Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Chattanooga Choo-Choo, won't you choo-choo me home...

So. Here we are. Day…the last. So what to do before we began our trek down that winding mountain path to North Wilkesboro?

We awoke early and I threw open the curtains to find….a fog bank of Stephen King proportions. Little pink suckers should have been flying into the glass and latching on with voracious gaping maws. Luckily, there were only the spatters of raindrops. Now, I've heard there's a mountain in Chattanooga that you should see. It is the stuff of legend. Heck, we even drove past a big sign declaring its existence and pointing the way. But I never saw a mountain. Just a curvy road around it and wall of fog. Three days. Three strikes. It's the mountain's loss, I say. It missed the opportunity to take my money and steal my heart. I pouted through breakfast.

Then I got over it. I've got mercurial moods, ya know?? Ton says I'm moody. But English isn't his native tongue and he is easily misunderstood. And mercurial just sounds better.

ANNNNNNNYWAY, I know you're dying of curiosity…what did Nicole do on her last day??? The art museum?? Nope. Only had a couple of hours and Ton drags his feet in an art museum. I couldn't have seen but a smidgen of the collection.

It's Tennessee, people. I had to ride a freakin' train, didn’t I??? You betcha!! *Winks*

We opted to go to the Tennessee Valley Railroad and take their Missionary Ridge Run. It's about an hour long trip, including the time spent at the railroad museum, and they give you a brief history of the area as you travel along Missionary Ridge.


It was fun and the conductor was fantastic—once again he was a volunteer with a real passion for his job.


At the endpoint of the line, they of course had to turn the train. They led everyone out to the turntable and explained the entire process.



Then we were taken to the "garage" area where they restore the old steam engines to their former glory. This one had been a long labor of love and was almost ready to return to service.


They have this sign hanging in their shop to remind them that no task is impossible. I don't know about that, but I admire the attitude.


Then it was back on the train and back to the station. On the return trip we were STUPID. (Notice when it's something smart, I did it. And if it's stupid it's we??? ) We chose to ride in the open air car because, get this, it's not really OPEN. It's enclosed but there's no heat. WTF. Why don't they say the UNHEATED car, the car that will make your teeth chatter because it's March and it's freakin' raining and cold??? We knew the "open air" car was not heated. But we also assumed that meant it was, ya know open to the air. Ugh. At least there were no screaming children or obnoxious teenagers fighting with their parents on the return trip. Just a bunch of frozen, blue lipped people. It was sort of like the end of the Titanic, without the icebergs and floating bodies.

But I digress. We arrived back at the little station and looked around for a bit.


As you can see, there wasn't much to look at. It was just delaying the inevitable. The journey home.

We made it as far as Bristol, Tennessee before I demanded food! That's not true. We had stopped at a McDonald's to steal wi-fi and pick out a restaurant nearer to home. I had packed enough snacks to get us through most of the journey (homemade currant buns, Nigella Lawson's Chocolate Granola and some veggie chips) but it's tradition we have one last hurrah before arriving home. We figured we would land in Bristol, so I hit up Urbanspoon and found The Mad Greek. Ton and I both adore Greek food. And this place has awesome Greek food. Best choice I could have possibly made!!! w00t!

We started out with an appetizer of tzatziki and warm fresh pita bread. I would have gladly made that into a meal!


But y'all know I didn't stop. I ordered the Greek Chicken ( Grilled chicken, topped with sun-dried tomatoes, sauted onions, feta and black olives).


Ton opted for a Stromboli. I believe it was the White Stromboli with basil pesto, mozzarella, feta, and tomatoes. But what was in it isn't as important as the size. It was HUGE. Hanging off the plate huge. And it was a SMALL. Who could eat a large one???


After that, I had to have my last dessert for awhile. That's when the waitress pointed out the dessert case. Row after row of cheesecakes, chocolate cakes, baklava, greek pastries…it was overwhelming. And all delicious, I'm sure. I believe I opted for the chocolate mousse torte, but I honestly don't remember. I didn't take pictures of it!! I know I wavered over the Greek pastries but decided against it. I adore baklava but it can be too sweet for me after a meal. And yes, I know that sounds weird. I should have bought some to bring back. They would have been awesome with some espresso. Ah, well. Maybe next time.

