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Alabama

Downtown_Mobile_SkylineFor a while Alabama was the last of the lower 48 states which I hadn’t visited. But finally, in the spring of 2016 , I managed to tick it off the list.

I entered the state from the Florida Panhandle, crossing the state boundary near the small town of Florala which is located near to Britton Hill, the highest point in Florida. It is a barely 105 metres high and you can actually drive to the top of it. Well, “the top” is a bit of an exaggeration as it is a low hill really, with a car park beside. Still, the highest point it is so I couldn’t resist the temptation to see it. Anyway, Alabama now.

First I headed straight to the state capital, Montgomery. It is a rather small place, without much of a buzz or excitement, but it is an interesting place for a history buff like myself. I started my visit, like in many other state capitals, by touring the state capitol. Completed in 1851 the capitol building also served temporarily as the Confederate Capitol; in 1861 when Montgomery was capital of the Confederate Sates of America. In fact the Confederacy was born in the senate chamber, where the delegates from the southern states voted to establish it. Alabama_State_Capitol

It is a gracious Greek Revival structure located on a prominent hill and, like most of the state capitols, it is topped by an impressive dome. It is a strikingly white structure and there are plenty of impressive columns (Greek Revival style is named as such for a reason).

Alabama_muralsThe exterior and the interior of the building are generally less elaborate that in some other state capitols (like for example one of my favourites, the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City) but there are some interesting details nonetheless. Namely the murals at the base of the dome’s interior, which depict events from the history of Alabama. They were created in the 1920s and bear visible Art Deco influences. There are also multiple coats of arms indicating that the Alabama territory was, at some stage, governed by Spain, France, Britain and the United States. Probably the finest feature of the building is the twin cantilevered spiral stairways that reach up to the third floor.

Next to the capitol building is located the First White House of the Confederacy which was the residence of Jefferson Davies (the Confederate president) for a few months in 1861 while Montgomery was the confederate capital. It is nowadays a quite interesting museum concentrating on the domestic life of the Davies family. There is actually very little mention of the slavery, which was at the end an underlying problem of the confederacy. A quite grand Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Memorial is also located nearby, on the state capitol grounds. It all paints a picture of slight glorification of the confederacy in parts of Montgomery. Sure the city also celebrates the civil rights movement events from the 1960s but it seems that the monuments and sites related to Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King are aimed at completely different audience.White_House_of_Confederacy

In general I had a feeling that the city tourist board has a hard job of promoting two different sets of attractions. The confederate sites to the nostalgic folks, often older, conservative and predominantly white, and the civil rights sites aimed at the African Americans and younger liberal crowd . I guess such is modern divided America.

I didn’t stay long in the Alabama’s capital as, at the the end of day, there isn’t that much to see or do there. My next destination was the city of Mobile located 170 miles the the south-west of Montgomery, on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico (in place where Alabama River flows to the Mobile Bay, to be precise). It is the third largest metropolitan area in the state and by far the largest in the southern half of it.

Coat_of_armsI wasn’t sure what to expect from the city but I knew that it was one of the oldest settlements in this part of America, founded in 1702 by Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville. The second one of them also established New Orleans, (some 16 years later) which shows how old Mobile is. In fact it was the first capital of the French colony of La Louisiane. Since then the city changed hands to the British, the Spanish and finally the Americans.

I decided to stop in one of the chain motels conveniently located right beside the city’s compact centre, which allowed me to explore all the interesting areas on foot.

First I went for a stroll around the downtown, which has more than a bit of the New Orleans’ feel. This pleasant part of the city has similar architecture to its “French cousin”, with the characteristic wrought iron balconies and verandas. It is all of course on a much smaller scale here than in the Big Easy but on the other hand Mobile is much less touristy and you don’t have to fight with boozy crowds on every corner. The main entertainment area, with quite a few bars and restaurants, is located around the Dauphin Street, Bienville Square and Cathedral Plaza. I really enjoyed this part of town but I actually decided to spend the evening in an Irish bar which I found online and which was located a short walk from the downtown. On the way there I passed some quiet streets illuminated by the gas lighting which, together with the historic architecture, created a great ambient for an evening walk. The pub itself, called The Callaghan Irish Social Club, was established in 1946. Only in America would you boast age like this for a pub, but it was nonetheless a fun place to have a few pints.Downtown_Mobile

The next day started badly. It was raining heavily from the early hours. Which was really annoying as I really wanted to grab my camera and explore some of the historic areas which I had visited the previous evening on my way to the bar. Finally the sky cleared somehow and I left my motel room.

