It was the final full day of our tour across America’s Deep South with Trek America. So far, we had spent time in New Orleans, Alabama, Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains, Nashville and Memphis and today we would be travelling to the state of Mississippi to visit the city of Natchez.
I had passed through the state of Mississippi once before on a previous road trip through the Southern States of America but that day, our only stop in the state had been at a Burger King so I was looking forward to spending just a bit more time and seeing a tiny bit of what the state has to offer.
We made one stop on the way from Memphis, for lunch at a roadside cafe/green grocers store called The Tomato Place which had a range of delicious sandwiches and toasties on offer. Then it was on into the historic centre of Natchez.
Our first port of call in Natchez was at the visitor centre for Natchez National Historic Park. Here, we spoke to the park rangers and looked at the displays and exhibits to learn about the history of Natchez, completing the complimentary Junior Ranger activity booklets to earn a Junior Ranger badge each!
We had some free time in the area next, to explore, during which some of us decided to take a tour of one of the historic houses to find out more about life in Natchez during the Antebellum era.
After our tour, we spent a bit of time in the park overlooking the river before going to check in at our motel for the evening right on the Mississippi/Louisiana border.
It was the last night of our group tour so in the evening we went out to a nice restaurant by the river for a final group meal, stopping to watch the sunset over the Mississippi River after. Then it was back to the motel for a few drinks around the pool, reminiscing about our adventures over the last week.
Tomorrow, we would be heading back to New Orleans where our tour would come to an end.
After leaving Natchez early, we arrived in New Orleans late morning, stopping at a roadside bar to pick up cocktails to drink as we toured the Garden District. My sister-in-law and I had visited the area during our pre-tour stay of New Orleans just a week earlier but it was nice to have a guided tour this time. We all felt a bit strange drinking cocktails from brightly coloured plastic glasses as we strolled through the Lafayette Cemetery #1 and past the mansions lining the streets but when in New Orleans…!
Our next stop was at Louis Armstrong Park, on the edge of the city’s French Quarter. We wandered through the park looking at some of the sculptures dotted around the area.
Then it was time to say goodbye to our tour guide as we were dropped back at the gateway hotel in the French Quarter. Most of the group would be staying on in New Orleans for a few extra days but as we had stayed before the tour, we would be flying out that evening.
Before waving goodbye to our new friends, we all took a walk into the French Quarter, revisiting the French market, looking inside St Louis Cathedral and strolling along the riverside. Then, after grabbing some Pizza fries for lunch at one of the nearby bars, it was time to say our goodbyes.
We’d had an incredible time exploring America’s Deep South region. We’d seen a lot, had a lot of fun and felt we had learnt a lot along the way too.
Like with Nashville, this would not only be my second time visiting the city of Memphis, Tennessee but also my second time visiting as part of a Trek America tour.
The first time, had been pretty disastrous as far as our plans went as we had to abandon most of them when the city was hit by heavy snow. We had managed to fit in a tour of Sun Studios before the blizzard came but Graceland, the Civil Rights Museum and most of the other city museums, attractions, cafes, restaurants, shops and bars had closed. So I was looking forward to returning and hopefully, doing all the things I’d missed out on before as well as repeating some of the few things I had done – starting with a return to Sun Studios.
Over two years on from my first visit but the tour of Sun Studios hadn’t changed in the slightest – It was even the same tour guide! This didn’t make the experience any less interesting, special and even emotional. To stand in the studio where so many legendary artists, including Elvis Presley, have stood, surrounded by recording equipment and instruments that would have been used back then is a strangely moving experience for any music fan and hearing those early recordings while stood in the room where the vocals were laid down is once again sent chills down my spine – in a good way!
Following on from the tour, we went to check in at our hotel. Whereas last visit, we stayed at a motel in the heart of the city, this time were staying on the outskirts giving us easier access to Graceland the next day but meaning we couldn’t just pop back their while out in the city. So once we were all ready, we were driven back into the city centre and headed straight to Blues City Cafe on the famous Beale Street for a delicious American BBQ dinner.
The bar/restaurant/club venue was a really fun place to visit. As we awaited our food, we were entertained by an excellent blues band then after polishing off my plate of ribs and pulled pork, we were later invited on the stage during a rousing rendition of Elvis classic Suspicious Minds.
The next day, I was finally going to visit Graceland, one of the things I had been most looking forward to on my last visit to Memphis but on that occasion, it wasn’t meant to be. This time however, its gates were wide open! After some discussion, we went for one of the more basic ticket options giving us access to a self-guided tour of the house and to visit the private jet.
Tickets purchased, we queued for the shuttle bus to take us across the the house entrance and were provided with individual ipads headphones to use to interactively guide us around the property. The house was for the main part, smaller and less grand than I expected but it was interesting listening to the commentary on each room, seeing the garishly-decorated ‘Jungle Room’, hearing the stories about Elvis’ home life and paying our respects at his grave. I would have liked to see more of the pop culture side – memorabilia and costumes for example – but later found out that a lot of this had been removed from the house and put into a separate exhibition that required one of the the higher priced tickets.
After touring the house and grabbing some photos outside, we were shuttled back to the entrance complex where we grabbed lunch from one of the slightly over-priced food outlets, many of the group trying one of Elvis’ favourite Fried Peanut Butter and Banana sandwiches!
Then we walked over to see his private jet, the Lisa Marie which we were able to board and explore.
We had finished at Graceland by early afternoon and again, I wish I had bought a higher priced ticket and took the opportunity to explore more of the exhibitions on offer while I had the chance but instead, we were at a bit of a loss for how to spend the rest of the day in Memphis. One thing the whole group was interested in doing was a visit to the Peabody hotel to see the March of the Peabody Ducks – my favourite part of my previous visit to Memphis being one of the few things open! But as that wasn’t until 5pm, we still had a lot of time to kill.