But while making my dessert selection I noticed something else. They sell that delicious feta by the pound. It's made in house and they sell it to anyone—I could take it home!! And I did!! To the tune of $5 a pound!!! Cheap!!!! This excitement is probably why I don't remember my dessert choice.

Then the heavens opened and choirs sang when Ton reported there was ANOTHER case around the corner with more Greek delicacies like Dolmadakia (aka Dolmas, I believe). I can only tell you this: I wish I lived in Bristol just because of the food I could buy from those cases. Forget the restaurant; I want that kind of deli in my town. Unfortunately, we don't and we had to go home. But this restaurant put Bristol on the map for me. I'm out of feta and that's excuse enough to drive there. It's just that GOOD. Next time I'm just going to order a bottle of wine, all the appetizers on the menu, followed by coffee and pastry. And a nice lump of feta, to go.

So, that was it, the climatic end of the rails for our own Chattanooga Choo-choo. Chattanooga was fun, it was rainy, but we didn't get snow like they did in North Wilkesboro. And all that rain is giving me a reason to go back. I have to find that damned Mountain. I'm sure it's there somewhere.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

When you hear the whistle blowin' eight to the bar...

When last we left our intrepid travelers, they were headed back to the hotel with no plan in mind for the next day.

Well, that's not exactly true. Our plan was to head to Lookout Mountain. Or maybe back to the Bluff View District to peruse the galleries and the Hunter Museum. Or MAYBE we would go to the aquarium. We're just that sort of wild and crazy, travel by the seat of your pants kind of people. We're rebels, people. REBELS. Fear us!!!

As it so happened, Mother Nature made our decision for us. We couldn't even SEE Lookout Mountain. And it was raining. I wasn't perusing anything from under my umbrella, and I didn't relish wet feet. The aquarium remained. And what an aquarium it is!! So beautifully designed. Perfectly laid out. Staffed with friendly people,most of whom are volunteers. How great is that!? And did I take my nice camera??? Nope. I took my little point and shoot. So bear with me, because the photos aren't up to snuff.

When you walk into the aquarium, you're funneled onto an escalator that takes you to the top floor, an open jungle of tangled foliage and humidity. We were greeted by their talking parrots, who were too busy grooming each other to say more than a litany of "Hello! Hello! Hello!" But they were still very sweet.

And then it was on to the "touch and learn" tanks. Rays! I love rays! I was a big girl, a brave girl. I could face the animal that killed Steve Irwin and survive. Okay, okay it was a tank of tiny rays, but I did touch them. While Ton talked with one of the many volunteers we encountered that day. They were getting along famously and talking of Amsterdam.


But perhaps the highlight of the aquarium is the butterfly center. I have NO idea why they have a butterfly house in an aquarium but they do. And it is GORGEOUS.



This is the time I really started kicking myself for not wanting to carry the camera around. SRSLY.

Anyway, after being checked for "hitchhikers" we left the butterfly house and rambled down level after level of beautiful tanks and mysterious sea creatures. The layout is such that the walkways spiral around a huge center tank where they house the major tropical fish—sharks, giant rays, as well as a coral reef with anemones, clowns, triggers and the like. It's dark, cool and lovely.


Housed in a second building is the freshwater and smaller saltwater fishes and reef creatures. Once again it's the same spiral pattern with the corridors featuring different exhibits about American river life, ecology and as I said, fresh and salt water creatures. Including my favorites: seahorses, seadragons and jellyfish!



They had really cool jellies that I hadn't seen before—bottom feeding upside down jellies!

And I have to include this photo because it's very indicative of the jellyfish area. It was very cold in there and very very dark. Dark to the point of being spooky. I suppose they were being atmospheric but it felt like Scully and Mulder should burst through the doors and save me from an attacking alien, or Frankenstein-esque monster.