De_Tonti_Square_DistrictFirst I decided to explore the De Tonti Square Historic District. This nine-block area is roughly bounded by Adams, St. Anthony, Claiborne, and Conception Streets and it contains some fine examples of the townhouses built between 1840 and 1860. Big trees covered with Spanish moss, empty streets and the cloudy grey sky completed the district’s haunted vibe. I took tons of pictures before heading to Fort Conde which is a reconstruction, at 4/5 scale, of the original 1720s French Fort Condé at the original site. Actually only the third of the original fort was reconstructed and it is located just above the entrance to the tunnels which carry Interstate 10 under the Mobile River so you can hear the constant noise of the traffic. Still the interior offers an interesting exposition on the history of the fort and the city.Fort_Conde_1

While I was in the fort it started raining again. In fact it was pouring as the tropical storm was just reaching Mobile. I was stuck in the fort for about an hour until a slightly less heavy rain allowed me to get back to my car. I really didn’t want to leave Mobile yet so I decide to drive to the Church Street East Historic District and to the Oakleigh Garden Historic District. These are the areas which I have explored the previous evening, when I was on my way to the The Callaghan. Like the De Tonti Square they are also listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are full of historic architecture (mostly from the 19th century but with some fine buildings from the early 20th too). Lush vegetation only added to the amazing character of the place. Historic_Mobile_4

Unfortunately by this time the heavens really opened. All I could do was to drive slowly around, avoiding all the puddles which were getting bigger and deeper with every minute, as the potholed streets in this part of the city filled with huge amounts of water falling from the leaden clouds. I only managed to take a few pictures from the car which is pity as this part of Mobile looked so photogenic, even on a rainy day (or maybe especially on a rainy day).Historic_Mobile_8

After checking weather forecasts I realised that I have to leave Mobile and head east. And fast. The heavy rains, caused by an unusual for March weather system, triggered massive floods in east Texas and in Louisiana and the system was just reaching Alabama. The last thing I needed was to be stuck in some flooded areas on my holiday so I decided to drive back east towards central Florida and Cape Canaveral, which I will write about later.Historic_Mobile_6

Overall I think Mobile is a really fascinating place with a lot to offer. Especially for those who are interested in historic architecture of the American South. I would have spent more time there if not for the weather as it was great to just walk around the city’s historic neighbourhoods with a camera.

Who knows, I might be back, but in the meantime I strongly recommend it to anyone looking for an interesting southern city which is not as dominated by tourism as the likes of New Orleans, Charleston or Savannah.

Alabama definitely deserves a visit.Historic_Mobile_1

15 Years of my American Adventure

kissimmeeEarlier this year I flew to Florida, almost exactly 15 years after my fist visit to the US, which also began in the Sunshine State. What then started as an unexpected summer job in Walt Disney World (after friend asked me to accompany her for the interview) developed into a lifelong passion for America.

This year I chose Florida as my destination because it was the cheapest place to fly which was also close to Alabama. And Alabama was the last of the lower 48 states which I haven’t visited yet.

I mean we drove across its panhandle, all those years ago on our way from Florida to California, but it doesn’t really count as we didn’t stop there at all.

Alabama happened to be more interesting that I expected and deserve its own chapter (especially the fascinating city of Mobile) so here let me write more generally about being back in Florida all those years after my Disney job.

Often when I mention this episode of my life people react with rolling their eyes and the looks of pity. But there is no reason for that as it was one of the best summers I have ever experienced. The weather was great, we lived in a huge campus full of young people from all around the world working for Disney, we had our own swimming pool, free access to all the amusement parks and the job wasn’t really too hard. And don’t let me even get started about the parties. Yes, summer 2001 was definitely an awesome time for me. Ever since then I have a soft spot for Orlando. orlando-eye

Which is weird because I normally hate places like that. Full of kitsch, driven by tourism and naked commercialism. That’s why I don’t go to the Mediterranean resorts. And to be honest I would probably never go to Orlando if I didn’t get that summer job in Disney.

So, why do I go back?

Well, like most relationships, it is complicated. First, I have a friend who still lives in Orlando. One of our group at university, (four of us went to work there together) never went back to Poland and still lives in Orlando. It is always nice to meet and catch up with the old times. This year we decided to meet for a dinner in Disney Springs. It is a family friendly shopping, dining and entertainment area close to all the major Disney parks which is open to general public free of charge. All those years ago it was called Downtown Disney and Pleasure Island and as soon as I entered it I got a strong feeling of a deja vu. The smell, the noise, the crowds, it all immediately felt familiar. Normally it would be quintessence of all I hate when travelling but somehow I loved every moment of that evening. I really didn’t realise how much my experience in Disney made a lasting imprint in my head. It is probably due to fact that it was my first experience of America and a place where my fascination with that continent germinated.

disney-springsOn top of that, all those 15 years ago we had some proper fun out there. Back then Disney was trying to expand towards the older clientele (by older I mean not kids) so the Pleasure Island was an area full of bars and night clubs. I still remember the weekly staff nights when, as Disney employees, we had free access to all the establishments and discount on drinks in some of them. Nowadays most of the nightclubs are gone and young revellers are replaced by ever growing crowds of families. Still, I didn’t stop me from wandering aimlessly late into the night, long after my friend and her kids drove home. I only had one night in Orlando so I guess I wanted to use every moment of it to immerse myself in the past.

