There is a particular look people give you when you say you’ve just got off a train across the United States. It’s a look of bafflement, surprise and general disbelief that such a thing exists.
And yet there we were, in New Orleans, having completed a 25 hour train journey from the capital of the most powerful country in the world to the city known as the Big Easy.
Our journey took us from the political heartland of Washington DC and the civil war battlefields of Virginia, down to the music-filled streets of New Orleans and back up to Atlanta.
The history of Washington DC is inextricably linked with its role as the political centre of the United States, and the city’s grandeur celebrates the wealth and power of a nation in much the same way that the Forum in Rome once did for the Romans.
At its heart is the two mile-long National Mall – where the imposing figure of a seated Abraham Lincoln looks east past the 555ft Washington Monument, down towards the US Capitol dome at its western edge.
It would days for even the most determined Americanophile to get around all the monuments, museums and government buildings, but no visit to Washington DC would be complete without a visit to the iconic White House, which is impressive at both day and night.
The next stop on our tour was the civil war battlegrounds of Virginia. We went to Manassas for two reasons. First of all, to see a Civil War battlefield and secondly because everything, including the local tourism board, seemed to indicate that it was impossible to get there without a car.
A little under an hour out of Washington DC by train, Manassas is everything that DC isn’t. A small town with a picture-perfect main street, whose role in history was largely defined by being at a railway junction.
Like many places in the US, public transport is limited but we found a bus that travels the length of the town to its edge – and near to Manassas National Battlefield Park. A 10-minute walk got us into the park itself.
This was the site of the First Battle of Manassas on July 21, 1861, one of the first major battles of the US Civil War and one that swept away any notion of a quick war.
Diplomats and other spectators even travelled out from Washington DC to watch the battle unfold, but were left shocked by the bloodshed. The northern Union troops saw 3,000 people killed, injured or missing, while the southern Confederate troops – and eventual ‘winners’ of this particular fight – lost 2,000.
It is hard to imagine that this now peaceful field in Virginia once saw such bloodshed. In the middle of it stands a memorial to the fallen troops, that was built by the Union troops to honour the fallen “patriots”. Over time it’s become a memorial to all that fell that day, as Americans.
And so we moved on. From Washington DC and Virginia on the Mason-Dixon line that spiritually divided the Union from the Confederacy and down into the Deep South.
Our chariot was train number 19, the daily Amtrak Crescent service that runs from New York through a dozen states to arrive in New Orleans some 30 hours later.
You can get a cabin, but we settled for coach class. It’s a lot more comfortable than you’d imagine too, with reclining seats more in the style of a first class airline cabin with pillows provided. There’s also a decent selection of food – either as a snack in the lounge car or in the dining car – and the waffles are as good as those in any American hotel.
It left DC at 6.30pm so it’s only a few hours before everyone starts dozing off. The train staff make note of where everyone is sitting, so as to wake people up at the correct stop. We saw little of the Carolinas but woke up in Georgia, approaching Atlanta.
You can literally watch the world go by but don’t need a border sign to tell you you’ve crossed into Louisiana as the landscape slowly turns to swampy bayou. In fact the final hour or so of the journey to New Orleans was possibly one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen.
The train ran over a six-mile bridge crossing Lake Pontchartrain around sunset, casting a golden glow over the water that was truly magical. It seems impossible to think that such a beautiful sight could have been a key factor behind so much devastation just a few years previously.
New Orleans, at the mouth of the mighty Mississippi River, is a real cultural melting pot of a city having been under both French and Spanish control until 1803.
Nowhere is this influence more obvious in the city’s French Quarter. With its colourful buildings and metalwork balconies, it is everything you’d expect of the Big Easy. Brass bands play on nearly every street corner.
During the day there is plenty to explore by foot with walking tours available in both the French Quarter and the distinguished Garden District – which counts a house built as a replica of Tara from the film Gone With The Wind amongst its number.
Venture slightly out of the French Quarter and into Treme to visit the fascinating, albeit slightly macabre, Backstreet Cultural Museum. Set in a former funeral parlour, the museum is run by Sylvester Francis who has dedicated himself to documenting and celebrating local black street culture.
There is an obvious sense of history in New Orleans, and you can see and feel it more than you can in most major American cities. But it is also a city scarred by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.
Hundreds of people died and tens of thousands more were displaced after their homes were washed away as water levels rose and levees gave way.
But the community is determined to pick itself up and regenerate. The Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tour covers the neighbourhood that became known to the world thanks to the devastating floods.
It is no way a disaster tour but one that aims to focus on the history and regeneration of the community, and why it matters for New Orleans.
From seeing the old cemeteries of the immigrant communities of Faubourg-Marigny, to the homes built by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, it is a fascinating way to see this part of the city and hopefully contribute to its rebirth.
But where New Orleans really comes into its own is at night. The cuisine of the Big Easy is as influenced by its history as the rest of the city and with staples such as gumbo, jambalaya and po-boys, it is a diner’s heaven regardless of budget.
The infamous and perhaps even notorious street of bars, Bourbon Street, is perhaps best avoided but around the French Quarter there is no end of restaurants, bars and live music venues. Our particular favourites were around Frenchman Street, where we were also treated to some impromptu swing dancing by a group of locals.
After a series of late nights, the 12-hour train journey back to Atlanta was most welcomed as a good excuse for a rest.
The city may initially seem like any other sprawling US metropolis – and its public transport system MARTA is decidedly limited – but its long-time reputation as Capital of the New South means there is more to see than perhaps first meets the eye.
The World of Coca-Cola is fun for all ages and culminates in a tasting room where visitors can sample fizzy drinks from around the world. Meanwhile the Inside CNN Studio Tour, situated on the other side of Centennial Olympic Park, shows people the ins and outs of TV news production in a working studio.
The city has also played an important role in US history. The Battle of Atlanta in 1864 and the city’s eventual downfall was significant turning point in the US Civil War, which ended when the Confederates surrendered the following year.
But unlike the open fields of Manassas, the once-battlefield has long been engulfed by the city.
The Historic Oakland Cemetery in east Atlanta was the site of the Confederate commander’s headquarters and was vastly expanded to bury the soldier dead. Many illustrious Atlanta citizens were also buried here including Margaret Mitchell, whose novel Gone With The Wind remains one of the most famous fictional accounts of the Civil War. Pick up a guide from the Visitors Centre and give yourself a couple of hours to go around it all.
For a more detailed, albeit slightly unconventional, account of the siege go to the Atlanta Cyclorama, near the zoo. Finished in 1886, the 42ft tall and 358ft in circumference oil painting was commissioned to capture the main events of July 22, 1864. You are guided around the painting with an audio description and then by a guide. Unconventional yes, but very entertaining and a major feat considering when it was painted.
Though no visit to Atlanta is complete without paying your respects at the Martin Luther King Jr Historic Site, where the civil rights leader now lays to rest next to his wife Coretta.
MLK grew up here in the historic neighbourhood of Sweet Auburn, where the National Parks Service has preserved his birth home and church he preached in, along with various other buildings and exhibits that tell the history of the civil rights movement.
Learning about the events of the 1950s and 60s across much of America is at times an uncomfortable one. It seemed unbelievable to me that such social injustices were so prevalent just decades ago.
But as we left the visitor’s centre, we were reminded of a statue we saw back in Washington DC.
In 2011, MLK became the only African-American to be honoured with a memorial on the National Mall, nearly 50 years after his death.
He is now commemorated forever more with others that served and fought for their country, just as those who fell on the battlefields of Virginia only a century before him.