Lebanon is officially known as the Lebanese Republic (Al-Jumhuriyah al-Lubnaniyah). It is the smallest recognised country on the mainland Asian continent.
Lebanon ranks the highest among the countries in the Arab world in terms of GDP per capita. Lebanon was known as the “Switzerland of the East” during the 1960s because of its financial soundness and diversity.
An estimated 8-16 million Lebanese live outside Lebanon, sending home money, while the population of the country is 4.5 million.
The US dollar is accepted alongside the Lebanese pound (also known as the lira). It is pegged at 1500 lira.
The country has the largest population of Christians of any Middle Eastern country. Currently, the population is 60% Muslim and 40% Christian. The country’s parliament is equally divided amongst the major religious groups. All 18 recognized religious sects in Lebanon are represented in Parliament. The president must be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of Parliament a Shiite Muslim. At times, the country has operated without a President, due to the mass exodus of Christians from the country.
Lebanon was amongst the earliest areas in the world to know civilisation. It was invaded in turn by the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, followed by the Mamelukes, the Ottomans and the Turks. It attained independence from France, finally emerging as a sovereign state in 1943. An Israeli invasion followed, to be succeeded by Civil War between 1975 and 1990, due to tensions between Christians and Muslims. Both Syria and Israel were actively involved and sent their troops to the region.
The advice given on travel to Lebanon changes often. Currently, there is political unrest and ongoing demonstrations, some of which have been violent. There is also the ongoing risk that conflict with Israel will escalate or the situation with Syria will deteriorate. The FCO advise against all but essential travel. Petty crime and theft exists, of course, but is said to be less common than in many countries.
My visit was trouble free and the locals exceptionally friendly, though the Hezbollah presence , especially as one moves east, is very evident.
This is a mountainous country with some dramatic scenery. Because of the uncertain situation and taking into account advice from friends I did a group tour visiting the classic highlights:
I’ve booked a group tour to Lebanon, after swearing never to do a group tour again. This is because Shane from Central Asia was here a few weeks ago and he says it’s hard going for women on their own. Lebanon is only just beginning to open up to tourism again after civil war, Israeli incursion and involvement in the war in neighbouring Syria. The FCO still deem part of the country to be out of bounds to sensible visitors. It’s territory number 200, so I feel there should be some sort of cautious celebration.
It’s not an auspicious beginning however - there’s no one to meet the five of us who have convened in the arrivals hall at the airport and after an hour of phone calling we give up and commission a cab.
Beirut, the capital of Lebanon likes to call itself the Paris of the East. It has a mellow seaside vibe, palm trees, a corniche and new yellow stone buildings springing up around patches of excavated ruins. There’s still huge amounts of war damage and constant reconstruction, especially around the Financial District and Martyrs Square. Here, three different types of Orthodox Church, as well as Church of England, Maronite and Moslem places of worship are built in close proximity. During the war, the protagonists shot at each other across Damascus Street until the cease fire was agreed and they all hugged and kissed instead. Ten percent of the then three million population of Lebanon died.
Our hotel is in a lively quarter of Beirut, crammed with pavement cafes and shish smokers. Our breakfast food is a mixture of Arab and European cuisine, but barely adequately cooked. They hope to detract from the paucity of the offering with a bizarre centrepiece - a chocolate fountain. Lebanon is the most western influenced Arab country I’ve been to. The ‘New Souk’ is a huge glossy mall, with high arched ceilings and restaurants charging exorbitant prices, while the adjacent streets are lined with shops bearing brand names that I recognise all too well.
The seaside towns of tiny Lebanon are spaced a useful forty kilometres apart, along the narrow coastal plain. The highway is cut into the arid mountains that run almost into the sea. First, a stop to view the impressive formations that are the Raouche (pigeon) Rocks. Think Durdle Door or Praia da Rocha. The rocks are is claimed to be the remains of a sea monster the Greek hero Perseus killed to save Andromeda. He turned Medusa’s head on the monster and so it became stone.
Banana and orange trees line the route, framed by the turquoise Mediterranean. Pierre, our guide, says it will be nothing but hotels in ten years’ time. We also pass numerous huge, barbed wire surrounded camps for Palestinian refugees. Their living conditions are very poor - they’re only allowed tin roofs, so as not to impede coastal development when they finally leave and their dwellings are demolished.
Sidon is thought to be the oldest of the Phoenician towns . First visit here is the Temple to Eshmoun - the Phoenician version of Aesclepius. Here there are layered ruins, including a Babylonian pyramid, sited in a fragrant wadi just outside Sidon, which is known here as Saida. Next, a crusader castle (Sidon was the centre of many crusader struggles) with a picturesque setting on an islet. The souk in Sidon is refurbished, but seemingly authentic and quaint – brick arches topped with towers - facades with brightly painted shutters. The must-see here is a soap museum, beige bars all stacked like giant fudge slabs.
Pierre is an excitable little Armenian who refers to toilet breaks as technical stops. He has moved swiftly to dismiss the airport debacle as being ‘Nothing to do with me’. But he still hasn’t tracked down one of our party of eleven and two others had to be enticed out of bed before we set off half an hour late this morning. He’s then lost all but one of us in the Sidonian souk - we have to phone him. I’ve decided disorganisation must be a prerequisite for being a tour guide. Lunch here is a falafel sandwich in a corner café, as ’We have too much more to see today’. So we don’t have time to Tyre of Sidon before hurtling further down the coast to its partner Phoenician town.
Tyre is known in Lebanon as Sour or Walled City and is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, Though in medieval times the population was tiny. It was one of the earliest Phoenician towns and also the legendary birthplace of Europa, her brothers Cadmus and Phoenix, not to mention Carthage's founder Dido. From here we can see the Israeli border and the peak that is Cana, where Jesus’ first miracle took place. We are also regularly buzzed by Israeli fighter planes.
Tyre has UNESCO world heritage designated ruins, a huge Roman necropolis built over the ancient Phoenician streets and houses. There’s a stunningly beautiful arch and a partially preserved hippodrome, where they filmed Ben Hur. The thorns amongst the stone paving are even more vicious than the ones in the African bush. They’ve gone right through my flip flops.
Both Tyre and Sidon are famous for being the original source of the Phoenician purple dye, extracted from murex (sea snail) shells. The other famous product of this country is the cedar tree. The wood is used for building boats and the resin is apparently excellent for mummification. Very handy with all these sarcophagi to fill. A final rush to the last set of remains in town – more temples and a Roman arena right by the water, glowing serenely in the light of the setting sun.
It’s getting late. Time to re-Tyre. Apologies for all the bad jokes - they are enTyrely gratuitous.
Our next excursion takes us north of Beirut and a little inland to Jetta Caves. Our missing tour member has appeared – with an injured foot he’s been resting. That makes four of us from the UK, five Americans, one Russian Latvian and an Australian. I’ve already visited numerous caves, but these deserve their good reputation. There’s a lake, enjoyed in flat bottom boats, some gorgeous lacy caverns, some of the largest stalactites in the world and, thankfully, an absence of coloured illumination. But photography in the caverns is forbidden, so I’ve no proof. There’s also a toy train and a cable car, serving the upper caves.
Further up the coast is the pretty port of Byblos. It’s the ultimate tourist destination with fish restaurants along the quay (nice views, tourist quality food) and an upmarket reconstructed souk, complete with high–end bars. ‘Today’s offer, buy any two drinks and pay for them both’. English (or rather American) signage is replacing French and is more common than Arabic.. Here, we’re ferried around on a golf cart. That’s quite an assortment of transport in one day. The sloe gin cocktails are very good. Six of us are drinking, but the party is short-lived. Everyone retires to bed at 7.30.
The crusader castle at Byblos is built on top of the Roman ruins, thoughtfully providing amazing views across a row of columns and myriad excavated walls spreading to the sea. This is where the first alphabet originated,. It was developed from Egyptian hieroglyphs, according to the Lebanese, though competing theories attribute its roots to Canaan/ Israel/Palestine or to the Canaanites/Israelis in Egypt.
I’ve adopted my usual practice of avoiding lengthy guide explanations in broken English. So, I’m up the top of the tower looking down onto the rest of the group listening obediently. Pierre was once a history teacher. I’ve anticipated that he will bring my fellow travellers up to enjoy the incredible views once he has finished his monologue. Perversely, he chooses not to and I spend the next hour pursuing the group around the site. It’s huge and every time I set off after the row of bobbing heads in the distance, they have disappeared by the time I arrive at that spot. It’s very frustrating. And hot work. It’s pushing 30 degrees today.
Now, inland, winding through soaring mountains and misty grey olive orchards, a mass of ancient gnarled trunks, and along the top of the Qadisha Valley, home of some of the last remaining cedar groves in the country near the hilltop town of Bsharri.. A wander under the branches is obligatory. Then, a stop at an atmospheric museum dedicated to Khalil Gibran, who was born here. It’s carved out of the rock face and mainly decorated with his art. His writing is much better than his painting.
The major roads are mostly in good condition and often full dual carriageways, but there’s still an obstacle course of parked vehicles to navigate in towns. Pierre always opts for participation, as opposed to patience, in these situations. Most of his interventions consist of superfluous arm-waving, but he has also so far encouraged a struggling female driver to reverse into a bollard and gesticulated alongside a truck taking out an overhead electric cable. Despite the relative affluence most of the cars on the road are from the last century. The model of choice is a 1980s boxy Mercedes.
Lunch is in a friendly Lebanese mezze restaurant in the centre of the largest cedar grove, right at the head of the valley. This falls away dramatically. Its small ledges provide superb settings for red roofed Maronite and Greek Orthodox monasteries.
The summits of the surrounding peaks are sheer, bare of vegetation and dusted with the first snow, icing sugar on gingerbread. We dip over into the Beqaa Valley and the temperature plummets. The furry parka I brought with me from a newly wintry England doesn’t look so stupid now.
Lebanon is the only Middle Eastern country without a desert, but most of the agriculture is located in its portion of the Fertile Crescent, the 129 km long Beqaa Valley. The valley is, astonishingly, part of the Great Rift system, which stretches from southern Turkey to Mozambique. A huge chunk of the area, including the famous Temple of Baalbek, is coloured orange ‘essential travel only’ on the FCO advisory site and Baalbek is perilously close to the red no-go zone abutting Syria, a small kink in the line some official has drawn on the map.
It’s very different to the coast. The buildings are less western in design, Arabic script predominates and yellow Hezbollah flags fly. (We can buy matching T-shirts with guns on if we wish.) There are plenty of army road blocks and the Palestinian refugee camps are replaced by Syrian ones, with similarly squalid living conditions. It’s pitch black as we make our first foray into forbidden territory. It doesn’t help that the driver is clutching his rosary in his left hand as he steers.
In Greek and Roman times Baalbek was also known as Heliopolis (Sun City) and it is truly astonishing. It’s on a par with Karnak and Abu Simbel - an incredible complex of three Roman temples. The local gods Baal and Ashtart were pragmatically (and confusingly) conflated first with Greek and then Roman gods .The Temple of Jupiter (Heliopolitan Zeus or Baal)) is huge and magnificent. . It was constructed (on the foundations of another temple) during the mid -first century.
The Temple of Bacchus, with its amazing carving and complete facades of ornate pillars, virtually escaped demolition over the years, as it was later utilised as a church and a fortress. It’s open to debate whether or not the third temple was actually dedicated to Venus. (or Ashtart) Notwithstanding, Pierre clearly enjoys telling us all about the prostitutes who were imported and the orgies that took place inside. I’m glad I’ve left Lebanon to the end of my ancient Roman occupied countries to visit. It’s going to be hard for other sites to measure up now.
Tourist lunch at Anjar, an Armenian area, in enormous tented restaurant, Al Shams. There are at-the-table tricks performed by a magician,. This is a veritable banquet - the amount of food provided is frankly ridiculous. An assortment of flat breads, salads, hummus, baba ganoush, labneh, kibbeh, fries, melt in the mouth chicken livers, shrimps in creamy sauce, olives, pickles and mixed grilled kebabs. There’s no room to fit all the dishes onto the table and we can only manage to eat half of it. Everyone protests that they are totally full. Then the waiters ask us to move to another table, where desserts are laid out: crystallised sweets and platters of fruit. And of course everyone manages to find room for more. We are assured that the leftovers will be delivered to a Syrian refugee camp.
Our last visit is to the eighth century Umayyad ruins near Anjar. Baalbek is a hard act to follow, but it’s a peaceful late afternoon stroll. And it might burn off a few of today’s unwarranted calories. The toilet block is teeming with cats.
Back at the airport, at the end of another delightful journey. My passport is checked five times and I’m body searched three times. My bags are scanned twice and examined four times. Each check is perfunctory at best. One of the cubicle ladies is too busy skyping her husband to be bothered with patting me down. And no-one has mentioned my laptop – even though there are large posters at the gate warning that these are forbidden on flights from Lebanon to London. That’s all right. I’ve decided to carry on my small (ish) suitcase, as well as my backpack, liquids, the lot. Do as the locals do.
Read more information about Lebanon here
Tina and I are achieving a long held ambition - to drive Route 66. It runs right through the USA from Chicago to Santa Monica in Los Angeles. She's Louise - on the grounds that she looks a little like Susan Sarandon. So I'm Thelma. Incidentally, referring to Route 66 is the only time when Americans pronounce the word 'route' properly...
We're beginning in Chicago, the third largest city in the USA and a tourist favourite. The name Chicago is derived from a French rendering of the indigenous Miami-Illinois word shikaakwa for a wild relative of the onion, as there was a lot of wild garlic growing in the area when it was first recorded in 1679. Chicago has had several nicknames throughout its history: Chi-Town, Second City, City of the Big Shoulders and of course, The Windy City, Chicago developed in the 1800s as the Nation's Railway Hub.
But Chicago is probably most famous for its 1930s architecture and the Gangster Era, when Prohibition was repealed. The 1920s saw gangsters, including Al Capone, Dion O'Banion, Bugs Moran and Tony Accardo battle law enforcement and each other on the streets of Chicago. And Chicago was the location of the infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929, when Al Capone sent men to gun down members of a rival gang, North Side, led by Bugs Moran
There is a cool front sweeping across the country, so it's 'only' mid 70s and raining. Time to hit the museums of Chicago. This involves walking about eight miles in all, almost half of this round the galleries themselves. The aquarium, (complete with dolphin show and 4D experience - 4D involves getting wet and being poked in the back) the Field Museum (The Natural History Museum meets The British Museum) and The Art Institute (pretty good collection of impressionist paintings). Louise (Tina) is ecstatic.
Chicago has a great vibe. It feels a little older than most American cities and it has long buzzy shopping streets full of brownstones, star spangled banners and neon signs. And of course, lots of skyscrapers.
We find signs for the beginning and end of Route 66 on adjoining streets and pose for pictures under both. Does that mean we've done it already?
It's sunny! And now I can see Lake Michigan sparkling and sweeping on forever, from the hotel window. There are flotillas of teeny white boats bobbing around. It must be a day for skyscrapers then, in the city where they were born. Breakfast in Lou Mitchell's old fashioned wooden diner, voted 'best breakfast in the USA’. It's pretty good and we get free doughnut holes (I thought that would be a handful of nothing, but it's the scooped out middles) and little round caramel chocolates called milk duds. Route 66 signs all over the walls, so we have to take photos.
Eating otherwise is a traumatic experience. Ordering alone is stressful, as every item comes with a choice. And the choice is usually burgers, burgers or burgers.
Then up the old Sears tower (now Willis). It was the highest building in the world, but then Dubai took over. And now, apparently it's not even as tall as the new World Trade Centre, which is nearly finished. Anyway, brilliant view and the scrapers are fewer, but more interesting than the ones in the Big Apple. Curlicues, domes and gilt edging. Then a boat trip up the river and out on the lake to see the skyline view. Just to make sure we have really seen every scraper from every angle we then zoom up the John Hancock tower to check out the view from the other end of Downtown. (See how American I am already?)
Then a musical evening. First, duelling pianos in a bar where the musicians play driving and car songs for us, and then, a bit worse for wear due to the accompanying margaritas, we head for the Chicago Chop House. More live music, steaks, and more margaritas. Somehow, the bill comes to 334 dollars. I think it will be iron rations only for the next two days...
Turns out we have already seen all the sights due to our marathon efforts on Wednesday. And the weather is iffy again. So I spend most of the day getting my camera repaired. At least it has started to play up when I am somewhere that I have a chance of dealing with it. I find a little Russian guy who does it in 4 hours. The repair costs exactly the same as yesterday's dinner. Supper tonight is the doggy bag remains of yesterday's extravaganza.
Chicago to St Louis - well it didn't look far on the map. And we only got lost three times. But they like to place the brown Route 66 signs just in front of left turns on three lane highways, so it’s all a little disconcerting. The road twists and turns across the Interstate routes. It's crumbly and has an unbelievable camber, so we threaten to end up in the ditch all too often. Sometimes there is more than one Route 66. The historic one and the historic historic one. Sometimes there is no Route 66 at all. This is definitely small town America. Prairie prairie quite contrary. Mile after mile of rippling green corn, gleaming silos and white clapboard houses with emerald manicured lawns, neatly arranged in semi circles. The obligatory Stars and Stripes flutter above.
We have a Ford Explorer, a giant of a thing. It's like driving along in a coach, peering down on everyone else. Serendipitously our number plate is 6966. Make what you like of that. We also have guide books depicting all the kitschy must see Route 66 sights. Restored fifties petrol stations, cosy diners with flashing red welcome signs, giant statues and murals are common. Get your Chicks on Route 66, Dicks on Route 66 and so on. And the slightly more esoteric. A phone booth on top of a courthouse roof? Lincoln mania - he was born here. It soon becomes clear that if we stop and search for all the recommended sights, the trip will take us a year. So we drive on, singing, to the Mississippi. There is a lot of road!
Another song to sing - Meet me in St Louis. The obvious attraction to meet under is the 190-metre Gateway Arch. It is the world's tallest arch and you can travel up it in a precarious looking lift. The other most noticeable feature is the sports stadia. The most famous sports team is the St. Louis Cardinals (Major League Baseball), but there are also the St. Louis Blues of the National Hockey League, and the St. Louis BattleHawks of the formed XFL.
