I'm not bullshitting when I say Baltimore is brilliant to get boozed up
Posted on the 17th March 2017 in the category travel

I am prone to exaggerating when slightly drunk.

So when propping up the the bar at the brilliantly named Bad Decisions (the sign just says Make Some) I was quick to say: "Fell's Point, Baltimore is the best place to drink in the whole of America."
And I meant it. And when I woke up the next day I felt it.

Baltimore's historic cobbled neighbourhood dates back to the 18th century which in American terms is like finding a cave with Neolithic paintings, with a bar. The Charm City will not be the top of any UK tourist USA bucket list, except Wire fans, but it should.
The Maryland port is close to Philadelphia, Washington and New York and is a great base for a trip to the Eastern seaboard. The city has some of the most significant historic sites in America but more importantly one the world's greatest places to get drunk - Fell's Point.
It doesn't take much imagination to imagine hard-drinking sailors from across the world stumbling from tavern to tavern and fleshpot to fleshpot in the 19th century avoiding press gangs who could ensure they woke up on th e slow boat to nowhere instead of in the arms of wench. It helps some of the bars are still standing, The Horse You Came In On says it is oldest bar in the union, I'm sure I've drunk in three others which claim the same but this one has another claim to fame. Baltimore's famous son Allan Edgar Poe was last seen in there before wandering to a mysterious death.

The Bard of Baltimore's seminal poem The Raven is immortalised by the city's double Superbowl winning team the Ravens. When I was there bars were packed with purple clad fans cheering their team on against the hated Pittsburgh Steelers, it was always going to be a good night after they won.
The regeneration of Downtown Baltimore and the Inner Harbour was kick-started by the Ravens and baseball team the Orioles (a bird not a biscuit) building stadiums. There is an indoor arena too which attracts the world's best musicians, Mary J Blige and Maxwell were performing on the Saturday night I was there and the whole of downtown seemed to be partying.
Baltimore's food scene has bucked up in recent years, the ingredients grown in Maryland are seen more on menus and street food vendors have multiplied. However, crabcakes is what Baltimore is known across the USA for. Made from Maryland Blue Crab caught from the giant Chesepeake Bay (imagine a bay as big as the UK on America's east coast). Faidley's in Lexington Market (a great place to wander round) is renowned for its crabcakes but every bar has the delicacy on the menu.
A great way to see Fell's Point is through a walking food tour (www.baltimorefoodtours.com), and not just to line one's stomach, the variety of food and history was fascinating and delayed the inevitable of the megabooze.
If walking is a bit to pedestrian for you then a cycling tour of Baltimore really reveals the city's secrets, shames and suprises during a ride through the city's diverse neighbourhoods Federal Hill, Sharp-Leadenhall, Otterbein, Pigtown, Sowebo, Union Square and Little Lithuania. Light Street Cycles (www.lightstcycles.com)was set up by Penny Troutner 26 years ago and she was a captivating and warm-hearted authority on Baltimore.
Penny told us all about Baltimore, from its pivotal part in the American War of Independence and thes US Civil War all the way up to the dignified response of the people after police shot dead an unarmed man Freddie Gray. The world saw images of a night of rioting but not the peaceful protests day after day which rich, poor, black and white marched for peace, including our guide Penny.