But there was no sign of Cancer Man or Mulder and Scully. So we left the aquarium and found partly cloudy skies and warm weather. We picked up the DSLR from the car and headed up the hill to the Bluff View Arts District.

Remember the bakery I mentioned yesterday?? Well here it is. They make all the bread for the hotel, for the restaurant, as well as the pastries for the restaurant and coffeshop.


It's my dream come true. I wonder if I could throw the woman out and take over without anyone noticing??

Directly across from the bakery is the sculpture garden I was mentioning. The sculptures are for sale, but until they're sold they're enjoyed by everyone in a publicly maintained park.







But Icarus had to be my favorite of all!!


Ton was rather fond of this one. As was I.

Just past this "Garden", up a small hill and around a corner actually, is the Hunter Museum. They also have a lot of sculptures outdoors! Can you STAND to see more???

Ah, I knew you could! I won't make you beg. I'm a kind and benevolent mistress!

This was my favorite. It's so happy! So free! And it reminded me of a certain Dutch boy and myself. We're cute, offbeat, quirky, dancing fools. Too bad we don't have bags of money to dance on. But, eh. You can't have everything.


The other really intriguing statue was the skeletal horse, entitled "Boreal" by Deborah Butterfield.

Looks like weathered wood, right?? Nope. It's bronze with patina. Gorgeousness.


Following this little jaunt through sculpture, we noticed it was getting late. Too late to go into the museum. Oh, well! Did that get us down??? Nope!! We took a stroll over the Tennessee River Walk, a pedestrian bridge that spans the Tennessee River and wandered through Coolidge Park. (Where I have to insert a note to say they have a FREAKING AWESOME carousel there!!!) At the start of the riverwalk is this happy guy, greeting you, paw offered in friendly greeting. Awwwwwww, he's so sweet!!


I don't know if the scarf was an artist choice or a later, passing addition. But that pup knew how to work that scarf, baby!!

While walking through Coolidge Park, we notice the Delta Queen. It's a riverboat hotel. Ton had wanted to stay there but I balked. Ya see, I don't like water. Water likes to drown people. It has a mind of its own and it doesn't obey my every command. That's an issue. But anyway, Ton wanted to see the Delta Queen. And when he wants something, he goes for it. He walks up the gangplank to the hotel and wanders in, telling the concierge (okay, blonde woman behind the desk who wasn't busy doing anything) that she has a lovely hotel. Tells her we made a mistake and booked the wrong hotel instead of this beautiful old boat. He smiles at her, he is Mr. Unassuming. She is charmed (must be the accent. Or his bald spot temporarily blinded her judgment) . She encourages us to wander through the boat and look at everything. And we do. Rooms are tiny but beautiful. The boat is charming in a quaint, old-world way. I would even bite the bullet and stay next time. We tell Ms. Ultra-Nice Lady that as we leave.

We decide to take in an IMAX production back at the aquarium as it's on the way to the car. Our choices were "THe Ultimate Wave-Tahiti" or something about the Space Shuttle mission to repair the Hubble Telescope. REmember what I said about water?? Yeah. NOT watching an Imax where they are going to visually submerge me. The only other time I watched one of those type things on Imax I spent the whole hour gasping for breath. Who needs that. I like space. I like stars and planets. I like going fast and I LOVE flying. So, shuttle mission won! Whee!!

By now it's getting late and I'm starting to get hungry after all that flight time. Time for the NEXT place on my must eat in Chattanooga list, The Terminal Brewhouse. Which has the added benefit of being next door to the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, the rail station that was turned into a hotel.

But first, on the way back to the car we passed this pub. If you look carefully, you'll see they had a sign that says, "Hippies Use Backdoor". This made me smile.

Terminal Brewhouse. I've got mixed feelings about it. It's young, it's funky, and it's a bar.

The food is good but not amazing. The beer? Is pretty damned good and this is from a girl who doesn't like beer all that much. I went with the suggested pairing of a Belgian White Beer (called The White Shadow. Does anyone remember that show?? ) with The FruFru—a grilled chicken breast marinated in brown ale, topped with sliced pears, bacon and brie cheese.

