We had been sitting around when Patsy said, “We should go to Charleston.”
“Why? What’s in Charleston?”
“It’s a grand old historical city, the birthplace of the Civil War, and it’s famous for its Southern gentility. Charleston is also supposed to have some great restaurants,” she said with a nod.
“A little bit of history, some nice manners, and good food; I guess that’s good enough, let’s go.”
This was enough to start us on the first leg of our latest journey. After a re-eye flight, we sat in the terminal in Boston, of all places. It’s interesting that Las Vegas is world famous and a first class attraction, but it seems like you can’t get there from anywhere else, not directly, at any rate.
The Boston terminal looks much like the Dallas Fort Worth terminal, or even O’Hare. There is a sameness to these places, but that’s okay, because they are just points on a curve. I suspect that if we ever develop space travel, someone will talk about how the Moon Terminal looks so much like Mars Terminal.
The leg from Boston to Charleston went smoothly. Our Jet Blue pilot set us down with hardly a bump, which is always welcome. After what we thought was a short taxi ride through parts of downtown Charleston, we arrived at our motel, just across the street from a marina on the Ashley River. It turns out that our taxi driver took us the longer way around town. If you take a taxi from the airport, it’s probably a good idea to ask questions about rates before the drive
We checked in to the motel and headed to a nearby place called “California Dreaming” for lunch. There is an irony in that we have flown over three thousand miles to go to a place named after a song about California. We had a dinner salad dressed with a hot bacon dressing and a bowl of she-crab soup. The soup was slightly sweet, but not overly so, and was actually more of a bisque than a soup. We asked our waiter, Kenneth, what a she-crab was. He said that traditionally, the soup used female crabs, because the female was bigger than the males. In most restaurants, however, they use whatever crabmeat they have on hand. Whatever the sexual orientation of our soup, it was creamy and delicious.
The motel had a coupon for a free basket of croissants at California Dreaming. This sounded like just the right thing for a meal of soup and salad. However, things were not what they seemed; the croissants had a honey butter glaze, so instead of being nice and flakey to eat with the soup, they were more suitable as a breakfast treat. I confess I ate several of them with cups of coffee over the next day or so. The croissants seem to be a signature thing with the restaurant, because they accompany almost everything with their sticky goodness.
The next morning, we set out to see Charleston. We stopped first at the Visitors’ Center, a converted railroad station house, to get maps and some orientation. Charleston has a ‘museum mile,’ just like in New York City, but we only stopped at the first one today – the Charleston Museum, across the street from the Center.
There is a model of the CSS H. L. Hunley sitting in front of the museum building. The Hunley was a Confederate submarine and the first to sink an enemy ship successfully. It was lost in 1864, right after it sank the blockade ship USS Housatonic, but was finally located and recovered in 2000. The craft was made from a steam boiler (think a locomotive), and was hand driven. The crew sat on a bench that ran along the inside, and turned a crankshaft to make it go forward or back. The torpedo or bomb sat on the end of a long wooden shaft, when the Hunley rammed it into the side of the Housatonic.
The Charleston Museum is a very interesting place. Although the museum opened its doors in 1773, the current building that houses it now is quite modern with audio-visual presentations and such, the museum has a sort of ‘1773’ feel in the casual way it’s organized. For example, there is a Revolutionary War cannon in the foyer, with the skeleton of a Right Whale hanging over it. Why is the whale skeleton perched over a cannon? Because the cannon helped to defend Charleston during the Revolutionary War, and the unfortunate cetacean wandered into the harbor below Charleston, where it died. This self-reference was something we encountered repeatedly in Charleston. No matter what it was that we saw, if it had any relevance to Charleston, it was okay.
