Through busy lanes to a nice city
01.06.2016 - 05.06.2016
American Airlines Lounge, Philadelphia Airport, 15.45 EDT, Friday 3rd June
Completed: Bag End 09.44 CEST, Wednesday 8th June 2016
Firstly, many apologies if you were suddenly inundated with Emails from the Blog web site. I don´t know what happened. "It wasn't me guv". But sincere apologies anyway.
John started this Blog in the lounge at Phildalelphia airport. We had hours to wait for the flight and it was all but finished. The plan was to polish it off on the flight back to Madrid. But the promised WiFi was not available so we were unable to use the free code we were given. Anyway, we had meals to eat and sleep to get so it was probably for the best.
I have to say we can believe it. Our trek to and fro across the USA is coming to a conclusion and it will be good to get home. After quite a few different beds (all of them good with one possible exception when we were not sure about the bedding!) generally, we have both slept well. Bob just counted up. There were 22 different hotels, 23 different beds (we moved rooms in Washington) plus a couple of "beds" on two of our flights.
The last part of our tour was a little disappointing, generally, because of the traffic we found on most of the roads when we had imagined from the book description, perhaps foolishly, that we would be sailing down empty country lanes and roads. For some of the time, we were, but were soon back on the conveyor belt that describes most of the roads "back East". Washington, whilst a must see, was difficult to get to grips with. However, after a walk to the commercial centre, yesterday, away from all the tourists around the Constitutional Centre, we awarded Philadelphia a "thumbs up from us". The only other city, apart from Washington, to somewhat disappoint, was Omaha, Nebraska but that may have been the fault of the rain. Our drives, from Nebraska to Utah and Nevada, and around a sliver of Alaska were just great. We will be back but we will be looking for the wide open spaces again!
Our drive out of Amish country on Wednesday (we had to rack our brains to work out which day), took us through Mennonite country. It was clear, as we had been told, that the rules for this religious group are a little slacker than those for our Amish friends. Mennonites were riding bikes (not those dreaded scooters) and using tractors, all be it with metal, untyred wheels - the tractors, not the bikes (don't ask!). Also some of the outfits were different. We saw men wearing the same check shirts, braces and what appeared to be trilby hats. Maybe they just thought they were being trendy! Their farms went on for quite a few miles; we were able to determine if we were near a Mennonite farm as they use the same method of strip culture in the fields (crops not bare chests, please note) as the Amish do.
(I have Trump shouting in my ear from a nearby TV. OMG. What is this world coming to?). We went north to view another chocolate factory, this time a historic one, but there was a diversion and we just saw Wilbur's Chocolate factory fleetingly, then we visited 19th Century Hopewell furnace which was the hub of the Pennsylvania iron industry, another National Park, then skirted Valley Forge Historical Park, through Chadds Ford, which was busy, and into the Brandywine Valley, scene of an American defeat during the War of Independence. No National Park there!! The valley was nice with a very windy and bumpy road, cars coming at us in the other direction cutting corners, sound familiar?
We then crossed into Delaware which we had been expecting to be one big industrial wasteland, but which was beautifully green, rustic and hilly. We stopped at the brilliant Hagley Museum where there are a number of restored mills situated on Moosejaw Falls on the Brandywine River. This was where Monsieur Dupont made a fortune making blackpowder (gunpowder). He then went on to make dynamite but diversified into many other products, including rayon and nylon and, it would seem, Metropolitan cars (or parts thereof). Who remembers those in UK? For some reason I wanted one!
Then on to Wilmington, Delaware. The book, being 20 odd years old, suggested wandering the streets of this city to see its historic sights. The northern approaches were very pleasant and leafy. The city centre, where Dupont and some other concerns have their headquarters, also seemed bustling and safe but, on the way to see the Swedish Church (this started as a Swedish colony, 1638-1655) we realised we were in an area not to be walked at night. Or maybe even the day. Wilmington is listed as 5th most dangerous in the USA. Without saying anything, I think we were both relieved to get onto the Interstate (I-95) to Philadelphia. For the first time, we encountered a traffic jam but that seemed to be down to pressure of traffic
"Turn Left" barked Laurie, as we got into the city. "Turn right". We are in the left lane of a one-way system with 6 lanes and the right turn is right over t-h-e-r-e, on the other side of all that traffic. So we carry on knowing that Laurie will come up with an alternative. Too late, we're on the bottom deck of the "Ben Franklin Bridge" across the Delaware River to Camden, New Jersey, which, according to some lists, is the most dangerous city in the US. We had to turn off the bridge and even the area right by the Freeway seemed down at heel with no new shiney office blocks or condos. We were relieved to find a CASH line to pay the $5 toll to get back to Pennsylvania from dodgy old New Jersey! Camden was the home of Campbell soups (gone) and RCA (yes Caruso recorded here). To be fair, the RCA building has been converted to "luxury" apartments but we think Camden needs more than that to survive. So many of these old industrial cities are in steep decline with no apparent way out, and those residents (usually black) who cannot get out, seem, simply, to be left to rot
We then made it safely to our hotel, another Kimpton Monaco and were told on check-in that we had been upgraded to a corner room with view of the all the Constitutional Buildings left over from when Philadelphia was temporary capital for 10 years (from 1790 to 1800) whilst they had Washington built. Of course, the reason the place is overrun with schoolkids (again!) is that the American Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution were formulated and signed here. Yes, we saw the very table. Or did the National Parks warden (who gave an excellent presentation to we kids) say it was an "of the period" object? A couple of walking sticks and the main ("sun") chair are the only original items to have survived. What we had forgotten was that these were 13 separate colonies who came together to challenge George III.
