Memphis and Graceland

Trip Start Sep 01, 2008
Trip End Nov 19, 2008

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Flag of United States  , Tennessee
Monday, September 22, 2008

Taking us somewhat by surprise, Memphis turned out to be one of our favourite stops so far on this trip. By embracing and continuing to feed its rich musical heritage - and by re-invigorating its downtown area with cafés, shops and museums - Memphis is a city with unbeatable atmosphere. It's got soul! Macon could learn a lot from this place.

Our first stop, predictably, was Graceland and it was a sheer delight. There was every scope for Elvis' home to be turned, irreparably, into a hideous, tacky, themepark. In fact, that is what we were expecting. Deep down, we didn't hold out much hope for being impressed. And, to be fair, there were twenty or so giftshops where you could indulge your cravings for Elvis-themed memorabelia - anything from Elvis ties and Elvis leather jackets to Elvis Monopoly and Elvis Yatzee. But other than that, Graceland was fabulous. The Graceland "mansion" itself the most fabulous bit by far. To get there, you lined up for one of the shuttle buses that ferry people across the road from the welcome centre, gift shops, cafés and other exhibits. As you board the bus, you are provided with a headset for an audio tour. The bus turns out onto Elvis Presley Boulevard, crosses at the lights and makes its way through the famous gates, up the leafy drive, to Graceland's front door. The "mansion" is surprisingly modest and unassuming, particularly from the outside - hence the "quotation marks". It is a pretty, white, country home that gives nothing away about its owner at first. Inside, things are slightly different, but certainly not over the top. Each room is stunningly decorated in flamboyant colours and a good scattering of mirrors. There is a beautiful, loooooooong, ivory coloured sofa in the main lounge along with a portrait of Elvis and a picture of his parents. Behind that is a modest double bedroom, again exquisitely decorated, this time in purple, where Elvis' parents lived. Across the hall is a modestly sized dining room and a nice big kitchen - the kitchen now fabulously retro since it was last decorated in the 70s. Down a mirrored staircase (mirrors on both walls and ceiling) is a cosy basement level with another lounge - this one clad in bright yellow and blue - that houses three televisions, apparently because Elvis had heard that president Johnson watched the news on three different channels at once. The next room has a pool table and bold red-and-green patterned cloth covering all of the walls and the ceiling. Up a different set of stairs (with grass-like carpet on the treds, walls and ceiling) you ascend into the "jungle room": a family room with lazy, brown leather armchairs and a waterfall cascading at one end of the room. None of the rooms are over-the-top in any way, except the decoration - and even that is somehow rather charming. Everything is very genuine and untouched and the tour continues to respect Elvis' privacy by showing you only the downstairs, "public" rooms of the house - upstairs is strictly off limits.

Behind the house there is a building that houses office space; a large paddock where Elvis kept his horses; another long, low building that now houses just part of his amazing collection of gold records and awards as well as some displays about his film carreer, his wedding and his charity work; a (again modest) swimming pool; and a building with a racquetball court in it. The audio tour tells us that he loved racquetball and it was in the adjoining lounge to the court that he spent much of the last evening of his life, spending time with friends and singing songs on the piano. The racquetball court itself is now kitted out as another trophy room and it is full to bursting. Back outside, over by the pool, in a peaceful corner of the garden, are the graves of Elvis and some of his family members (stilborn twin brother, father, mother and grandmother). Each is lined with flowers and other tributes that have been left by fans and other well-wishers. Many of the visitors pause for a long time in this area, clearly contemplating the life's work of this amazing man. You can visit the graves and the grounds of Graceland for free before the site opens for tourists each day if you simply wish to come and reflect or leave a tribute. It is a powerful place.

Once we had been shuttle-bused back across the road, we had lunch in one of the cafés - we tried one of Elvis' apparent favourites, meatloaf (yummy). Then we toured the exhibitions of his cars and motorcycles; his two private planes; and his famous, elaborate "jumpsuits" with the high collars and glitzy details. When we had completed the tour and successfully plied ourselves away from the gift shops we saw that we had spent a good 4 hours at Graceland and were thoroughly pleased that we had made the detour to Memphis to see it.

The rest of Memphis was even more delightful. The downtown area is compact and very manageable by foot. There are a ridiculous number of museums, so you could easily spend many, many days here. We picked just two of the attractions: the National Civil Rights Museum on the site of the motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated (very good, informative exhibits documenting the entire struggle for racial equality in the US, from slavery to today); and "Mud Island", an island in the Mississippi river that can be reached by footbridge or monorail and has, among other things, a scaled down model of the entire Mississippi river, complete with cascading water and information-signs about all of the interesting points along the great river. We spent an evening on Beale street where Memphis' "soul" can be felt the most - in the bars and restaurants that line the street and play host to live bands, both upcoming acts and cover bands. We popped into "Coyote Ugly" for a drink and giggled when the lady bartenders really did jump up onto a bar to dance to one of the rock songs that was playing loudly from the speakers. Then we ate at B.B. Kings (really owned by B.B. King) and soaked up the atmosphere as the band played Michael Jackson, Tina Turner and other favourite songs and the audience went wild. It is the first place that I have ever been to that has a dance floor in a restaurant, just like in Hollywood films, and people were getting up to dance after their meals. The whole room, including wide balcony, was packed with American holidaymakers and weekend tourists. There were couples, families and hen night groups, all loving the entertainment.

The only disappointment in Memphis was our hotel. We had picked the Sleep Inn, nicely central to all of the attractions and overlooking the river. It was clearly a very pleasant hotel, most of the time. The only snag was that the management, in a brief moment of insanity I think, had decided to leave the hotel open while carrying out some major rennovations. This would even have been almost tolerable, if it had only been a bit of painting and decorating on another floor. But no, there was drilling and hammering in the rooms above, below and around us. This woke us up on Sunday morning and forced us out of bed into the city. Nothing too tragic so far. But when we got back to the hotel (and remember, by now it is 18.00 on a Sunday evening), we found that the lobby area had literally been destroyed. The builders had stripped the walls, chiselled up the floor and were still there causing havoc and unbearable noise with their pneumatic drills. When we found that the dust had also seeped into our room and that we could still hear much of the noise from up on the 4th floor, we realised that we would be mad to stay - and PAY to stay - another night in the hotel. The receptionist clearly thought that we were very sensible and told us, through her dust mask, that she wished that she, too, could escape the chaos. She appologised profusely on behalf of the hotel, whose owners had blatantly let down both staff and customers and quite possibly violated a whole lot of health and safety regulations. So we packed our stuff into the car and drove south-west for an hour, where we found a delightful little motel in Marianna, owned by an incredibly friendly Indian family who chatted away happily to us about how much they enjoyed stopping over at Schiphol for a few hours whenever they flew home to Bombay! Fabulous!
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