Upstairs in the museum, we found Indian artifacts displayed right around the corner from Revolutionary War things, followed by an exhibit on rice growing and then an exhibit of things from WWI. Mixed with all this was a section of wildlife specimens from the Carolinas, including both modern animals and a couple of prehistoric skeletons. Some of the skeletons had nothing to do with the Carolinas except that someone from Charleston collected them. (See note above)
After the wildlife section, we entered a room that featured plaster casts of Babylonian and Egyptian statues, a real mummy, and so forth. The reason why these last were included is, again, that they were all brought to Charleston by early collectors, and not just some flotsam that made its way into the museum
Off in its own area on the second floor is an excellent gallery of textiles and displays of historical clothes dating from the 18th century to modern times. By the entry to this gallery are some truly lovely quilts – a mixture of historical as well as more ‘modern’ pieces. Overall, the Charleston Museum is a pleasant place to visit and should be on everyone’s itinerary.
After the museum visit, we stopped in for lunch at the 39 Rue de Jean. This was a French style café, offering a nice array of dishes at reasonable prices. We had Portobello Sandwiches and a mesculin (mixed greens) salad with a goat cheese dressing. The name of the restaurant is sort of a joke: the café is number 39 on John Street (39 Rue de Jean).
When we left 39 Rue de Jean, we wandered down a couple of doors to the Macaroon Boutique and had some of their light-as-air confection. It was a perfect finish to our lunch.
We went back to the Visitors’ Center and hopped on board one of the free buses that carry people around town. The buses look like cable cars and run every fifteen minutes. The buses kept us from getting lost, which we are good at doing.
We wanted to go to the Old Charleston Market, a sort of cross between an open-air mall and a closed building. The market is in a series of open sided arcades in brick buildings, similar to the Shambles in Philadelphia, if you have been there. You can find many things in the Market, from more Sweet-grass baskets and other local art, to food items and clothing. There are specialty stalls that sell exotic things like essential oils, Shea butter, and even one that sold a tool for do-it-yourself acupressure.
Since the day was hot, we stopped across the street to the Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream store. We had Berry Berry Sorbet and Coffee Coffee Buzz Buzz Ice Cream, which led to a series of Abbott and Costello style jokes. There is a statue of a giant frog on the patio, reading a book and holding an ice cream cone. A small green lizard pops up now and again, as well.
We found that many of the sidewalks in Charleston are either large pieces of slate or brick, and are probably original to the city; even the concrete ones looked old. This is especially interesting, since on one of our tours, the docent told us that there is no stone in the Charleston area, and that all of it, slate, cobble and dressed stone for the streets, came from somewhere else. The cobbles were ballast from ships, but I can’t speak to the slate or the dressed stone. The city was the only English walled city in North America. There are places you can see part of the wall down by the Battery.
Founded in 1670, Charleston keeps some of that early charm. It is a very walkable city; being on a peninsula, it is a little over two miles long by about one mile wide. It sits between the Cooper and the Ashley Rivers. There are many courtyards and gardens that you can see from the street as you walk by. Charleston is also called the ‘Holy City’ because of the many churches that seen from the harbor. In fact, one street, ‘Church Street,’ gets its name from all the churches there. Another street is called ‘Meeting,’ and we were told that is because there are many churches along the street, but they were not Anglican, so during the 17th century, they would not be classified as churches.
Speaking of the Battery, we walked down to the park that afternoon. Walking on a summer afternoon in Charleston is not a spectator sport! You have to keep hydrated, because at 90 degrees, with 80%+ humidity, you sweat a lot. However, I digress… to the Battery Park.
The Battery Park is where a battery of cannon sat during the Revolutionary War. There are still cannons on the site, although they are the ones that were there at the time. The British tried to take Charleston a couple of times, and were repulsed once, but finally occupied the town from 1780 to 1782.
Along the way, we passed the Exchange and Provost building. Built in 1767, it was a tax-gathering site when it was right next to the docks. Ships could off-load directly at the building. With land reclamation over the years, the building now sits several blocks away from the waterfront.
