Always Bridge, because of its curvy shape. The spanking new police stations are all glass and see through, symbolic of Georgia's aspirations for democratic transparency. The developments don't sit well alongside subsistence farming in the countryside. And the glass doesn't work too well in the hot summers. The modern side of town has French style boulevards, lined with crumbling shabby chic villas, many dabbling in art deco.
It’s all a complete contrast to the maze-like, cobblestone streets of its old town, on the other side of the Kura River, which bisects the whole of Georgia. Perched above are the domes of the sulphur spring bathhouses, tiled and terracotta and a fortress and mosque. The mosque is the only one, so is unique in being used by both Sunni and Shia Muslims. There are plenty of churches, the Sioni cathedral, 13 renovated caravanserai (mostly now converted to shopping malls) and a lively balconied street full of cafes and restaurants. Slightly incongruously, Leonard Cohen is playing in one of them.
Then there’s a very long lunch - again. Most of them last two hours and involve mezze of different kinds of flat bread, baked on the premises, tomato, cucumber and herb salads, dolmades, aubergine rolls and soft cheese, before minced patties, stew or kebabs emerge and some roast potatoes. Dishes arrive one at time so there is never a complete plate of food English style. There’s a really good inside out cottage cheese pastry or pizza. Finally, out comes a bottle of chacha, the lethal Georgian schnapps.
Dinner is in yet another local restaurant and involves much the same food as lunch, accompanied by a lengthy dancing performance involving many changes of costume, cossack leaping in long black boots and fake plaits.
Today, we head into the countryside, where the Caucasus Mountains (the tallest range in Europe proper), still snow-capped, frame our back drop and farmers scratch out a subsistence living that’s very different to the show of Tbilisi. Some of the roads are narrow and windy and in need of repair. It doesn’t help that last night’s repast is disagreeing with me badly and I have to ask for the bus to halt at a gas station before the planned toilet stop.
Georgia is famous for the ancient wine-growing region Kakheti. It borders the Great Caucasus range with summits over 3,000 metres. The earliest evidence of wine to date in the world has been found here in Georgia, where 8,000-year old wine jars were uncovered, hence its importance. There are said to be about 500 varieties of vine in Georgia today and the wine, we are told, symbolises Georgian hospitality, friendship and tolerance and is the key to Georgian longevity. There you go..
The Tsinindali estate is a former aristocratic family residence, with a well manicured 'English style park'. It's now a little museum, with wine-tasting of course. It has views over the Caucasus, as does Shumachmann’s Winery in the Kizikhi, area, with lunch and more wine tasting.
It’s a long and tiring drive with a final stop at Sighnaghi. This is a royal town on the Silk Road, containing a multitude of wooden balconies with sloping tiled roofs. Its surrounded by walls with 23 towers. Each of these towers were named after nearby villages and respective families and served as a refuge in case of danger. It's said to be the longest defensive wall outside China. There are more good views, this time across the lower part of town, with a fortress and church
Overnight, the train has moved 100 kilometres to Gori. This involves much crashing and banging, as the engine is shunted. The rails are clearly not in very good shape. At one point all my clothes come showering down from their overhead niche and land on my bed. It’s a rude and much too premature awakening.
We’re again on the bus, which is taking us back to Tbilisi, where the train will have already returned. First, the Stalin Museum; and it's a timely visit. It's the hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution and there are a plethora of Stalin based books, video and radio programmes around in the UK at the moment. (Iannuci's film, The Death of Stalin is particularly good.)
In the museum, is more or less every object you can think of that might possibly be emblazoned or engraved with pictures of Stalin. Laura points out that in his youth Stalin looks like George Michael. In most of the pictures his small pox scars and withered arm are airbrushed out. Though I think they called it retouched then. Gori is his birthplace and he is still revered, despite being responsible for more deaths than anyone else in the history of the world. His old house is encased in a neoclassical villa in the grounds, which are home to numerous dogs, all tagged and cared for by the town. We are told that this is because Stalin liked them. However, I’ve also read that he used to attach explosives to dogs and send them into the Nazi camps.