After some discussion, some of the group decided on a visit to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music so our guide drove us over to it. While I was not overly keen on visiting, the museum wasn’t in the best area of the city so we only really had the option of going into the museum or waiting on the van while the rest of the group visited. Figuring it was going to be at least more interesting than the inside of a van, I decided to join some of the other group members in buying a ticket – and I’m glad I did.
I wasn’t sure I would know many of the artists the museum would cover but I was wrong and it was interesting to read and hear about the rise soul music in the US and the part Memphis played in that as well as seeing lots of related music memorabilia.
The museum didn’t take a great deal of time to go round and we still had a long time to kill before we needed to be at the Peabody so our next stop was at the National Civil Rights Museum from where we had the option of walking into the city for a while.
After taking some photos of the Lorraine Hotel, the museum’s base and site of the shooting of Martin Luther King, and reading some of the information boards outside the museum, a couple of us decided that actually we actually wanted to visit the museum and bought tickets to go in.
I found the museum to be a fascinating and humbling experience. It was informative and well laid out, chronicling the fight for civil rights in America and eventually leading us to a viewing area of the hotel room where Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated, outlining what happened that day. Included in the ticket was access to the building from where the shot was fired across the street.
We could have probably spent a lot longer reading through the information at the museum and its displays in more detail but having arranged to meet the rest of the group at a set time, we had to skim through some of it in order to see the whole museum in the time we had.
Having been picked up by the van, we were taken to the Peabody hotel in time to grab a place alongside the red carpet to watch the Peabody ducks.
Right on time, they jumped out of the fountain they’d been circling all day and began their march down the red carpet and into the elevator to return to their penthouse suite. Only in America!!
After a few hours to relax back at the hotel, it was back into the city for another night on the town. Dinner tonight was at Gus’ Chicken, a well known fried chicken diner, then we were set free on Beale Street for some bar hopping, drinks and live music.
It had been fun to return to Memphis and get the chance to see some of the places that had closed on my last visit.
Tomorrow, we would be driving to the final state on our tour of the Deep South, Mississippi where we’d be spending our final night in the city of Natchez and I was looking forward to see what the day would bring.
This would be my second time in ‘Music City’ after a stop there on a previous Trek America tour but as regular readers may know, last time, bad weather had prevented us arriving with time to do much exploring so this time I was hoping to actually get to visit one of the museums and spend a bit more time exploring the city!
The group was excited today because it was Hallowe’en and, from what we’d seen in the media, the USA celebrates Hallowe’en in a big way. We’d already seen buildings in New Orleans decked out in over-the-top decorations and revellers dressed up in all sorts of costumes wandering around Birmingham, Alabama on a Saturday night out as well as taking part in a spooky Hallowe’en themed night out at Sloss ‘Fright’ Furance that same night so we had high hopes for actual Hallowe’en night.
Many of the group had bought some kind of outfit or make-up to wear from a previous Walmart stop and, my sister-in-law being a professional face painter, was going to help us get made up for a night on the town!
A few of us in the group were fans of the TV show Nashville so we made a quick stop at The Bluebird Cafe, the famous country music venue often featured in the show. There wasn’t really a lot to see, especially as there was even a notice on the door requesting that visitors don’t peep through the windows but we at least took some photos outside it.
Then we made a lunch stop at Nashville Farmers Market. There were so many food outlets, it was difficult to decide where to grab some food from but with its food court seating area in the centre it did at least allow us all to get whatever took our fancy and meet back with our purchases rather than all having to decide on one place to all eat at.
Lunch done, we were dropped just off Broadway, Nashville’s main central street, and given a few hours of free time before reconvening to o and check in at our hostel. Some of the group decided to visit the Johnny Cash Museum, some to wander around Broadway and visit some of the live music venues while we decided to go to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
While I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a huge fan of country music, I’ve definitely become more familiar with a lot of popular country songs and artists since I started travelling in the US and there were enough exhibitions and displays relating to artists that were well known in the UK such as Shania Twain and Taylor Swift, that it made the visit worthwhile. We especially enjoyed the more interactive exhibits such as a recording booth where we sang a group version of a Taylor Swift hit!
With a bit of time still to spare after leaving the museum, we talk a walk along Broadway, browsing at some of the souvenir and gift stores and taking in the energetic atmosphere. As we wandered along, we even bumped into Country music star Kelly Pickler who I recognised from her American Idol days as she was filming for her daily chat show.
After walking along Broadway, we took a quick walk up to the Shelby Street Pedestrian bridge to get some photos of the city skyline and the Cumberland River before meeting back up with the rest of the group and going to check in at our hostel and getting ready for a Hallowe’en evening out.
We were beginning the evening at the Wild Horse Saloon, a music venue I had visited on my last visit to Nashville and had absolutely loved. Whereas my last visit had been on a weekend, it was now midweek and the venue was a lot quieter than it had been before and we were disappointed to find we were pretty much the only people there in costume, out tour guide explaining that most people would have had their costumed Hallowe’en night out at the weekend instead.
Despite the lack of customers putting a slight dampener on the atmosphere, we still had a fun time enjoying the live band playing some country music and taking part in the regular line dancing lessons while we waited for our food to be served. While I would have happily stayed and line-danced the night away, the drinks were on the dearer side so instead, we decided to move on to try some bars along Broadway. Here, the bars were a bit livelier and we hopped from one to the other including the famous Tootsies.
Not being a drinker or one for late nights, I left the rest of the group to it not long after midnight and retired to the hostel where us girls had a private en suite dorm.
The next morning, a few of us were up in time to take the short walk back into the city and grab some delicious breakfast waffles at Another Broken Egg, a cafe which our guide had recommended to us. Then it was time to climb back on the van and head for more Deep South adventures, this time at our next Tennessee destination, the city of Memphis.
I’d enjoyed my return to Nashville and was pleased that I’d had a bit more time to spend in the city this time around but there was still so much I’d like to see and do and I was definitely making plans to return soon.