Down from the Exchange and Provost Building is an area called Rainbow Row. Now restored to their original glory, the houses in the Row sport pastel colors like in the Caribbean. What makes this interesting is that the Civil War devastated Charleston, and then on August 31, 1886, an earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale hit the city. The Rainbow Row area became run-down and turned into a slum. Gershwin modeled Catfish Row after Rainbow Row in his 1935 opera, “Porgy and Bess.” However, that was then; now the homes are all fresh and pretty and the song, “Plenty of Nothing’” no longer applies.
The next morning, we made contact with our son Morgan and his wife Sandie, and all drove back into town. We stopped Visitors’ Center, where I got some nice pictures of a woman making Sweetgrass baskets. Basket making is a skill that the slaves from the Gold Coast of Africa brought with them. Their descendants have been making them in the same way ever since. The baskets are made of bulrush, sweetgrass, and split oak strips.
We wandered around town looking at things until lunch, when we were supposed to meet some friends who live here in South Carolina. We had lunch at 39 Rue de Jean again, and then spent some time walking down Market street, talking. It was a fine afternoon filled with friendship and seeing more of this interesting city.
Monday was our day for visiting Fort Sumter. A docent fed us lots of information on the boat that took us out to the fort, so we had some idea of what to look for.
As most of us know, Ft. Sumter was the flashpoint for the Civil War, because South Carolina had seceded from the Union and considered it a sovereign nation. As far as the state was concerned, a hostile government that would not surrender it occupied the fort. A thirty-four hour bombardment followed before Major Robert Anderson finally surrendered. Even so, the only Union fatality happened through an accident that occurred when the Federal soldiers leaving the fort, fired a hundred gun salute to the Union colors.
The fort was originally three tiers high, but because it was made of brick and tabby (cement made of sand, lime, and crushed seashells), the Confederate bombardment and another one later on by the Federal troops reduced the fort to a single tier after.
We roamed around the fort, looking into powder magazines and out through gun ports, until we finally climbed up to an observation area that would have been part of the second tier. There, we could see the where the bombardment had come from.
There are some of the original cannon on site, which I found interesting. For what it’s worth, I had never seen a Parrot Gun (rifled cannon), and wasn’t sure what it was until this trip. The Parrot Gun was easier to produce than earlier ordinance, and had a longer, more accurate range.
After spending an hour at the fort, we made our way back to town and more sightseeing.
We stopped at the Blue Bicycle Book Store. The store does not sell bicycles, nor does it rent them; the name is just a whimsy. However, we did overhear someone who came into the store and complained that this was not a bicycle store. The person hinted at false advertising.
Dinner that night was at a place called Fuel, a converted gas station. We sat out in the back yard and looked over a very eclectic menu.
I had a salad with fried goat cheese and some hoecakes (light, corn-meal pancakes), served with mango salsa. Patsy and I had the mahi-mahi tacos with red slaw, while Morgan and Sandie had pulled pork tacos served with cooked plantains. A wonderful DK River Beer (a local red) accompanied all this.
As usual, my curiosity was stronger than my control, and I finished the meal with a very rich plantain cake. It was probably not my best choice; the cake was delicious, but I was already full when I ordered it.
As a side note, we found that many places in Charleston allow dogs in the eating area. There was a Black Lab that gently explored the ground around our table, looking for any mistakes we might have made. He was unobtrusive, and so a curiosity rather than a distraction.
On Tuesday, we went back to Old Market so Morgan and Sandie could see it. There were still too many people in the market, so we didn’t stay there too long. That is a misleading statement; it takes a while just to work through the place from one end to the other.
We lunched at a place called the Silent Oyster. I had the soup and sandwich combo of she-crab soup (I had to have this, of course), with a German sandwich of Black Forest Ham on a pretzel bread bun.
After lunch, we again walked down to the Battery, so that Morgan and Sandie could see Rainbow Row. It was a five-mile walk by the time we were done, and time to go back to the motel.
