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March 01, 1992|JERRY HULSE

Spring Pilgrimage begins Saturday in Natchez, Miss. A great show. Ladies in hoop skirts. Gentlemen in planter suits. Doors to dozens of pre-Civil War mansions swing open during the annual monthlong observance. As the oldest town along the Mississippi River, Natchez once boasted more millionaires than any town in America. Plantations spanned thousands of acres. Cotton was king. Natchez's opulent lifestyle ended with the South's crushing defeat. Hundreds of antebellum homes stood abandoned. Lace curtains rotted at the windows. Shutters rattled in the wind. A one-time center of culture, Natchez slumbered.

During the war, when Union forces occupied Natchez, Gen. Grant ordered his troops to spare the homes. Now Natchez preaches that "it is here that the Old South still lives." Several years ago, I arrived aboard an old paddle-wheeler. It was a trip back in time.

Massive columns support such grand old antebellums as Rosalie, The Elms, The Briars, Cherokee, Elms Court, Elgin, Fair Oaks, Gloucester, Dunleith, D'Evereaux, Auburn, Longwood and others. The latter, the largest octagonal house in America, remains unfinished. Workmen's tools lie scattered in the attic. Wheelbarrows are laced with spider webs. Dust gathers in the ghostly old home.

Like Spanish moss dripping from some gnarled old oak, history hangs heavy in Natchez. The antebellums provided shelter to such legendary figures as Henry Clay, Lafayette, Jenny Lind, Samuel Clemens and Stephen Foster. Andrew Jackson wed his beloved Rachel at Springfield. Jefferson Davis took his bride at The Briars. Elsewhere, bed and breakfast is provided in other mansions. Mint juleps, warm cider, Southern fried chicken, catfish, sausage, red beans, rice and gumbo. Carriages rattle through the streets. The voice of an all-black choir is heard at the Holy Family Catholic Church, and the history of Natchez is repeated nightly at the Confederate Pageant.

Spring Pilgrimage continues through April 5. In the fall, the spectacle is repeated (Oct. 3-23). For details:

Natchez Pilgrimage Tours and the Pilgrimage Garden Club, P.O. Box 347, Natchez, Miss. 39121, (800) 647-6742.

Natchez Garden Club, P.O. Box 537, Natchez, Miss. 39121, (601) 442-6672.

Europe Catalogue: Rail Europe's new 40-page catalogue outlines train, rental car and hotel programs in 23 European countries. A total of 17 plans for vacationers. Ride the train exclusively or choose a rail/drive package. Participating countries include Austria, Britain, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Scandinavia, plus others. (Purchase passes before leaving the United States.) In France, air travel is offered with train/auto trips. A five-day pass (for use during a 17-day period) sells for as little as $103 for the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg). Rail Europe's brand-new "Flexhotel" program provides discounted hotel vouchers good for accommodations at 430 Best Western hotels.

Copies of the catalogue from Rail Europe, Box 10383, Stamford, Conn. 06904.

Remembering France: A note from John Habecker of Cucamonga: "A few years ago you wrote of Castang, a guest farm in the Dordogne area of France operated by Daphne and Maurice Gorse. A young couple, Cathy and Keith Parker, are the new managers. My wife and I spent a beautiful week there as a result of your article. Several friends have gone on our recommendation. Also, we have recommended it to travelers we have met on trips. All have reported their pleasure and satisfaction. Rates for rooms or apartments (with bath) include breakfast, a cocktail hour and five-course dinner. We paid approximately $1,000 for the week for two."

Castang overlooks the Dordogne Valley. Nine guest rooms with baths in a farmhouse. Visits to historic chateaux, caves. Season: April 13 to Nov. 3. Write to Castang, Le Coux et Bigaroque, 24220 St. Cyprien, Dordogne, France.

Maps/Guides: Trails Illustrated of Evergreen, Colo., produces dozens of maps/guides. Stocks national park maps, Colorado/Utah recreational area maps. National park listings take in the Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah, Acadia, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Rocky Mountains, Zion, Glacier, Grand Teton, Mt. Rainier, Denali, Joshua Tree, Canyonlands, Sequoia. Scores of others. The maps (updated regularly) are waterproof and offer hiking/trip-planning guidance, information on wildlife, history, geology, archeology. Popular with hikers, skiers, bicyclists, backpackers. Sold in more than 1,200 retail outlets in the United States, Europe, Japan. Copies also on sale at National Park Visitor Centers and from Trails Illustrated, P.O. Box 3610, Evergreen, Colo. 80439, (800) 962-1643. Prices: $5-$8.

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