Historic landmarks on the tour include Carroll Park and the grounds of the Mount Clare Mansion, the B&O Museum, the Babe Ruth Museum, the home of H.L.Mecken (Baltimore's journalistic curmudgeon), and Westminster Cemetery, where lies Edgar Allen Poe and some of Baltimore’s most notable historic figures. The tour starts with M&T Bank Stadium where the Ravens play, and ends with Oriole Park at Camden Yards - an award-winning archtectural wonder with a baseball stadium seamlessly built around a historic port building.
One of the most iconic relics in America is the star spangled banner, currently taking pride of place in Washington's Smithsonian musuem, and in Baltimore you can see where the legend which spawned the national anthem started - Fort McHenry, where the bravest of the brave fought off a British Navy bombardment in 1812 as the giant flag flew above them inspiring everyone in the city and country. It was the last time the star-shaped fort would be attacked and after another 100 years it became a national monument. Wandering around the battlements really gives you a feel for the birth of a nation.
Baltimore is in Maryland which state capital is Annapolis, home of the USA Navy, and is full picturesque towns and natural beauty.
Thankfully after killing an inordinate amount of brain cells in Fell's Point, Baltimore has plenty to nourish the old grey matter. The American Visionary Art Museum, the Baltimore Museum of Industry, Maryland Science Center, Geppi’s Entertainment Museum and Ripley’s Believe it or Not, The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum are all within walking distance of each other. The Baltimore VIP Pass is the most cost-effective way to cram in  attractions.
You get more for your buck at hotels in Baltimore than nearby Philadephia, New York and Washington D.C, which makes it the perfect place to stay to visit all three. There is a good variety of hotels including the high end Monaco Baltimore Hotel, which used to be the headquarters of the giant B&O railway company, the trendy boutique Hotel Indigo, to the usual offerings of chains like Hyatt cheaper Red Roof, Oconolodges. We stayed at the Lord Baltimore and you can read my review here.
The city also is a key city in African-American history, from slavery, underground railway to civil rights. It was the first "red-line city" - sadly the disgustingly simple practice of drawing a red line on a map in 1910 to mark out black and white neigbhbourhoods was copied by other cities, leading to racial problems which still exist in America to this day. The city is still segregated, with the black 67 per cent of the 650,000 residents mostly living in the poorest neighbouroods with the worst transport links.
Tourists would of course, never have any reason to venture into those parts of the city, but the greatest television of all time - The Wire - changed that. Taxi drivers ended up giving up saying: "are you sure?" when tourists, some who must be a walking cash point to robbers, asked to see the low rises, high rises, "Hamsterdam" or some "real corners." Thankfully, most don't leave the safety of the cab. The docks featured in the second series are safer to walk around albiet a lot quieter when the bustling port made the city one of the most important in the country.
David Simon's incredible love letter to the city where he worked as a crime reporter brought all aspects of the city alive in vivid detail and my heart skipped a beat whenever I heard the instantly recognisable "woop woop" Baltimore police siren. 

But, I was struck by the humour of the people of Baltimore, black or white, young and old, whether in a bar or on the street asking for directions, a joke and a laugh were only a sentence and smile away.
Baltimore is a ballsy city and has a certain edge. The city was a power house during the industrial revolution, fell on hard times at the end of last century and is now back on the up, a bit like my home town Birmingham.
And I've been known to get raring drunk in Birmingham and exaggerate but if conservation turns to places to booze - I will proclaim again: "Fell's Point, Baltimore is the best place to drink in the world."

Fly me to the Full Moon Saloon in Country and Western's home
Posted on the 20th March 2016 in the category travel

Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder.

But hearing Crazy sung by a sozzled female singer in her twilight years with a voice so bittersweet it sounded she’d gargled with burnt butterscotch all her life meant I was smitten with The Full Moon Saloon in Nashville.

It was only 2pm on a Tuesday and seeing old men’s eyes moisten as they looked into the middle distance thinking of a long gone love as the doddering diva belted out the Patsy Cline classic means it will be a while before the Full Moon is eclipsed in my beer-goggle-eyes.

I’ve fell in and out of so many bars on Music City’s strip during my two visits it is hard to remember their names but my inner-brain-fun-rememberer-GPS-system always had me staggering back to The Full Moon Saloon. 

Perhaps it was the raven haired beauty behind the bar who had a tale to tell, made her own clothes and must have made many a man tell her he’d fell, or maybe it was the peach Old Smokey Moonshine.

Maybe it might have been the singer in the ten gazillion gallon hat playing Aston Villa’s anthem Ghostriders in the Sky, or how many times I howled with laughter in there, who knows but it encapsulated the city for me.

Nashville, Tennessee, is where Country and Western makes sense, even if you are not a fan of the white man’s blues seeing and hearing where it started will momentarily make you take leave of your musical senses.

