Savannah, Georgia has an impressive coherence. The coherence is built around the 22 squares laid out in the 18th century. The squares are on a four by five grid with two missing, replaced by the Colonial Park Cemetery, and four outliers, three of them in a row on the East and one in the West. I walked through all 22, several of them many times. All are filled with huge, tangled trees, many of them laden with the Spanish moss that hangs down like pale green candy floss and is characteristic of Savannah. (“It’s full of bugs,” said a girl with punky blonde hair and huge glasses, who served us in the SCAD Shop. “Stupid tourists hang it over their heads. Stay away from it. Don’t even touch it.”) All of the squares have paths shaped in a cross, and most have something in the middle—a statue, obelisk, fountain, shelter, or astrolabe. They all contain rough grass and have a tranquil, shady feel.
The squares are surrounded by quiet roads and then grand houses, all different but adding to not subtracting from the coherence. These houses, which are mostly Victorian but some 18th century, are still occupied by families who live locally not by rich people who from other parts of the country or abroad (as is the case with Charleston, SC). “There’s money in Savannah,” Christine from our guest house told us. “There’s old money, and money from shipping. People don’t know, but Savannah is the second biggest port on the East Coast and will soon overtake Newark to become the biggest. It was the first port to mechanise. And there’s money in shipping, lots of it, mostly controlled by a few families.”
She told us this after we had walked down to the river and seen what looked like a ship impossibly large for the river laden with containers. Two tugs guided it, and Chicken thought that it would never get under the high bridge that takes the freeway from Georgia to South Carolina (“”too small for a state, too large for a lunatic asylum,” as the saying goes). She was completely wrong, her sense of perspective failing her.
I’d wanted to visit Savannah ever since reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt some 20 years ago. I read it again about eight years ago, and in my memory it’s a travel book, albeit one that concentrates on the many eccentrics of Savannah rather than the geography and buildings, that turns into a crime book when one of the characters is murdered. It has the feel of a novel and describes wild, mostly homosexual, goings on, crazy characters like Lady Chablis and Dr Buzzard, and voodoo in the Bonaventure graveyard on the edge of Savannah (where the swamps begin).
“It’s all true,” Christine told us, “I knew those people. Berendt spent 15 years in Savannah. The wildness is gone now.” We asked her if it was worth visiting the house where the murder happened. “Not really. It’s a beautiful house, but after Williams [the man accused of murder] died his sister took it over. She hated him but cashed in on his notoriety. She shows you round, but a few years ago she sold all the furniture. He had great taste. She has none.”
We didn’t visit any of the houses—because we didn’t want guided tours, which it seems are unavoidable. But we roamed the squares and saw the houses from every angle. I particularly liked walking through the squares in the early morning when there were just a few dog walkers about and it was cooler (although still easily hot and humid enough to work up a sweat). Once I sat reading in a remote square and on the far side of the square a horse and carriage appeared and drove round the square. Horses have a magnificence, and their presence, hauling tourists round the town, adds to the unique and historical feel of the city.
Everybody knows that people from the South—with the slow drawl and repeated “y’alls”—are friendly while Yankees (the winners in the Civil War), particularly those form New York, are unfriendly bastards in a hurry. Certainly it seems to be true that Southerners (even those who were Yankees once) are friendly and keen to talk to you about Savannah, art, anything. Everybody we met was friendly, something that would be impossible in London. We had to politely drag ourselves away from the first woman we met, in the visitor centre, who couldn’t stop telling us about all the wonderful things we could do in the city.
The Savannah College of Art and Design, known to all as SCAD, is famous not just in the US but across the world. It has outposts in Hong Kong, Provence, and Atlanta and has 10 000 students, a lot for “an art school.” It owns multiple buildings in Savannah and has a shop and two restaurants as well as an art gallery. All of its properties were beautiful, making we wonder why not everything could be made beautiful with some thought and effort. We visited the art gallery, where the exhibition that arrested us the most was a series of dresses designed by Carolina Herrera. It’s only in the past few years that I’ve come to recognise that dress designing is an art and that as an art that is used and living and mixes with glamour and sex it has a rich appeal. (The idea that clothes can be art has yet to extend to what I wear myself, but one day…?) The other exhibition that sticks in my mind was a three-screen film of the nomadic Afar people and their camels in what looked almost like a smoking moonscape in Djibouti and Somalia. We watched it all the way through, and you can see some of it at https://vimeo.com/174394715
I was keen to visit the Bonaventure cemetery, and we drove there in the heat of the day. It’s the biggest cemetery I’ve encountered (except perhaps for Arlington) and you can drive round it. We drove right to the edge, to where the swamp begins and runs to the sea. The cemetery is full of trees, and they fit well with the sometimes extravagant Victorian tombs. We roamed among the tombs of doctors, lawyers, Confederate soldiers, babies, and many children.
Savannah didn’t disappoint, as I feared it might. Indeed, it’s beautiful coherence made me think of Venice. I’d like to go back, perhaps to write a book.