DSC_0413  “You’re from Paris? And you’re visiting Aiken?” People seem surprised that a French journalist is interested in their small town, “But why did you choose Aiken?” Little do they know that they live in a place surrounded by stories, such as in any other city. Wherever you are, you always make new discoveries. Railroad, horses, mansions… There is something about Aiken. Soon as we all get on the bus, parked next to the Aiken railroad depot, the historical journey begins. Here’s what can strike a French eye while visiting with other tourists.


Wide streets and hundreds of trees. Before France got the TGV (high speed train), Aiken became part in 1833 of what was at that time the longest railroad in the world, from Charleston on to Hamburg. This is the reason why it is so spread out – and so lovely.

It would not have happened without the love story between the surveyor Alfred Dexter and Sara Williams, who lived in a frame house on the corner of Ray Lane and York Street. She was the daughter of the local planter William Williams, who needed to get the train close to his fields to haul his cotton.

DSC_0438 According to the legend, he said to Dexter, “No railroad for me, young man, no girl for you.” When it comes to being romantic, it seems that Aiken has no reason to be jealous of Paris.

But unlike Paris, Aiken has this southern flavor which makes you feel instantaneously you are in another country. Even in another time. Landed from a noisy and crowded city, the spectator enjoys the quietness and the scenic view of South Carolina. It is not Paris, and it feels good.

The brick buildings are the remains of some old, charming places. Somewhere you think you have already been, because Western and Civil War movies gave you an insight of the setting. Or just because you have imagined a place where you could rest. In the nineteenth century, that very same atmosphere attracted North Americans, who became winter colonists, glad to breathe the fresh air under the porches. This same desire links you to historical characters. Your empathy increases.


You can almost see the heiress and colonist Evalyn Walsh McLenn, last private owner of the 45-carat Hope Diamond. She was so proud of this stone that while she was having tea with her friends, her dog would march with the diamond dangling from his collar. This happened on Hayne Avenue.

Here comes the fountain on the top of which sits a small dancing couple. We are in Laurens Street. “To me, it says Aiken. It is one of its most beautiful symbols”, explains the guide Judith D. Burgess. “We don’t know who they are, but they’ve always been there.”

Here comes the boarding school where studied dancer Fred Astaire and former First Lady Jackie Bouvier Kennedy: Aiken preparatory school, now part of Mead Hall Episcopal School.

Here comes Joye Cottage, the sixty room mansion, inhabited by the writers Steve Naifeh and Greg Smith, winners of the Pulitzer Prize for their biography of Jackson Pollock. When they die, the place will belong to the Juilliard School, whose students are already welcomed each year during the Juilliard in Aiken festival (this year, from March 9th to the 15th). This huge, white house is surrounded by a fence. The shutters are closed. The place is silent. It only takes one glance to feel like entering this private property.


Fortunately, Hopelands Gardens brings you some solace since it was bequeathed to the City in 1970, when the owner Mrs. Iselin passed away. Fragrant Magnolia flowers, birds’ song and the murmur of the water – kind of a fairy tale description, but what else is a haven of rest? “You don’t have to go to Charleston or Florida to see green spaces”, praises the guide. Citizens understood it very well: the flowers of the Camellia Garden were planted by people from Aiken, South Carolina.



Away from downtown, the landscape changes into the country. There are horses down the hill. Young female riders, wearing uniforms, are following each other in single file. The guide is delighted, “This is a true Aiken tour!” For what would be Aiken without horses? As one of the most important race training cities in the world, it contains many stables and animals. To remember it, you can find thirty seven different horse sculptures in the city. In front of the new administration and finance building, a beautiful one painted with the Star Spangled banner colors and a hunt scene. I wish we had toy Eiffel Towers we could play hide and seek with in Paris.


People take time to talk to you. Several young teenagers hang out in the street, burst out laughing. “Take my picture!”, says one of them, and here they are, striking a pose for the camera. A family comes back from the Mardi Gras Parade. The father wears a multicolor hat, “That’s what we do. We make people laugh.” Finally, one of the tourists comes closer, “My folks live in Orléans, I know a little of French,” he says proudly, “Bonjour, je suis enchanté de faire votre connaissance.” So am I.

Claire Pérez