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12 Mar 2015

Mobile Alabama, Party Like You Live There!

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March 12, 2015 Category: Travel Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO:  Mobile Museum of Art

By Renée S. Gordon

“People dancing all in the street, See the rhythm all in their feet, Life is good wild and sweet, Let the music play on….”

–Lionel Ritchie, Alabama Native

Native Americans inhabited the region that is now Alabama for thousands of years prior to European contact and those years are divided into periods that are defined by the characteristics of the societies that populated the area. Scientists believe that around 10,000 years ago Alabama’s climate basically became as it is today and, because of its sunlight and water access, became one of the most biologically diverse states in the nation.

The Alibamu, who gave their name to the state, and the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Koasati, Taensa and Maubillia tribes populated the region when the first European explorers arrived. Maps indicate that Spanish explorers, as early as 1500, sailed into the bay of the Holy Spirit, today’s Mobile Bay. Admiral Alvarez de Pineda was the first fully documented European to sail into Mobile Bay in 1519 and twenty years later Hernando de Soto was first to step ashore. Over the course of the next ten years he destroyed the native town of Mauvila and the area was named a derivation of the Indian name, Mobile.

Fort Louis de la Mobile, the first permanent European settlement in the state was established by the French in 1702, 26-miles upriver from Mobile Bay. Due to flooding the settlement moved downstream to Mobile’s present location in 1711 and in 1723 Fort Conde was founded. The French ceded control to the British as a result of the Treaty of Paris in 1763 but they lost the land to the US and Spain after the American Revolution. Alabama was admitted to the Union in 1819 after becoming a possession of the US in 1814.

The original, bastioned, French Fort Conde was constructed on 11-acres to defend the colony and protect the territory between the Mississippi River and the eastern colonies. The brick, cedar and stone structure had a dry moat and was situated at the juncture of the Mobile River meets Mobile Bay. In 1776 a recreation, one-third of the original, was constructed and functions today as the Welcome Center. A museum within the fort, winner of a Tripadvisor “Certificate of Excellence”, is a perfect place to set the stage for your Mobile adventure.

Mobile is celebration central and one of the nation’s best merrymaking secrets. No matter what piques your interest you can find it in Mobile and experience it in a unique way with huge portions of southern charm and hospitality. The city deftly blends the Native American sense of communal festivity, French joie de vivre, Spanish piquancy, African passion and European sense of continuity and tradition into every aspect of their lives from food to frolic. Everyone can participate but be forewarned, you must plan ahead to party like a Mobilian.

Mardi Gras Costumes

The country’s largest and longest continuous party is Mardi Gras and it has its American roots, not in New Orleans as most people believe, but in Mobile, Alabama in 1703. Similar celebrations were held in 2nd century Rome and Medieval Europe and took the form of Boeuf Gras, fatted calf, in France. Sieur d’Iberville and the French colonists brought this tradition to the New World.

Rome combined elements of Christianity and set the time for Mardi Gras as a precursor to Lent, the 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter, a time for Christian reflection and repentance. It is a last hurrah before fasting and prayer. Later European royalty and landowners joined in the celebrations by passing out coins, food and other small gifts to the crowds lining their path. 

Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, is the last day of a Carnival Season that begins on January 6th. The actual date of Fat Tuesday varies depending upon the Sunday upon which Easter falls. The word “Carnival” means “farewell to the flesh” and is derived from the Latin carne vale. The colors of Mardi Gras, purple, green and gold represent Justice, faith and power.

The Masque de la Mobile, a secret society, was formed in 1704 and was active for 5 years. The following year the “Boeuf Gras Society” was established and paraded until 1861. In 1830 Michael Kraft woke up the city by parading on New Year’s Eve with rakes and cowbells confiscated from a hardware store. He formed the first masked parading society in the nation, the Cowbellian de Rakin Society. Ten years later the society became the first to march with horse drawn floats.

Certainly in those early days the celebration was a shadow of what it would become but the idea was the same. Although the exact origins are murky we can pick up the history with a greater degree of certainty after the hiatus caused by the Civil War.

The most widely accepted story relates that in the mid-1860s Joseph Stillwell Cain marched through the streets of Mobile costumed as Indian Chief Slackabamirimico. He banged a drum as he went in an effort to bring some joy to the people in the wake of the war’s devastation. In 1868 on Fat Tuesday Joe again appeared, this time followed by the Order of Myths and Mardi Gras tradition was reborn. The first Black Mardi Gras Parade was held in 1938.

Dress balls are an integral part of the Carnival Season social scene and if you are lucky enough to receive an invitation be certain to adhere to the dress code. Women’s dresses must be floor length without deep décolletage or high slits. Men must wear white bow ties and tails. You can literally dance the night away in a fairy tale atmosphere.

Not only societies, but neighborhoods, organizations and communities parade during the season. They all have throws and Moon Pies are a Mobile favorite. At one time Cracker Jacks were tossed from the floats but the boxes were deemed dangerous and in 1972 they were banned. In 1974 the Maids of Mist threw the first Moon Pies to the crowd. 

Each parade begins with a formation of motorcycle police clearing the route, followed by the Color Guard. A fire truck signals the end of the parade.  They are all family friendly and, if you apply early enough, anyone can register to march in what is referred to as the people’s parade. The experience of parading is one that you will never forget.