Dinner at the very hip Oyster Bar on Broadway. The ultimate in shack chic. All coloured lights and wooden tables. And very good live R & B. Nice cocktails too....
Today promises to be exciting. An Al Qaeda red alert and a severe weather warning for heavy rain in Missouri. There is a belt of thunderstorms veering across the country. We are warned not to park near any creeks... This is where most of the pioneers set off west. It’s a bit different for us. We have to navigate the endless shopping outlet suburbs of St. Louis. But then we hit the Ozark Hills, lush green forests and little winding roads. It's a bit like Sussex. And we instantly get lost. So it's the wrong sort of excitement for us and that is very much the pattern for the day. It rains a lot, but no flash floods.
We are already pretty much take it or leave it now when it comes to Route 66 signs. They are everywhere (though confusingly sometimes blue in Missouri), except at junctions when you need them. Giants abound. Everything is the biggest and best. The tallest totem in the world. The biggest gift shop in the world, the largest rocking chair. What sort of inferiority complex dreams this lot up? We drive through Cuba (Mural City) and are staying in Lebanon so it's a worldwide tour too. We board in a forties motel - Munger Moss - and eat in a redneck diner. Moonshine margaritas and hickory smoked ribs. The meals are giant sized too. And so are a lot of the people.
Southwest through a corner of Kansas to Oklahoma City. The scenery not as I imagined, when I read my Steinbeck. It's all velvety green rolling hills, ponds, and haystacks. Maybe it’s the unseasonal rain. We can see the road unwinding in front of us like an endless Big Dipper. The sun is now out and the thermometer has climbed steadily, topping out at 106 degrees. We’re frightened to open the car doors in case we get fried. The undulations have been interspersed with little cowboy and mining towns. Adobe brick, crenellations, boardwalks, more flashing signs and lots of fat men with long pointy beards. They would make good dwarves if it wasn't for the dungarees and baseball caps.
Each little town has a tumble down store selling memorabilia that is run by a delightful wizened little old man. Or so it seems. We have been pursued all day by a squad of French tourers on motor bikes. And we have only got lost once. This is because we have almost got the hang of this now. We have armed ourselves with a GPS, a road atlas, a zillion free tourist guides and a newly acquired turn by turn guide. But when we can, we just follow the Harleys.
Hot, hot, hot, melting. We tip 107 degrees today. A quick zip through downtown Oklahoma. Amazingly there are oil derricks and nodding donkeys in the grounds of the domed Capitol Building. I'm told that Oklahoma now has more oil than any other state. That accounts for all the greenery.
Thank God for the reversing camera on our private tank. How else would we get back on the right road? Tina wants to do most of the driving. I'm not sure if this is because she doesn't trust me behind the wheel or because she doesn't want to navigate. But mine isn't the easy option. I have to concentrate the whole time. I've only got to nod off for one minute and Tina is careering off in the wrong direction.
We meander back and forth across the Interstates, often on the frontage roads, with pantechnicons thundering above. The scenery is fascinating as it changes continually. Today it’s more how I imagined Oklahoma to be. Cinnamon soil and dead flat except for the odd mesa. There are Chisholm Trail markers and I'm recalling John Wayne in his leather chaps urging his cattle along in the searing heat. It must have been hard work.
Then off and over the border to Amarillo. (Time for Tony Christie). Texas is pretty flat too, but green and spiky. With huge skies. Everything in Texas is huge, of course. We've just seen the biggest cross in the Western Hemisphere. There's a cowboy there, head on his saddle, hat tipped over face, sleeping under a tree. Just like the movies. He says he is riding to California and it will take him another three months.
Amarillo might take some finding but there's little extraordinary to see. Its a bustling city with busy interstates crossing it. There's a Route 66–Sixth Street Historic District a hub for dining and antiques, with art deco and Spanish Revival buildings, We're staying at the Big Texan Motel. Biggest of everything. The staff here are certainly hugely rude. Everyone else along the route so far has been really friendly and chatty. Though the Texans are bigger and brasher. The motel serves 72 ounce steaks in a giant saloon bar. All plush velvet, cowboys and moose heads. The best rooms are set up like colourful little gold rush town hotels with swing doors. But the nasty receptionist has put us in the Horse Hotel instead…..
We motor on across the Texas Panhandle. Today it's even flatter, flatter than Holland with far more windmills, though these are old fashioned metal pumps or whole seas of modern turbines. And we've just driven past a ranch with 28,000 cattle. We didn't count them but you can smell them. We have a surfeit of Longhorn logos. Or real horns, on the front of limousines.
We're collecting creatures too. There are so many insects that we can hardly see out of the windscreen for brown squiggles. The radiator grille is stacked full of carcasses. There are even whole locusts in there.
