Some of you may not know it, but when it comes to North American Mardi Gras, Mobile, Alabama tussles with New Orleans for pride of place. You can read about the disagreement here – both claim to be first. If you read it, though, it does seem to be a tie with how you weight it depending on how you define both “first” and “Mardi Gras.“
But anyway, just a couple of hours away from New Orleans’ notoriety (which you could not pay me to attempt – Bourbon Street on a non-holiday weekday is crazy enough….) stands Mobile, with its month-long Mardi Gras celebrations. Days and days of balls and parades all over the area. I’ve always wanted to go, but since this time of year is also basketball season, it never seems to work out. Plus, I also forget.
This year, a day – a whole day – appeared on the calendar, free from basketball and anything else. So we grabbed that day and ran with it.
We began Thursday evening after Michael’s art class. We got out of town by six, and were in our Residence Inn down in Mobile by 9:30. Free with points. A single bedroom suite was all I was able to book online, but I asked nicely once we arrived and was upgraded to a two bedroom. Much better. The boys spent an hour in the pool, thirty minutes in front of televisions watching ESPN and Duck Dynasty , respectively (for the record, I can’t stand the latter – it is so awkward in its staginess. But Someone Else who is nine likes it, so sometimes he gets to watch it.)
Up and out after breakfast. First stop was going to be the Exploreum Children’s Museum. I found the museum’s free parking lot, which was also very close to the parade route. I parked, and subsequently asked two people in various nearby museums, “Can I park there through the parade without being towed or paying?” And both people assured me yes. But that didn’t stop me from checking a few times during the day, of course. They are aggressive about towing during these parades (rightfully so), and I was not up for that. All was well, however, and it was also right next to I-10, so getting out was a breeze.
Well, I lied. The Exploreum wasn’t the first stop. Fort Conde was. It’s a reconstructed semblance of what the original fort, built by the French, would have looked like. It houses an excellent little museum centered on the history of the fort and Mobile, and it’s free.
At Fort Conde, an exhibit explaining how Mobile’s founder, Jean-Baptiste Moyne de Bienville, was tattooed so to better fit in with the Native Americans.
Of course, we must climb.
The Exploreum is across the street. Now remember, I am not a superfan of children’s museums, but our membership in ours here gets us in free, so that’s definitely worth an hour or two if we have it to kill. And after all – it’s a school day! We must learn!
This was not the best one I’ve ever seen, and one section of it even seemed almost like a replica of the first floor of McWane - the exact same exhibits and equipment. It’s also obviously more set up for school groups – like this large space which did have exhibits, but also featured large tables, each of which featured materials and instructions for making various things, most of them with the capacity to fly.
The distinctive element of this museum was this health-centered area. It featured some interesting technology, including an area in which you could simulate various types of surgery.
Next was the Mobile Carnival Museum- cheap, but not free either. It was fine. Most of what was exhibited were the, er, courtly garments of the Mardi Gras royalty – it is quite something. The boys were mostly puzzled as to what the heck all these long trains were about, but I came away with a little bit more awareness (if not understanding) of the culture that lies behind these celebrations. It’s pretty intricate.
Checked out the Cathedral – big pillars and stained glass in the doors, which is not something I’ve seen very often.
Finally the History Museum of Mobile. The website said it closed at 5, but when we arrived at 3:45, the sign said it was closing early – at 4:30 – because of the parade. The attendant asked for only a small donation, since we wouldn’t have much time. I don’t think that even if we’d had more time, we’d have spent more time, if you get my drift, so that was money well spent. Between the Fort and this Museum, you can get a decent education on the history of the area – the many times it changed hands between the Spanish, French, British and Americans, the disasters that seem to regularly affect it, and its economic importance.
We killed some time (more on that later) until parade time. (Oh, and no, we didn’t go to the USS Alabama. We have toured aircraft carriers – the Yorktown in Charleston and the Intrepid in NYC. Yes, this is a battleship, and so different, but hanging out on the USS Alabama is a pretty common Scout activity in these parts, so we (they) can wait for that.)
Our spot was on Government street, near the beginning of the route – the parade began exactly on time, and took about 40 minutes (we were in the car at 7:18). It was different and fun – this was the Inca Parade, by the way. I’m trying to imagine what it’s like on the days over the next week and a half when there are several of these parades every day – and I can’t.
It was a very family-friendly crowd. Lots and lots of kids, not any alcohol to speak of, and no, er, demonstrations. I understand it gets rowdier up around the bars, which isn’t surprising. And it will probably be a lot rowdier everywhere a week from now. There are elaborate floats and lots of bands. Masked men (creepy) throw out beads, toys, footballs (we got one) and yes, Moon Pies. As we were walking around before, Joseph asked of a passer-by, “Why does that lady have a rake?” and once the parade started, he figured out why and wished he had one.
And back home in the Ham by 11. Done and done!
I’m glad we went, but I’ll tell you the problem with Mobile Mardi Gras: (deep breath) it’s Mobile. Or at least downtown Mobile. As I said, we had almost two hours to kill between leaving the museum and the beginning of the parade. We’d eaten a late lunch and weren’t hungry. So during that time, we wandered downtown and the waterfront. And wandered and wandered. Honestly, it’s a sad, sad downtown. Not that Birmingham is better, of course. They try to sell Dauphin Street as Mobile’s Bourbon Street, but, no. There are just as many shuttered storefronts as occupied ones. Most of the businesses are restaurants, bars and coffeeshops – with one bookstore, a couple of men’s clothing shops and one woman’s clothing shop. The waterfront park is just an expanded walkway with a vacant, unused, kind of air about it. I was expecting maybe a lower-key Charleston or Savannah vibe but it wasn’t even close, which is too bad, since it really diminished my interest in returning.
But……the good times did roll this time, anyway!
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