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Birmingham, Alabama
February 10, 2023- May 12, 2023


This was my first visit to Alabama. We were there so that Traci could check off state #25 in her quest to run a half marathon (13.1 miles) in all 50 states of the United States. As usual she left me in charge of planning the sightseeing for the weekend.

Things I Really Enjoyed

Things I Would Do Differently

Our roughly 2-hour American Airlines flight from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport left at 8:45 AM. There were a lot of empty seats on our flight. I tried to get some sleep but that airplane was uncomfortably cold. I was wearing my hoodie and leather jacket but was still cold. Now that the Coronavirus Pandemic is pretty much out of the news, masks are no longer required on airplanes. However, I decided to wear mine on this flight in an effort to keep my face warm.

The Birmingham airport is relatively small. Within a few minutes after landing, we were able to pick up our vehicle rental (a neon green Toyota Forerunner SUV) and start exploring.

Our first stop was the Ave Maria Grotto located in Cullman, Alabama about an hour from Birmingham. It is located on the campus of the St. Bernard Abbey. I somehow missed this fact during my research and consequently questioned if we were going the right way when trying to find the grotto.

The Ave Maria Grotto contains the amazing creations of Brother Josef Poetl, a Benedictine monk who lived at the St. Bernard Abbey for 70 years. He spent 46 of those years creating miniature replicas of famous buildings, bible scenes, and fairy tale scenes from stone and recycled material. You can view these creations from a an outdoor pathway.

At first, I was not all that impressed because the first few exhibits were a Nativity scene and a few towers. These were not unlike other dioramas I've seen. However, continuing on, we began to see miniatures of historic structures such as Vatican's St. Peter's Square, the Greek Coliseum, Old Jerusalem, in addition to a Hansel and Gretal scene with a dragon under a moat. We were blown away. We ended up doing two trips along the circular path. The first time through, we were snapping photos like crazy. The second time, we put the phones away and just focused on admiring the details of the miniature displays.

Ave Maria Grotto








We finished off our visit to the grotto by having a look around the gift shop. It sells mostly religious items. I ended up buying a refrigerator magnet. We almost bought a loaf of the bread made by the monks of the Abbey daily but realized that we really only wanted to taste it as opposed to buying a loaf.

After leaving the gift shop, we had lunch at a local barbeque joint called Johnny's Bar-B-Q. Barbeque seems to be our preferred first meal when traveling in the U.S.. Although our meal at Johnny's was very tasty, there was nothing noticeable that set it apart from other barbeque meals we've eaten around the country.

Our next stop was an unexpected treat. En route to Ave Maria Grotto earlier that day, we noticed a sign on the highway advertising the Jesse Owens Museum. Jesse Owens was a black man who won 4 gold medals in track and field at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. We decided to make the drive to Oakville, Alabama where the small museum is located.

We were greeted enthusiastically by a woman who works at the museum. It was our lucky day because it was the first day the museum had re-opened after a pipe burst a little over a month ago had flooded the place and caused extensive damage. This is probably why I totally missed this attraction when I was researching things to do in Alabama before our trip. The lady gave us an overview of the exhibits and then recommended we view the film of Jesse's wins at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. We were a little worried at first when she told us the film is 45 minutes long because we had arrived near closing time. However, she said she would keep the museum open long enough for us to explore after the film. The film was outstanding because it was narrated by Jesse Owens himself during a return to Berlin several years after his 1936 Olympic success.

After the documentary, we had a look at the museum exhibits of Jesse's life. Despite his fame as an Olympic athlete, he struggled to make a living after returning home to the segregated U.S.. We had a look at the outdoor exhibits. Jesse was born the son of sharecroppers in Oakville in the vicinity of the museum. There is a replica of the cabin in which he lived until he and his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio.

The exhibit that fascinated me the most during our visit was the long jump pit marking the Jesse Owen's 1936 reocrd-breaking long jump of 26'8 1/4". You are allowed to try your own long jump. Let's just say that my jump was nowhere near Jesse's.

Jesse Owens Museum



attempting to match Jesse Owen's record-breaking long jump - not even close


We were enjoying the Jesse Owens museum but we needed to make the hour-drive to get to the runners' expo at the Boutwell Auditorium in downtown Birmingham so that Traci could pick up her race packet for the 5K and half marathon. We managed to make it there 15 minutes before the runners expo ended for the day. Since we were just a few blocks from our hotel, we thought we'd take advantage of having the rental car to check into the hotel and drop off our luggage before returning the vehicle. However, due to a performance at a nearby theater, we were not able to find parking. We definitely did not want to pay the $30 parking the hotel was offering. Therefore, continued with our plan to return the vehicle to the airport and then use Lyft ($10) ride share to bring us to the hotel. En route to the airport to return the rental, we made a Walmart stop and then had a light meal at Chick-fil-A. We were still kind of full from our meal at Johnny's Bar-B-Q

Our check-in at the Fairfield Inn & Suites Birmingham Downtown was not as smooth as we had hoped. The first room we were given had a strange chemical odor. Someone at the hotel was aware of it because when we arrived, the door was propped open and the a/c fan was on full blast. We told the front desk and they moved us to a room down the hall. I thought we were good to go at that point but Traci said she could still smell the odor. Finally, we were moved to a room on a different floor which worked out fine. Continue...

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