It’s a diverse itinerary today. The ancient city at Uplistsikhe is a troglodyte warren of cave homes, halls and temples, dating from the sixth century BC. Up top a pretty, red roofed basilica which is relatively young, as it was built in the ninth or tenth century. It's best appreciated from a distance as the caves are devoid of decoration.
The weather is still, beautiful, much to the guide’s surprise: ‘But it’s always windy up here,’ We are shuffling around, sweltering in the big coats we wore, as instructed. Lunch is inserted in-between and follows a sealed menu (rolled and tied with gold ribbon), with more Cossack style folk dancing.
Mtskheta is one of the oldest cities of Georgia, located at the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers. Today, it's a small provincial town, but, for nearly a millennium until the fifth century AD, Mtskheta was a large fortified city, the capital of the Kingdom of Iberia. Mtskheta is seen as the birthplace of Christianity in Georgia, and has two significant churches (of course) in and above the old capital. One of these is Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. They became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. A multiplicity of weddings seem to be taking place at both, but above has the best views.
Back on the train, and on to Azerbaijan.
The term Deep South refers to the seven southern states that seceded from the United States and originally formed the Confederate States of America. In order of secession they are: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. They are of course the states most dependent on plantations and slavery during the early period of United States history. They're also known as the Cotton States, since cotton was the primary cash crop. They are irrevocably linked with racial tension, and the American Civil War, romantically depicted in the glorious Gone with the Wind.
I'm touring five of these, by car, with Alex, and throwing in Tennessee for good measure. This can't escape being a music tour too. I'm beginning and ending at Atlanta, Georgia. Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport has been the world's busiest airport by passenger traffic since 1998. It's fun watching all the planes dive in and out, three at a time.
North to Nashville, the capital of of Tennessee. Nashville seceded with Tennessee during the American Civil War, after the initial seven states. In 1862 it was the first state capital in the Confederacy to fall to Union troops. Nowadays it's better known as home to numerous legendary country music venues. There's the Grand Ole Opry House, home of the famous “Grand Ole Opry” stage and radio show in a very green park. Close by, the Opry Mills mall, complete with boating lake and a restaurant that seems to be built inside an aquarium.
Downtown, are the Ryman Auditorium (a former home of the Grand Ole Opry), and The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The latter takes some time, exploring the dedications to the inductees. Patsy Cline seems to be the favourite. The surrounding District, also features the Johnny Cash Museum, and more interestingly. honky-tonks with live music. It's not all country music. There's a BB King's too.
On to Memphis, the largest city on the Mississippi River, where a paddle steamer trip on the Rolling River is obligatory. We're a bridge away from Arkansas. Memphis played a central role in the slave trade and it's home to Tennessee's largest African-American population. It has been prominent in the American civil rights movement and was the site of Martin Luther King Junior's 1968 assassination. Its roots mean that it is also the place to find plenty of music: blues, country, rock and roll, soul, and hip-hop. World famous Beale Street is hopping with live bands (there are music stands in the parks too) - and motor bikes.
Anyone who has listened to Paul Simon singing knows where Graceland is. Actually, the mansion owned by Elvis Presley is about nine miles from Downtown Memphis. Elvis died in 1977 and Graceland was opened to the public as a museum in 1982. Graceland is popular I you have to book. it's the most-visited privately owned home in America, with over 650,000 visitors a year. It was the first rock and roll site to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places and to be designated a National Historic Landmark.
It's stuffed with Elvis memorabilia and kitsch. As are the local hotels, themed to the nines. We're staying in The Heartbreak Hotel, which has, of course, a heart shaped pool
South, into Mississippi on the Great River Road. This All-American Road has already traced the course of the Mississippi River for a large part of its 3,000 miles through 10 states. This is the second longest river in the USA, after the Missouri though according to some that's a tributary (of the Mississippi).
The river meanders, but it's quiet and, apart from the odd bridge and village is sadly, not hugely interesting. However, this is is definitely planation country. By 1860, Mississippi was the nation's top cotton-producing state and slaves accounted for 55% of the population. Its low hills are dotted with elegantly restored antebellum plantation houses. Antebellum means 'before the war'. These are grand places to stay.
Natchez, on a bluff above the Mississippi River, is a treasure trove of scenes from Gone with the Wind - wedding-cake mansions, mint juleps and Southern food. I've experienced gracious hospitality and been offered grits (don't bother) but I haven't been called 'honey-chile' yet. There are 550 pre- Civil War structures standing here. Some are open for tours, but we've opted to stay in one. Monmouth Plantation House, now Inn, was built in 1818. The main opulently swagged mansion, with its period furniture. is set in 26 acres of manicured gardens containing seven outbuildings, also used as lodgings.
Close by, is domed Longwood, also known as Nutt's Folly, an antebellum octagonal mansion, turned museum, the largest octagonal house in the United States
Into Louisiana. It takes an age to reach New Orleans, driving across the flat causeways of the bayoux, (singing along with the Carpenters).
Founded in 1718 by French colonists, New Orleans was once the territorial capital of French Louisiana before becoming part of the United States in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. It is unique, iconic, world-renowned for its laid back lifestyle, distinctive music, Creole cuisine, unique dialects, and the annual Mardi Gras carnival. This is why it's also known as The Big Easy. The historic heart of the city is the French Quarter, known for its French and Spanish Creole architecture and this rewards wandering. There are balconies, chic cafes and horse carts galore. and of course, the landmark St Louis Cathedral. Built in 1720 on the banks of the Mississippi, this is the oldest cathedral in North America - positively ancient. Here, the street beginning with a B that's famous for vibrant nightlife is Bourbon Street. A jazz club in this area is a must.
East, through the strip of Alabama that manages to reach the coast, around Mobile, the state capital. Here, it borders the Gulf of Mexico and Mobile Bay. There are more wetlands but these give way to stretches of long, sandy beaches. This is an up and coming tourist area with several deluxe golf courses.
We're passing up on those and continuing to the Gulf beaches of Pensacola in Florida. Pensacola is the westernmost city in the Florida Panhandle. It's also the site of a United States Naval Air Station, For some reason Pensacola has endured a series of nicknames. It's been called "The City of Five Flags", (due to the five governments that have ruled it during its history: Spain (Castile), France, Great Britain, the United States of America, and the Confederate States of America), "World's Whitest Beaches" (due to the white sand of Florida panhandle beaches), "Cradle of Naval Aviation", "Western Gate to the Sunshine State", "America's First Settlement", "Emerald Coast", "Red Snapper Capital of the World", and "P-Cola". Take your pick. I'm settling for "World's Whitest Beaches", though the sands are very quiet today.
Skirting the top of Florida. through the state capital, Tallahassee and enduring the traffic of far larger, more congested, Jacksonville. Then north to Gone with the Wind country proper. Savannah's cobbled downtown area, is one of the largest National Historic Landmark Districts in the United States. Manicured parks, more antebellum architecture. more horse-drawn carriages and more river boat trips on the Savannah River. There are several brick forts to admire on the way.
Hugging the coast of Georgia and just popping over the border to South Carolina and Charleston. More manicured parks, more horse-drawn carriages and even more antebellum architecture. Not as quaint, as Savannah, but more liveable. And another brick built defence - Fort Sumter. Although the fort, built on an artificial island protecting Charleston, was never quite finished. Its construction was prompted by the 1812 British invasion of Washington by sea. However, it was still incomplete in 1861, when exchange of fire here, began the American Civil War. It was severely damaged by the war, and left in ruins.
Back to Georgia and Atlanta. Atlanta was originally founded as the terminus of a major state-sponsored railroad. Its name derives from that of the Western and Atlantic Railroad's local depot. General Sherman famously burned most of the city to the ground, during his March to the Sea, in November 1864, toward the end of the American Civil War. Today its the state capital of Georgia, an economic hub and home of Coca Cola. It's development and diversity is promoted in the Netflix reboot of Dynasty, which relocated from Denver to Atlanta. There is a monument to education located north of Baker Street on Famous Peachtree Street in Downtown Atlanta’s Hardy Ivy Park. This is the Carnegie Education Pavilion, built using the façade taken from Atlanta’s first public library, paid for by Andrew Carnegie in 1901. Before this time only white men (and latterly women) had access to private libraries.
And, Atlanta is where Margaret Mitchell wrote the book. You can visit her home, which has been turned into a museum. And now it's time for us to go too. Tomorrow is Another Day....
Read more about the U.S.A. here
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