12.05.2010 - 13.05.2010 87 °F
Room 256, Doubletree Hotel, Charleston, South Carolina, 8:41pm
You know when you type a load of stuff and you think "I'd better save this"? Well I just did that, and lost the lot. Had almost finished typing this Blog and, splat, I lost the lot. Somewhat discouraging but here goes, I'll try again. (Presses SAVE).
Found the Avia Hotel without a problem. Greeted by a lovely black guy who organised our bags and parked our car. Then the checkin clerk shook our hands and gave us our room keys. But then the Concierge, Becky, who I'd been in touch with before by Email, screeched "you made it" and rushed round her desk to give us a rib-bruising hug to greet us to this quite remarkable city.
A great hotel and very friendly, like all the inhabitants we encountered. Little wonder the hotel is top of the list on TripAdvisor. Though not the most costly by far.
Bill Bryson, we agree with you whole-heartedly. It was his write-up that brought us here in the first place.
We'd booked a personal tour with a guy called Bobby Davis (didn't he used to play tennis? Oh no, that was Bobby Wilson). Again we chose him from TripAdvisor. This was to be an 8am "Early Starter" half-day tour. Of course we never made that, but he kindly rescheduled it for 4pm. And well worth it was too. A great introduction to this city of 18th Century Mansions and cool squares shaded by giant oaks dripping with Spanish Moss. (Cue Tara's Theme). Actually that's more appropriate for where we are today, Charleston. More on that later.
No, no Johnny. You can't rhyme "Spoon Liver, with Moon River". Statue of Johnny Mercer
The guy was so full of enthusiasm and knowledge, we couldn't believe. Descended from the Irish who came out here to pick cotton. (Georgia, originally, had made slavery illegal. Eventually they had to give in and legalise it in order to compete with the likes of South Carolina).
We learned something else about slavery the following day on a guided tour of the Owens-Thomas House where we saw the "upstairs/downstairs" situations of slave quarters and wealthy cotton traders rooms. Whilst town slaves generally had quite a good life and were well looked after (owners were required to by law). Out on the plantations, once a slave had become to old and decrepit to work, they were offered the "black bottle" containing poison to end it all. Grim!
The Rough Guide has the following to say:
American towns don't come much more beautiful than SAVANNAH, seventeen miles up the Savannah River from the ocean, and twenty miles south of the South Carolina state line. The ravishing historic district, ranged around Spanish-moss-swathed garden squares, formed the core of the original city, and today boasts examples of just about every architectural style of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The atmospheric cobbled waterfront on the Savannah River, key to the postwar economy, is edged by towering old cotton warehouses.
Savannah was founded by James Oglethorpe in 1733 as the first settlement of the new British colony of Georgia. His intention was to establish a haven for debtors, with no Catholics, lawyers, or hard liquor – and, above all, no slaves. However, with the arrival of North Carolina settlers in the 1750s, plantation agriculture, based on slave labor, took off. The town became a major export center, at the end of important railroad lines by which cotton was funneled from far away in the South. General Sherman arrived here in December 1864 at the end of his "March to the Sea"; he offered the town to Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas gift, but at Lincoln's urging left it intact and set to work apportioning land to freed slaves. This was the first recognition of the need for "reconstruction," though such concrete economic provision for slaves was rarely to occur again.
After the Civil War, the plantations floundered; cotton prices slumped, and Savannah went into decline. There was little industry beyond the port, and as that fell into disuse and decay, so too did Savannah's graceful townhouses and tree-lined boulevards. Not until the 1960s did local citizens start to organize what has been, on the whole, the successful restoration of their town. In the last two decades, the private Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) has injected Savannah with even more vitality, attracting a population of lively young artists and regenerating downtown even further by buying up a number of wonderful old buildings.
Savannah acquired notoriety in the mid-1990s thanks to its starring role in John Berendt's best-selling Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil; both book and movie detailed a delicious brew of cross-dressing, voodoo, and murder. For a sense of what goes on behind closed doors in the city, it's an unbeatable read. If you want to look behind those doors yourself, however, few locations in "The Book" – as it's universally known – are open to the public, and none is likely to satisfy your curiosity.
Back to "me speaking":- Jim Williams, central character in "The Book" was a gay, millionaire art dealer who owned the Mercer House (was originally owned by the well-established Mercer family, one of whose famous sons was Johnny Mercer of "Moon River" fame) who killed a lover in "self defence". The locals hate "the book" but it has brought an awful of money into the city. It is based on a true story. After 4 trials, Jim Williams was acquitted. Becky, the concierge, knew Jim Williams. And many of the other characters. The Lady Chablis, the "drag act" in the book, was due to appear soon in Beaufort, where we have visited today.
It's a great film (and book). And we'd recommend it.
Talking of money, which we weren't, there are hundred and hundreds of these mansions in the city and one wonders where all the money comes from. And this is "old money". Wait till we start on Charleston though!
On our final evening, we drove out to Bonaventure Cemetery, which features so crucially in "The Book". An insider tip we were given was that we could drive into and around this massive and amazing place, and we did not have to park in the car park provided for tourist on the edge of the cemetery. In this way we saw so more much of it. Though the "statue" from the cover of the book has now found refuge in a museum.
We were also told that people are "dying to get into Bonaventure". Ha-ha.
We then drove out to Tynbee Island where, amongst other things, we picked up a parking ticket:-
Savannah is too nice, too civilised to be in America! If ever you get the chance, do come visit.