It was bright and early as my niece poked her head into the living room to ask if I was awake yet. I said yes and started making coffee and looking for my cell phone to see what time it really was – only 7:30am – not to bad for a six-year-old wake-up call. After the strange dream I was having about the civil war and beheadings just before I woke up it was totally OK to be awake and alive and all in one piece. It was raining and only 50 degrees so we had to bundle up to go and get breakfast and catch our historic carriage ride.
Breakfast on a Sunday in Charleston with a six-year-old and a hangry sister is slightly complicated. It is not that no one is doing breakfast – but they are waiting until the brunch hour to open and most of the restaurants are doing something fancy southern, low country or seafood. We had to be on a carriage at 11am and seafood was not on the table, among other things. Lucky for everyone we are just blocks away from Toast, a quintessential greasy spoon breakfast all-day everyday place voted best breakfast by someone – and featuring, wait for it, French Toast – perfect for the bread only eating niece. And we got out the door by 9:15am, just in time to beat the brunch rush.
We got a little wet on the way there.
Lucky for me they had Bacon Bloody Mary's. Lucky for everyone, Kira enjoyed her french toast immensly – and raced with her Dad to eat the extra side of bacon especially for her to get some protein in her system.
I ordered a dish called the Low Country Eye Opener that consisted of shrimp etouffee, grits and fried green tomatoes. As there was seafood in it, my omelette and toast eating family all raised their eyebrows at it. I however, that it was quite awesome.
It was yet another magically ridiculously filling dish even though the grits were instant (I can totally tell now!) and not cooked in lard or drowned in butter when they arrived – it was my job to mix them with the shrimp etouffee side of the plate to make that happen, which I sort of did but not really because I am now a grits snob. The fried green tomatoes, however, were perfect – crispy savory cornmeal outside just clinging to the firm tangy flesh of the green tomato inside warmed pleasantly by whatever magic fat it was fried in.
After finishing breakfast we made our way through the cold rain and unwelcome gusts of chilly ocean wind to the Old South Carriage Company to start our historic carriage tour of Charleston. We got in a little bit early and warmed ourselves under the heat lamps. Nathan's hat started steaming – a phenomenon incapable of being captured on camera, but noteworthy. Eventually we were loaded onto our Boeing technology composite material carriage and introduced to our tour guide Carol and our horse, an Amish workhorse retiree, named Vern.
I commemorated the event with a bad family photo and the cute selfie that started out this blog post.
The odd carriage ride route lottery system put us on the "rainbow row" path so off we went. (That box out front is the carriage route lottery machine.)
One of the first sights on the tour was this really old road lovingly called "dueler's alley" because of the popularity of the alley for duels back in the day. It is also on the list of haunted places because of the large number of individuals to have lost their lives there thanks to duels and fires.
Interesting fact of note – Charleston is the 2nd best preserved city in the world. Second only to Rome itself – which if the United States is New Rome, seems very appropriate. But that is a whole other discussion.
This is Rainbow Row – a grouping of row houses that were preserved and painted in the 1930s by a group of high society women who decided to paint them all the pastel colors of the rainbow. The buildings are 1700s waterfront property but were not rainbow until after 1930 when the preservaation effort began.
We worked our way down to the houses facing White Point Gardens while Carol talked about the revolutionary war battle of Sullivan Island. Because of the sponginess of Palmetto trees ( the palm trees you see in this picture and on the South Carolina flag) the British's cannonballs bounced off the wood of the newly constructed fortifications and did not do any real damage to the americans. Meanwhile, the americans noticed that there was now quite a supply of extra cannon balls lying about that had bouned off the palmetto so they started putting them in their cannons and lobbing them back at the British. Because of the boon of cannon balls and the bounce of palmetto wood the americans won a very important battle of the revolutionary war.
This is Villa Margarita, a very old home that went from private residence, to hotel where the cast of Gone with the Wind stayed while filming, to private residence of a crazy cat lady who let it fall into disrepair until recently it was purchased for the bargain fixer upper price of $3 million and restored to its original grandeaur.
This little colonial looking lovely was built by George Washington's cousin who came to Charleston, fell in love with it and one of its women and never left.
This is the hat man of Broad Street. Charleston has a preservation ordinance that requires you to build or repair in the style of the area so everything remains historical. Also you cannot fix things so that they are no longer historical. For example if in front of your house there is an original carriage stone and it is sinking into the ground – you have to leave it be. Thus, the conditions of the Charleston sidewalks. Things like the hat man here, however, who was found under five layers of paint on the side of a building that used to be a haberdashery – are saved. He was found, then restored because he is history – and pretty cool looking. On one side of his head, where his ears should be, he wears the hat of the North and on the other the hat of the South – it is said he can only hear on one side, depending which side you are on.
