As the crowd swells, I guard my front-row spot along the Dauphin Street barricades. The parade is coming our way, and I can feel, as well as hear, the distant booming of bass drums. Children toot toy flutes and twirl noisemakers. Adults in silly hats and fancy dress sip rum punch from plastic go-cups.
Motorcycle cops, wearing strands of colourful beads over their uniforms, gun their engines, making 'figure-eights' to clear the street of any stragglers. At last, I spot three costumed, masked riders on horseback.
“Let’s rock ‘n’ roll!” shouts a policewoman as the first float rolls into view.
This is Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama, about 50 miles from the beach resorts of the Gulf coast. While the festivities in New Orleans may be more famous, few people know that Mobile has the oldest Mardi Gras in the Western Hemisphere.
It began in 1703, a year after French explorers founded Mobile (pronounce Mo-BEEL) as the first capital of French Louisiana. Settlers brought their traditions with them, and today the revelries of 'Fat Tuesday', the day before the beginning of Lent, have evolved into three weeks of Mardi Gras festivities encompassing masked balls, elaborate costumes and fabulous parades with dazzling themed floats.
Parading before me now are the Mystic Stripers, one of Mobile’s many mystic societies who put on the parades and balls. Wearing striped costumes - a nod to one of their founders who owned a laundry that cleaned prison suits - they toss 'throws' to an animated crowd. The energy is infectious, and I jump and shout along with them, snatching Moon Pies, trinkets and strands of shiny plastic beads out of the air. In between the floats come teenage marching bands, performing impressive dance routines.
Mobile presents 37 parades during carnival season. I ask Craig Roberts, an architect turned historian and Mardi Gras specialist, which is his favourite.
“That’s like asking me, ‘who’s your favourite child?’” he replies.
Over the next few days I attend several parades, including the Mystics of Time parade with thrilling, fire-breathing dragon floats. I’m even invited to go to their formal ball honouring Father Time and his Queen, where masked members present a stunning tableau. Though many Mardi Gras balls are exclusive, in Mobile it’s often possible to go as a guest and attend Le Krewe de Bienville’s Out-Of-Towners Ball.
My favourite event takes place the next day, when I join in celebrating a Mobile legend. After the Civil War, Joe Cain revived the city’s Mardi Gras tradition by riding through the streets in a decorated charcoal wagon with a band of fellow veterans. Each year, on the Sunday before Mardi Gras, the Joe Cain People’s Parade commemorates the story. Anyone can march (advance registration is required), and I discover that throwing beads to an eager crowd is even more fun than catching them.
And that’s the spirit of Mobile Mardi Gras. It’s inclusive and family-friendly. “Everybody gets in the street and parties together,” Roberts says as we set off on a tour of his home town.
If you can’t visit Mobile during Mardi Gras, you can still get a taste of its joviality and glamour at the Carnival Museum. Set in an ornate mansion, its galleries hold everything, from miniature floats and memorabilia to early photographs.
Best of all are the displays of sumptuous gowns, jewel-encrusted trains and glittering crowns worn by the kings and queens and their courts. They are made by dedicated designers at great expense.
“Over 70 of these are made new every year,” Roberts tells us. “Each one takes six to eight months because they have to be done, by tradition, with needle and thread. Everything is real. All the fur is real - it has to be antique now - all the crystals are real, and the pearls are real."
“Imagine asking your seamstress to hand-sew on 100,000 Russian turkey feathers, which is what happened here,” Roberts adds, pointing to an elaborate robe.
Opposite the museum is the Spanish Plaza, a tribute to Mobile’s sister city, Málaga, and the Spanish influence in the region. With its beautiful tiled benches, sculptures and the Friendship Fountain, this tree-lined square offers a cooling respite from the heat.
Two blocks away is the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. It represents the oldest religious congregation in the Mississippi Valley. We enter to the mellow notes of a jazz saxophone, drifting from a park bench in the adjoining Cathedral Square. Inside are marble pillars and a barrel ceiling decorated with a gold-leaf pattern of French fleur-de-lis, Irish shamrocks and English roses.