So, that evening, we got a walking tour with Melissa which was a really useful introduction to this historic quarter.
Melissa promised to get us tickets for a "Constitutional Tour" the next morning. A girl of her word, she arrived next morning, clutching two tickets for the 9.15 tour. We saw a huge group of students heading for the security line. We tried to get ahead of them then realised we were all going in the wrong direction. So they outflanked us, and, instead of being first through security we had to wait for about 120 youth to go through before us.
The management of visitors to these historic buildings is an enormous operation, run by the National Park Service, of course. Up to 90 people every 15 minutes. But it was well run and we had an excellent "lecture" from a ranger telling us all about Constitutional Hall and the signing of the various documents. We then moved on to sit in the hall that became the first Congress where we had an amusing talk from a rather camp ranger about the goings on in that building. The mob was not allowed upstairs (due to weight restrictions?) but a select few of us were allowed upstairs to see where the first Senate sat.... in more comfy chairs, of course!
We then had a wander round. We had discovered a loophole in their system. No one actually checked our tickets to get into the grounds. It may have only happened that morning but it's worth a try, just bluffing your way through security! You can always plead ignorance as they cart you off to a Federal jail (eg Supermax, Florence Colorado?)!
As we wandered out, we took a spur of the moment decision to take a Duck (DUQW?) tour in one of those old amphibious vehicles. It was fun. At the Delaware River we had to swap our driver for a "captain" who had a licence to take the vessel out on water. We paddled around on the river a bit, staring at various piers than had been converted to luxury apartments for the rich and undeserving (Will Smith, and some unknown-celeb-to us's mother had another).
The commentator was a rather loud young woman who thought she could sing and tell awful jokes. She could, but did she have to do it so loudly and enthusiastically?
We pottered towards the centre, via Macy's store (previously Wanamaker's). Mr Wanamaker had had this magnificent organ installed and they were getting ready for a big concert on Saturday night. We managed to capture a snippet of its wonderful sound. Perhaps Corte Ingles could install one
We managed to find a stall by the ornate City Hall (sort of modern Baroque) selling home-made lemonade (delicious) and hot dogs (a very late breakfast).
We eventually made it to the old Reading-line railway shed now the most magnificent food market. (cf Barcelona, but bigger and better, perhaps) Many stalls offering all sorts of hot and cold food (from Philly Cheesesteaks to salads and juices) along with vegetable, cheese, meat and fish stalls. Wonderful! We had an ice cream served by a Mennonite lady. We had learned that both Amish and Mennonites set off from home at about 4.30am to set up stall in this market. Perhaps one of the several highlights of this bustling city.
Our final visit was to the extremely well presented National Museum of American Jewish History which, on four floors, told the ups and down of Jewish people who emigrated to the USA. Very good!
For both evenings here we went to Jones, a sort-of upmarket diner with reasonable size prices and portions. We went back the second time as we simply could not find anywhere nearby offering meals at a reasonable price. (The food stalls and hall closed at 5pm). We enjoyed our dinners there.
First night, Bob had a chose-it-yourself salad, selecting options on a form, (absolutely huge) and John had a very nice quiche with salad. The 2nd night, Bob had chose-it-yourself salad, selecting options on a form, (even more enormous) and John, their version of a curry shepherds pie, though made with beef (I told them they were wrong about this! Management are dealing with this knotty problem as I type).
Spot the crack! Think it must be on the other side!
On our final morning, when it was raining (gosh we've been so lucky with the weather on this trip) we had spotted an old-fashioned diner just up the street where everyone sits at the counter where we had our last US breakfast. Egg over-easy (over-medium for Bob) bacon strips or sausage links and home potatoes.
