The splendour of Savannah, Georgia (putting aside a boring tour guide, that is)
SAVANNAH, GEORGIA - It’s amazing what a difference a tour guide makes.
I did a tour last week in Charleston, led by a local kid who was a history major in university and now makes his living dispensing knowledge on a horse-drawn carriage ride through town. He was utterly delightful, making jokes and insider comments and explaining things in a colourful, interested manner.
The next day I was in Savannah and had the winner of the Miss Monotone 2011 contest. She dispensed some interesting information that I half-processed when I wasn’t nodding off, but she was flat and seemingly disinterested. It’s a shame, as it’s just as compelling a place – maybe even more so – than Charleston, which seems to get all the top ink these days in various reader polls.
The tour aside, I was impressed with Savannah. I stayed down at the River Street Inn; an old cotton exchange/shipping building right on the waterfront. They’ve refurbished the place, of course, but you can still see vestiges of the old offices and various pieces of equipment for hauling cotton outside the hotel proper, on what’s called Factor’s Walk.
The shops are nice and not overly precious, and they’ve done a great job fixing up the waterfront with parks, a tall ship you can tour for free a couple days a week, and plenty of places for musicians to gather or for folks to weave small flowers or baskets out of palm fronds to sell to the tourists.
The architecture is mostly glorious; old brick buildings and colonial homes and graceful mansions that look like New Orleans all sprinkled around a city with some two dozen squares. One of them, Chippewa Square at right, is famous for being the spot where Tom Hanks sits and talks about boxes of chocolates in the movie Forrest Gump.
Others feature statues of local heroes or dancing fountains surrounded by tall palms or centuries-old live oak trees dripping with Spanish Moss, which my tour guide (in a rare display of making things interesting) told my group was neither Spanish nor actual moss but a harmless plant related to the pineapple. She also said settlers used the plants to stuff their mattresses and pillows until they found it had chiggers and other horrible bugs nesting inside.
One square in town – I don’t remember which one – was quite recent. Our guide told us the original square was torn down in 1954 to make way for a parking garage. When the parking garage permit ran out a couple years ago they tore it down – and built another square.
We also drove past Colonial Park Cemetery, which was used by General Sherman’s men during the Civil War when the north marched on Georgia. Sherman met with Savannah folks and spared the city from his fires, then telegraphed President Abraham Lincoln to say he was giving him the gracious Georgia city as a Christmas present.
Alas, Sherman’s soldiers didn’t have the same grace. They tore up the cemetery, defaced headstones and dug up graves so they could have places to sleep. Consequently, many of the graves are now unmarked, and they’ve taken a large row of headstones and displayed them on a wall for folks to see.
Our tour also took us through the old Colonial section of town. Our guide pointed to a house that had its window ledges on top, not on the bottom of the window where they should be.
“The man bought his house plans from Sears Roebuck catalogue but didn’t know how to follow directions,” our guide said. Interesting, but she could’ve made it sound hilarious if she had any kind of delivery.
Again, though, it’s not hard to put that aside and gain a deep appreciation for lovely verandas and graceful porches and flowers and majestic brick buildings and park benches and old trees and, yes, a reminder of another time.
Another price category, too. I passed a bar called Abe’s that was advertising a Happy Hour featuring Tall Boy beers for $2 and well drinks for $3. Sigh.