SAVANNAH, Geo. – I’ve wanted to see Savannah for most of my life, and it took almost that long to get there
It was worth it, too,
My interest in Savannah began with an offhand comment by a Southern belle named Beth Herndon. Beth was married to a fellow sailor where I was briefly stationed in Charleston, S.C. When I mentioned that Charleston impressed me as a beautiful city, she quickly changed the subject:
“If you think Charleston is beautiful, you should go to Savannah. It’s the most beautiful city in the South!”
I’ve wanted to see it ever since, but didn’t get a chance to do it properly until last month on a trip to Atlanta. Atlanta has a lot going for it, but you expect that in a big city. By contrast, Savannah is a small but exquisite jewel. It’s about half the size of Boise and attracts more than 12 million visitors a year – 12 million.
There are reasons for that. One is that Beth was right – it’s ridiculously beautiful. A shopkeeper we met likened it to a little New Orleans – live oaks dripping Spanish moss, lush gardens, 22 parklike public squares, impressive architecture, imposing monuments and fountains … you can’t take pictures fast enough.
One reason Savannah has so many beautiful and historic buildings (a few dating to colonial times) is that it wasn’t burned during the Civil War. Why Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman spared it during his fiery March to the Sea depends on which version of the story you choose to believe. The official one is that the city sent a delegation to tell Sherman the city would surrender and offer no resistance if he didn’t burn it down. Others are that he couldn’t bring himself to burn such an attractive city and that his best friend lived there.
“What Yankee told you that?” a tour guide huffed when I mentioned it. “It wasn’t his best friend. He had a girlfriend who lived here. All the generals had girlfriends here.”
Savannah’s sidewalks, incidentally, were built extra wide to accommodate its Southern ladies’ billowing gowns.
History is almost palpable there:
* Savannah has the largest restored historic district in the U.S., the first motorized fire department in the U.S. and the nation’s first public art museum.
* It was the country’s first planned city, laid out around its famous squares.
* The Girl Scouts of America were founded there.
* Parts of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” were set in the Pirates’ House, built in the mid-1700s and still a popular Savannah restaurant today.
* Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in Savannah.
Civil War history is, of course, ubiquitous. Dates on some of the headstones in a downtown cemetery were altered to make it appear as if the deceased had lived for centuries. The culprits: members of Sherman’s army, who camped there.
Robert E. Lee was a frequent guest at a mansion now open to tours. Its original owner was Andrew Low, a cotton baron. His daughter-in-law, Juliette Gordon Low, founded the Girl Scouts in its parlor and died in an upstairs bedroom. (Nothing if not dedicated, she was buried in her uniform.) Lee slept in a bedroom across the hall. His prayer book is still on the nightstand.
Not for the first time – the first was on seeing Abraham Lincoln’s bloodstained pillow in Washington D.C. – I was struck by how accessible our history is. I was standing inches from Robert E. Lee’s prayer book, the book he agonized over while deciding the grim fates of countless human beings. I wanted to touch it, but our guide – an imposing representative of the “Colonial Dames,” undoubtedly would have rapped my knuckles.
Impressive as it is, Savannah’s history is but part of its story – and its charm. More than 800 movies have been made there. It’s most closely associated with “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” But the iconic “feather scene” in “Forrest Gump?” And the scenes where Forrest sat on a park bench and told his story? They were shot in Savannah. The bench is in a museum now.
The fifth best ice cream shop in the world, according to the Toronto Sun, is in Savannah. (The Sun’s top four, respectively, are in Los Angeles, Madrid, New York and Torino, Italy.) Rankings like these, obviously, are subjective. But it occurred to me while contemplating the meaning of life over a double scoop that there would be a lot worse ways to go than death by Leopold’s rum raisin.
Not to be overlooked among Savannah’s attractions are its people, and their deserved reputation for Southern hospitality. From tour guides to taxi drivers, we didn’t meet anyone who wasn’t over-the-top friendly and helpful. They’re proud of their city and love to tell you about it. They talk a lot, laugh a lot. They seem to have found lasting joy simply by living in what a friend once called the most beautiful city in the South.
Without her, I probably never would have gone there. Thanks, Beth.