The Deep South. Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Georgia, Lousiana. Close your eyes and you are back at Tara, with Scarlett O'Hara dramatically making her entrance down a grand staircase in Gone With The Wind. The grand plantation houses, with their sweeping driveways up to the columns of the dramatic front entrances, are mostly all gone. Only a handful are left along the Mississippi whereas there where literally hundreds 150 years ago. Built on the wealth from the cotton and sugar fields and on the backs of millions of slaves, you would expect many more to be still standing, either owned by rich bankers or converted into luxury hotels or apartments.
The line of live oaks that lead to Oak Alley Plantation House
Oak Alley Plantation on the banks of the Mississippi
But the American Civil War, like all civil wars, was not only the cruelest, most-destructive time but saw that horrendous phenomenon where countryman mercilessly slays fellow countryman in a cause defined by the political elite. In 1861 seven Southern states individually declared the secession from the United States to form their own Confederacy. The Union, or 'Yankees' in the North, did not take kindly to this and both sides raised forces and the inevitable internecine, bloody conflict began. Four years later, with 600,000 dead souls to mourn, it was over. General Robert E. Lee and his Confederate Army surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. The whole country had suffered immeasurably. The South had been ravaged, its whole infrastructure destroyed. And it was an inevitable consequence of war that the victors took their revenge against what they saw as the root cause of the problem: the plantation owners, who, in the eyes of the exhausted Union soldiers, had been trying to defend their unjustifiable lifestyles and iniquitous agricultural production methods (aka slavery).
So hundreds, nay, thousands of magnificent homes were laid to waste. Burnt to the ground to the cheers of the Union vanquishers. Four million slaves were immediately set free and the rest, as they say, is history.
The South is still uncomfortable with that history. To its credit, it has worked hard and resourcefully over the past five generations to rush history forward, create equality and move everyone into the bright, prosperous future that is uniquely American. But a transition of such enormity inevitably takes a long, long time. Fortunately, Southerners are the warmest, friendliest people in the US and therein lies the hope for the future; it is just a tragedy that these lovely folk have inherited such an ancestral burden of guilt.
A River Runs Through It: The Mississippi
And that brings us to New Orleans. A colorful gem on the map, an alluring, eclectic centre of music and art - and of people who clearly love their city even though for many it has failed to offer them much in the way of comfort, money and support. The famous French Quarter is a small grid-work of narrow streets (each with a French-origin name, now pronounced in English together with an apologetic plate nearby saying that under the Spanish it was named something else). But today it is the architecture that still captures the magic and the theme. The iron balconies, shuttered windows and intriguing doors, which often open up into Riad-type courtyards, define life here. The French colonial presence looms large on every turn. Unfortunately, most of the once noble homes today show the telling signs of years of neglect, as do the streets that are often crumbling and potholed. It is starting to have a feel of Calcutta, where the magnificent architecture of the Raj has been left to support itself, unaided as it decays, for over 100 years. New Orleans may now be a faded, jaded version of former resplendent itself, but it is still the Grande Dame of the South.
One of the more impressive French Quarter houses
New Orleans retains the dignity of the grandest Grande Dame, who once caused breaths to stop on her entrance, dressed in her lavish, opulent Parisian gowns, and hosting only the most extravagant social gatherings - but for whom anno domini and impoverishment have caught up: the unkempt, thinning hair, the wrinkles, the stooped walk, the tattered dress. A Southern Miss Haversham. She still occasionally flashes that flirtatious twinkle in her eye but does not see herself as others do - an unloved, fading remnant of a much finer, more glamorous era. Bourbon Street on a Saturday night has become a tacky, drunken, decadent tourist indulgence. Our opinions were not improved either when a plain, middle-aged woman on a balcony used her left hand (her right hand's job was to hold her large, vulgar, blue cocktail) to lift her top and display her rather sorry-looking and embarrassed boobs. That tells you what Bourbon Street is today.
Such a shame. Royal Street, however, has managed to retain a considerable amount of dignity, and the more Bohemian Frenchman Street is an essential place for the best bars and music.
The New Orleans people compete with the buildings for being the most colorful attraction.
For the best food, avoid the French Quarter. Like Key West, it is overpriced, over-fried and over-rated. To find genuinely delicious Southern cookin' you will have to ask the locals, who rarely go into the Quarter, rather than search the internet- that way you get to the truth much quicker.
New Orleans remains a 'must see'. It's charm will never diminish even though it will disappoint the returning visitor who still remembers the streets filled with the best Blues music and most interesting bars. But also be prepared for the sweltering heat, a network of noisy flyovers and the tragic sights of tented villages beneath giving home to so many homeless and destitute victims of this modern life.
The despair of some in New Orleans
Dusk from the Mississippi looking over New Orleans