The humidity really took it out of us, so most afternoons included a nap. Today was no different. I cannot tell you what a delight it is to have a nice nap, then get up, and try to put on a shirt that was still damp from several hours before. There are some benefits to dry heat.
Dinner that night was at the Hominy Grill. Patsy and I had something called a Shrimp Bog, which is a mixture of Louisiana sausage, shrimp and tomatoes mixed in with Jasmine rice and spices. I’ll make this dish again once we are back home. I had a wheat beer, which complemented the Bog very nicely. (Side note: I have posted the recipe for Shrimp Bog on marshaltaylor.com)
We finished the meal with slices of Buttermilk Pie, a custard pie made with buttermilk. (Also posted on marshaltaylor.com) If I don’t gain ten pounds on this trip, it’s not from want of trying!
On Wednesday morning, we took a guided walking tour down as far as the Battery. This was not what we thought we had signed up for – we wanted a tour of some of the famous mansions. Instead, we spent a couple of hours with a very knowledgeable guide who told us all sorts of things about the area we had walked just the day before. This would have been the ideal thing the day before, but now it was a letdown. It is best to make sure exactly what is included before you choose a tour.
After the tour, we made our way over to Poogan’s Porch, a local eatery named after a pooch who most likely loved to sit out on the porch. There is a statue of Poogan, who looked like a cock-a-poo, or something similar, and a memorial marker. The converted house is a yellow two-story place with the famous porch and a veranda on the second floor painted white. We here in the west would call this double-height structure a porch and a verandah, but folks who come from Charleston call them collectively ‘piazzas.’
The rooms at Poogan’s are spacious and this must have been a very elegant place when it was a private house. If it isn’t a busy day and you don’t get there at high noon, you can have your meal on the famous porch or in one of the elegant rooms. We got there on a busy day at noon, which could have been poor timing on our part. However, given the heat and the humidity, we wouldn’t have wanted to eat on the porch anyway.
For lunch, Patsy and I had something called ‘Airline Chicken,’ which is called after the cut of the breast portion (they de-bone the breast but leave the upper portion of the wing attached). The breast was stuffed with sausage, minced vegetables, and bread cubes, served with heirloom carrots and fingerling potatoes, all dressed with a mushroom veloute sauce. (I posted the recipe for Airline Chicken with veloute sauce at my blog)
I asked about some local beers and learned that Poogan’s offered Westbrook and Palmetto, both local breweries. I wanted a Westbrook IPA, while Patsy opted for a Palmetto Porter. We were mildly surprised when they came in a can and a bottle, but once you think about it, why not. So far, though, when we’ve ordered local brews, they have been on tap. Maybe the Westbrook and Palmetto breweries have bigger plans, similar to what they did with Fat Tire. If these brews come west, I will have some of them.
Later on, we went to the Aiken-Rhett mansion for a tour. The mansion is one of the highlights of Charleston historical architecture, since it has not been restored, but kept as-is by the Historical Charleston Foundation. The woman at the front desk told us that the last person who lived in the house was a recluse and did nothing to keep up the house. When you visit the mansion, you can see things like pieces of the original wallpaper in the ballroom, held in place with pushpins. There was a stripped lathe and plaster ceiling in one of the rooms so you could see the original construction, and other things of a similar nature. It’s like looking at the bones of the house or maybe seeing a grand old lady in a gown that has had the hem turned more than once.
It started to rain while we were in the mansion, but it was light and so we walked to the back yard to look at the outbuildings: the cookhouse where the slaves lived and prepared food, a carriage house with carriages, and even a small brick building that housed some cows, and so forth.
The mansion has a self-guided tour. Visitors walk around with a tiny device about the size of a Tic-Tac box, listening to a recorded message and a sound track. A funny thing happened in the ballroom. The spoken part of the guide directed us to an open door, next to a great pianoforte. Suddenly, the music behind the spoken words got louder. It sounded as though the instrument next to me was the source of the music, sort of a grand player piano. As if that would happen, given what they were doing with the mansion!