Day 2 of our 8-day tour across the Deep South USA with Trek America and a pre-tour stay in New Orleans and an interesting start to the trip in Alabama, we were now driving through a corner of the state of Georgia and into Tennessee – the state where we’d actually be spending 5 of the 7 nights of our trip.
Keeping ourselves occupied on the van with a group game of Card Against Humanity and making a few stops along the way to stretch our legs (including one at a gas station in Georgia so we could all officially say we’d set foot in that state!), the time passed quickly and we were soon arriving in our first Tennessee destination of Gatlinburg.
Having not left Birmingham, Alabama until mid-afternoon, it was already dark as we pulled up to our hotel on the main Gatlinburg strip. We were given an hour to settle in before meeting in the lobby to head to dinner together.
We followed our tour guide to the Smoky Mountain Brewery for dinner where I had one of the nicest pizzas I’ve ever eaten! Some of the group sampled some of the the beers on offer and stayed on at the bar after but as we had an early start the next day, most of us headed back to the motel.
The following day would mainly be spent exploring Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As a huge fan of the American National Parks, this was the day of the trip I was most looking forward to. After a pit stop at a local supermarket to grab sandwiches for lunch and snacks and drinks for hiking, we drove the short distance from Gatlinburg to the entrance of the park, jumping out the van for the traditional photo with the park sign.
The area had experienced its first snow of the season, just a light dusting over night but enough to linger on the trees this morning. As we drove further into the park we were all agape at just how beautiful it looked – the autumn colours of the trees mixed with the glistening snow. Our guide pulled over a few times so we could take pictures but they failed to capture the beauty before us in full.
Our first main stop in the park was at Sugarlands Visitor Centre to use the facilities and pick up any maps, leaflets and souvenirs we wanted. After meeting back up at the van, our guide told us that the weather meant the road leading to the area she was planning to take us hiking in was closed so we’d have to make alternative plans.
Instead, we spent well over an hour in the van driving through the park to go hiking in a different area.
The journey didn’t feel anywhere near as long as it was as we passed more stunning scenery – streams and waterfalls glistening through the trees alongside the road, endless woods showing their autumn colours and then wide open stretches of meadowland.
Once we reached our destination near the Cades Cove area of the park, we found the Abrams Falls Trailhead and followed the moderately easy, 5-mile roundtrip hiking trail alongside a river, through woods and rocky areas opening out to Abrams Falls itself – a pretty waterfall and lake.
Here, we sat for lunch, enjoying the view, scrambling over rocks in the lake and climbing up behind the waterfall before hiking back the way we came.
Being tired, what had seemed an easyish hike out, felt longer and more a chore heading back and most of the group slept on the van back to Gatlinburg afterwards!
We were back in Gatlinburg mid-afternoon and had the time to spend as we liked. Making arrangements to meet up with the rest of the group for dinner in the evening, my sister-in-law and I decided to go and explore the small mountain resort town.
As we had driven in the night before, my first impression had been that it was in a similar vein to the holiday towns of Wisconsin Dells and Branson, Missouri – a tourist trap full of souvenir shops and expensive attractions – but as we wondered down the main strip, downtown Gatlinburg endeared itself to me a lot more and seemed to have a lot more charm about it with its surrounding mountains, European mountain resort themed ‘Village Shoppes’ area and its breweries and distilleries dotted around.
Later, we met up with the rest of the group deciding on the Texas Roadhouse for dinner – my first visit to an American chain that is now one of my firm favourites! – before visiting the Ole Smoky Moonshine distillery.
Here, we took part in a Moonshine tasting session where for $5, we were provided with shots of Moonshine – various flavours and a range of strengths – to sample along with a hilarious commentary from our fast-talking host.
Many of the group bought bottles of Moonshine to take along for the rest of our tour after while the rest of us sat out in the courtyard rocking chairs enjoying a live band playing country music while we waited for them to make their purchases.
Not wanting the night to end just yet, we found ourselves in a small karaoke bar just off the strip and seemingly full of locals. I’m not sure what they made of us demonstrating our singing talents to a range of cheesy British pop hits by the likes of 5ive and Westlife. Hopefully they appreciated some of the groups’ attempts at some Dolly Parton country classics a bit more!!
Exploring Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains had been a really fun part of our trip and I was already making plans in my head to return to the area on a roadtrip I was mentally planning for the near future as there was so much more of the National Park to see. But for now, it was time for our Deep South adventure to continue and tomorrow morning we’d be leaving for Music City itself, Nashville!
Hailing from Birmingham in the UK myself, I found it quite amusing that the first stop on my tour of the Deep South would be in it’s namesake in the USA! It was the first day of our Trek America Deep South BLT tour and after completing the usual formalities at our New Orleans‘ hotel early this morning, we were hitting the road in our Trek van. As we left New Orleans and crossed the border into Mississippi (a state we’d be returning to later into our 7 days tour), we spent the time getting to know the rest of the guys in our group and sharing our excitement for our trip.
After making a few stops along the way for comfort breaks, giving us the chance to pick up a few snacks for the journey from the gas station then, later, lunch from a Walmart, we arrived in the state of Alabama, pulling over on the roadside to grab a photo with one of the famous ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ welcome signs.
Once in the city of Birmingham, we were dropped Kelly Ingram Park opposite the Civil Rights Institute and historic 16th Street Baptist Church and containing a range of civil rights monuments.
Given the choice of free time to explore the are or of visiting the Civil Rights Institute, we all chose the latter. The museum was a sobering but interesting experience, taking us through the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement including the Jim Crow laws and the protests and demonstrations of ’50s and ’60s America through a range of informative exhibitions and displays.
After spending a few hours exploring the museum, we were taken to check in at our motel before heading into the city for dinner. Our guide recommended Paramount Bar to us and we were happy to go along with her suggestion, especially once we got inside to find a collection of retro arcade machines filling the rooms! After taking it in turns playing Pac-Man and on the old pinball machines, we sat down to order off the bar menu of basket meals – burgers, sandwiches and the like all at reasonable prices. My burger was delicious and my sister-in-law’s grilled cheese was one of the biggest sandwiches I had ever seen!