We visit an art installation. Some artists collectively called Ant Ranch were commissioned to shove ten psychedelically patterned Cadillacs into the middle of a field. You can add your own graffiti. (Yesterday we saw Bug Ranch, an ironic take on this, with four VW beetles.) An early lunch at the Midway Point Cafe. Only 1391 miles to go. Everything that moves (or doesn't) in the cafe bears a Route 66 logo, including the salt cellars. Dennis, the friendly owner, serves us his 'ugly pies'. They look ok to me. Perhaps they're called this because they are very sweet and make you fat.
In New Mexico the landscape is instantly softer. Blue-green hues, some gentle undulation again and delicate pork pie mesas. A little further in is a great long line of turbines perched on the top of a ridge like the Zulu army massing at Rorke’s Drift. Though I suppose that here it should be the Cheyenne.
It's a little cooler today, as there is more wind. The locals say it stops blowing for two days in October. And we can take it easy as we've just gained an hour. The hills grow taller and we roll through a canyon past the Rio Grande. This really is cowboy and Indian country.
Albuquerque is the biggest city in New Mexico. (Yet another song - in fact more than one....) There's a plate glass modern downtown, whilst Adobe Navajo and Hopi craft and jewellery shops line the cobbled streets of Old Town Albuquerque, which dates to 1706 . There's San Felipe de Neri Church, five museums, and the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, which traces the area’s tribal history.
Everyone here seems to be Mexican. Well, it is New Mexico. I dust off my Spanish and we dine on pork and chilli. We are still suffering the next morning.
A relatively lazy day. A round trip of just 100 miles odd through the mountains and mesas (one eye open for Red Indians) to Santa Fe. This seems much less of a challenge than mainstream 66, but the GPS has a hissy fit and freezes every time I try to enter the words Santa Fe. So, we get lost again, ending up in the middle of a field. When we eventually arrive it is much smaller than Albuquerque but even more Mexican. Everything is low lying adobe.
But my God do you need money to shop here. It's all pristine art galleries, up market clothes shops and high end jewellery. Madam declines to negotiate for a discount on 1200 dollar boots thank you. We do go into a café though and rashly order carrot cake. We still haven't learned that we should only order one dish between the two of us in the USA. These slabs of cake are gargantuan. So we request take out containers and it's gateaux for every meal that day.
There have been more changes in scenery today than in Henry V. Travelling from Albuquerque to Holbrook in Arizona we have seen mesas, red desert, yellow desert, green plains, sand dunes, mountains, lava, limestone escarpments and climbed 7,300 feet over the Continental Divide. The temperature has veered from 55 degrees in the rain to well over 100 later. Our lips are parched after only ten minutes in the desert. How did these cowboys manage? We have only gone wrong once and that wasn't our fault. They shut the road. There are also uranium mines, a nuclear museum and the site of the first atom bomb test. Native Indian pueblos, trading posts and a glitzy Route 66 casino.
And all this before we hit the Petrified Forest National Park. Fabulous scenery in the Painted Desert first with multi-hued mesas. I liked the blue ones best.
Then to the 'forest,' which consists of petrified logs arranged artistically around, as they have been dug out of the lava and sand. We have to be interrogated to make sure we haven't taken any pieces away with us. Rangers keep popping up to check on us. Tina admires one lady’s eyebrows so we take her photo. (So far Tina has had her picture taken with a park ranger, a transvestite, a policewoman, John Wayne and Teeny Tiny, my travelling bear.) When we get out of the park there are lines of shops selling more pieces of petrified wood than we have seen in the whole forest.
We are staying in a very basic town called Holbrook in a very basic motel. It is right next to the rail road. Every time a train goes by the ground shakes. It's like being in an earthquake.
Winslow and we stand on the corner along with everyone else to Take It Easy. The second verse of the Eagles song refers to a time when Jackson Browne's automobile malfunctioned in Winslow, Arizona, requiring him to spend a long day there. In 1999, in responding to the lyrics that made it famous, the city of Winslow erected a life-size bronze statue and mural commemorating the song at the Standin' on the Corner Park.
Then a quick zip to Meteor Crater. The crater was created about 50,000 years ago during the Pleistocene era ( think open grassland dotted with woodlands inhabited by mammoths and giant ground sloths. This giant hole (diameter 1200 metres) was excavated by the impact of a nickel-iron meteorite about 50 metres across.
It's interesting, but a bit of a rip off at 16 dollars to peer over the edge and visit the tiny museum. Despite historic attempts to take the crater into public ownership , it remains in the hands of the Barringer family. They proclaim it to be the "best-preserved meteorite crater on Earth". Since the crater is privately owned, it is not protected as a national monument, but it was designated a National Natural Landmark in November 1967
We are muralled out and blasé about tepees by now. So a side trip to Phoenix south across greener bobbly desert is called for. I expect that the scenery will become ever more arid. Wrong again. It's all pine forest, pretty green and very hilly. In fact there are a lot of twisty turny mountain roads through the forest.
