Sunday, November 2, 2014

Charleston: Charm, Grace and Tourists

After lunch at the Rivertown Bistro in a beautiful little town called Conway, in South Carolina (a place offering "endless mimosas" - Buck's Fizzes to us British - and interesting food like crispy chicken thigh sandwiches with sweet potato chips, aka crisps, only spoilt by a latte which tasted of cinnamon, as Americans will put cinnamon in practically everything if you'll let them,) we headed on south to Charleston.

Charleston, Rhett Butler's city, the place where he yearned to find "something left in life of charm and grace".

One of the jewels of America is now tourist heaven.

Though you can still find oodles of charm, wherever you look.

Provided of course you stay in the quaint, buzzing historic district, where, unless you want to pay through the nose, you have to put up with a little eccentricity in your accommodation. (A historic inn hubby and I stayed in on a previous visit, all four-posters and ceiling fans, had a tin of cockroach bait in the wardrobe).  But never mind. It's worth it to be able to walk everywhere.  There's the French quarter and the cobbled streets..

Working gas lamps..

...the bay front where Confederate socialites with a death wish stood on their balconies, looking out over the water to Fort Sumter and toasting the opening salvoes of the Civil War with champagne.

There's St Philip's Episcopal church..

.. whose surroundings are for all the world like an English cathedral close, straight out of Trollope, all mellow stone and climbing roses.

 With a shady old churchyard thrown in. On a previous visit, it was May and the city was bathed in the scent of jasmine.

 The earliest Charleston houses have sideways porches. The less road frontage, the fewer taxes. Not much has changed there, then.

 Here's one of the many grand hotels we did not stay in. Observe, also, one of the city's modes of tourist transport.

Here's another. There seems to be rivalry between the mule carriages and the horse ones (see above). The latter like to describe themselves as a "donkey-free zone".

I wonder if they've spotted this.

Gracious buildings abound, this one fronting the market selling hand-smocked children's clothes and other tasteful ephemera.

The sign above the door says

As in London, it's worth looking upward for picturesque touches.

This being one of the main shopping streets.

 There's just too much to take in..

You need days to explore everything.

And wallow in the ambience

and the architecture

And peek through wrought-iron fences and into hidden gardens

Not to mention tasting the food, though the tourist-trap restaurants aren't always all they're cracked up to be. You need to choose carefully.  Here is the Low Country Bistro's recipe for she-crab soup, a local delicacy.

And here's St Mary of the Annunciation, the first Catholic church in the Carolinas and Georgia, established in 1789.

With a magnificent unwreckovated altar.

 A spectacular ceiling.

Galleries and old wooden box pews (I had a strange feeling wondering what crinolined southern belle or doomed Confederate soldier had sat in mine before me.)

And a cemetery again.

They do a glorious sung Sunday Mass too, with no holding hands or caterwauling cantor or "Good Morning Everyone" .   I almost felt myself back in England, except everyone was impeccably dressed.

There appears to be no end to the charms of the city.

 Even hotel room doors have a sense of history

Though I had the impression that there's still a slightly snooty side to some of Charleston's long-time residents,  a closed little world that tourists don't get to see on their carefully conducted mansion tours. A friend who lived there for a while rented someone's coach house. The owner, she said, never acknowledged her presence all the time she was there. (Which sort of bears up my theory that, few though there are, there's no snob like an American snob. Unlike the really ancient European aristocrats, with nothing to prove, they haven't yet learned that to be truly noble is to be nice to everyone.) To a certain extent the city plays on the exclusivity - shops sell books about etiquette , hospitality, flower-arranging and "Charleston style". Visitors snap them up to feel they can get a little piece of it.

But so what, it's still a fabulous place to visit. This has it about right...

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