Category Archives: Travel

January-February 2016

2016 started well enough. We got back from my birthday road trip, and January saw both a snow-day in DC, and a trip to New Orleans.

Our trip to the ‘Big Easy’ wasn’t planned very far in advance, as it was just a case of us taking advantage of one of R’s work trips, so the whole experience had an element of surprise to it. We hadn’t realised how much warmer it would be at this time of year further south, and we hadn’t realised that Mardi Gras goes on for a number of weeks, and we hadn’t realised how much we had been missing drinking outdoors… These things combined to make us go a little crazy in New Orleans. If you have never been, I would highly recommend it. It felt like all of America had decided to go on an early spring break; people were drinking in the street from at least lunchtime, there were parades, and bands, and bars with their doors open to the balmy January air. We had at least done some research into food in New Orleans, so even though we only had two full days we managed to fit in plenty of pralines, beignets, muffuletta and po boy sandwiches, and, of course, gumbo.

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At a Mardi Gras parade in the French Quarter. Not just your typical parade, this one was the Krew of Barkus – if you look to the right of the picture you’ll see one of the themed floats.

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Nothing to see here. Just a man out for the day with his parrot.

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Relaxing by the river.

Back in DC I was pretty sociable, having established myself in a reading group and a choir and taken on some responsibility for organising social events for these. This was useful, as R was away quite a bit with work. When he was home, R and I became pretty well known in our local sports bar, where we watched pretty much all the Green Bay Packers games, and I enjoyed watching Peyton Manning and the Broncos win the Super Bowl.

Related posts:

Birthday roadtrip

Is it the end of the world? No, just snow.

 

Guest post: autumn adventures in DC and Shenandoah

I’m continuing to have flashbacks to our time in the States. This is in part thanks to technology – Facebook and Timehop have both reminded me that two years ago we visited the beautiful Shenandoah National Park in the Fall, with our friends from the UK. The National Park also keeps emailing me with photos of the fall foliage, hoping to entice me to another holiday there! Sadly, that’s not on the cards any time soon, so I thought I’d remember Shenandoah by re-reading the guest post one of our friends wrote for me after our holiday in Shenandoah, and Virginia’s Historical Triangle.

26 Months in DC

Welcome to my first ever guest-post on 18 months in DC! This was written for me by my good friend Kate (who also writes a great blog about books, over at http://bloggingaroundmybookcase.com/) about her ‘vacation’ with us last autumn.

“I’ve got friends in low places, where the whisky drowns and the beer chases my blues away” the growling refrain came up on my iTunes recently and I was immediately transported to the back of a car on Skyline Drive with four grown adults giggling uncontrollably and trying to sing along.

But that is, perhaps, getting ahead of myself.  Last autumn E and I were very excited to head to DC to visit R and A, two of our best friends, who have decamped from London to live in DC for a few years.

I was unexpectedly charmed by DC.  In its own, low-key way it is quite lovely. R&A…

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Flashback to: Austin

Two years ago we were in Austin Texas for the first time.

I’d never been to Texas and had little idea what to expect. My imaginings mainly centred around desert, ten-gallon cowboy hats, guns and other things that can kill you.

While I knew that Austin wasn’t really like the rest of Texas (it’s a pocket of Democrat blue in a Republican red state) I hadn’t been prepared for the city – tall buildings rising, glittering, into a sky shimmering with heat. Bigger than DC, its grid system sprawls for miles beyond the Capitol building in the north and the river just south of the downtown area (everything’s bigger in Texas). Unlike in DC, the grid is unfazed by geographical features, its roads making light work of the sandy creek to the west of downtown and the red river to the east. And the interregional highway cuts through the city, splitting East Austin from the rest of the city and forcing pedestrians into underpasses crowded with panhandlers.

This first time in Austin we hadn’t quite worked out the distances involved in just walking around downtown, so ended up walking miles in the baking hot sun. It was worth it though, as the city has so much to see and experience. Our longest walk was probably out west and north to Graffiti Hill. As we reached residential areas we began to doubt that we were on the right track, and then we found it – a series of graffiti walls leading up to the castle. It’s a strange place, but then Austin is famed for being ‘weird’.

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Keeping Austin Weird: experiences

Another bizarre experience was going to see the bats. The South Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin happens to have the world’s largest urban bat colony living under it (I told you – everything’s bigger in Texas). Every evening, just before sunset, all the bats stream out from under the bridge and fly out to enjoy the evening. Every evening, having checked their phones to find out when sunset will be, all the tourists crowd onto the bridge to watch. You can also watch from the river itself by hiring a kayak or similar, or from the bat observatory and the riverside.