Nearby on Dauphin Street, Bienville Square is named for Mobile’s founder. Beads and fairy lights shaped like Mardi Gras crowns dangle from the branches of its live oaks. These evergreen oaks, which are native to the Gulf Coast, never lose their leaves and stay green year-round. Their branches grow out as well as up, exuding cool air like a natural air-conditioning.
“Mobile is very proud of its old trees,” Roberts says. “Many are over 350 years old, older than the city itself. There is even a Mobile Tree Trail.”
Other historic sites in downtown Mobile include the reconstructed Fort Condé, the History Museum in the Old City Hall, the 1822 Condé-Charlotte Museum, and the African American Heritage Trail.
But the best thing to do is simply to wander. The downtown area is compact, easy to navigate, and has a gentle, time-worn character. With many buildings sporting ornate, wrought-iron balconies, Mobile is like a mini New Orleans.
In fact, there are 600 square blocks and nine historic districts in Mobile. They all feature a fascinating range of architecture, from quaint Victorian shotgun houses to Creole cottages and Greek Revival mansions - even cemeteries with above-ground tombs.
Paris Of The South
In its heyday, Mobile was a busy cotton port. By 1860, it was the third wealthiest city in America, known as the Paris of the South. Some 350 antebellum structures survive today, along with several thousand Italianate structures dating from 1895.
The Bragg-Mitchell Mansion is a gracious Southern gem. Borders of pink azaleas wind up the long driveway to the Greek Revival house, which is surrounded by towering live oaks. The ceiling of its columned front porch is painted Haint Blue to keep away evil spirits.
Built in 1855 by Judge John Bragg as a holiday home for the Mardi Gras season, it was acquired and restored by the Mitchells in the 1920s. Unusually for the time, Mrs Mitchell, a suffragette, bought it in her own name with money saved from her household expenses.
The beautifully restored house has grand double parlours and a circular staircase. On a guided tour, we explore the elegant rooms with their original and period furnishings.
Dating from 1833, Oakleigh House is the oldest in the Oakleigh Historic District. Tours of the galleries of this T-shaped mansion, built with jib doors for ventilation in the humid climate, show many prized objects. Even more fascinating are the stories of the four families who lived here through the generations.
Food Glorious Food
Set between the Gulf and a clutch of river deltas, Mobile is blessed with fresh local seafood. This, coupled with its Southern style cooking, makes it a fantastic food city.
Over cocktails at TP Crockmier’s on Dauphin Street, we try spicy, fried crab claws. Shrimp and grits (similar to polenta) are a Southern favourite, and the Blind Mule Restaurant and Bar serves up some of the best. Aim for a table in the atmospheric courtyard.
My favourite seafood spot has to be Wintzell’s Oyster House. At this Mobile institution they serve them “fried, stewed and nude”, and we watch them shucking oysters at lightning speed before ordering several tasty variations. Gumbo, redfish and other Gulf specialities are on the menu too.
Further along Dauphin Street, Mama’s is a beacon for Southern home cooking, serving huge plates of comfort foods such as smothered pork chops and country fried steak. Eager to sample soul-food dishes, I opt for a platter of sides, including red beans, collard greens, hushpuppies and candied yams.
In the Oakleigh Garden district, Kitchen on George is a farm-to-table restaurant offering lovely courtyard seating and a seasonal menu. Next door, the Cream & Sugar Café serves Mobile’s best muffins.
Downtown at Panini Pete’s I discover the world’s best beignets (a type of French fritter). He makes them using a wet process, unlike the dry process used in New Orleans. Sprinkled with lemon and powdered sugar, they are absolutely delicious.
Consider splitting a plate at the local breakfast favourite, Spot of Tea. The mountainous Eggs Cathedral and Bananas Foster French Toast are both on the list of '100 things to eat in Alabama before you die'.
On our last night in Mobile, we enjoy elegant French Creole cuisine with a modern twist at Dauphin’s, on the 34th floor of the Trustmark Building. The superb dishes are matched only by the splendid panoramic view from the floor-to-ceiling windows.
As we watch the sunset over the bay, there’s one thing I’m sure of, whether it’s for Mardi Gras, the food, or its simple Southern charms, I’ll be coming back to Mobile.
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