Thursday, March 20, 2014

An International Get-way Vacation

Earlier this month, my wife and I took a quick ‘international’ get-way vacation. We savored the delights of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, India, Ireland and Spain – and did it all in less than 30 hours!

We left St Louis mid-morning on Ash Wednesday and drove southwards on I-55 towards Memphis - but soon veered off on to more rural roads and headed into the historic town of Ste. Genevieve, near the banks of the Mississippi River. The original village had been settled around 1735 by French Canadians who farmed the rich alluvial soils and garnered salt and lead from nearby creeks and mines. It came under Spanish rule in 1762 after the French and Indian War and was affected by disastrous flooding in 1785 that caused its inhabitants to relocate to higher ground two miles north. It is the oldest permanent European settlement in Missouri.

We parked in front of the Museum, crossed the snowy street and peeked into the Church of Ste. Genevieve (built in 1759, named for the 5th century patroness of Paris) - unusual theses days for a church to be left open - but it was Ash Wednesday after all.

We left the beautiful church and walked a block or so where we had a simple lunch of grilled cheese and a fish sandwich in the nearby Old Brick House

After a few miles drive we were crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois at Chester. The town, built in by Samuel Smith in 1829, was given its name by his wife, Jane Thomas – a native of Chester in the north of England. At the Welcome Center, we stopped to pay homage to a more recent mariner than those who first sailed across the ‘big pond’ and up the Mississippi River and St Lawrence sea-way centuries ago. That mariner, the 1929 creation of Chester-born Elzie Crisler Segar, is the affable Popeye!

Leaving behind that all-American character, we headed northwards passing the remnants of Fort Kaskaskia, raised in 1759 by French settlers from the nearby village of Kaskaskia which had been founded by Jesuit missionaries in 1703. The large area east of the Mississippi River, known as Illinois Country, was ceded by the French to Great Britain in 1763. In this area is the early 18th century French settlement of Prairie du Rocher (1722) and the nearby Fort de Chartres (1718). In Prairie du Rocher, the American Legion Post has an interesting outside exhibit of German artillery from World War I – somewhat poignant to see this given that its centennial is just a three months from now.

                                        A 1913 Howitzer with a range of  9,296 yards

                         A 5-ton 15 cm (Krupp) Field Gun and Barrel Carrier - range 23,700 yards 

Following Illinois Highway 3 (the Great River Road), we traversed into an area of Southern Illinois that ‘morphs’ from a French colonial heritage to one of more recent (Victorian-era) settlements by German immigrants. It was into this area that we had elected to spend the night (B&B-style) at a refurbished old inn in the tiny town of Maeystown.

Once a bustling community, with its own mill, it is now a sleepy backwater with virtually no retail establishments and no visible signs of motion - aside from the melt-water of recent snow as is dribbled down the interesting roadside gutters outside the inn.

Our ‘home’ for the night, the Corner George Inn, has a 40’ by 25’ former dance-hall as its second-floor breakfast room, complete with a 14’-long dining table, period furniture (including a phonograph, organ, piano), wallpaper and a well-stocked bookcase. The Inn’s curious name was derived . . .  well, see here:

After dumping our bags, settling in for a brief rest and a quick look around, we headed out for dinner - northwards about 45 miles and figuratively almost half-way around the globe!  Our destination was the town of Swansea – bearing the name of my hometown in Wales. Though I have never found anyone there who can (with authority) tell the reason for this Illinois town’s name, I suspect it may be ‘connected’ because there once were small coalmines nearby. I couldn’t resist - though on afterthought, at great risk- getting this souvenir photo from right outside the police station:

Though the town’s name only took us about 85 degrees of longitude to the east – the venue for our evening meal was a further 90 degrees east - India’s Oven. An order of potato-and-pea samosas and a vegetable biryani dish was ‘kosher’ for the day’s observances. A night-cap of a German-style lager (Kraftig) back in the warmth of our room at the Corner George and we were soon sound asleep – in Victorian (and German) Maeystown, Illinois – after a day of globe-trotting.

Though Victorian in its furniture and decor, the inn had modern facilities, including an ‘en-suite’ bathroom with a claw-foot bath tub – so the chamber pot (aka 'the guzunder' or 'the po') served us only in a decorative function!

Arising at our customary 6:00 am, we ascended to the second floor dining room, poured ourselves coffee and perused the many historic and folklore books at hand whilst awaiting our breakfast of fresh fruits, Scotch-egg and pastries at 8:30 am.

Bidding our hostess ‘auf-weidersein’, we headed off via country roads to explore some local sites in an area that though now very sparsely populated, bears the markings of once populous farming communities. The first is but a dot on the map: Madonnaville. Its sole church is ‘doomed’ to be closed by summer, but its cemetery contains the evidence of several hundred former residents of the area.

Not 10 miles away, in Tipton, is another Catholic church – St Patrick’s, founded in 1850 – also with a couple of hundred interred souls – many bearing Irish surnames, such as Walsh, Kelley, McDermott, and Reagan.

Then, we first headed south to the small town of Red Bud, looked in at a couple of ‘craft shops’ before heading back north on Hwy 156 to the somewhat oddly ‘Bonaparte, Wellington and Belgian monument–free’ town of Waterloo
Again, you’ll note the strong French and German history of the place. It was the latter nationality that was to be our luncheon focus following a brief look around the large Rural King Store that contains a host of hardware, farming, and camping items – and a few (liquid-free) horse-troughs full of baby chicks. Our destination was just 4 miles west, on Highway 156 to a dot on the map, Foster’s Pond, and the fabulous (but most un-German-like named) Alte Dreamland Palace German Restaurant. Its ‘lighter side’ menu is light on the wallet, but more than adequate on the food content. With an ‘eat-as-much-as-you-want’ soup and salad bar, bread-rolls and choice of traditional German entrees – all for less than $10 each – you could not possibly beat that with a stick! The staff is extremely friendly and the building’s décor – full of beer steins and many antiquities – is a bonus to a very gratifying lunch or dinner stop.

We ate our fill (Danke and Bitter!) then headed off on the back-roads down into the Mississippi flood plain before joining up with I-255 and crossing ‘Ole Man River’ back into Missouri via the ‘JB Bridge’ (named after the nearby JeffersonBarracks National Cemetery and out via I-270 and I-64 back to our home some 35 miles to the west.

A great 2-day ‘international-flavored’ trip – and no passports were needed.  

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