There are more musicians in Nashville per head than almost anywhere in the world. The pizza man was a part time horn-whizz, the barman played the harmonica and the taxi driver was trying to get a gig with a band. I loved hearing all the stories people had about music, from “that fella playing pool was who Loretta Lynn was singing about” or “that woman passed out sang with Taylor Swift once”.

I got bewitched by Lynyrd Skynyrd’s piano player’s daughter and met Johnny Cash’s relative’s ex in one day. They were different people but in Nashville until you are only one conversation from hitting gold in a game of “shake the hand that shook rock royalty”.

And tourists even turn up to try and make it big, I met a German who was self-taught blue grass guitarist hoping to be snapped up by a label before his flight back to the Fatherland, I don’t think he was, but he seemed happy enough.

The famous Grand Ole Opry is now at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel outside of town, it is like how the NEC is to Birmingham, if NEC pretended it actually was Birmingham under a roof, perish the thought. The giant hotel complex is the biggest outside Las Vegas and is so big it even has its own micro-climate, it is a safe, sanitised version of Nashville. There are bars, restaurants and all you can eat buffets which could inspire your cholesterol to sing a weepy epic. Many guests don’t even make it to downtown Nashville – I once stayed there and asked how to get to the strip and was told “why would you want to go there, we have the Nashville experience here, there really is no need” and needless to say didn’t get a number for a taxi.

But if you want to watch the longest running radio show in the world – then you have to go to Opryland. Where the original show was staged is downtown – The Ryman Auditorium and it is well worth a visit for a tour or for a concert. It has the feel of a church and has perfect acoustics, which some think was fluke but none the less is one of the greatest places in the world to listen to live music.

On the tour you can stand on the stage where all the greats played including Cash, Presley, Parton, Jennings, and see the staircase where Hank Williams tumbled down during one of the many times he was banned for hell-raising. And Nashville is a place to raise hell, musicians have been drinking the place dry for over 100 years.

Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack had a reputation for partying but even he said they couldn’t lace the sozzled boots of the country and western boys like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and the rest of the firm – several of the greats, sick of the slick country Nashville was producing proclaimed themselves The Outlaws and were loved for it.

The strip is one of the best places to get sozzled in the world. A mile or so of bars, big, small, cheap and expensive, all playing live music. There are hundreds of live music venues in Nashville. There is even live music at the airport.

But downtown the dive bars open early and close late and all have singers and bands on the bill. Some start at 11am and it is fun to watch the early starters as they are either at the bottom of the ladder coming down or going up and then seeing the quality increase as the hours pass. Some of the gnarled faces on stage tell million stories before they have opened their mouth.

As well as their musical prowess the musicians have a sixth sense to get punters to put cash in their bucket. They obviously play for tips and it really isn’t the done thing to enjoy their talent and not stump up. So take a stack of $1 bills, and keep them in a designated “music pocket” because all notes look the same in America so you can pull out a note on demand.

I shouted out for Ghostriders in the Sky – and the singer Mike Oldham, consulted with his band, and demanded from stage “that’ll be a $10 song buddy” – I paid up and it was worth it. The multi-storey Rock Bottom has the roof top drinking phenomenon covered on Broadway and the nearby giant ACME is also worth visiting if dozens of craft beers and big portions of good food is your thing.

If you are a music lover then Nashville has a story around every corner, Studio B, which has Elvis’ original piano and the Country Hall of Fame are incredible, too good to mention in passing so see my previous Nashville post about its brilliance.

Nashville’s economy has rocketed in recent years and has become a powerhouse of the South. The population is rising with more than just musicians as business people are flocking to the city to take advantage of tax breaks and a booming economy.

The cavernous Music City Convention Centre which opened a couple of years ago has been a roaring success, making the city a new addition to the money-spinning conference circuit. So successful that there are not enough hotel rooms in the city to cope with it, hence prices for a hotel rooms are higher than most cities, but the two year lag is almost up and a host of giant new hotels are almost completed so supply can meet demand.