By the time we got to the car park, it was raining heavily, so we went back to the motel. Shortly after we arrived, my cell phone started this weird wailing sound; the weather bureau had issued a tornado warning! As it turned out, the tornado was some miles away and moving away from us, but it was still something. We finished off the evening with a visit to our old stand-by, ‘California Dreaming.’
Thursday morning dawned clear and bright, but started out with a little surprise. It had rained off and on every day so far, but yesterday was a lot harder. This morning, as I stepped out of the shower, I thought I saw a cockroach on the side of the tub. Imagine my surprise when I put on my glasses and realized that it was a little crab! When we reported our aquatic visitor, the woman at the front desk told us that there is a bog behind the motel. When it rains heavily, the crabs that live there come out to dry land and especially to the motel. The woman also told us that they sometimes have to use a push broom to sweep them out of the place.
After our adventure with the tiny crabs, we decided to go back into town and tour the Nathaniel Russell house. The Foundation owns both the Russell House and the Aiken-Rhett House; you get a break on ticket price if you visit both places.
I suppose it was just a figure of speech, but the woman we spoke to at Aiken-Rhett said that Russell was “just down the street.” Boy was it ever! We parked at the Visitors’ Center, figuring that would be central. As it was, after far too many blocks for comfort, we realized we should have driven to the Russell house or used one of the rickshaws that abound, and then made our way back to the Center later on.
I should mention a couple of things at this point. First, there is a lot of interesting architecture in the city, no surprise there. But what is wonderful are the special touches, like the gas lights on most of the houses, the window boxes full of flowers everywhere, and the variety of brass doorknockers. A lion’s head was one of the more common themes for doorknocker, but I found one that had a green fuzzy moustache stuck to it. I was able to photograph some examples of flower boxes and doorknockers, and hope I can put them on my blog after I finish with this Dinolog.
Unlike the Aiken-Rhett House, a whole family lived in the Russell House until the Society bought it, and so the house was in good condition. We were told that most of the furniture was original to the house, and very little done to change things. However, that may have been a misstatement, as the house served as a school for the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy for some time at the turn of the twentieth century, but no matter.
When you first enter the house, you see an amazing spiral staircase goes up three stories without obvious support, although some support does come from support beams that run across the house at each floor. The staircase is really only self-supporting between floors, but it is still amazing. The docent leading our tour told us that each stair tread is lighter than the one below it. Given that there are some twenty-five treads between the first and the last on the first floor part of the staircase, figuring out the changes must have been an impressive engineering feat.
After the tour, we sat outside the house for a while, just enjoying the garden. Once when there was more land attached, the Russell House was famous for its garden. Now the garden is smaller, and a small footpath goes around behind the shrubbery. The path is like one of those places a child would like to go and hide from the grownups. We walked the path and then sat under a pergola to rest for a while just to enjoy the view. Though smaller now the landscaping is still very pretty and worth the time to sit and look at it.
On our way back toward the center of town, we stopped at the Gibbes Museum of Art and went inside just as a light sprinkle started. While we were inside, however, a deluge came that would have left us drenched like rats if we had not been in shelter. The rain came down so hard, it seemed like it would bust the big windows at the side of the museum.
The museum has a wide range of artwork, both modern and historic. There were many portraits, which you might expect in a museum, but one gallery is dedicated to the watercolors of Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, and her Rice Plantation Series. Smith was a local artist born in Charleston in 1876. Her series of watercolors documented the antebellum rice growing activities here in South Carolina. These watercolors would have been worth the visit by themselves, much less the other artwork displayed. As ever, all of the artists on permanent display have some sort of connection to Charleston, or at least to South Carolina.
