Saturday, June 7, 2008

19. Savannah

We set up our Savannah base camp near Hardeeville, South Carolina, about ten miles north of the city. It was convenient and an easy drive into town.

Many of these east coast areas are so important in American history that we have to share a little of the background with you. If you're yawning a lot, let us know.

Savannah is Georgia’s oldest city. It was established by British General James Oglethorpe in 1733. One of its original purposes was to protect British interests from the Spanish, who controlled Florida to the south. Oglethorpe was successful, in large part, because he treated the local Indians with respect, unlike many other early intruders. They, in turn, were instrumental in the success of his new settlement, which gradually grew into a busy colonial British outpost. Oglethorpe is clearly the local hero and his name is on streets, parks, buildings and statues all over town. This is his main statue and plaque in Oglethorpe Square.

Savannah prides itself in its natural beauty, preserved architecture and colorful history. It's also known for its old-fashioned Southern charm and as the home of Paula Deen from the TV Food Network. She operates a popular downtown restaurant. The waiting line is usually at least three hours. Our time is too valuable to spend standing in line, so we ate elsewhere.

Being retired city planners, we were interested in the city's basic lay-out, its most important physical feature. Oglethorpe designed the city with a tight grid system of streets and wards. Within the pattern, he placed 24 public squares to serve the business, social and defensive needs of each ward. Three of the squares have been lost to “progress”, but 21 remain today and are carefully protected by the citizenry.
Today, the squares are small parks that serve their surrounding neighborhoods. Each square has its own identity and personality. Some have monuments or statues while others have fountains or other central features. The James Madison Square features vintage cannons. Wright Square is the final resting place of Tomochichi, the local Indian leader who helped Oglethorpe establish the colony. All are beautiful and most have well-maintained flower gardens, lots of trees and are shaded by live oaks draped with Spanish moss.

We took a trolley tour for a quick overview of Savannah, then did a lot of walking to see the details. After treading over old brick sidewalks and cobblestone streets in the heat and humidity, we were hot, our feet were throbbing and it was a relief to arrive at one of the squares and rest a while on a shady park bench. If you saw the movie, it was in Chippewa Square where Forrest Gump sat on a park bench with his box of chocolates and told his life’s story. The bench is in a local museum, but the square is unchanged and there are lots of benches on which to sit, eat chocolates and tell stories. The next night, the movie "Forrest Gump" was on TV, so we watched it again from our new perspective.
If 24 squares weren’t enough, Savannah’s Forsyth Park makes up for any deficit. Ron is standing in the central walkway. The large fountain in the background is the centerpiece. A newer addition to the park contains this large monument to the many Confederates who died in the Civil War. It’s a great place to walk, bicycle, sit a spell or, if you're lucky, attend a concert.
The Civil War was a very destructive period throughout the South. Many cities and large plantations were destroyed by Union armies. Savannah, being a Confederate city, became a target for destruction by Union Gen. William Sherman as he marched across Georgia destroying everything in sight. When Sherman got to Savannah, the Confederate general realized they were going to lose so he withdrew his troops to save the City. Sherman entered the city peacefully on Christmas Day, 1864, and offered it to President Lincoln as a present.

Juliette Gordon Low was an influential local personality. She grew up in Savannah, married wealthy Englishman William Low and endured an unhappy marriage. When “Willie” died, Juliette found herself alone and with money, but without a purpose in life. Then she met Baden Powell at a dinner in England. He had just formed the Boy Scouts but didn’t know what to do with all the girls who wanted to join. He asked Juliette if she would do something for the girls. With Powell’s assistance, she formed the Girl Guides in England and Scotland and later brought the idea to the U.S. We didn't know that she was also an accomplished artist. We saw many of her paintings, sculptures and designs for gates and other iron work during the tour of her birthplace and museum. It’s a popular tour stop and the city’s first designated National Historic Landmark.

We couldn’t pass up a peek into some of Savannah’s beautiful churches, especially the amazing Gothic-style Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist. Many changes and additions have been made since the original cornerstone was laid in 1800. The cathedral was damaged by hurricanes and mostly destroyed by fire in 1898, but it always emerged better than before. It was a religious experience just entering this building with its tall columns, 70 ft. high arched ceilings, marble railings, floors and alter, huge pipe organ and many colorful murals and stained glass windows. This building is a masterpiece.

River Street follows the Savannah River and provides a clean modern walkway for visitors to view the boats and river activities. We crossed the large bridge in the background every day to get to our RV park on the South Carolina side.

Some of Savannah's oldest commercial buildings and cotton warehouses still line the riverfront. Today, it's an interesting mix of the old buildings, brick and cobblestone streets, small shops and eateries. We watched some of the river activities and stopped at Huey's for a cold drink and an excellent muffuletta (a popular sandwich in the South).
The old and very bumpy cobblestone streets were made from the ballast of British sailing ships. They dumped the rocks here before filling their ships with cotton and other products for the trip back to Europe. [We took a similar blue trolley tour of the city.]
Behind the riverfront buildings is a narrow alley called Factors Walk. Factors were brokers and sales agents who worked in the cotton market and other businesses and did much of their business at this location. It's still a place for business and a good place to see the true character of these old buildings.
We seem to agree that the jewels of Savannah are the beautiful neighborhoods. We saw block after block of big and small mostly brick homes with lots of ironwork and interesting brick and cobblestone streets. This is high density. Most homes are very close together, have very small yards or small courtyards and few garages. Streets are narrow and parking is hard to find. Huge live oaks create full canopies over the streets, which is essential for shade from the hot summer sun. Our tour guide assured us that strict design controls are in place to ensure that the historic district will become increasingly valuable over time.

We had to get away from the city for a little beach time. So, we drove down to “famous” Hilton Head. It’s a ritzy island with lots of development, condos, private gated communities, expensive cars and golf courses. Interesting to see, but not our kind of place. We stopped for lunch on the deck of the Crazy Crab (photo), overlooking miles of marshlands and Carolina Lowcountry (will explain in next chapter). Ron was looking forward to a nice juicy oyster sandwich. However, the waitress messed up the order and delivered a flounder sandwich instead. The waitress apologized, it was accepted, and it was the best flounder sandwich Ron ever had.

Public beach access was hard to find on Hilton Head. So, we stopped at the local Westin Hotel and walked through their lobby and pool area and onto "their" beach (photo). It was beautiful and nearly empty, but we didn’t stay very long. We later went to Tybee Island, which is closer to Savannah, more affordable and family oriented. We found a good spot for our chairs on a nice stretch of beach near the Tybee Island lighthouse. It was a perfect place to work on our tans and do a little wading.

Fort Pulaski Nat’l. Monument was along the Tybee Island highway, so we stopped to take a look. It’s a very well-preserved and restored fort with interesting brickwork, a 7 ft. deep moat and old Civil War guns. It took 18 years and 25 million bricks to build. The photo shows part of the interior and foundation brickwork. On April 10, 1862, Union forces opened fire on Fort Pulaski from nearby Tybee Island. The fort took a beating and the Confederates surrendered after 30 hours of bombardment.

We arrived just in time to watch a cannon demonstration. They described the different types of artillery used in the Civil War and fired off a couple rounds. Very loud! The Civil War must have been a very loud war, with lots of hearing loss.
There’s so much more that we could write about Savannah, and lots of pictures, but we're trying to keep it to a manageable size so you'll come back for the next chapter. It’s a beautiful and well-preserved city. We felt like we were taking a stroll through history. We really enjoyed it. Next stop . . . Charleston.