Our  demand was met on several nights at the Downtown Hostel, never one to enjoy a hostel situation I was dreading an onslaught of backpackers snoring and foreign feet but the place was pukka. Every room is named after a musician and we had The Small Faces, and Everley Brothers to ourselves.

The communal atmosphere downstairs was good fun but not having to share smells with a stranger made the stay enjoyable. Nashville has become a destination for sports fans to in recent years thanks to its NFL and NHL teams. Both the Tennessee Titans and the Nashville Predators are not that good, but they are top of most American sports fans lists for an away game.

The Titans stadium is across the river in Downtown and tickets are reasonable and available. The atmosphere is incredible, in the first half anyway, when I went the team got beaten up badly but if there is a game on when you are there it really is a perfect piece of Americana that shouldn’t be missed.

The hotdogs are fine and the constant playing of songs, and commentary through the game keeps the entertainment coming. The Predators play downtown too and the strip is full of fans who can’t get tickets to their own teams but snap up tickets to see their team in Nashville. Again the none-stop off-court entertainment make ice-hockey a great night out.

The zeitgeist is certainly with Nashville as it has what every city on the up gets – a hit TV show. Following Dallas and Miami Vice in the 1980s Nashville is a smash hit drama which has reminded millions of viewers the city is more than just an over-sized jukebox. It ensured the city has reputation for sexy inhabitants, and there are plenty of beautiful people strutting around in cowboy boots and hats.

There are frontier style shops which stock everything a cowboy or girl can want, some with walls of cowboy boots made of every animal which can be skinned from alligator to snake and cow to dog, well maybe not the last one, but I’m sure there is a man who knows a man who can get his hands on some for the right price.

The  Cumberland River snakes through the city and, like every American city with some water, there are plans for a riverside entertainment development, you can get General Jackson steam boat down to Opryland if you desire and get that feel of Huckleberry Finn whilst drinking a gin. Though the strip is brilliant it is by no means the only place in Nashville, there are some plenty of neighbourhoods which all have their own feel and no sign of annoying groups of tourists pedalling mobile bars.

And the further you get from the strip the more likely you can smoke at the bar, it was a sad in hell when tobacco (one of Tennessee’s biggest exports along with JD) was banned in Music City, God knows what Tex Williams would have made of it.

Five Points in East Nashville has a host of bars including Red Door, 3 Crow and 5 Spot and the bands which play live are a welcome alternative to the traditional stuff downtown. This is where Nashvillians come out to play and you see an ice and slice of US bar life in all its glory.

However, beware, taxis in this part of time are rarer than vegetarian country singer, sign up to Uber before you venture there. Nashville is said to have the friendliest hipsters in the USA and the beard level in the city is approaching tipping point – but the upside is a host of craft beer breweries, coffee shops and niche food outlets staffed by tattooed types aching to be ironic on a chalkboard.

The Gulch is another neighbourhood on the up. Home to the old railway depot and warehouses the place looks like it has had a lot of money thrown at it for no particular reason. There are gleaming entertainment complexes with chain restaurants and theme pubs, it could be anywhere in America but if it is safe sanatized fun then this is the place.

However, when night falls there are several clubs and even a lonely strip club doing business. We stayed at the Fairfield Inn and Suites which nicely provided ear plugs as it is next to the railroad depot. Why you would not want to hear one of the most beautiful sounds in the world – the lonesome whistle is beyond me. Hearing that unmistakable sound which you’ve heard in a million movies helps the brain know exactly where you are in the world.

Near the Gulch is one of Nashville’s hidden gems. The owner didn’t want his studio and shop to be the centre of a new up and coming area, or for the rents to rise because it was “becoming a thing” but it did anyway because of how cool he, and his one man empire is. Jack White opened Third Man Records near where the unemployed collect their food stamps and drug addicts picked up their prescriptions but still the area is now “on the up.” Jack’s shop is a reflection of him – unique and brilliant.

There are records, of course, there are his gold disks but there is also a telephone box where you can record a 45 and a juke box with dancing monkey puppets which is mesmerising. There is an argument the return of vinyl started at Third Man Records, Jack’s insistence at releasing new releases in vinyl meant it became cool again, the coolest way to listen to music and to see the special releases his label put on the market is a history lesson in itself.