Full up, we left the bar to head to our final destination of the evening, Sloss Furnaces.
Sloss Furnaces is actually a National Historic Landmark but every October, it is transformed for Sloss Fright Furnace. The furnace is said to be haunted after the mysterious death of one of its foremans many years ago and other strange goings on since and the organisers play on this creating a walk round experience through the property. After our tour guide had briefly explained this history to us, we were asked if any of us wanted to take part in a walk around the furnace. I love things like this and immediately volunteered along with the 4 others on our tour. One dropped out minutes before we entered leaving it to just me and the 3 boys to work our way around. We moved along dark, narrow corridors as people dressed in hideous outfits and make up jumped out at us or chased us along. It was great fun and I wasn’t scared at all, honest!!
The next morning was a Sunday and we were up early to check out of our motel and go to church! We put on our Sunday best to attend a service at the historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The church is known for being the centre of a bombing attack by white supremacist groups in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s, resulting in the deaths of 4 young girls and it has since been designated a National Historic Landmark.
We were welcomed at the church by the friendly congregation and before the service began, were shown around. As our group was made up entirely of Britons, they were especially keen on showing us the beautiful stained glass window donated to the church by the people of Wales to honour the victims of the bombing.
The service itself was really uplifting and we all felt honoured to be attending and welcomed so generously. After it had finished we made the short trip back to the city centre where we called into another Alabama institution – Milo’s Hamburgers, a fast food chain that is exclusive to Alabama state. After grabbing burgers, chicken, crinkle cut fries and traditional Southern sweet tea, it was back on the van to say goodbye to Alabama and begin our journey towards Tennessee.
A couple of years ago I was ecstatic to win 2 places on Trek America’s Deep South Budget Lodging Tour (or Deep South BLT as it’s known for short). The 7 night tour would begin and end in New Orleans, taking in Birmingham, Alabama, Gatlinburg/Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee and Natchez, Mississippi along the way.
Having previously taken Trek America’s Southern BLT, I had visited New Orleans, Nashville and Memphis before so this probably wasn’t a tour I would have paid to take part in but, last time I visited Nashville and Memphis, things hadn’t exactly gone to plan (read all about it here!) thanks to the onset of wintry weather forcing us to abandon most of our plans so I was ecstatic to get a second chance to experience these cities, this time, hopefully, snow free!
Deciding to invite along my sister-in-law who had only ever been to New York and LA in the USA before, we added on a few extra days in New Orleans before the tour was to begin. Wanting her to get the most out of the experience, I borrowed heavily from my last experience of visiting the city in planning our itinerary for the 2 full days we had there.
So on day one, we walked from our hotel on the edge of the French quarter to Jackson Square where we would be meeting for a swamp tour. Last time, I had taken Dr Wagner’s Honey Island swamp tour which had been organised by our Trek leader. It was February, cold and wet and not alligator season. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the experience, I had a great time. But this time, I wanted to visit a different swamp so I booked us on a tour offered by Grayline. The weather was warm and sunny and it was, just, still alligator season.
We were taken by bus to the swamp, where we boarded our boats and headed out onto the bayou. Today, there were plenty of alligators to see as we glided through the water and past the lush, green scenery. While the commentary was sometimes difficult to hear over the conversations going on between passengers, it was still a really fun and exciting way to spend the morning.
Once back in New Orleans, we spent the afternoon exploring the French Quarter. It was Hallowe’en week and many of the buildings had been dressed up in preparation. We sampled some beignets from a local cafe and finished up with drinks on Bourbon Street.
That evening we took a ghost tour with Free Tours By Foot. This company allows you to sign up to its walking tours for free then at the end of the tour, you pay what you feel it was worth or what you can afford. On my previous visit to New Orleans I had taken a ghost tour with a company where you pay a set price up front and I have to say that of the two tours, the ‘free’ tour was much better.
The next day, we took a street car out to New Orleans’ Garden District. Rather than taking a guided tour like I had on my previous visit, this time I’d downloaded a self-guided walking tour which directed us around the area pointing out houses of interest along the way. The Garden District is a really pretty place to explore and with many celebrities living in the are, you never know who you might bump into!
That afternoon, we took another streetcar, this time, out to City Park, a large park on the edge of the city and a new experience for me. The park is home to a sculpture park which we explored before stumbling across a mini-golf course.
As it was Hallowe’en week, the course had been decorated with cobwebs and a range of spooky figures and as we played, we were regularly interrupted by witches cackling and skeleton dogs howling, livening up the game.
Back in the city, we walked towards the Mississippi River and watched the pipes play on the Natchez steamboat. We had booked an evening dinner cruise as I had enjoyed taking one on my previous visit to the the city. After enjoying the delicious buffet dinner, we sat out on the deck enjoying the sunset and city views and listening to the jazz band play.
It had been fun to return to New Orleans a few years on, revisiting some of the places I had seen before and reliving some of my previous experiences but now I was looking forward to beginning our tour of America’s Deep South, starting with a trip to Birmingham, Alabama!
Exploring Puglia, a lesser visited region of Italy
Italy is, without a doubt, my favourite European country to visit. I’ll never forget my first visit, taking a city break to Rome, my breath taken away each time I turned a corner only to be met by more beautiful buildings or ancient ruins.
Since then, I’ve been to many of the main cities and tourist destinations there – Milan, Lake Garda, Florence, Venice, Bologna, Naples and the Amalfi Coast…but when my friend moved to the country to take up a teaching position in a small town in the South, it gave me the opportunity to explore a lesser known part of this beautiful country.
My friend had moved to the town of Altamura which lies in the region of Puglia, known in English as Apulia, sitting in the ‘heel’ of Italy’s ‘boot’. To get there, I flew to Bari, the principle city of the area. Bari is mainly known for its port. It is possible to catch the ferry from here to a variety of other European countries including Greece and Croatia as well as there being a number of cruises departing from here. As the one of only 2 cities in the region with an, albeit small, international airport, it is also seen as the gateway to the stunning coastline of this part of Italy.
While I would spend time exploring the city of Bari during my visit to the region, today, after arriving early and with the rest of the day to spare, my friend was taking me to her favourite nearby seaside town, Polignana a Mare. For a small fee, I dropped my suitcase at Bari station’s left luggage and we hopped on a local train for the 50 minute ride down the coast.
Polignano a Mare
Polignano a Mare is a charming seaside town perched on a cliff overlooking the Adriatic Sea. We walked through the winding, narrow streets, visiting some of the small boutique gift shops along the way to the clifftop viewpoint offering beautiful views across the bright, blue sea. Looking back towards the town, we could see the small, white pebble beach of Cala Porto below.
After drinks at one of the many cafe bars in the town, we took a stroll down to the beach enjoying the late afternoon sunshine before walking back to the station and returning to Bari.
From Bari, it was another 90 minute train journey on the local train to Altamura where my friend had a small apartment on the outskirts of the town. The following day, she took me on a tour of the area starting with a walk through the city gates onto the ‘Corso’ – the main street running through the medieval town. Along here, lies the beautiful Altamura Cathedral dating back to the 13th century.
After looking around the cathedral, we walked through the maze of back streets leading off the Corso to a small bakery at the Santa Chiara Monastery where we bought some traditional Altamura cakes. Tette delle monache – which literally translates as “nun’s breasts”! – are soft, filled cakes.
We tried one filled with nutella and one filled with pistacchio and went to sit in the park o the edge of the city to eat them before having a further wander around the town.
Altamua is famous for its bread, so much so that it is often referred to as the ‘City of Bread’, so I couldn’t spend the day there without trying some. The bread, ‘Pane di Altamura DOP’ is baked in a ‘forno antico’ or antique oven, the oldest of which, Forno Antico Santa Chiara, dates back to 1423.
We looked inside the bakery to meet the baker and watch the bread being placed into the oven to bake before taking a seat out in the courtyard and ordering a selection of bread and cheese dishes for lunch.
That afternoon, we took a stroll to the National Archaeological Museum of Altamura. This small museum had a range of exhibits showing its collection of artefacts from the area dating back thousands of years. There was also an interesting exhibition on the ‘Man of Altamura’, the fossil of a neanderthal man found in a nearby cave.
That evening, we returned to Altamura’s Corso which was now bustling with life as the locals visited the many shops, cafes and bars lining the street or paraded up and down the street deep in conversation with their family and friends. We called into a local restaurant for a delicious pizza.
We began the next day with a ‘cornetti’ breakfast at Stile Libero, a cafe on the outskirts of town – possibly the best nutella filled pastry I had ever tasted! Then we walked the short distance to Altamura station to catch the train out to the city of Matera.
Matera is actually just across the border of Puglia, in the region of Basilicata. After a 40 minute train journey from Altamura, we arrived in the ‘new’ part of town and took the short walk down to the historic centre. The main square at the entrance to the centre was flanked by a variety of restaurants, cafes and tourist information centres all of which we initially bypassed to walk to the nearby viewpoint over Matera’s ‘Sassi’.
The Sassi di Matera, is made up of two districts of the city built into the caves. Once known for its poverty and slums, the area has been regenerated over the last few decades with Unesco declaring it a World Heritage site in 1993.
The first view of the ‘Sassi’ is absolutely breath-taking. Before going to explore further, we signed up for a tour of Matera’s Underground. We booked the tour at one of the tourist information booths in the square and had only a short wait until the next English-speaking tour. The tour was quite short and once down in Matera’s underground, there wasn’t a lot to see but it was interesting to hear about how the city overcame difficulties in supplying water to its residents and seeing parts of the system used.
After dinner at a cafe bar in the main centre, I took a walking tour of the Sassi. This was a great way to see the area and learn about its past. As part of the tour we visited a ‘casa grotta’ reconstruction to see a cave dwelling which had been set up as it would have been when it was once lived in by large families 60 years or more ago and the tour also allowed us entry into some parts of the Sassi only accessible on a tour including an old church built into the caves.
Matera is a great place to just wander around and it is easy to lose yourself in the winding maze of streets built into the caves. There a are a variety of museums, galleries and churches to explore in the city and we visited a photography exhibition that we just happened to stumble upon as we walked through the city as well as taking a look inside the Cathedral of Saint Mary della Bruna and Saint Eustace.
We took another trip out of Altamura the next day, this time, back to the region’s capital, Bari. Bari is a charming Italian port on the Adriatic Sea and we began our visit with a stroll along the waterfront and along the old city walls stopping for drinks overlooking the sea.
The highlight of our visit to Bari was a walk around its Old Bari or Bari Vecchia with its maze of narrow streets winding past medieval buildings and opening out into busy squares and courtyards.
We visited the Basilica di San Nicola then made our way back to the main square, Piazza Mercantile where we had dinner at one of its many restaurants and grabbed an gelato for dessert.
Bari offers a great mix of the old and the modern and we made our way back to the main station along Via Sparano, the main shopping street in the newer part of the city where we found all the usual high street stores including Sephora, H&M, Zara and Pandora.
Gravina di Puglia
My final trip out from the town of Altamura was a solo trip to Gravina di Puglia. My friend was busy working and recommended I take the 10 minute train ride out to this town which, similarly to Matera, is built into a series of caves.
We’d already been one evening for dinner at one of its restaurants, Sottofondo, which randomly specialised in oven baked potatoes with a variety of fillings. We had views of the caves from the restaurant terrace and it looked like an interesting town to explore further.
Unfortunately, and unknown to me, Gravina seemed to close down on a Monday and within minutes of my arrival just before midday, everything closed its doors – churches, shops, restaurants, cafes and museums, all closed!