And then more desert, but mountainous desert with more twisty turny roads. This is the land of the Apache. Much fiercer than the Navajo if the films are to be believed. I'm anticipating them creeping up on us, but then things get even better. Cacti. Proper tall spiky cacti with prongs. It really is just like the movies. This is confirmed by the proliferation of ranches called The Ponderosa or The High Chaparral. I am a little disconcerted when I scramble out to take the obligatory pictures as I am assailed by gunfire. Am I really in a movie? Fortunately, it seems to be coming from a little further away, in the scrub. We beat a hasty retreat and kick back in Scottsdale. Palm trees and swimming pools.
This is where the Route 66 action really begins. Now we have a Mustang and sweep off north towards the Grand Canyon. It's a shame that the thunderstorms pursue us and we have to make a hasty and illegal stop on the Interstate to put the roof up. It seems for a while as if our canyon plans will all be dashed. But then the lightning retreats and the sun peeps out. We get our views across the spectacular toasty buttes of the canyon. And amused French tourists take our diving off the edge of the canyon Thelma and Louise photos.
First, back to Route 66 at Flagstaff for about a hundred miles. I have missed the road's quirkiness and endless variety. There is plenty of kitsch at Seligman, with mannequins cavorting in the road. Unfortunately, it attracts the tour buses from Vegas and so this is the first Route 66 spot that is heaving.
Then, on to Vegas itself, which, of course, is also heaving. En route, still more changes of scene. To begin with, exceptionally pretty forests and mountains with refreshingly cool crisp air. A complete rainbow - not quite shot of the storms yet - but mostly the sky is unflinchingly blue.
Then wide open spaces as The Mother Road deviates its furthest from the Interstates. Though I suppose I should have expressed that the other way round. Some meadows spread with custardy carpets of blooms, a canyon or two. Some very flat dirty yellow landscape with odd fluffy cacti as we skirt the Mojave Desert.
Then, another turn off at Kingman and past the Hoover Dam. The Hoover Dam is a concrete arch-gravity dam in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River, right on the border between Nevada and Arizona. Its construction, during the Great Depression, cost over one hundred lives. It was referred to as the Hoover Dam after President Herbert Hoover in bills passed by Congress during its construction, but was perversely renamed Boulder Dam by the Roosevelt administration in power when it was finished. The Hoover Dam name was later restored by Congress. The dam created Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States by volume, when it's full and a popular recreational area. More dry smouldering mountains as we enter Nevada, and then the glittering lights of Vegas.
I know that my title is a cliché but the whole place is a cliché. Predictably the GPS has another strop and takes us on a tour of virtually the whole city before we arrive at our hotel tetchy and glowing. At one point the temperature reads 119 degrees.
Our room has a huge bathroom with a window into it, two flat screen TVs, a dishwasher (?) and a view down the strip and across the desert. The neon is commencing its action.
We eat a huge breakfast in the largest and most highly rated buffet in Vegas. Our room is extremely high up, on the fifty- fifth floor and it has a balcony (unusual in Vegas as there have been too many jumpers in the past). However, we are both too giddily frightened to venture out onto it. It is about as hot as it gets on the planet. There is so much traffic on the strip that the cars can't move.
A stroll and a bus down The Strip. We are awed by the famous fountains weaving sinuously at The Bellagio, volcanoes exploding and pirates dancing with sirens. The hotels are so enormous that it takes fifteen minutes to navigate across the frontage of just one. And that's if you can find a way through, as they cunningly try to inveigle you into the casinos. The people here are even more gargantuan than elsewhere. The restaurants serve the cheapest, most outstanding food in the USA - so they say.
I prefer the more happening vibe at Fremont Street, which is packed with tourists, live bands, wannabes dressed as every character you could possibly think of, swathes of flashing lights and (what else) The Biggest Screen on the Planet, splashing across the arcade roof.
Back down The Strip we buy super deal cowboy boots (what am I going to do with these in the South Pacific?) and stop for a drink in St. Mark's Square in Venice, watching the gondolas sweeping by. The Venetian (with The Palazzo) is the biggest hotel in the world and of course we get lost under its fake puffy cloudy skies. Then off to Paris to book seats for the Jersey Boys tonight. It's the best show in town, of course. Some time by one of the pools before we set off. It's the 'quietest', but it's jammed totally full of bodies.