We were tired and decided to go back to our rooms, but stopped into a place called Eli’s Table, for lunch. Eli’s Table serves some great salads. We chose the Martha Washington salad of mixed greens with goat cheese, toasted pecans, and chopped dried apricots, finished with a creamy dressing. I ordered the Westbrook IPA again, but this time, got it in a glass.
On Friday, Morgan and Sandie were leaving later on, so we decided to take a horse and carriage ride as a final treat. Our horse’ name was ‘Laddie,’ and he had a mind of his own. He moved when he wanted to, and stood still when he liked. A couple of times though, he stopped when he recognized that a motorist was going to do something weird, like pull out in front of him. He did this twice without encouragement from the guide. A side note: the horses in Charleston wear diapers, but there is nothing drivers can do about them ‘making water,’ so the city has a truck that comes by and washes down the ‘spills.’ If you happen to be walking around in Charleston and see what looks like a half of a tennis ball, painted pink and lying on the street, don’t pick it up. That’s the marker for where the street washer needs to do his bit.
The morning guide kept us entertained with jokes and funny stories, as well as information about the town. He told us something about the piazzas, that their ceilings are a light blue color called “Haint Blue” (you can actually get this color through Sherwin and Williams). A Gullah superstition is that ‘haints’ (ghosts) can’t fly in the blue sky or any place that is blue. Gullahs are the descendants of slaves living in the Low country regions of South Carolina.
Some people also think the blue color fools spiders and wasps into thinking the ceiling is the sky, and so they will not build nests on the piazza.
The guide told us that in the days before the war (yes, the War of Northern Aggression), a closed piazza door was a sign that the lady of the house was not receiving visitors just then. Even with the door closed, you could still see anyone on the piazza, but it was polite not to look there. I had heard about “Charleston Politeness” before, and I was happy to learn that my information was correct. The guide told us that Charleston was the first place in the country to have Peeping Tom laws. Apparently, not everyone was polite.
He also cleared up a question that I had about “Charleston Green.” For those who have never seen it, the rest of us would call it Charleston Black. However, the more you look at it, the more you realize that it is more than just plain black. The guide said that after the Civil War, the town people asked for paint to neaten up what was left of Charleston. Some small-minded bureaucrats sent them a lot of black paint. When the people said that they couldn’t paint their houses black, they were told black paint was the only thing available. Then someone had a clever idea, and so the folks in Charleston mixed yellow paint into the black. Hey Presto!, they had Charleston Green.
After one last swing through the market, Morgan and Sandie were on their way, and Patsy and I went back to the motel for a nap and an early dinner.
Our flight back to Las Vegas was on Saturday at 5:00 in the afternoon, so we left our bags at the motel and headed into town for one last time. We went to the Provost and Exchange building to see what was there. Started in 1767, the Exchange was a /Royal Exchange, used to collect tariffs and taxes from ships. The building used to sit next to the docks, but is now some distance away, due to land reclamation.
The Exchange was also the Provost prison during the Revolution, used by the British to house Colonial prisoners, some of whom signed the Declaration of Independence. The dungeon was in the basement area, built with Roman style brick groin arches. While it is depressing to think how the space was used, it is still nice looking architecture.
A funny story about the dungeon was that when it was apparent that the British would take the town, the general in charge of the Colonial army in Charleston, walled up all of his gunpowder in a part of the basement. The British never discovered this, so when Charleston was re-captured, the powder was there to use.
We took one last turn around the Market, and then we headed back to pick up our bags and go to the airport. As usual, there was so much more to see, that it could take us another week to cover Charleston. We did not visit the Citadel Museum, the Old Slave Market, nor did we go to the many jazz clubs and art museums. Part of the reason was that there is just so much to see, and with the heat and humidity, walking around wasn’t a treat. I could see going back to Charleston in either the spring or the fall, but not the summer.
I hope you enjoyed the visit. I certainly enjoyed telling you about what we saw and what we did, so until next time, thanks for joining us.
We had been sitting around when Patsy said, “We should go to Charleston.”