Charleston, a gem of a town. From the moment you arrive, Charleston is captivating. Everywhere you look, it evokes days of colonial nobility, of architectural grandeur and of bountiful wealth. This is where rich plantation owners and merchants competed to build homes more magnificent than those of their pampered fellows. And somehow it has retained that pride, that peacock display of opulence and the charm of a town that has always been immersed in its very own, colorful history.
Founded in the 17th century, this was another area that the well-meaning but hedonistic King Charles II gave away as largesse to one of his chums. (Charles was an interesting and popular monarch. He had a French mother and a Scottish father who had had his head chopped off in 1649 after losing out to that rascal demagogue Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army. This was at the height of the English Civil War, which had delayed Charles II's enthronement. The new King then couldn't produce an heir with his Queen, Catherine of Braganza, but sired at least a dozen illegitimate children. It was probably this procreative pastime that got him the nickname The Merry Monarch).
But back to Charleston. The imperial British aristocratic confidence stamped its mark here and the houses are noble, bold and beautiful. The popular design of the 'sideways' houses (or single houses as they are known) was a style to maximize the size of the houses built on the lots of narrow frontage that had been laid out in the early years. The 'front' doors on the street deceive. They don't lead into sumptuous hallways but open up on to the balconies of magnificent mansions.
A typical Charleston sideways house
To walk the old part of town is to step back to a golden era. It exudes indulgence. Sadly, the wealth was built up on the backs of slaves. Indeed, Charleston before the American Civil War had the only majority enslaved population of any city in the new, independent United States.
But today it is a living wonderland. You never feel the urgency of modern life. The people are courteous and calm and visitors have always been made welcome. And the food.... this town is a culinary feast, with arguably some of the finest fare in America. One truly notable and unmissable place to eat is Husk. It has now built a formidable reputation and it does not disappoint. They grow a great deal of their own food in their garden, reviving heritage vegetables and grains that once had popularity in the region but had subsequently been lost to the onslaught of the supermarket and industrial farming. Here's a concept - they adapt their menus to the vegetables and fruits that are in season. And they still find room for their Southern specialities: glazed crispy pig's ear lettuce wraps, wood-fired White Stone oysters, cornmeal-fed catfish, Southern-fried chicken skins. A delight.
We could live in Charleston. Probably can't afford it. But we love it. But tomorrow the wheels turn again. We are off 200 miles north to Charlotte, North Carolina.
A selection of Charleston houses and the more Bohemian French Quarter