It’s a very long day on the road, not helped by the fact that we oversleep due to our late show. The desert goes on forever and its brown scrubby desert now. The road is a veritable Big Dipper and we leave our stomachs behind at every crest. The temperature goes up and up. The only excitement is when the petrol gauge (sorry gas) starts to dip dangerously low in the middle of nowhere. It wouldn't be so bad if we could stick to the Interstate, but all the traffic lights from San Bernardino into the suburbs of LA on 66 make the journey interminable.
I get the impression that the Californians think that they don’t have to try very hard when it comes to Route 66. There are a few signs dotted around. But they have the beautiful people instead. The beautiful people, I have to say, give no quarter on the roads. It's hell on earth when we are allowed onto a freeway, careering round bends and getting cut up on both sides. It’s just like The Wacky Races. I discover that the brake on my side of the car is pretty ineffective. As well as the cartoons they have the movies. Everywhere we visit has been in a film. The Baghdad Cafe, Victorville (Kill Bill), Barstow, (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). If it hasn't been in a film it's advertising its availability to be in one.
We progress slowly from the desert to the old winery and orange grove country. Palm trees proliferate and the countryside becomes green again as we wind through the foothills for the whole afternoon and evening. The foothills of what? I never did discover.
It's almost too dark to pick out the Hollywood sign as we lurch down Sunset Boulevard and through Beverley Hills. The Ferris wheel on Santa Monica Pier is glowing red and the End of the Trail sign is almost indecipherable. But we did it.
We are staying in Venice Beach. Brighton meets Blackpool. The beach is more Blackpool - huge and sandy. It's a pretty edgy area full of street performers and bars. But it verges on sleazy as well. We walk just up the road to Santa Monica, immediately going up market. Salcombe meets the French Riviera. Big expensive hotels and seafood bars. And this is Baywatch country. Lifeguards in red cozzies.
Afterwards we drive up Rodeo Drive with the roof down, though waving cameras out of the window rather spoils the effect. There are certainly lots of beautiful people here. I note that it seems de rigeur to have a tattoo nowadays to be a beautiful person proper. Not only are the beautiful people aggressive on the road they are very loud too. Everyone has a relationship to discuss at the top of their voice as they walk along the street. Usually with someone on the other end of a cell phone.
Hollywood is cold and wet, but there are the classic sights: Graumann's Chinese theatre and its pavement stars, Universal Studios (Jaws and the set for Desperate Housewives), The Sister Act church, the sign on the hills behind and a tour of Hollywood Houses, with a commentary on who is supposed to live where.
The LA galleries are well worth the time - there are heaps of them. One of the most notable is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), in the Miracle Mile vicinity of Los Angeles. LACMA is on Museum Row, adjacent to the La Brea Tar Pits (George C. Page Museum). It's the biggest museum in the western USA. Up the coast, the Getty Museum. It's collection grew so big that it had to be split into two campuses. ]The Getty Center is located in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles and features pre-twentieth-century European paintings, drawings, illuminated manuscripts, sculpture, decorative arts, and photographs. The original Getty museum, the Getty Villa, is located in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles and displays art from Ancient Greece, Rome, and Etruria. this is the one with with its over the top architecture and incredible views
And I acquire a taste for appletinis.
Not the best day. We decide to drive a hundred miles south to San Diego, nearly on the Mexican border, but everyone else seems to have the same idea. And there are a lot of people in California. The traffic is so ghastly on the freeway that we eventually give up a little short of our destination and spend the afternoon on the beach at La Jolla. Apparently there are road works, and a ball game and some horse racing all going on. The beach is just as crowded as the road, but entertaining. There are giant seagulls (what else?). They have the beach well under control. We watch one fly down and poop on the guy picnicking in front of us. The guy screeches and runs into the sea to wash. And the seagull swoops in and snatches his sandwich. Very funny.
Another meandering day. We wander north up the coast on an aptly named scenic highway that perches precariously above the ocean and then flattens out through the vineyards. Tina has finally realised what 'PED XING' painted on the road means. We hang out with the stars again, this time in Malibu, eating brunch at the mountain racquet club and trying to work out who lives where. There are basketball games on Venice Beach. The teams are a motley crew, but if the announcer is to be believed the players are all famous movie stars or ex Globetrotters. It's a good rah-rah atmosphere.
The clouds linger over the peaks, as they have all the time we have been here, and, come to think of it, every time I have visited LA. We are sitting on the beach as it's our last day, but we're shivering. We get tantalising glimpses of blue sky and scenic views. That really sums California up. It's beautiful and extreme, promises much and doesn't always deliver. When there is a prize on offer you get knocked over in the scrimmage. But I'm sad that my Route 66 excursion has finished. It has been a great trip. Now I'm off to the airport. Part II of the adventure is about to commence. The Cook Islands next.
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