Friday, 14 February 2014

From Austin.... to Austin

When the time came to leave Austin we headed west on the 290, loosely following a scenic drive recommended in a book we’d been given as a gift before we left, passing through some of the Texas Hill Country. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the biggest inclines and the greatest rises in altitude that we’ve encountered so far on our 3000 mile drive through Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, have all been on bridges crossing the many rivers and lakes we’ve passed by. The coastal areas of the US deep south are beautiful in many ways, but they are no blessed with exciting topography. This quickly changed as we left Austin, as the swamps and beaches of Georgia and Florida, and the river delta of Mississippi and Louisiana make way for the hilly scrub and woodland of the Hill Country.
Texas Hill Country - Taken in Pedernales Falls State Park

The scenery changes gradually as you leave Austin, but by the time we had reached our first stop at Pedernales Falls State Park, the hills are gentle but continuous and Jim had probably spent more time out of 6th gear than in all the miles completed so far. The scenery on the whole is not dramatic in the sense of the Rockies or Appalachians, but is beautiful in the same way that encourages so many Europeans to holiday in Tuscany and Umbria in preference to the Alps and Dolomites. Pedernales Fall are pretty beautiful by any benchmark, and Austinites are blessed to have such a park so close to their city. The waterfalls drop a considerable distance, however they don’t do it in a single dramatic freefall, rather they drop over a series of steps in the tilted layers of hard rock. The falls themselves are the highlight of the park, although there are some decent hikes to be had in the surrounding area.

Pedernales Falls - with Boris and Nick

For $26 we got two days in the park, and an overnight parking spot with water, electric and a waste water dump station, and got to give Boris a proper run around after a few weeks of gentle city walks. The sun came out long enough for us to enjoy dining al fresco after a period of unusually cold weather for this part of Texas.

A mercedes 1823 overland motorhome with a dining table and chairs set up on the tail gate

From Pedernales we continued west to Fredericksburg, a historic town worth a visit for anyone travelling through Texas. It has a large war museum, but for those not terribly interested in the glorification of organised killing, there remains plenty to do. The town has a German heritage, and for a state that is so unwaveringly patriotic, I was surprised at how much the town embraces its Germanic past. There are wineries producing Rieslings and Gew├╝rztraminers, microbreweries making Pilsners and Weis beers, and restaurants selling wiener schnitzels and sauerkraut. We spent a great night in Hondo’s listening to swing and country played by Harry and the Hightones, and drinking a local bourbon. The next morning we made an early start for the Enchanted Rock State Park, a park surrounding a huge lump of granite rising out of the countryside, joined by two smaller siblings.
Enchanted Rock State Park, Texas - a large granite batholith

Enchanted Rock State Park, Texas

We visited on a sunny Saturday, and the park’s proximity to Austin and San Antonio meant that by lunchtime the park was at capacity. The car park was full, the adjacent campsites were full, and the short amble from the car parks to the top of the rock had a solid stream of people; however all of the trails longer than a half a mile, and all of the campsites which required a walk from the car park were almost entirely empty. We walked up the biggest of the batholiths at about 8.30am and ate breakfast in complete solitude at the top, if we’d done it a few hours later we would have undoubtedly shared the vista with a throng of wheezing visitors. We spent the rest of the day walking the various trails around and between the rocks, and using the offices’ excellent Wi-Fi connection.

Naomi and Boris the golden retriever at Enchanted Rock State Park, Texas

 Enchanted Rock State Park, Texas

Enchanted Rock State Park, Texas
We left the park in the afternoon and spent the next 18 miles educating some other visitors to the park on the differences in power and speed between an 18 tonne European truck and the light domestic vehicles they were driving; the lesson became quite frustrating for some as we dropped down to 25mph on some of the bigger hills.

At Fredericksburg we took the 16 south west; the hills slowly fade out, giving way to flatter, fertile farmland in the floodplain on the Guadalupe river. Despite its picturesque location on the banks of the Guadalupe, Kerrville is not a picturesque town, and its historic centre is lost in the sprawl of superstores and strip malls leading away from it in all directions. Thankfully we were not in town for sightseeing, the Sunday was the Superbowl and we were in town to learn something about American football in a traditional sports bar. We struck gold with the eight ball bar on Junction Highway, Sunday is happy hour all day ($1.50 pints!), the draft beer was great (Brooklyn lager, Shiner Bock, Blue Moon, etc), free pizza was available all evening, and we met a friendly local car salesman who insisted on buying us a whiskey. We drank  five pints and two whiskeys, ate half a pizza, played pool for a couple of hours, and met some great locals, spending only $14, if only all nights out were that cheap.
Our winning streak ended as we went to leave Kerrville, we were looking forward to the most dramatic part of the drive we’d planned through the Hill Country when the parking brake problem which had started in Florida, reared its head again.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

From Nawlins to Austin

Not knowing New Orleans, we booked a few nights in a KOA campground about 12 miles out of the centre. The site provides a free shuttle bus into town and is just across the road from the Mississippi levee and the cycle path along it that runs from the centre of the city many miles out into the Louisiana countryside. The site is not far from the portion of the levee where the final scene of Easy Rider is shot, thankfully the locals have changed somewhat. As it turned out we needn’t have bothered with a paid-for site in New Orleans. A lot of people told us that the city can be dangerous, and that we shouldn’t stray far from the French Quarter, but our experience was the opposite.
We spent a few days walking as far as we could be bothered in most directions from the French Quarter, and found nothing but interesting neighbourhoods, great food, great art, and fantastic music. At no point did we feel threatened, and all neighbourhoods, rich and poor, felt welcoming. After our reservation at the KOA site was over, we moved to the east side of the Lower Garden District on Camp Street. Where we parked, we had a park on our doorstep, were a pleasant 2.5 mile walk to the French Quarter, had a choice of free wifi, and were in an area interesting in its own right for the antiques shops, cafes, and restaurants. It’s not always as easy as this to free park in a sizable city, but I’d recommend that anyone travelling as we are, drive around the garden district a little before paying $40 a night to park a $30 taxi fare from the town centre.

New Orleans is an easy city to enjoy; the central areas (The Warehouse District, The French Quarter, and Maringny) are all walking distance from each other, and all retain enough of their historic buildings to make them interesting and different. The French Quarter looks very much as it has since being rebuilt after a fire by the Spanish colonialists in the 19th century. The buildings are a mixture of grand brick two and three storey unit’s with ornate iron railings, balconies and verandas, and classic timber shotgun shacks, in various states of decoration.

We saw some great Art in New Orleans (in the Contemporary Art Centre, and in the small galleries on Royal Street), and ate some good food, but as you would expect, what make the city fantastic is the music. It is difficult to understand how much live music characterizes the city until you visit. There are wide areas, where every bar and restaurant has a live band, but what really surprised me was the awesome quality of the music, and the huge variation in musical styles. I had expected to hear (and did) washboard jazz, trad jazz, and swing, but hadn’t expected to hear bluegrass, rock’n’roll, thrash metal and even karaoke. The city lives and breathes music and makes me feel ashamed of London, where live music requires a license, venues invariably charge patrons for the experience, and musicians find it impossible to make a decent living from their skill. It’s impossible to spend an evening in New Orleans and not hear good music, but my recommendations would be for The Spotted Cat on Frenchman Street, for the traditional local jazz which takes precedence over everything else in the bar, and also for Siberia on St Claude, for the great Russian/American food (Kapusta in a burger!), and the massively varied music programme (we saw a good hardcore band).