The sandwich looked better than it tasted, the pears and brie were lovely but the chicken lacked flavor. It did pair nicely with the beer, though. For dessert it was cheesecake again. (Notice a theme in my desserts?? ) It was their seasonal dessert and I honestly don't remember what kind of cheesecake it was. I believe it was toffee with some sort of beer mixed in, but don't quote me on that!! Whatever it was, it was delicious.

The inside of the Brewhouse is lovely and I'm not at all upset we went. I didn't like our seating, side-by-side at a bar area upstairs, with a large group wedged behind us. But it was a particularly busy night and it's all they had available. The building is beautifully done, with a very open layout.



I think that it would be a great place to go with friends and have a few beers and some snacks. But not a great place for a casual dinner.

As I said earlier, next door is the famous Chattanooga Choo-Choo.

Once again, Ton pushed right in to look around. There was no one at the desk, and the restaurant was not very busy so it must not be very good ( I can't say, but at that time of night, it's sad to see a place that empty). The building is just impressive. They've kept the features from when it was a Terminal Station and worked with the art deco theme that I love so much. We wandered into the bar and it felt like a movie set. In hindsight, I wish I had sat down at the bar and had a drink. It's what Rita Hayworth would have done.

Instead we headed back to the hotel for the night. The next day would bring an end to our trip. And I still hadn't seen Lookout Mountain! Maybe the skies would clear! Maybe angels would sing as I gazed over seven, yes count them SEVEN states!! Will it happen, won't it happen…it was up to fate. And we all know how fickle she can be.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Whoo whoo Chattanooga there you are!!

Well, it’s been a month since our latest adventure and I have yet to update. Let’s fix that, shall we?? Ton and I decided (you have my permission to read that as NICOLE decided), to take a trip to Chattanooga. Home of the Chattanooga Choo-Choo! Home of Lookout Mountain!!! Home of the Tennessee Aquarium!! Home of the Chickamauga Battlefield!! Home of the…well…LOTS of other things!!!
We drove out on Sunday, arriving in Chattanooga at a respectable 1:00pm and decided to head for the most depressing spot we could think of…a Civil War Battlefield where thousands of men lost their lives! What better way to spend a gray, chilly Sunday afternoon?? We stopped in the visitor’s center, watched the video (don’t bother. SRSLY) and spoke with the ranger on duty (bother. Ask question. Listen to this guy. He knows STUFF. Important stuff). I asked about walking trails and was informed that the park is over five thousand acres criss-crossed with trails but it had rained so hard the day before that we shouldn’t venture far from the pavement. Now, everyone reading this has a pretty good idea of how my mind works. I scoff at things like that. A little bit of rain was not going to deter me from my red-hot date with a genuine Civil War ghost! No sirree Bob. Ton and I set off on our drive around the park. The place is so huge that it takes 45 minutes to drive the entire route. We stopped at marker number one because I saw monument in the woods that I wanted to see!
You see, not long after the Civil War, the families of the regiments who fought in the area, Union and Confederate, gathered together and agreed to honor their dead with memorial statues of where each regiment fought and died. All through the forest, monument after monument! I wanted to see them. All of them. We were walking and damned be he that said we shouldn’t because of “a lot of rain”. So, we walked.
Pretty, see?
And we walked.
And then we came to the BIGGEST freakin’ bog I’ve ever seen. Water was ankle deep off the pathway, and the path itself was muddy. The place was a MOSH pit. Okay, the Park Ranger was right. (Found out later they had indeed had “a lot of rain”, to the tune of four inches in twelve hours). We walked back to the car and our drove around the park.
We did venture out at Wilder Tower to climb to the top of the eighty-five foot tall structure, dedicated to Col. John T. Wilder and his men. Looks forbidding, no??
I had my doubts. The sky was darkening and the stairs were a tight spiral and not well-lit by the narrow windows.
But Ton had a flashlight, so I agreed. I probably wouldn't kill myself. After all, the stairs weren't any worse than the ankle breakers I had encountered in Holland. Up, up, up the stairs…
IMG_8252 (Okay, so this is a view from top, looking DOWN. Shoot me.)

