I entered the state from the Florida Panhandle, crossing the state boundary near the small town of Florala which is located near to Britton Hill, the highest point in Florida. It is a barely 105 metres high and you can actually drive to the top of it. Well, “the top” is a bit of an exaggeration as it is a low hill really, with a car park beside. Still, the highest point it is so I couldn’t resist the temptation to see it. Anyway, Alabama now.
First I headed straight to the state capital, Montgomery. It is a rather small place, without much of a buzz or excitement, but it is an interesting place for a history buff like myself. I started my visit, like in many other state capitals, by touring the state capitol. Completed in 1851 the capitol building also served temporarily as the Confederate Capitol; in 1861 when Montgomery was capital of the Confederate Sates of America. In fact the Confederacy was born in the senate chamber, where the delegates from the southern states voted to establish it.
It is a gracious Greek Revival structure located on a prominent hill and, like most of the state capitols, it is topped by an impressive dome. It is a strikingly white structure and there are plenty of impressive columns (Greek Revival style is named as such for a reason).
The exterior and the interior of the building are generally less elaborate that in some other state capitols (like for example one of my favourites, the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City) but there are some interesting details nonetheless. Namely the murals at the base of the dome’s interior, which depict events from the history of Alabama. They were created in the 1920s and bear visible Art Deco influences. There are also multiple coats of arms indicating that the Alabama territory was, at some stage, governed by Spain, France, Britain and the United States. Probably the finest feature of the building is the twin cantilevered spiral stairways that reach up to the third floor.
Next to the capitol building is located the First White House of the Confederacy which was the residence of Jefferson Davies (the Confederate president) for a few months in 1861 while Montgomery was the confederate capital. It is nowadays a quite interesting museum concentrating on the domestic life of the Davies family. There is actually very little mention of the slavery, which was at the end an underlying problem of the confederacy. A quite grand Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Memorial is also located nearby, on the state capitol grounds. It all paints a picture of slight glorification of the confederacy in parts of Montgomery. Sure the city also celebrates the civil rights movement events from the 1960s but it seems that the monuments and sites related to Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King are aimed at completely different audience.
In general I had a feeling that the city tourist board has a hard job of promoting two different sets of attractions. The confederate sites to the nostalgic folks, often older, conservative and predominantly white, and the civil rights sites aimed at the African Americans and younger liberal crowd . I guess such is modern divided America.
I didn’t stay long in the Alabama’s capital as, at the the end of day, there isn’t that much to see or do there. My next destination was the city of Mobile located 170 miles the the south-west of Montgomery, on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico (in place where Alabama River flows to the Mobile Bay, to be precise). It is the third largest metropolitan area in the state and by far the largest in the southern half of it.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the city but I knew that it was one of the oldest settlements in this part of America, founded in 1702 by Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville. The second one of them also established New Orleans, (some 16 years later) which shows how old Mobile is. In fact it was the first capital of the French colony of La Louisiane. Since then the city changed hands to the British, the Spanish and finally the Americans.
I decided to stop in one of the chain motels conveniently located right beside the city’s compact centre, which allowed me to explore all the interesting areas on foot.
First I went for a stroll around the downtown, which has more than a bit of the New Orleans’ feel. This pleasant part of the city has similar architecture to its “French cousin”, with the characteristic wrought iron balconies and verandas. It is all of course on a much smaller scale here than in the Big Easy but on the other hand Mobile is much less touristy and you don’t have to fight with boozy crowds on every corner. The main entertainment area, with quite a few bars and restaurants, is located around the Dauphin Street, Bienville Square and Cathedral Plaza. I really enjoyed this part of town but I actually decided to spend the evening in an Irish bar which I found online and which was located a short walk from the downtown. On the way there I passed some quiet streets illuminated by the gas lighting which, together with the historic architecture, created a great ambient for an evening walk. The pub itself, called The Callaghan Irish Social Club, was established in 1946. Only in America would you boast age like this for a pub, but it was nonetheless a fun place to have a few pints.
The next day started badly. It was raining heavily from the early hours. Which was really annoying as I really wanted to grab my camera and explore some of the historic areas which I had visited the previous evening on my way to the bar. Finally the sky cleared somehow and I left my motel room.
First I decided to explore the De Tonti Square Historic District. This nine-block area is roughly bounded by Adams, St. Anthony, Claiborne, and Conception Streets and it contains some fine examples of the townhouses built between 1840 and 1860. Big trees covered with Spanish moss, empty streets and the cloudy grey sky completed the district’s haunted vibe. I took tons of pictures before heading to Fort Conde which is a reconstruction, at 4/5 scale, of the original 1720s French Fort Condé at the original site. Actually only the third of the original fort was reconstructed and it is located just above the entrance to the tunnels which carry Interstate 10 under the Mobile River so you can hear the constant noise of the traffic. Still the interior offers an interesting exposition on the history of the fort and the city.
While I was in the fort it started raining again. In fact it was pouring as the tropical storm was just reaching Mobile. I was stuck in the fort for about an hour until a slightly less heavy rain allowed me to get back to my car. I really didn’t want to leave Mobile yet so I decide to drive to the Church Street East Historic District and to the Oakleigh Garden Historic District. These are the areas which I have explored the previous evening, when I was on my way to the The Callaghan. Like the De Tonti Square they are also listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are full of historic architecture (mostly from the 19th century but with some fine buildings from the early 20th too). Lush vegetation only added to the amazing character of the place.
Unfortunately by this time the heavens really opened. All I could do was to drive slowly around, avoiding all the puddles which were getting bigger and deeper with every minute, as the potholed streets in this part of the city filled with huge amounts of water falling from the leaden clouds. I only managed to take a few pictures from the car which is pity as this part of Mobile looked so photogenic, even on a rainy day (or maybe especially on a rainy day).
After checking weather forecasts I realised that I have to leave Mobile and head east. And fast. The heavy rains, caused by an unusual for March weather system, triggered massive floods in east Texas and in Louisiana and the system was just reaching Alabama. The last thing I needed was to be stuck in some flooded areas on my holiday so I decided to drive back east towards central Florida and Cape Canaveral, which I will write about later.
Overall I think Mobile is a really fascinating place with a lot to offer. Especially for those who are interested in historic architecture of the American South. I would have spent more time there if not for the weather as it was great to just walk around the city’s historic neighbourhoods with a camera.
Who knows, I might be back, but in the meantime I strongly recommend it to anyone looking for an interesting southern city which is not as dominated by tourism as the likes of New Orleans, Charleston or Savannah.