Mobile Mask is “The Reveler’s Guide to Mardi Gras.” This magazine answers all your questions and includes route maps and schedules. It is an essential tool if you plan to party like a Mobilian.

Mobile’s reputation as a festive city could rest on its Mardi Gras celebrations alone but to truly mimic a Mobilian you have to immerse yourself in every aspect of the culture.

The Mobile Museum of Art (MMofA) has mounted “The Art and Design of Mardi Gras “ exhibit until May 5, 2015. The 15,500-sq. ft. exhibit engages all your senses and allows visitors to get a close up view of apparel and accouterments including crowns, jewelry, invitations and party favors. A highlight of the self-guided tour is a 3-dimensional float dragon designed by Richard Valadie.

On the first floor of this, the largest art museum on the Gulf Coast, visitors can step inside another outstanding exhibition. “WELL SUITED: The Costumes of Alonzo V. Wilson for HBO’s® Treme” features fourteen finely crafted Mardi Gras Indian outfits seen in the series in addition to videos, photographs and specific costumes worn by pivotal characters. A jewel of the collection is the costume of the first female to parade.

The Greek Revival Bragg-Mitchell Mansion was constructed in 1855 as a vacation home for $10,500 on 27-acres. Guided tours showcase the multi-colored crown molding in the foyer, a 1820s clock with a scene from the War of 1812 and original pine floors. The mantelpieces are original and each is distinctive with a decorative sterling silver ring around it. Architectural features of note are the double parlor and a stunning circular staircase.

The Richards-DAR House Museum dates from 1860. The façade of the house makes it one of the city’s most photographed home. The Italianate house is L-shaped with a 22-foot cantilevered staircase. The exterior steps were made from ship’s ballast and the porch ironwork depicts the four seasons. The walls are 14” thick and the entry door is framed with red Bohemian glass.

The DAR has restored, maintained and furnished the house with emphasis on existing interior elements. The oldest object in the house is a knife box from the 1700s in the dining room. Each tour ends with an elegant tea service in the dining room.

Oakleigh Historic Complex consists of three structures, the plantation house, the Cox-Deasy Cottage and a dependency with displays on the African American workers at Oakleigh. James Roper purchased 35-acres and moved into his newly built house in 1837. Roper was a slave trader and in 1829 he is recorded to have had three domestic slaves.

A display of Effigy Jugs adjacent to the gift shop is worthy of notice. This art form first appeared in South Carolina, brought by Congolese slaves. They believed that the soul of a deceased loved one resided in the jug and the unique pictorial jug was a physical manifestation of the departed. There are also cases of these vessels being used as gravemarkers.

The 1850 Cox-Deasy Cottage was built of wood by a brick mason with eleven children. It is a typical raised Gulf Coast cottage with four rooms on either side of a center hall. The cottage interprets the life of the middle class.

No festival is festive without food and after reading the list of “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die” you will quickly see that Mobile is well represented. You must maintain your stamina to party like a Mobilian, and that means eating like one. The choices are myriad.

Café 615 has been voted one of the best places to have breakfast in the country. The restaurant has a fabulous champagne brunch and a party atmosphere. The dish to dine on here is Eggs Mauvilla with champagne poured by one of the cafés Champangels.

The Blind Mule Restaurant and Bar’s Alabama shrimp and grits is spectacular and earned the restaurant a place on the list. Guests can dine in the courtyard and experience regularly scheduled live entertainment in The Attic at the Blind Mule.

This is “The Year of Alabama Barbecue” and the award winning Moe’s Original BBQ definitely sets the bar. The sides boast an authentic southern style and are prepared from family recipes.

Spot of Tea was established in 1994 and it has been a Mobile must ever since. Brunch is served seven days a week and the atmosphere is always convivial. The Eggs Cathedral & Bananas Foster French toast are on the list of 100 Dishes and I would like to add Miss Ruby’s chicken salad and the strawberry tea. There is both indoor and outdoor seating. Never visit Mobile without eating here.

Wintzell’s Oyster House opened in Mobile in 1938 and has been an eatery of choice ever since. They justifiably earned their place on the list with their fresh oysters “fried, stewed and nude.” Additional Wintzell’s treats include the West Indies salad and their award-winning gumbo. You haven’t really been to Mobile if you haven’t eaten here.

Anywhere Mobilians are they can turn a good time into a great time but where you lodge can add an extra dimension. Accommodations, aside from being a place to rest and recuperate, should have those extras that are specific to your personal tastes and needs.

The Malaga Inn, a 2014 winner of Tripadvisor’s “Certificate of Excellence”, is located in twin townhouses, constructed during the Civil War. The historic boutique Inn is unique in the state and is highly desired by visitors and as an event venue. The inn offers 39 designer guestrooms, outstanding service and a charming courtyard. History tours of the property are offered to guests.

The mere mention of the historic Battle House Hotel conjures images of luxury and grandeur. It has been designated both as a AAA 4 Diamond Hotel and a member of Historic Hotels of America. The Battle House provides all the standard amenities plus designer linens, fitness center, spa, concierge services, complimentary high-speed wireless and valet parking. There are three restaurants including the Trellis Room, a AAA 4 Diamond restaurant. The hotel is convenient to all the city attractions and tours of the historic areas of the hotel can be scheduled.

Plan ahead to party like a Mobilian.

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