The fact he bought the back catalogues of legendary bands helped too. I could have spent every penny I had in the shop if I had not been dragged out, a silicone Iphone speaker, bought, and I didn’t even have an Iphone, and the pin badges alone deserved feature written about them.

Such access to the mind and passions of the 20th Century’s last proper rock star was akin to wandering around Graceland (which is only three hours away by the way).

Third Man Records is one of those places that you need a debrief afterwards to take it all in – and the perfect place is Peg Leg Porker’s BBQ – where locals get their meat fix. Ribs, fried chicken, steaks which look they’ve only had the horns cut off are served simply – all whilst surrounded by pictures of the owner Peg Leg amid his war exploits staring back at you.

There is a good chance you will bring a part of Tennessee back with you, I did, about half a stone, but Nashville is hard to forget, especially when I look up to the night sky and remember I’m hungry like the wolf to howl again at The Full Moon.

Dipping off for wee dram in LBJ's Washington watering hole
Posted on the 9th December 2015 in the category travel

There are times on press trips when I just have to dip off. Don’t get me wrong, I never miss a beat on an itinerary, I never am late to hold people up.

But sometimes I see something which I know I have to see, after all the chance of getting that chance again could never happen. In Washington I had one of those moments. We were having dinner opposite Martin’s Tavern.

The historic Georgetown boozer where the Kennedys, LBJ and almost every other 20th Century US politician of note drank before and after making history, in fact made history in there.

I’ve still not finished LBJ’s biography but I remembered Martin’s Tavern from the passages about the great Sam Rayburn, the wiley old fox of the senate, holding hushed meetings with LBJ.

As we were on a guided tour I knew I couldn’t get the guide to stop off there so I took my chance after I gobbled my food. We were with a tour group so no-one would miss me, even the elderly woman who said: “wow, someone from the stone age!” when I said I was a print journalist.

I said I was having a fag (cigarette, id already shocked a PR saying I’d been up early looking for fags) I knew I had ten minutes tops So I belted across the road and in to Martin’s Tavern.

The place was half full and had the atmosphere of place which has hosted a thousand great nights in its 82 years. I waited at the bar with the air of an elderly alcoholic seething as someone orders coffees in a Wetherspoons.

I asked for a whiskey – which one said the barmaid – they had about 50. I looked at the menu, I could only afford the Tullamore Drew, which narked me because I can get that at any off license.

I told the bemused staff I was a journalist and was there for a brief while and was there any chance I could have the cheapest whiskey and sit where LBJ and Rayburn sat all those years ago. Better than that they said, you can sit where Nixon used to sit in the 1940s and 1950s.

Are they taking the piss I thought? Or I could sit where President Truman sat or where JFK proposed to Jackie. Again, no I wanted LBJ booth. The chubby host took me to the back room, an oak panelled affair.

And there it was – up against the back wall – The LBJ booth, and thankfully no one was there. It was the perfect place to plan dark deeds, to talk in hushed tones about destroying careers, and there was no chance of being overheard as Rayburn and LBJ discussed plans deep into the night.

I wished my pal John was with me, I’d have loved to have had a long night in deep discussion about all sorts, we had spent a few hours in Washington last year, I wish I knew about Martin’s then. I sat down and gulped my whiskey and drank in the small room. Thoughts of a political career ran through my mind, ideas of conspiracy seeped into my thoughts and I wondered about the historic deeds that had taken place in this booth.

Perhaps LBJ came here the night before he passed the Civil Rights Bill, perhaps he came up with the bastardly blackmail plots to get Southern politicians to bend to his will. Perhaps that’s where LBJ came up with the plan to slander an opponent, so the legend goes he said: “I want him to deny that he has slept with a pig.”

I suppose I better finish the four volumes of Caro’s masterpiece to find out, but whatever happens I was so glad I got to sit in Martin’s Tavern for those brief few minutes before rejoining my group – who hadn’t missed me but noticed I was rather pleased with myself.

Whistlestop travel, don’t you just love it.





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