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It was quite weird. The squeaking as they flew out from under us, the fluttering, whirring, rasping sound of their leathery little wings, but most unexpectedly, the faint smell rising from the cloud – reminiscent of rodents, but not quite the same.

Slightly less weird, but still pretty wild, is Austin’s nightlife. This centres on 6th Street, west of Congress Avenue and down to the highway. Austin is known as the ‘live music capital of the world’, and here on 6th street pretty much every bar will have some form of live music at some point in the evening. Some have a charge to get in; we decided just to hit as many of the ones without cover charges as possible, and we ended up seeing some weird bands! We also ended up in some weird places. One bar, called Nook, once we got in, turned out not to actually have a roof, so we were just drinking in the open air. Another is themed around the mythical creature, the Jacalope, and has at its heart a bucking bronco – except of course it’s a bucking Jacalope.

One of my favourite of Austin’s weird bars was on Brazos Street. Located on the ground floor of a hostel and reached through a secret door disguised as a bookcase, is a really great cocktail bar. I’m not going to tell you exactly where it is – that would spoil the fun – but if you’re ever in Austin, do go and look for it!

Food in Austin

Everywhere there’s good beer, excellent burgers and Mexican food, and good barbecue – though this is more traditionally eaten for breakfast or lunch. I wrote about our experience of Austin’s barbecue joints in my blog post on the difference between barbecue and grilling. Austin has some great outdoor barbecue places with, of course, live music. Here are the places we went to for food:

  • La barbecue – outdoor barbecue with live music and picnic tables. There’s a long wait but it’s definitely worth it. Having looked on Google I think this may have moved to East Austin now, further down Cesar Chavez street.
  • House Park Bar-B-Q – really old barbecue joint near Graffiti Hill.
  • Casino el Camino – great bar with possibly the best burgers in America
  • Chuys – a bit of a way out, on Barton Springs Road, and I know it’s a chain, but it’s probably the best Tex Mex I’ve had.

East Austin

When we visited Austin for the second time (I was at the university on a fellowship – you can read about it here) we got to explore the slightly more chilled and hipster East Austin.

East Austin is more residential, and I was staying with a local couple in an Air B&B in the lovely Swede Hill district. While the residential bit was lovely, the highway just to the west was a bit of an issue. When I arrived, my taxi drove under the highway and I was struck by the fact that I would have to negotiated this underpass on my way to the university every day. Luckily I found an overpass, just a few minutes out of my way, to the south, which gave me far easier access to the main city.

While we didn’t find such good food in east Austin, we did find some quirky places to get really good coffee. The Vintage Heart coffee shop certainly won our hearts with their great coffee and delicious doughnuts. And the Quickie Pickie grocery store had a lovely outside area where you could sit, eat and drink in the calm of the evening. A very different vibe to 6th street!

More Conventional Austin

As I mentioned, the second time we visited Austin I was there for a fellowship at the Harry Ransom Library, based at the University of Texas, Austin (hook ’em horns!)

The university is a great example of one of those big, well-funded state universities with top of the range sports facilities and one of the top college football teams, as well as enviable research facilities. One of the reasons for its financial stability is that in the early twentieth century they found oil on land that belonged to the university, and the rest is history.

As well as the Harry Ransom library, which has regular exhibitions, the university campus also houses the Lyndon B. Johnson museum, which is well worth a visit. It might be one of my favourite museums. I knew very little about LBJ before I visited, but he really did accomplish a huge amount in only one term as president. His work on equal rights should be better known over here – while Kennedy spoke about equal rights, it was Johnson that got through the legislation, and it was his experiences teaching Mexican American students in a segregated school that inspired his mission of social reform. The museum also has a life-sized, animatronic Lyndon B Johnson, which just has to be seen to be believed!

Nearby the University is the Texas State Museum, which is also very much worth your time. Before I went, I knew I should ‘remember the Alamo’, but after my visit I knew why I should remember it, and that I should probably also remember the massacre at Goliad as well.

Right now, from rainy London, where it’s struggling to remain above 20 degrees at the moment, I’ll just enjoy my memories of Austin. We had two great trips and, while I’m not sure I could live in that climate, if I ever get another chance I’ll enjoy ‘keeping it weird’ again in Austin.

 

Birthday Road Trip: Shenandoah

Before we headed home we went for a quick hike in Shenandoah. It was also my first chance to drive part of Skyline Drive, as it was the first time we’d been here since I’d learned to drive.

We had had pretty bad weather for the whole of our trip, and sadly this day was not much better. As we hiked up to a small summit, we walked into the cloud, and so there were no views to be had!

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The Summit?

Back on the road down again we emerged from the cloud and we had some nice views to end our trip. Despite the weather it had been a great few days, full of good sights and good beer – a fitting way to end 2015.

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