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Travel notes, spring 1985

SEVERAL readers have asked what I was doing during the last week of March instead of writing my usual columns for this space. I took a week's vacation for a triple purpose. My wife wanted to see spring flowers. We both wanted to see antebellum houses in the Deep South. And I, a Civil War buff, wanted to see where and why Adm. David Farragut issued his famous order, ``Damn the torpedoes -- full speed ahead!'' There was also the auxiliary thought that we might encounter an unusual meal worth recording.

So off we went to Alabama and achieved all purposes beyond expectations.

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We reached the Bellingrath Gardens just below Mobile when both azaleas and dogwood were at peak perfection. There were literally acres of tiered masses of azaleas sloping up to a backdrop of dogwood. The proper descriptive words are spectacular and satisfying. The last week of March seems to be about the right time.

An incidental bonus as we drove around southern Alabama was to discover that dogwood grows naturally all through the woods, which are usually pine with a high crown. At a distance, it gives the impression of a layer of silvery lace at half tree level.

We were surprised by the size and splendor of the Sturdivant House in Selma. Its ceilings, both on main and second floor, are 17 feet high. There is a central corridor on both floors, as wide as high, and the usual four fine rooms on each.

Even more elegant, and surprising to us, in that it was not in the conventional Southern style of the central square set in pillared verandas, was Gainswood House in Demopolis. It had been built by a family with memories of some 16th-century Palladian country house in England. It is not symmetrical. Its ceilings are relatively low. Its living quarters are largely on the main floor. Its outstanding feature is a matching dining and drawing room, each crowned by a dome with window lights at the top.

Kirkwood House in Eutaw is a fine example of the classic Southern mansion. Its Corinthian topped columns seemed specially splendid, perhaps because it is set on a hilltop. There are many such to be seen. I learned that most of these elegant houses date from the 1850s, not earlier. They were the product of the enormous demand for cotton, which developed in England out of Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin.

That date -- the 1850s -- for the broad verandas and high columns also explains the hint of Victorianism which shows up sometimes in the capitals of the columns, in the internal moldings, and in the furniture. The dominant theme is Greek revival, but with Victorian flavor.

Now Farragut: In 1864, Fort Morgan blocked Admiral Farragut's way into Mobile Bay. It sits on the barrier reef at the eastern entrance to the bay. The channel through the reef is less than a mile wide. The admiral's orders were to take the fort, control the channel, and complete the isolation of the Confederacy from the outside world.

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To take the fort he needed to get his ships inside the bay so that he could bring his guns to bear from three sides. To do that he had first to fight off a smaller Confederate squadron, then push through the channel which was defended by a row of mines, then called torpedoes. The first ship in his line struck one and went down. He took his chances on the others. They were duds. He went through, and the fort had to surrender to his superior gunfire.

We had an agreeable culinary surprise at the Madison Hotel in Montgomery. The hotel itself is what I would call nondescript modern. But on its lower level is Rousso's Italian restaurant. The soup was a perfect stracciatella. The main course was an elegant piccata of veal. The dessert was a slice from a brick of layered ice cream set off in a delicate lemon sauce.

I rated all three dishes on a quality level with the best product of the Ritz in Boston or the Connaught Grill in London.

We enjoyed our trip to Alabama.

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