Despite this shutdown, I was still able to happily spend a few hours just wandering around, seeing the Cathedral from the outside, wandering around the narrow maze of streets and enjoying beautiful views of the cliffs and caves surrounding the area.
On my way back to the station, I took a detour across the viaduct at the entrance to the town which spans Gravina creek and leads to the ancient remains of the Madonna della Stella church. From here there were also amazing views of the town of Gravina built into the cliffs opposite.
It was a shame I had inadvertently visited this historic town at a time when many of its attractions were closed but it had still been worth a visit.
While the region of Puglia and its ancient towns and cities don’t get the publicity that major cities like Rome and Milan or regions such as Tuscany and Amalfi get, I’d definitely recommend visiting the region and exploring its less touristy and very much authentically Italian towns.
How I made the most of my visits despite the weather
Brisbane, the largest city in Queensland and sandwiched between the Sunshine coast to the north and the Gold Coast to the south, famously receives an average of almost 300 days of sunshine a year. Yet typically, on both of my visits, one in early Autumn and one at the height of the Australian summer, I got to experience some of those 60 rare overcast, rainy days instead!
The weather can really impact how I end up feeling about a place. I think the reason I don’t look back too fondly on my visit to Toronto, Canada was because it mainly rained while I was there and that’s what I always think of now when I’m asked about that city and it was the same with Brisbane after my first visit.
But after my friends had visited and shared their photos of the sunshine drenched city and of themselves lazing on Streets Beach – the man made city beach and lagoon – I decided to give the city another chance and include a 2- night stop there while on a solo trip travelling down Australia’s east coast.
For most of my stay, it rained once again but I did decide I’d been too harsh on the city and rain or shine, it’s actually a great place to visit. So what is there to do in the River City?
On both of my visits to Brisbane, the first place I have headed each time has been the South Bank. A walk along the Brisbane River, with its views of the city skyline, is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. We took a ride on the Wheel of Brisbane to get a better look over the city.
Following the path along the South Bank will lead to the South Bank Parklands and the aforementioned Streets Beach. On both of my visits, it hasn’t really been the weather for staying very long but on a hot, sunny day, it would be the perfect place to relax and cool off.
On my first visit to Brisbane, we made plans to get out of the city on our 2 full days there, spending one day visiting the nearby Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary and the other taking a trip out to the Gold Coast and Springbrook Rainforest.
We organised our own visit to the koala sanctuary using a local bus to get there. We had planned on getting a boat back to the city but changed our minds when the rain started to come down pretty heavy. The sanctuary itself was definitely worth a visit with plenty of land to explore and mingle with a range of Australian critters.
No matter how many times I visit Australia, getting to hang out with kangaroos, wallabies and emus never gets old!
With a few hours to spare late afternoon, we took a walk in Brisbane city centre for some shopping before strolling back to the river, this time, the North side where the Brisbane Botanic Gardens lie.
We walked as far as a Story Bridge view point. Like Sydney Harbour Bridge, it is possible to do a guided bridge climb of Story Bridge. We stopped to see if we could see any groups climbing across then continued back towards the city, the gardens looking a bit sorry for themselves in the continuing rainfall.
For our Gold Coast and Rainforest day trip, we used a company offering small group organised tours. We were picked up by minibus from a prearranged meeting point in Brisbane city and driven out to Surfers Paradise, a city of skyscrapers, shops, clubs, bars and tourist attractions lying on a seemingly never ending stretch of a golden, sandy beach.
We were given a couple of hours of free time in the city and, as it wasn’t really the weather for spending that time lounging on the beach or swimming in the ocean, instead, I went exploring in the town and then caught the lift up to the Skypoint observation deck in one of the city’s tallest skyscrapers. The views up and down the coast from the top were stunning, especially as the weather started to clear up a bit. By the time I got down again, the sun had come out a bit so I spent the last few minutes of our visit on the beach.
After leaving Surfers Paradise, we were taken to the nearby Springbrook Rainforest. As we got there, it once again started to pour down but as we were hiking through a rainforest, this only added to the experience.
On my return trip to Brisbane a few years later, I was hoping for some sunshine, especially as I would be arriving on Australia Day and my hostel were running an afternoon rooftop BBQ.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. The BBQ was rained off so I spent the taking a walk down to the South Bank before a spot of shopping in the city.
Luckily the weather had dried up when I returned to the South Bank in time for the evening’s Australia Day firework display.
I had been hoping to spend a full day in the city taking a bike tour in the morning and hiking up to Mount Coot-Tha Summit Lookout in the afternoon. Unfortunately, when I went to book the bike tour, it turned out it wasn’t running on that particular day so instead, I took a boat down the Brisbane River to New Farm Park.
The park itself is nothing special but it was nice to take the boat along the river and once there, I took a walk along the riverside path and had a look around the old tram power station there, now interestingly converted into a theatre and art space called Brisbane Powerhouse. The park also offered good views of the Brisbane skyline in the distance.
With the rain getting heavier and heavier, I didn’t stay too long and was soon under cover back on the boat to the city.
From the South Bank, I took a umbrella covered walk into Brisbane’s trendy West End district, sheltering in a cafe while grabbing some lunch then, with no sign of the weather letting up, decided to spend the rest of the afternoon exploring some of Brisbane’s free museums.
I started with the Queensland Museum situated just off the South Bank with its exhibits on the state’s past then continued to the nearby Gallery of Modern Art, or GoMA, and Queensland Art Gallery where I found more contemporary art.
On the way back to the hostel, I took a detour past the Old Windmill, the oldest building in Brisbane. While not quite the day I had in mind, I enjoyed my dose of culture in Brisbane city and it was the perfect way to spend a rainy day in the city by myself.
The following day, I took a trip north from Brisbane to Australia Zoo. I had looked into a variety of ways of getting there without a car and decided that using the Greyhound bus service would be the most convenient. I booked a ticket that included my return travel and a ticket into the zoo and just had to be at the bus station on time in the morning then back outside the zoo at the end of the day in time for the departure back to Brisbane.
