I admit the cliche—I’ve wanted to visit Savannah ever since seeing Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in the mid-nineties.
I was, and most likely forever shall be, in love with John Cusack and where he goes, I want to go. My first trip to Chicago was for work, but I was enticed there after watching High Fidelity.
My ever-susceptible-to-suggestion personality longed to wander New Orleans after reading Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles, and I made it to Cortona, Italy when Under the Tuscan Sun got into my soul.
Ah, the power that writers wield over us unsuspecting readers, drawing us in to try the new this and the new there.
Getting back to Savannah. Going as February turned over to March was nice, especially after low Pittsburgh temperatures. It would be delightful to return in April to see the promise come to life of colorful foliage everywhere. The occasional azalea, red bud tree, and pansies burst out in bloom, brightening up the green. Of course, the live oaks—so different from our Pennsylvania oaks—were magnificent with silvery Spanish Moss draping from most branches. Being a northerner, I don’t understand Spanish Moss and thought about looking it up or asking someone, but isn’t it wonderful to simply let the impact of what’s seen fill you and not dissect it?
As most folks who don’t live on water will do, the first order of business was to walk to the Savannah River. You can’t miss the historic district’s river path because as you cross Bay Street you’ll come to a huge stand of buildings with “Factors Walk” emblazoned across them. Named in the 19th century when the row of brick buildings was solely about baling and selling cotton, it grew to be called Factors Walk because “factors” determine the amount of cotton sold. Factoring is a new word for me and in a nutshell means selling an asset at a discount in order to get immediate cash. (Definition by dictionary RoseMary.)
Look for the rusty-red colored Cotton Exchange and the lion fountain in front of it. There is every shop imaginable located along this row from gelato to fine dining to t-shirts.
From the street, the buildings are two and three stories tall and look substantial and solid, but stroll down to the river side and look up, realizing the bluff they are built upon allows more floors below street level. Imagine arriving by ship in the late 1700s and being greeted by such a considerable line of man-made structures.
Along with New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, the Rivers Walk becomes a very touristy, congested area in the summer. As it was, we ate our only so-so meal at one of these restaurants and avoided dining there the rest of the week, opting for quieter choices. With places like Circa 1875, Corleone’s, Prohibition, and Chive to pick from, wander the upper streets of Savannah and opt for one of them instead, saving the River Walk for a pre-or-post dinner drink.
The beauty of our dinner on River Street was watching a cargo ship from Hong Kong stuffed stories high with containers make its way up the Savannah River. Alex had no sooner mused, “I wonder if the river is large enough for cargo ships,” than this one came into view. (I’ve long wondered why when I have said something like, “This setting is ideal for Sean Connery,” he has never appeared, so often do coincidences or serendipitous events happen in my life. Sigh.)
We learned that the dredging operation (begun in 2015) will continue, aiming to remove five more feet of depth (from 42 to 47 feet for a whopping 20 miles) to enable larger ships access. The first haul of sand and silt scooped out was used to reinforce sand dunes eroded from Tybee Island.
One note when you leave Bay Street to explore River Street, on either end of the park-like area are slopes to get you there. In between are any number of staircases. You’ll see multiple signs: “Historic Steps – use at own risk,” which translates to: these stairs are super steep, so be wary. We opted for each cobblestone ramp on various days, but they also present a unique challenge with uneven surfaces, so wear comfortable walking shoes. There is probably an elevator tucked somewhere in the Factors Walk buildings.
The city, aside from those dastardly historic steps, is flat and easy to traverse. It is laid out in a proper grid and makes good use of one way streets. When you’re driving, pay attention as you come to one of the many, many garden squares, and either stop or yield. These are always one way to your right—counterclockwise. As the first planned city in the USA, General James Oglethorpe included 24 tree-filled squares and thankfully 22 of them remain. They break up the city blocks and provide respite from the sun, as well as a dose of history with their names, plaques, and monuments. Don’t simply walk through, stop and read, admire, and even enjoy a break on one of the many benches.
You’ll see SCAD buildings everywhere and my brain kept going to South Carolina something until it also was smart enough to remind me that I was in Georgia. This is the Savannah College of Art and Design and they have dozens of buildings around town.
Speaking of South Carolina, it would be nice if Savannah took a lesson from Greenville and added signage pointing you to the places you want to tour. Being an old fashioned map-lover, I used paper and street signs, challenging myself to orient my direction, etc.—this being a game I like to play when I’m touring alone. More often than not I stumbled across the proper home or found a different one by accident. Some of that Greenville signage on the street corners would be awesome.
A goal for one day was to do a favorite thing when visiting any city: go in churches. The quiet ambiance allows this speed demon to slow down, take a life-pause and savor where I am, what I’m seeing. It was not to be. There was a particular church with an inviting sign out front, “All are welcome, adding verbiage like black and white, gay and straight, young and old. Yet when I tried three doors, they were incongruously locked. I tried another historic church the following day and again, the doors were locked. Other than my experience trying to get into the San Lorenzo in Genoa, in Europe it’s quite rare to find churches there locked.
In the arbitrary way we often do things, we wandered around town one evening until we wound up at the Circa 1875 restaurant. No reservations, but the maitre de graciously fit us in at a perfect table. I was distracted throughout dinner by staring at the beautiful painting (the original is in The National Gallery in London) of Manon Balletti by Jean Marc Nattier sometime in the 1700s. She was captivating.
Given the size of Savannah at 147,000 people in roughly 109 square miles, it was nice to see many locally owned businesses mixed with national chains. As we’ve all seen, the larger the city, the more likely it is to lose its uniqueness. Not so with Savannah and it would seem the historical societies are largely accountable for this preservation. A chain reaction started when seven ladies got together to save the Owen-Thomas house from destruction and continued on from there.
Historic Savannah is an inviting place and one that invites you to return throughout the seasons to see what new foliage comes to life or goes to sleep, what new events are taking place, and what finery the homes will be adorned with. Southern hospitality truly exists in this—one of our nation’s oldest intact cities—so make sure to put it on your list.