The printing of boarding passes at hotels is a frustrating business and this morning's experience was no different. After 40 minutes of cursing the printer in the "business" centre, it did, eventually, spew them forth. Then Bob had a problem locking one of the cases. On two occasions, one of our bags had been opened by the TSA. (They use a special key). We suspect they either damaged or did not "relock" the combination lock as we could not get it to lock. It has a tendency to fly open if not locked. We have taped it up and fingers crossed our underwear will not be spilling onto the carousel at Madrid airport.
We had a bit of an adventure driving to the airport through South "Philly" and into the busiest gas station we have ever seen, on the edge of the airport. Amazingly it was cheaper than any of the others we had seen. The car was returned to Hertz and the dented door reported (it happened in valet parking in Washington). And then a nice Hertz man put our bags in the back of another, 'luxury', car and drove us to the terminal (so much nicer than the dreaded shuttle bus), ready to check in very early. At least it gave us time to type up this nonsense.
We will be boarding in abut 40 minutes. This flight is on a repainted US Airways plane, so we will get the new seats which convert into a lie flat bed.
The flight was great. We had a wonderful female FA (flight attendant, keep up!) who had an very infectious laugh and great sense of humour. I have never known half a cabin laugh so much. The seat was great. We had nice food and even a reasonable sleep. Before we knew it we were being woken with breakfast just before our final descent into Madrid.
Dinner: "Starter: Flaky Tomato Tart with Grilled Artichoke Heart. Salad: Mixed Greens with Sundried Tomatoes and Shaved Parmesan" (very nice)
"Entrée: Coffee Crusted Beef Filet with Caramelized Pan Sauce, Roasted potatoes, and Sautéed Spinach". Which was excellent too, except Arthur gave his spinach to Stan, having tried to swap it for a 2nd ice cream sundae. John had raspberry tart to follow.
Our breakfast, "Fresh Fruit Bowl with Granola and Greek Yoghurt". Arthur had "Traditional American Breakfast with scrambled eggs, Canadian bacon, roasted potatoes and herbed tomato". We could not face that!
Through immigration in 2 seconds flat. Bags came off, eventually, no spillage, and we got a taxi through the fairly quiet streets of Madrid to our hotel in the Chueca district. Luckily the hotel had a room ready and we caught up on some sleep. We then wandered the new-to-us area and liked it. Lots of gays, cafes and bustle. We did a bit of a cafe crawl and returned to Pl Chueca for 2 plateaux combinados for around 8€ each. We were also getting 2 coffees for around 3.50€ so, if you shop around, Madrid must be one of the cheapest capitals in Europe.
The library at the hotel? No, the lift (aka elevator)
Our room had a balcony over the narrow streets so we got addicted to watching the world go by. Great fun.
Sunday morning saw a gentle taxi ride to Chamartin Station (much recommended rather than the nightmarish Atocha) where we were able to relax in the "Sala" or lounge before our train to Murcia. Since they stopped doing meals we were forced to buy two cokes and two dry sandwiches from the buffet for around 16€. Pretty awful really considering a 3 course meal used to be included. And we paid over 20€ for our Preferente tickets for the 4½ hour journey!!
Our loyal driver JeanH, with Anthea riding shotgun for us this time, were waiting on the platform and, after a very chaotic exit from the car park, we were home looking for Sofi before we knew it.
What a trip!
There is no doubt our lives have been enhanced by the journey this time. We have learned so much about the native Americans of the Plains and how they were treated, the pioneers and the impossible odds they faced, the Mormons, the cross dressers of Las Vegas, the geology and animal life in Alaska, but particularly there, all about the native tribes who are still there and very much in evidence. We had a magical experience with the Amish and learned about the Mennonites, we had USA history lessons in the nation's current and previous capitals. And we have had fun and eaten well. And neither of us has put on any weight! WOW! We are so grateful that we have been lucky enough to travel like this.
I kept forgetting to put on the route maps I had so carefully prepared. So, in case they're of any interest to anyone, these are the routes courtesy of AA (the automobile one) "On The Road, USA" which has often been our bible when preparing parts of our trips.
We have no idea how long before we go again. Whether it will be another two years, or more, who knows? But John has already been taking a crafty look at airfares! The worst thing is that there is no planning to do in the evenings now when Eastenders is on.
I kept meaning to write about toilet paper, as you do. Remember all those rolls in Nevada? Well, from the top hotels to the most humble motel, the paper was pretty awful. The more expensive the hotel, often, the worse the paper. It was a relief (haha) to get back to Mercadona´s bog standard (haha) paper at Bag End. At least we do something right here!
“We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.” – Anonymous
See you soon and thank you all for your support.