Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Riding on the City of New Orleans

Toronto was underwater, after widespread flooding, as we prepared to set off for our train trip to New Orleans, which departs from Chicago. We rode the subway and streetcar to Billy Bishop City Centre Airport, Toronto’s great little downtown runway, for the flight to Chi-town. Enjoying the free coffee, snacks and newspapers in the lounge our Porter flight was only forty minutes late departing. A result considering we spoke to a couple headed for New York who had been delayed for two days.
We arrived at Chicago Midway, shot through customs and took the Orange Line to Quincy on the loop, $2.25 per person. A short walk a few blocks west, across the river, and we arrive at historic Union Station, where we checked our baggage at the Metropolitan Lounge. Nearby Lou Mitchell’s at 565 West Jackson Boulevard provided the diner experience for lunch, somewhat on the tourist beat but worthwhile for a treat, $31.88 for two plus tip. We then took a walk around the loop to the public library, the books-on-sale section being a shadow of its former self. At Barnes & Noble I bought “Car Guys vs Bean Counters – The battle for the Soul of American Business” by Bob Lutz, $16. (How GM nickel and dimed itself into oblivion.)
Back at Union Station we settle into the subterranean waiting room. Our Pullman host Jessica says we will be boarding at 19:20 for the scheduled 20:00 departure. Passengers are embarking for all points of the compass but I look around for fellow Pullman passengers in vain. Jessica informs us that we are the only passengers for the private railcar and that we will have our own steward (Jody) and chef (Daniel Traynor). We are shown to the Master Suite, with double bed, in the Pullman car called Pontchartrain, attached to the back of the Amtrak “City of New Orleans.”
We leave bang on time and are shortly joined at the rear of the train by Amtrak conductor Mary. On reaching 21st Street we back around on track B2 to BNSF Main 3, crossing over to Main 1, then up the St. Charles Airline to 16th Street Tower, where we join the Illinois Central tracks, now CN. Mary is a fundie when it comes to Chicago railroading, pointing out relics of B+O, CSX, Santa Fe, Grand Trunk and Rock Island as we head out of the city. Another landmark we pass is the old Pullman factory.
The Big Easy is 934 miles away so we change for dinner, smart casual, and try to get used to being waited on hand and foot. The relish tray features pickled watermelon rind, a southern speciality, in the first of four courses. I settle for gin and tonic, Chardonnay and Courvoisier to accompany the meal. No mint julep.
Day 2. Next morning I am up early enjoying the ride through the swamp into Memphis, Tennessee. Coffee about six o’clock is most welcome as I stretch my legs on the platform. We reach the state of Mississippi with its hardscrabble towns of shacks and shanties. At Jackson I photograph the Capitol building in the distance. Legend has it that the statue of Robert E. Lee atop the building was turned around on refurbishment, so that he now turns his back on the north. We roll into NOLA mid-afternoon, passing Lake Pontchartrain, and catch a cab to our hotel at the Country Inn and Suites on Magazine Street. Comfy and quiet in a rustic older building. We crash out.
Day 3. Next morning we set off to walk the two blocks to the French Quarter bright and early before the heat of the day takes hold. We read the papers at Community Coffee at St. Philip and Royal. We look round the French Market but to our chagrin there are no streetcars running on the Riverside section. We stop by the National Parks tourist information where they have interactive screens showing films about New Orleans music.
We lunch at Pierre Maspero’s, 440 Chartres Street. A greeter lady was handing out menus on the street but shrimp and grits were not on the menu. After some haggling we secured this superb creamy southern delicacy at $17 a plate. I said: “this should be your signature dish!” I sample the Abita Amber craft beer.
We ride the Canal Street streetcar to Cemeteries, where the above ground graveyards are to be found. Day pass $3. After time out we ride the St. Charles streetcar in the rush hour which then short turns. Back at the hotel they are making a movie outside which involves mardi gras scenes. We scoop up the necklaces thrown by the actors from their faux floats. We have a sandwich supper from CVS.
Day 4. We take the Riverside walk, past Harrah’s Casino, to the Hilton Hotel to get some cash. I score a free newspaper. Back on the streetcar (Red then Green) we short turn once more on St Charles due to construction. We backtrack to Rite Aid, where Goldenberg’s peanut chews from Philadelphia are on sale at $1 a throw, water 50 cents. Our Rite-Aid discount card is earning its keep. We cross the street to Fresh Market, a supermarket in an old mansion and former funeral home, $5.25 for two coffees plus two delicious pastries sitting on the verandah. Deal!
