On a recent early May morning I started my old Honda Accord and headed east. My destination – about 160 miles from Carrboro – the historic town of New Bern, set at the confluence of the rivers Trent and Neuse, near the Atlantic coast of North Carolina. I had read that it was a quaint riverfront town, picturesque and with an interesting historical past. And, after my visit, I can confirm this to be true.
New Bern was settled in 1710 by mostly Swiss and Palatine immigrants under the leadership of Baron Christoph von Graffenried, whose home town was the city of Bern, in Switzerland. They adopted the name of New Bern for their settlement. The town thrived and by the 1760s became the colonial capital of North Carolina. After the Revolution it also became the capital of the State, until the early 1790s when the government was moved to Raleigh.
I arrived mid-morning and parked near the Tryon Palace. This palace was built by order of the royal British Governor William Tryon between 1766 and 1770 and was considered, – according to Catherine Bishir, in her book North Carolina Architecture – “a monument of opulence and elegance extraordinary in the American colonies.” The building burned down in 1798 and laid in ruins until the middle of the 20th century, when it was rebuild and opened to the public.
I feel that I have already seen many palaces during previous travels, so I skipped the visit, but took a look around the well-kept gardens laid out in the style of grand gardens of Europe in the late 1700’s.
I took a Trolley Tour around the downtown area of New Bern. The elderly lady that acted as tour guide was a fountain of information and historical facts. She pointed out dozens of buildings, told us the story of their owners and dwellers, and added many interesting details. Of course, by the end of the tour I had forgotten mostly everything that she had described. Still, for every one that has better memory than me it is a worthwhile tour.
After lunch, I continued my tour on foot stopping at the Birthplace of Pepsi, the actual site where Pepsi-Cola was first invented by Caleb Bradham in his pharmacy in 1898. Today, the pharmacy has been replaced by a souvenir store and a parlor where one can sample all the products produced by Pepsi.
I also visited the Episcopal Christ Church, which was established in 1715. The current building was erected in 1885. Most of the benches and I believe that the magnificent organ, also was build round that time. The church proudly keeps as a treasure a silver communion service, a bible and a prayer book presented by King George II to the congregation in 1752. They are still used in especial occasions.
I noticed during the trolley tour and my walking around town, the many churches dotted the downtown area. And I remembered that Charleston, SC is called “the Holy City”, because of the high number of churches that are scattered in the town. I believe that, by size comparison and its number of churches, New Bern could be a “Holier City” than Charleston.
Another thing that New Bern has plenty of are statues of bears. In 2010, New Bern celebrated its 300 anniversary and in celebration the city and local businesses decided to place 50 colorful statues, made of fiberglass and ceramic, of bears throughout the town. During my stay I only spotted about a dozen of them. Why the bears? Bern is old Germanic for bear and a bear is also the symbol of the original town in Switzerland. The bear is also the center figure in the city’s flag, which is displayed profusely around town.
After wandering a little longer admiring the different styles of the many historical homes that dot the town (Georgian from the late 18th century to the Victorian of the late 19th century, including Federal, Greek Revival and Italianate, from the middle 1800s) I went to rest to my hotel.
I returned later to the waterfront to have dinner at Persimmons Restaurant, where I had an excellent red snapper and two glasses of Albariño wine. The key lime tart I had for dessert was not very satisfying.
Next morning, I visited the Civil War Battlefield, the site of the March 14, 1862 battle of New Bern. This was not an open field, as I had imagine it; the battle was fought among centennial trees and behind thick underbrush, as well a swampy land. Incredibly the trenches remain as they were a century and half ago, and in the peaceful silence of the morning, one can’t hardly imagine the din and the carnage that ensued that other fateful morning. The casualties (154 killed and 581 wounded) were not high for Civil War standards, but added to the hundreds of thousands that had to give their lives or were maimed in that inglorious war.
I returned to town and continued my tour admiring more houses, the well-kept gardens and the shores of the Trent River. I ended my visit by having lunch at the Chelsea Restaurant, a busy bistro-style eating place in downtown. After lunch I headed back to Carrboro. Thus, ended a pleasant short trip.