After a night in a cheap motel in Kissimmee (town south of Orlando full of budget hotels, dated shopping malls and ever more kitschy tourist attractions, including place where you can shoot machine guns) I drove back to Orlando and went to see the campus where we all used to live in 2001. It was weird. Chatham Square is a gated community and without employee pass one cannot enter it. So I parked just outside the gate and just stared at it. I looked at the bus stop where all those years ago every day we were boarding buses taking us to work all over the Walt Disney World. I have to say that it might be one of the most bizarre bus stops in the world as many of Disney staff are already wearing their costumes while waiting for a bus. I must be getting old because I felt strangely sentimental.machine-guns

In the afternoon I drove a bit around Orlando, did some shopping and briefly met my friend again at her house. But it was clearly time to move and go to some more interesting places which I didn’t manage to visit previously, namely the Kennedy Space Center often also called Cape Canaveral.

So how was Orlando all those year after my first visit?

Strange. On one hand Orlando metropolitan area grew significantly in recent years. In fact its population grew over 11% between 2010 and 2015 alone, making it one of the fastest growing places in the US. On the other hand it felt smaller than I remembered it. It was probably due to two factors. Back in the days I had to use public transport to get around. Disney buses to get to work and city transit to go anywhere else. It was painfully slow way of travelling. This time I could zoom around in my convertible Ford Mustang. Also, most places do feel bigger during the first visit.

Now, normally I end my chapters strongly recommending visit to a particular place. With Orlando it is a bit difficult. Unless someone is a huge fan of Disney, amusement parks and thrill rides (which there are some awesome examples in Disney World, Universal and SeaWorld) it is a hard place to recommend wholeheartedly. But on a personal level I had a great time there, recalling all the memories.

I will probably be back, just not too soon.disney

Alberta

Entering_AlbertaOur last year’s North American trip started and ended in the Canadian province of Alberta. I have already written a bit about the stunning Canadian Rockies so here let’s elaborate a bit more about the much less known rest of the province.

After landing in Edmonton we drove straight to Jasper in the Rockies without paying much attention to the surroundings, partly due to miserable weather on that day. But on the way back we had a bit more time to explore.

We entered Alberta driving from Montana via the Caraway border crossing. It is one of the quieter crossings I have ever used between Canada and the US (or anywhere else for that matter). Its few small buildings are visible from miles away when you approach it on the dead straight and empty highway. On the American side there was a sign directing us straight to the Canadian customs where two officers waved us through after one or two questions, a bit surprised seeing two British passports instead of yet another local farmer or rancher. We were the only car crossing at the time. In either direction.

It was a glorious sunny afternoon and the vast blue sky was dotted with only a few specks of white cloud. Perfect weather to admire the open landscapes of the Canadian prairies. The Rocky Mountains were just about visible on the western horizon but we drove across a gently undulating prairie landscape, with very few trees indeed. This is the bread basket of Canada and one of the world’s most important wheat growing regions. Fields stretched for miles in every direction and massive grain trucks were thundering along the empty highways. It all felt a bit like somewhere in Kansas or Nebraska, a quintessentially American landscape.Alberta_landscape

But if I had to compare Alberta to any of the US states it would undoubtedly be Texas. They actually cover a similar area (more than twice the size of British Isles each), but it wouldn’t be the most important similarity. It is more about the feel of the place. Both territories are booming and their economies, dominated by the oil and other resource industries, are driving big population increases. But the similarities go even deeper. It is about the people’s attitudes. Nowhere else in Canada have I seen more national flags proudly displayed than in Alberta. There are visible on many farms in the countryside and on many buildings in the cities. Albertans seem to be as proud waving their flags as the Texans are. And they also love their huge pick-up trucks as much as their spiritual brothers in Texas. Again, nowhere else in Canada I have seen more of them on the roads. Folks in Alberta also seem to drive the biggest and flashiest trucks in Canada, even if they only use them to commute to work in the cities. Mirror image of Texas if you ask me.

After a pleasant two hour drive from the border we arrived at Calgary where we stopped for a night.