Our carriage ride ended, the rain stopped, but we were really cold so we went in search of a warm beverage and a snack.
I chose a tasty macaroon from Bake House Charleston – dense, yet light and crispy with just enough chocolate to make it fun. It went really well with my latte. It was almost as good as having lunch. Kira slurped down a hot chocolate and then we were ready to go to the Nathaniel Russell House to see the free floating staircase and other architectural wonders we heard about existing there on our carriage tour.
Nathaniel Russell, 1736-1820, moved to Charleston when he was 25 from Rhode Island and made his fortune importing slaves and exporting rice and indigo. He got married at age 50 to a woman who was 36 and the daughter of a wealthy landed Charlestonian (they had two children), and started building this house when he was 60 years old. It took 10 years to build so he and his family did not move in until he was 70 (which is extremely old for the time). I thought the story would go "and then he died" but amazingly he managed to enjoy it with his family for a full 12 years before he died at age 82. Whatever Mr. Russell did to avoid yellow fever and other killers of the day to live such a a long life, we will never know.
This door would have been the slave entrance to the back quarters where the kitchen and other things that actually serviced the house would have been. According to the displays inside (where you could not take any pictures) the household would have had 15 slaves for various household duties from cooking to childcare. One free man also lived with them for a time who was a teacher of free and enslaved black children and went on to found a college in the North after South Carolina passed a law making it illegal to educate slaves in the state. the display also noted that the children's caretaker was given her freedom at some point after the children were grown, and that she was "treated as a member of the family." Small karma for a man who made his fortune off the the sorrows of the international slave trade.
The house is built in a neo-classical style that is completely different from the standard style of Charleston houses around it. When I asked our tour guide, why Mr. Russell might have chose to do this I got the simple reply that this style was just so much better and elegant. It is a bit like Mr. Russell is trying to compensate for something. The house is a work of art, and using some crazy amazing paint archeaology technology they have been able to restore it to its original colors and styles including – doors painted to look like mahogany, bright yellows, bright pinks and actual 24 carot gold on the inlays and carvings around the top and bottoms of the room. In the music room, the floor boards are actually lapis lazuli. To the modern eye it looks really gaudy and busy – but for the time is was apparently the best that money could buy.
This is a photo of the photo inside the tour waiting area and brochure about the house. I took the photo clandestinely as photos were forbidden, but I had to capture the stairs. These are the architectural wonder stairs, completely free floating – as in not attached for three stories to any wall or other structure of the house – they start at the bottom and work their way up, each mahogany stair painstakingly attached to the one below, in some way supporting the next one above it. There is a lot going on with each stair to make this happen but I can't explain, nor can I show you a picture from inside – the result however, is beautiful – and a bit dizzying when you are looking down or up at them. These stairs are just one part of the circular pattern of the house. It has a lot of circles, the only two square rooms were the bedrooms, everything else tended to have rounded corners. Creating what our tour guide called "elegant lines and patterns throughout the house." I would really like to know why the choice of round versus square was made – but there are no records of that and even the architect who designed the house is unknown.
We tried the old Southern pass time of joggling before we left. This long board bounces and then the base rocks making for quite the fun and relaxing experience – more comfortable than a rocking chair.
Next door the First Presbyterian Church of Charleston had its gate open so we checked out the graveyard because Kira was curious. The First Presbyterian Church was established in 1731 and has survived, fire, earthquake, tornado and hurricane. It lost its bell during the civil war and got one back only recently when a very generous member of the church was able to find an appropriately historical bell.
It was getting near dinner time and time for my sister and family to get back home to Sumter – we ended up doing a couple circles not finding any food appropriate for all members of the party and eventually decided to give up and get pizza. I failed to take a picture of the pizza, but did take a picture of this drink that Nathan insisted I try.
It tasted like rootbeer but with a little bit of herbal alcohol kick.
Dinner in everyone's stomachs, baggage packed, and car acquired from the valet service at my timeshare hotel – it was time to say goodbye. Kira said I could come by for dinner anytime except on Sundays because the house isn't clean enough on that day. So cute. I said I'd love to but I'm across the country, but the three of them could come visit me anytime too.
It was a good time had by all. I retired to write this and the day before's blog post, clean-up the room for check-out and prep for part two of my great family vacation adeventure – Southern Florida with Dad and the Palm Beach Poetry Festival.