Monday, July 4, 2011

Perfecting our Saunter at Three Louisiana Sugar Palaces

The River Road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is actually a network of roads on both sides of the Mississippi River. Sugar cane was the big money crop here (and is still grown here), and the grand plantations built on sugar remember a grand lifestyle. We toured three of these, perfecting out hot-weather saunters on a sunny June day in Louisiana.

First on the agenda was Laura, a Creole plantation built in 1805 in Vacherie, Louisiana. The tour through the house and grounds was fantastic and we felt the most authentic of the three we'd see. We learned that these houses are supported by huge underground pyramids of bricks because the earth is so soft and wet. The house is painted in traditional Creole colors which set it apart from the white Greek Revival mansions we would see next.

Another unusual fact about Laura is that since its owners were of French descent, they saw no problem with women inheriting property. (The English didn't allow it.) Three generations of women ran the Laura plantation, ending with Laura Locoul Gore, upon whose memoirs the tours are based. The first-hand accounts of family and house history helped make this tour compelling.

It's also interesting to learn that the folktales told by the Senegalese slaves at Laura were recorded by a Louisiana State University professor and eventually became known as the B'rer Rabbit tales.

Just upriver from Laura, and still in Vacherie, sits Oak Alley with its iconic 300-year-old live oak canopy. This shot seems to be everywhere, but I had to take a few of my own. The trees predate the current house and the levee across the street. The 28 oaks were planted by the French owner of a much more modest house exactly 80 feet apart. The idea is for the two lines of massive oaks to draw the cool river breezes towards the house and sauntering people. One hundred years after that modest house, the current mansion was built on the site with 28 Doric columns, eight feet in circumference. (That's thick, but consider those huge live oaks are about 30 feet around!)
People used to sit on the veranda , sipping mint juleps, to watch the ships passing on the river. That's no longer possible since the levee hides the river from view. On the other hand, that levee protected the region during and after Hurricane Katrina.

Our third plantation visit was Houmas House in Burnside, Louisiana. This one gets the prize for the most interesting gardens. Exotic, tropical flowers, ponds, fountains, whimsical garden accents, and buildings populate the grounds along with live oaks, magnolias, and crape myrtles. There is color everywhere. This Greek Revival "sugar palace" was begun in the early 1800s and finished in the 1840s by his son-in-law. Gorgeous hand-carved furniture and fine art decorate the house along with noteworthy architectural elements. The three-story free-standing wooden spiral staircase caught my eye, as did the older, colorful French House connected behind the mansion which contains an open-hearth kitchen. By the way, men are required to climb it first so that women don't accidentally flash them any...ankle. Re-watch the movie "Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte"--it was filmed here and Bette Davis got to stay in the house. Today the current owner lives in the mansion, and it was a little odd to come upon his historically-correct bedroom and walk through it on the tour. Odder still, the wedding picture display of his pair of Golden Retrievers...

No comments: