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Savannah Southern Belle

By night, River Street, Savannah, Georgia, is pumping. We eat here one evening and it's busy with people strolling or pausing to read menus posted at the open doors of restaurants so they can make a decision. For there is plenty of that needed. This street has a slew of eateries - an oyster bar, a 'shrimp factory', Cajun places and others doing seafood, grills, a tavern, even a Ben & Jerry's. One place, Bernie's, boasts it does 'the best bloody Mary in town'.

Maybe. We choose Huey's Restaurant instead and gorge on a Cajun platter that has it all: jambalaya, gumbo, cornbread, and etouffee (spicy crawfish) spooned over red rice and beans. We nearly burst, but hell, honey, we're in the South!

Afterwards, still soaking up the lively atmosphere, passing galleries and boutiques accommodated in buildings which were once warehouses and stores we wander back to our hotel, the high-sounding and decidedly elegant President's Quarters, a little further east. The US is like that, they tell you "go south, then take the second turn west" - which works well here as Savannah was the first city in North America to be planned around a system of squares.

This cobbled street, River Street, lives up to its name, matches the course of the Savannah river. In days gone by it was busy too. Cotton has always played a part in the success of this city founded in 1733. The port was essential for its shipment, but not everyone knows that very early on, in 1735, it was also the first place in the USA from which silk was exported. Savannah also hosted Georgia's first horse race (1740) but balanced this decadence by having America's first Sunday School and the first English hymnal. Someone hands us a page of Savannah 'firsts' to read, so it is no surprise to see that the first steamship to cross an ocean was - the SS Savannah.

Two centuries ago the cries of crews on the trade-boats plying the river by day and their drunken singing at night would have kept this city active. Little is changed, it seems. We are told "the first thing people ask you in Atlanta is where did you go to school? In Macon (a city roughly halfway between Atlanta and Savannah) what church do you go to? But in Savannah, it's what do you want to drink?".

River Street the next morning is a different story. We catch it just waking after the busy night, shutters going up, front stoops being swept. That's what they call them hereabouts in the South. Stoops not steps. They have porches too, with swings on them, just like the movies. Occasionally on our way here from Atlanta, Georgia's capital, we pass elegant antebellum mansions (that's pre-Civil War homes dating from around 1854) standing like extras for Gone With the Wind. We half expect to bump into Rhett Butler or Scarlett O'Hara or move over on the highway to allow a horse-drawn carriage rather than a Winnebago to pass. Instead there are billboards exhorting us to 'keep Georgia peachy clean'.

There are signs for boiled peanuts too, and we stop to sample them at a roadside stall on the outskirts of one town, unable to imagine quite what they are like. It appears they've been boiled in their shells in salty water, so they are soft and savoury, rendering the nuts like big boiled beans, which indeed peanuts are. The stall-holder scoops them out of a vat, drains them and fills a bag for us. He squints at us unsurely when we say we have never eaten them before.

"Nev-er?" he says with disbelief, wagging his head. "Wah-ll, y'ahll take care now!" Seems everyone in the South says that. Does this mean it's a little unsafe hereabouts?

Once it was, of course. We still pass Confederate flags with their circlet of thirteen stars flapping from houses and flagpoles. Some bloody battles were fought in this area, beginning with the Revolutionary War's Siege of Savannah in 1779, and continuing with several bloody Civil War battles in late-1864.

On River Street we ask someone who looks to be local "who is that lady?". We're talking about the statue of a young woman facing the river frozen mid-wave, her collie dog at her side.

"She's a pioneer woman," we are told, but later I learn she had a name, Florence Margaret Martus, well-known at the start of last century for waving to the trade ships. Legend has it that she did this for forty years, unhinged by longing to see her lost love, perhaps. Who was said to be a sailor, vanished all those years before.

Others say she simply loved to wave to the ships and it is estimated 50,000 vessels were welcomed to the city by her fluttering handkerchief. We photograph her statue with the three-kilometre cable-stayed Talmadge Bridge (or Great Savannah Bridge) in the background, just as a refurbished paddle steamer passes. Florence would have loved all this too, I reckon.

A four hour drive east of Atlanta brings you to Savannah, Georgia's seaport at the mouth of the Savannah River which separates this state from South Carolina to the north. You could easily forget what you were here for in this gracious city full of museums, historic forts, parks and mansions. Most of the old part of the city is designed around a series of 'squares', cool oases of trees and flowers, spiked occasionally with a memorial or a cannon to remind you that this city was blockaded in the Civil War before finally surrendering to General Sherman in 1864.

The city's joggers and dog-walkers know the real worth of these cool havens, though, and the huge trees dripping pale green Spanish moss add an ambience impossible to create with bricks and mortar. This greenish-grey moss gives a faintly gothic appearance to parks and forests in the south. Unbelievably it belongs to the same family as pineapples, yet unlike mistletoe it does not destroy its host tree. Technically it's an 'air-plant', deriving nutrients from the atmosphere alone.

Savannah's original builders and this century's restorers have worked hard to rival nature, though. A wealth of old houses, smocked with iron lace, some primly painted, others bright with colour are a testimony to community action. Half a century ago seven women, concerned that many old homes were being felled by developers, formed the Historic Savannah Foundation and listed around 2000 homes that should be saved, Together they set about arranging for their rehabilitation. Today Savannah is grateful for such long sightedness and it has been called 'the most beautiful city in North America' by France's Le Monde newspaper.

It was not always this way. In 1861, Georgia attorney Alexander Stephens delivered a speech defining his cornerstone belief, damning all blacks to servitude. It was core to the racism that enslaved the whites of the time and led to Georgia's defeat in the War. At last in 1865 a historic meeting between General Sherman and twenty black ministers took place in Savannah to discuss the'future of the emancipated slaves of the south.

A half hour or so from the city, past Thunderbolt, a picturesque shrimping village, the Low Country inlet of Sail Harbour lies lushly fringed by pale marsh grasses. It is peaceful today but had its moment in the sun over a decade ago when the 1996 Olympic yachting events were centred here. While events for the larger yachts were held offshore, all around Wassaw Sound the fishing and private boats in the Sail Harbour marina had to squeeze up plenty for the spectators of the smaller boat events. In town, an Olympic Games monument has been erected on the waterfront as a tribute to Savannah's involvement as the yachting venue for the XXVI Olympiad.

A decade-plus on, Georgia has settled back to normality after the Games. It has moved on too from being known as the setting for John Berendt's 1994 best-seller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Locals now call it, simply, 'The Book'.

'Georgia, Georgia.' You can't travel around this state without that bluesy song popping up from time to time. I find myself humming it as we drive through forests submerged in kudzu, an introduced plant-pest that is literally swallowing the south. And fast - it can grow 30 centimetres a day. I sing it too as we watch the sun set over the Savannah river; it popped out as we sampled those hot boiled peanuts.

I can't help myself. That is what Georgia does. It gets on your mind.

And while we don't fall in love with the peanuts - I guess they are just an acquired taste - we still manage to finish them before we leave the state.

Savannah, however, that's different. Love at first sight, it was, Mr Butler, sir.

 

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