To a great view of Chickamauga.
See the standing water among the trees??? Told ya it was a mosh pit!

I’m PRETTY sure that these marks were made by aliens. Or they’re junior crop circles made by teenage aliens who are getting their crop circle license.

Then there was a sign, very near Wilder Tower, that made Ton laugh. It was just an empty field marked with a sign on the site where the Union general Rosecrans had taken over a home and made his headquarters. He insisted I take a photo. Ton, not Rosencrans. He wasn't there anymore. I don't think Widow Glenn was very accomodating.


On the way back to the parking lot near Wilder Tower, we found a beautiful old tree, a little bit twisted, and clearly all alone. I can relate to that. I'm gnarly, I'm twisted and people tend to avoid me like I've got root rot. I've been called many things in my life, not all of them kind. But now, you can add tree hugger to the list.

Luckily for me, Ton is just as weird as I am.

As much as I like that tree, it was a cold, wet tree and it didn't make lovin' fun. Onward, we went to our last stop at Chickamauga, an old cabin that had served as a hospital.

If there was a ghostly presence, sure this would be the place to find it. I had been joking all along about ghosts, not ever having heard of a famous ghost story of the area, but I finally admitted to Ton, I simply didn’t feel any presence at all. It was a peaceful, beautiful place where very horrible things happened. But nothing scary remained. Later, of course, I found out it is one of the most haunted battlefields in North America. Goes to show you, I have NO psychic abilities. None. Zilch. Zippo. Nada. So don’t expect me to come to your house and give you a reading. Unless you want me to read dust bunnies or the latest issue of Us Magazine.

You probably don’t want Ton to do it, either. Come to your house, I mean. Would you really trust a man in your house who stands by a cannon and does this?
No?? Me neither.

Since we couldn’t find ghosts and we were reaching maximum history saturation, as well as maximum sock saturation (Let's state again because I believe in overkill, it was wet. VERY wet) we decided to venture into Chattanooga proper. We hopped back in the car, drove across Missionary Ridge and into downtown.

I knew I wanted to go to the Bluff View Arts District, so we headed their first. It’s very near the Hunter Museum and, of course, a few restaurants. That's right. I had an ulterior motive. I was starving. AND I had done my foodie homework and knew we should eat at Tony's Pasta Shop and Trattoria. Of course, I got my way.

The meal started with bread, made at the bakery in the same area. A decent white loaf that was tender with a light crumb and a nice chewier cibatta studded with garlic cloves. The oil wasn't great quality but it was fruity enough.

After that, Ton ordered a pasta salad (he stuck to his diet!).

While I had the Baked Pesto Chicken Ravioli, rosemary chicken ravioli and pesto cream sauce topped with mozzarella. It was FANTASTIC and went very well with the clean Sauvignon Blanc I ordered.

Clearly my diet was out the window. So I went for dessert, too. Bailey's Cheesecake. It was fantastic but after eating so little all day, the wine was hitting me too hard for me to remember to take a picture of it!!!!

We had to walk all that dinner off, of course, and opted to walk around the neighborhood and through a sculpture garden that looked out over the Tennessee River. It was gorgeous and I vowed to come back the next day to truly appreciate the art. But the city lights were pretty nice, all by themselves.

We also walked to the Hunter Museum, which was closed (you know that though because DUH Sunday night) but still had gorgeous outdoor sculptures to enjoy.

Ton was quite taken with the little structure with the brightly lit top(I call it the nuclear thingamabob). It was really cool, with little brass statues worked into the lattice. There were brass bells, artichokes, and other random things. You can't really see it well, but we tried to capture it.

And that, my friends, is a thoroughly detailed report of our first day in Chattnooga. The next day held more fun—a trip to the Tennessee Aquarium and another great meal. Oh, and a glimpse of that elusive choo-choo

If you want even more photos of Chickmauga (Chicka-make-a-move-a as I like to call it), you can view them on Flickr.