The zoo was definitely worth the visit and despite visiting alone and the overcast and often drizzly weather, I had a great day.
Despite the unfortunate weather, I definitely came away from my second trip to the city with a newfound appreciation for it. Not only is there plenty to see and do in the city itself, its a convenient gateway for trips out towards the Sunshine coast in the north and the Gold Coast in the south.
I hope to return one day and maybe this time the sun will finally shine on me in Brisbane.
As American Independence Day approaches, I thought it a good time to look back at my own experience of spending the 4th of July in the USA.
After booking a coast to coast tour of the USA finishing in Los Angeles at the very end of June, it seemed like the perfect excuse to stay a few extra days in order to experience the 4th of July celebrations in the USA. Seeing as I would be travelling alone, I wanted somewhere that would have plenty going on, preferably including a parade and fireworks.
I couldn’t find much information about things going on in Los Angeles itself other than an event at Hollywood Bowl, so I started to look elsewhere, researching the best places to spend the American holiday.
Eventually, I settled on the city of Huntington Beach, Orange County, just a couple of hours south of LA which seemed to have plenty going on over the holiday weekend.
Having decided where I wanted to spend the holiday, there were still a few hurdles to overcome. First of all, how to reach my destination without a car and secondly, where to stay seeing as even early on, hotels were either pretty booked out or had hiked prices to way out of my budget.
I would be staying at an AirBnB in Hollywood at the end of my tour, the first time I had used the service so I was unsure of how it would go but with hotel prices in Huntington Beach being so high, I decided that maybe this would be the best option, the only other affordable one really being a room at a Best Western a few miles out. In Hollywood, I would have my own private bedsit just off Hollywood Boulevard but I was struggling again to find anything similar in my price range for those dates in Huntington Beach so instead, I decided to look at people offering private rooms within their homes. After narrowing my search down, I eventually settled on staying with a retired teacher who lived in a gated community on the south edge of town, from where it was a 5-10 minute walk to the beach and a half hour walk along the board walk to the main part of the city. Having mentioned in my email that I had chosen Huntington Beach because I was looking for a traditional Fourth of July experience and had heard they had a parade and fireworks, my host told me that all the residences in the gated community held a party around the pool in the afternoon which I was welcome to attend while staying with her. An American pool party and BBQ?! – this completely sold it to me that this was the right choice of places to stay!
So with my accommodation sorted, I continued to look into transport options. While it would be less than an hour’s drive there, public transport wise, there were very few options available. Or at least, no straight forward ones as they all involved taking multiple subways and buses, not ideal when lugging a huge suitcase and bag along!
I eventually decided to get the FlyAway bus from Hollywood to LAX then a shared shuttle service straight to the door of my AirBnB accommodation, a bit pricier but worth it to save a lot of time and effort.
Everything ran according to plan and after leaving Hollywood, I arrived in Huntington Beach early afternoon on July 3rd. After meeting my AirBnB host and settling into my room, I took a walk down to the beach and into town. It was already busy and buzzing with an atmosphere of excitement.
Bikes decked out with American flags raced past along the boardwalk all honking their horns, ringing their bells and trailing red, white and blue ribbons. Crowds on the beach regularly broke out into chants of U-S-A, U-S-A, getting louder and louder as more and more people across the beach heard and joined in with them before they petered out again.
As I neared the Huntington Beach Pier, the beach got more crowded. From the Pier, I could see that a surfing competition was being held. Surfers rode the huge waves, scoreboards awarded them points, crowds cheered, TV cameras rolled. Surfing is a huge deal here, even earning Huntington Beach the nickname ‘Surf City’.
I stood and watched for a while before making my way along the pier through the crowds, taking in the atmosphere, browsing in the gift stores and stopping to take in the beautiful views along the coast.
Carrying on into town, I came across an outdoor market also set up for the Fourth of July weekend. I weaved my way around stopping to buy a corn on the cob from one of the stalls before walking away the from the beachfront to find Main Street. This is the liveliest street in Huntington Beach with its restaurants, bars and shops and it would also be the site of tomorrow’s parade.
Having checked out where I would need to head to in the morning, and after grabbing an ice cream!, I returned to the beach and began a slow walk back to my accommodation continuing to drink in the atmosphere around me.
The next day, I was greeted by my host with a ‘Happy Fourth’, the house decorated with red, white and blue decorations. After grabbing some breakfast, I headed back into town ready to watch the big parade.
Main Street was already extremely busy as everyone tried to grab a spot along the pavement. It was possible to book spaces on the bleachers for a price but as I was by myself, I figured it would be easy enough to squeeze in somewhere and sure enough, I soon found a spot right by a stone bollard to perch on when my feet became tired!
While the main parade wasn’t due to start for another 40 minutes, many of the decorated bikes I had witnessed riding back and forth along the boardwalk yesterday were now parading up and down Main Street in a pre-parade ritual. Eventually, they were cleared to make way for the main event.
As the parade began, so did the hollering and the flag waving, the patriotic cheers barely letting up as a seemingly never-ending line of marching bands, highly decorated floats and well-trained horses drifted past and getting noticeably louder at the sight of heroic firefighters and members of the armed forces. It was hard not to get caught up in the excitement and goodwill.
As the parade began to come to an end, I ducked out early to beat the crowds and go and grab brunch at the IHOP then I made my way back along the boardwalk and to my accommodation. The earlier cloud had now cleared to be replaced with glorious sunshine – perfect weather for a pool party.
Everyone was really welcoming and it was great to experience an authentic typically American 4th of July celebration complete with hot dogs, burgers and home made potato salad!
That evening, I was already planning on heading to the beach to watch the fireworks but was invited by my AirBnb host to go with her and some friends rather than watch them alone. The beach was even busier than it had been during the day with everyone continuing their parties, singing the national anthem and once again breaking out into regular chants of “U-S-A!”
When the fireworks started they were breath-taking. Probably the most spectacular- and definitely the longest – display I have ever seen and, unlike in the UK where they’re greeted with traditional ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, they were greeted with rapturous cheers and applause.
Fireworks over, we packed away our blankets, food and drinks and returned home. I still had a few days left to spend in the OC before flying back to the UK but there was no way they were going to top today. Spending a traditional Fourth of July stateside had been an amazing experience and one I would definitely recommend!
Watch my vlog of my Fourth of July USA experience here:
Back in the 80s, package holidays were a relatively new thing. When I was a child of 8, my parents managed to scrape together enough money along with making use of the ‘free child places’ schemes to take us on a 2 week holiday to Majorca, the largest of the Balearic Islands off the coast of mainland Spain. We went in early October – term time, which wouldn’t be allowed now but which I never feel affected our schooling back then and we stayed at the Cala Marcal hotel in the resort of the same name. We enjoyed our holiday there so much, we went back for 2 more holidays over the next few years – it would have been 4 except the one year, we had to move resorts at the last minute following a travel agent error.
My recollections of the holidays are a little hazy but the important bits are there. I remember being at the airport, carrying my teddy bear through security and watching it go through the x-ray machine but I don;t remember the flights themselves at all. I remember the uniquely shaped hotel, looming tall overlooking the beautiful sandy bay. I remember building sandcastles on the beach with my younger brother and playing in the sea, often jumping through like, what seemed at the time, huge waves. I remember occasionally leaving the beach, and our parents, to go to the hotel’s kids club and I remember dancing the night (or probably early evening) away at the children’s disco each night.
As well as the beach, I remembered the area around the hotel quite well as well – the apartments and shop – where we’d buy those long packets of sweets from – to the one side, a road to the other side, eventually leading to a village with a harbour, a place called Porto Colom, which we’d walk to some evenings and sit out at a bar before returning to our hotel.
We rarely left the immediate area back then. I think we hired bikes once with child seats on the back and rode around Porto Colom one day and once took a bus to Cala d’Or to see if it would be somewhere we might stay at on a future trip (it wasn’t).
These holidays stopped once I reached secondary school age. We could only ever afford to go in term time and ow my schooling became more important than a holiday abroad. After this, annual holidays became 2 or 3 week camping holiday at a UK seaside resort like Weymouth or Tenby. Then, when we were older, we returned to taking a couple of package holidays but going later in the year for Christmas, chose warmer locations of and the Canaries.
As much as we enjoyed these, when looking back at old holidays and reminiscing, we always spoke most fondly of Cala Marcal. There was always something special about it. It wasn’t a well known Majorcan resort. No one else we knew had even heard of it, never mind been there. It was a tucked away, peaceful, family resort. A place to go to get away from it all. We often talked about going back but nothing ever came of it.
Until recently. We’d had a bit of a run of bad news and a summer holiday in Wales where it had rained and rained and rained. My parents 40 year anniversary was coming up and we’d talked a few times about how nice it would be to get away. I was supply teaching at this point and not tied down to taking holidays in term time so I started looking online. One day, I got an alert through from holiday bargain specialists Holiday Pirates for an all inclusive, late September one-week stay in Majorca for under £240 a person and when I clicked through to read it, it was for the resort of Cala Marcal. It was like fate pulling us back.
Whereas we had always stayed at the Cala Marcal hotel, this time we’d be staying at the Cecile apartments around the corner. As our holiday neared, we wondered how much, if at all, the resort would have changed from how we remembered it.
We arrived late evening to torrential rain, so much rain that we were forced to move apartment rooms the next day after ours started to let in. With it being drizzly and cloudy the first morning, we took a walk to the neighbouring village of Porto Colom. As we left the apartments, we immediately remembered our way around the small resort of Cala Marcal. Very little seemed to have changed. The cove of sand sweeping back to the quiet road, behind which, the Cala Marcal hotel stood, now painted a beige colour instead of the white it once was but still just as distinctive. The beach was now filled with more regimented loungers and parasols than it used to be and there were a few more shops and bars lining either side of the bay than we remembered but not enough to spoil it.
We easily found our way to Porto Colom, following the road up and over the hill, the smell of pine cones along the way bringing back memories of many childhood walks in this direction. My memory of the village itself was hazy at best – a long road which led down to a harbour, lined with souvenir stores and bars. The main road through the village remained but there was now an open square leading off it with bars and cafes, there seemed more hotels in the area than we remembered, the harbour seemed bigger and there were more restaurants and less shops. It still kept its quiet authenticity of a Spanish fishing village though, largely unspoilt by the intervening 20 or so years.
With the sun attempting to make an appearance, we decided to walk back to our apartments in time for the included buffet lunch after which we took a stroll down to the beach. The weather cleared long enough for us to take a dip in the sea, the waves almost as huge as I remembered them from my childhood after the recent stormy weather. Unfortunately, the rain made a comeback after a couple of hours and we had to make a run for it back along the short distance to our new apartment room.
Thankfully, the rest of the week brought glorious sunshine and higher than average temperatures allowing us to have the relaxing holiday in the sun which we had hopped for. We spent our days lounging on the beach and swimming in the sea and our evenings taking a stroll into Porto Colom where we’d sit out in the square, having a drink at a cafe bar.
One evening, we managed to take a look at our old Cala Marcal hotel and found that hadn’t changed much either as we easily found our way around to its cafe bar and main family entertainment area then out into its grounds. Maybe one day in the future we can return to the area and stay there once again but for now, we were pleased with our choice of apartments.
It’s always a gamble going back to somewhere you have fond memories of as a child. Often, the place has changed to the point of being recognisable, or sometimes, it turns out it just wasn’t as great as you remember after all. Luckily, neither of these was the case for Cala Marcal. The resort was just as special as I remembered from my childhood visits and I look forward to returning again some day.