Calgary_skylineThe following day we decided to have a stroll around the city which actually really positively surprised me. Its downtown, located on the south bank of the Bow River, is a dense mix of impressive glass skyscrapers, a testimony to Alberta’s growth in the recent years. The city’s skyline is really photogenic, especially on a crisp and sunny autumn morning when a deep blue sky reflects in the glass towers and contrasts sharply with the yellow leafs of the aspen trees growing along the river. The best views and photo opportunities are from the linear park stretching along the banks of the Bow River. The park is nicely landscaped and very pleasant so we decided to walk as far east as Fort Calgary.

Well, it actually is only a replica of the original fort which was established in 1875 by the North-West Mounted Police, a precursor of the world famous Royal Canadian Mounted Police. It was established to eradicate illicit whiskey traders from the area and prepare the region for orderly settlement. This is probably the biggest difference between settling of the Canadian and the American west. In the US it was a much more spontaneous and messy process, law usually followed the settlement. In Canada the law was often already there when the first settlers arrived. Calgary_tower

Nowadays the fort’s replica provides educational opportunities for people interested in the past of the city. We didn’t enter as it was early in the morning and it wasn’t open yet. Instead we turned back west towards the downtown. The downtown itself looks stunning architecturally, as I already mentioned it offers an amazing skyline, but it wasn’t too lively on Sunday morning. In fact it was actually deserted. I didn’t mind as it was easier to photograph the architecture without crowds bumping into us. By mid day we decided to leave the city and head slowly towards Edmonton. I have to say that Calgary might not be as cool and trendy as Vancouver but it is well worth a visit.

Alberta_Badlands_ 2We decided not to drive directly to Edmonton but take a detour to the east via the Alberta badlands. It was yet another long drive across the vast, gently rolling, prairies of Alberta. Then, as we were approaching the town of Drumheller, the ground suddenly opened and the landscape become very harsh indeed. It was like moving in 5 minutes from Alberta to Arizona. Strange rock and soil formations create a really striking topography in this part of the province. There are a few viewpoints along the provincial Hwy 9 before it reaches the town and they offer great panoramas of these interesting formations.

The biggest attraction in Drumheller is the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology which hosts Canada’s largest collection of dinosaur fossils. Unfortunately we arrived on a Sunday afternoon so it was already closed. But in the town itself we could still admire the World’s Largest Dinosaur, a 26.2 metres (86 ft) high fibreglass Tyrannosaurus Rex. It is actually much larger than any real T-Rex ever was. It might be kitschy as hell but it is also absolutely awesome. Oddities like that are some of the reasons why I love travelling to Canada and the US.Dinosaur

From Drumheller we drove in a north-westerly direction towards Edmonton. It involved navigating some smaller provincial highways across yet more of the endless wheat fields.

Alberta_highwayIt was a late September and we could see many massive combine harvesters sailing through the fields. Even after the sunset the activity was still going on. These massive machines, brightly lit after dusk, made a weird sight, especially on a night of a total lunar eclipse when the moon turned a Mars-like red. Finally we stopped for a night in the town of Leduc.

The next day we were flying back to Europe from Edmonton. But as we had a few hours to spare we decided to make a quick tour of the city. We started from the Alberta Legislature Building which is located on nicely landscaped grounds on the high bank of the Saskatchewan River. It looks exactly like a dozen or so state capitols in the US. The same grand design, including a massive cupola, and tons of symbolism. We joined a tour led by an enthusiastic guide who was trying really hard to make provincial political history exciting. As much as I love this type of architecture the politics behind it are often quite boring. Still, she was funny and entertainingAlberta_Legislature and got really excited after learning that we came from London. After that she was trying really hard to find similarities between politics in Alberta and British parliamentary system. One can only admire her enthusiasm. On the legislature grounds there is also a marker pointing to a spot where Fort Edmonton was once located as well as monument commemorating Lord Strathcona who drove the last spike finishing the first transcontinental railway. Which actually made Canada a country.

After that we strolled for a while around Edmonton’s downtown. Here I have to admit that I didn’t really like it. Comparing with Calgary it was low, messy, architecturally boring and to be frank, simply quite ugly. To some degree it reminded me of the city of Katowice in my native Poland (at least as it was a few years back, it got better recently). A bit shapeless and soulless, not really worth visiting.

And on this rather underwhelming note we ended our visit to Alberta. Edmonton maybe wasn’t the most impressive city I have ever visited but I really enjoyed Calgary. I could actually see myself living there. And I really love Alberta’s countryside. From the dramatic Rockies to the vast prairies, for me it is North America at its best.Dusk_harvesting