We leave the streetcar at Lee Circle and walk to the Civil War Museum, $8 per person, recommended. We then walk back to the hotel where they directed us to Mother’s for lunch. This is a popular spot with down home cooking that involves queuing in the hot sun. We sample Seafood Gumbo and Red Beans and Rice. In the evening we walk to Mulate’s, for Cajun food and music, $65.22 plus tip. (Both these are tourist eateries outside the French Quarter.) We share crabmeat stuffed with mushrooms followed by blackened catfish. I sample the Pontchartrain Pilsner, $4.99 a bottle. The Cajun band Le TouchĂ© are performing and folk of all ages get up and dance. Good service.
Day 5. A rare occurrence for us, we take an organized bus tour to the sugar plantations of Oak Alley and Laura’s, situated on the Mississippi river in the direction of Baton Rouge. As the bus pulls into Oak Alley I spot a hummingbird feeding on a bush. I later spot some more. To my surprise not even the resident tour guide has seen them.
At Laura’s the Creole tour guide laments the influence of the Anglo-southerners – the abolition of the Code Noir before the Civil War (which allegedly provided a route out of slavery for those that desired it most, and is ignored in the history books) and official hostility to the French language in modern times. He stated that the original meaning of Creole was that you were born in Louisiana, spoke French, and were Roman Catholic. It had no racial connotation. He also criticized the abolition of slavery by the Yankees, which provided little or no relief for the slaves on the plantations. Things are never quite the way they seem.
We took a walk down Bourbon Street on Saturday night, (also Bastille Day week-end) at six o’clock. It is bedlam! There are too many guys in bras and mostly second rate rock music. What will it be like by midnight after too many hand-grenade cocktails? We retreated to the hotel and consoled ourselves with Abita beer and pizza at the bar. Earlier we were listening to WWOZ (dubya-dubya-oh-zee) in the Ten-Cent-Store.
Day 6. We hike a couple of blocks with our luggage to Canal Street. We take the recently opened UPT/Loyola streetcar to Union Passenger Terminal, which doubles as the Greyhound bus stop. The 1954-built concourse is splendid with a large pillarless area. Could this be one of the last passenger stations from the golden era to be built in the United States? A lady passenger, headed for the west coast via Chicago, is lamenting the loss of service on Jacksonville-Tallahassee-New Orleans, formerly part of the Sunset Limited route. We lodge our luggage with Amtrak and walk to St. Charles for coffee. We note the old streetcar tracks on Howard which, but for a short gap, connect Lee Circle to the train station. There are proposals to reinstate this section.
Joining the train at UPT we are held up by a snafu by the Amtrak crew whereby they passed a red signal in the yard and have to be stood down (in the UK known as a SPAD - signal passed at danger). I drink some Pinot Grigio in the Club Car to compensate, while we wait for another crew. We are joined in our two-car consist (Chebanse sleeping car, Adirondack Club car) by two couples, one from Illinois, one from Detroit. Champagne is flowing for an anniversary at dinner in the diner.
Day 7. We roll onto Chicago, after making a stop at Kankakee, arriving about 90 minutes late. We never did catch back the time lost at the start despite rolling at eighty plus m.p.h. on some sections. We hike across the Chicago River and find a taxi that is pointing in our direction, thereby avoiding a detour. We check in early at the Silversmith Hotel, at Wabash/Madison stop on the Loop, (our second choice as the Palmer House was fully booked). We head for the architecture boat tour on foot. Despite my dislike of tour boats this is a splendid trip. Annette buys me a beer to calm me down. The man at the microphone was both lighthearted and informative, the facts coming thick and fast, while not talking down to the audience. Outstanding. Late lunch at Corner Bakery CafĂ©, 360 North Michigan Ave. Free lemonade with coupons handed out on street. Then late supper al fresco on a warm night at Pizano’s Pizza and Pasta, round the corner from our hotel on Madison. Giant portions of pasta - Pasta Primavera: $14.95; Pasta A “La” Dino: $16.95.
Day 8. Up early for 07:00 breakfast at the Silversmith. Room charge $249, comfy but a bit spendy plus $40.84 room tax, ouch. Disappointing Continental breakfast in nice surroundings, free newspapers. I was trying hard not to end on a bum note! The Orange Line is right outside and we reach Midway airport in short order (unlikely that a taxi would be any quicker). The little Porter plane takes us home.
Would I go back to New Orleans? You betcha!

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