American towns don’t come much more beautiful than SAVANNAH, seventeen miles up the Savannah River from the ocean. The ravishing historic district, arranged around Spanish-moss-swathed garden squares, formed the core of the original city and boasts examples of just about every architectural style of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, while the cobbled waterfront on the Savannah River is edged by towering old cotton warehouses. Savannah’s historic district is flanked by the river to the north, Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard to the west, Gaston Street to the south and Broad Street – which has long been replaced by the appealingly retro Broughton Street as downtown’s main commercial thoroughfare – to the east. The main draw here is in wandering the side streets and admiring the shuttered Federal, Regency and antebellum houses, embellished with intricate iron balconies. More than twenty residential squares, shaded by canopies of ancient live oaks and ablaze with dogwood trees, azaleas and creamy magnolias, offer peaceful respite from the blistering summer heat, while subtropical greenery creeps its way through the ornate railings, cracks open the streets, casts cool shadows and fills the air with its warm, sensual fragrance.
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Savannah was founded in 1733 by James Oglethorpe 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 labour, thrived. The town became a major export centre, at the end of important railroad lines by which cotton was funnelled from far away in the South. 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 ex-slaves was rarely to occur again. After the Civil War, the plantations floundered, cotton prices slumped and Savannah went into decline. Not until the 1960s did local citizens start to organize what has been the successful restoration of their town. In the last three decades, the private Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) has injected even more vitality, attracting young artists and regenerating downtown by buying up a number of wonderful old buildings. Today it’s a prosperous, relaxed place, more raffish than Charleston, less rowdy than New Orleans, but sharing their faded, melancholy beauty. 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; a compelling mix of cross-dressing, voodoo and murder that sums up this rather louche, very lovable place to a tee.