When Margaret Mitchell created Tara, a legend was born. Adrian Mourby flirts with the heroine of 'Gone With The Wind'

Come off it, Mammy, the Old South's not what it used to be.

Come off it, Mammy, the Old South's not what it used to be.

True enough, but then it never was. Margaret Mitchell's bestseller put a romantic gloss on the Civil War destruction of Atlanta. Hollywood then multiplied that by a thousand, turning the Deep South into America's Camelot, a golden age of knights in fine waistcoats and belles dames with hooped skirts and fiddle-dee-dee accents.

So what can you see?

Anyone visiting Atlanta will be disappointed by Peachtree Avenue, where Rhett and Scarlett had their home. The city's premier boulevard has no mansions now, just loads of skyscrapers (including the western hemisphere's tallest hotel). As for plantations like Tara, most were burned down by that beastly General Sherman in his punitive march to the coast. However, you can still catch a glimpse of the antebellum South in other places. Natchez in Mississippi was saved from destruction because the local landowners had voted against secession. Better still for sightseers, a quirk of geology means that all the owners lived not miles from each other, on plantations, but conveniently shoulder to shoulder in a garden suburb called Natchez Bluff that overlooks the Mississippi.

Hang on, Atlanta is in Georgia, not Mississippi

Good point. Antebellum mansions differed across the southern plantations. In Charleston they were built in brick and looked just like English Queen Anne houses (with a duplex balcony on the back). In Atlanta they were Federal style, much plainer than those long, white, porticoed Greek Revival mansions you see in the film. Only in Mississippi do you get the kind of mansion that the producer, David Selznick, wanted for Tara.

The house itself was a set, but if you want to find it today then St Charles Avenue in New Orleans is the place to go. The film came out in 1939 and in 1941 a Louisiana businessman, George Palmer, hired an architect called Lockett to build an exact replica of Selznick's Tara. It is still there today and very convincing. Ask your taxi driver for 5705 St Charles, but do not expect to be invited in. This is a private home (and in any case, it is all 1990s inside). Incidentally, New Orleans was where Scarlett's saintly mother came from, so there is every chance she worshipped at the French Cathedral of St Louis on Jackson Square.

Never mind Mommy Dearest, what about Captain Butler?

Rhett was visiting from Charleston, which was a byword for loose morals in those days. The Rhetts were a prominent family in the Carolinas. You can still see the Aiken-Rhett House there, a large historic building north of Broad Street. The family not only provided a mayor of Charleston, but his butler invented the city's favourite dish, she-crab soup, to commemorate a visit by President Taft in 1911. Some Charlestonians think Margaret Mitchell was inspired by the tale of "Rhett's Butler" but others believe his name was taken from the nickname of her first husband, a bootlegging blackguard from the Carolinas, known as "Red" Upshaw.

How come you know all this?

No trip to Atlanta is complete without a visit to the Margaret Mitchell House where she wrote her one and only novel, published in 1936. The "Dump", as Mitchell called her basement flat, has been restored and has a cinema extension where you can see movie memorabilia including the gushing telegram that Vivien Leigh sent to Mitchell when she landed the part of Scarlett. In the gift shop, you can buy patterns to make your own Scarlett O'Hara dresses, including the green one she famously cannibalised from curtains when setting out to save Tara. And an antebellum guest house in New Orleans (5603 St Charles Avenue) has a "Scarlett" room with reproductions of those famous green-fringed curtains on the windows.

What's all this "antebellum" stuff?

That's the word down south for life before the "War" . There is only one war in the eyes of Southerners and that was the "War Between States" - even today many Southerners refuse to call it the "Civil" War because civil it damn well wasn't. They feel the memory particularly keenly in Atlanta, even if they have no antebellum architecture left. My local guide told me indignantly that Atlanta was the only city to have been razed to the ground in a war (I had to ask her if she'd heard about Hiroshima and Dresden) where citizens were not given a gentlemanly three hours' notice to leave.

What about the black contribution to Gone With The Wind?

Several cities commemorate the truth behind Mammy, Prissy and Big Sam. In Atlanta, the Martin Luther King Center For Non-Violent Change has a big display about what life on the cotton plantation was like for slaves and in Charleston, although the Middleton Plantation was burned down, the old cotton press was saved and now houses both a chapel and a slavery exhibition. At Monmouth Plantation in Natchez and at Andrew Jackson's Hermitage in Nashville you will see slave quarters. Monmouth has turned these huts into luxury hotel accommodation, ideal for couples but less comfortable for the dozen or so who would have lived there originally.

What about Miz Scarlett herself?

Some people claim that Margaret Mitchell's grandmother bore a resemblance to Katie Scarlett O'Hara, but a prime candidate has to be the remarkable Adalicia Acklen of Nashville. This redoubtable lady had cotton plantations and a fine house, just to the south of Nashville, called Belmont. During the war, she refused to be cowed by the occupying Union forces and appealed to their commander, claiming the Confederates were preventing her cotton from getting to market. The soldiers of Mr Lincoln could not resist the way Miss Acklen fluttered her eyelashes and actually helped her to load the barges. Adalicia and her slave girl then set off to New Orleans, only to run into the Condeferates whom she convinced that Union soldiers were trying to stop her cotton getting to market. With their assistance, Adalicia got free passage down to New Orleans where she sold at an all-time high and made $1m. Belmont is now the campus of Nashville University but the mansion is worth seeing. It looks a million dollars - just like Miz Scarlett.

I'm convinced. How do I get there?

I flew to the American South on Continental Airlines (0845 607 6760; www.continental.com), which offers return fares to Atlanta from around £267 return in November from London Gatwick via Houston. I stayed at the Westin Peachtree Plaza (001 404 659 1400; www.westin.com) where double rooms start from around $169 (£100) per night, excluding breakfast. For car hire, Holiday Autos (0870 400 0010; www.holidayautos.co.uk) offers one week's fully inclusive car hire package from £139. For further information. For further information, contact Georgia Tourism (01293 560848; www.georgiaonmymind.org).