Atlanta: Southern belles
Meandering past fields and farms, Long Point Road leads through Mount Pleasant, a suburb of Charleston, South Carolina. Magnolias and azaleas abound as we turn up the driveway to Boone Hall Plantation. Ahead, an avenue of mighty oaks. Spanish moss hangs from the branches and sways gently in the wind. In the distance, the pillars of the big house gleam a brilliant white. Our car advances slowly. Horses gallop on our right, and on our left, we glimpse old slave cabins back between the trees.
Boone Hall dates from 1681 and the first oaks in the avenue were planted in 1743. Cotton brought prosperity to the plantation, one of the oldest in the country. Still in operation today, it now produces mainly strawberries, tomatoes and pumpkins. At the end of the avenue we see the old cotton gin where the cottonseeds were once threshed out of the fluffy white bols, and next to it a rose garden and an old well house. Guinea fowl run about clucking, and the sweet fragrance of blossom mingles with the musty smell of marsh and swamp. One cannot help think of Gone With the Wind and Tara. Is that Vivien Leigh walking purposefully among the roses in her crinoline skirt?
Boone Hall lies right at the heart of the Old South. The first English settlers ar- rived in 1670 and began eking out a living on a peninsula between two rivers, naming their settlement Charles Town, after King Charles II. The town prospered thanks to cotton and rice, indigo and slavery. In 1861, the first shot of the American Civil War was fired in Charleston harbor. But luckily, despite heavy fighting, much of the city was preserved, including the old town and the Drayton Hall and Middleton Place plantations. The latter has the oldest landscape garden in the United States, and this is where German director Roland Emmerich’s historical filmThe Patriot was shot. The cypress swamps of Magnolia Plantation are teeming with alligators. The largest one, 4,3 meters long and nicknamed Red October, sometimes dozes languidly right on the path.
“A lot of visitors are attracted by the Old South and the sense of romance it evokes,” says Mike Lata, head chef at FIG, Charleston’s most fashionable restaurant. Why?
Because Americans, he says, are increasingly interested in their history and in seeking authenticity. And ever since misfortune struck New Or- leans, which used to overshadow all other historical cities in the South, people have been visiting the region and driving through the Low Country between Charleston and Savannah, Georgia.
Continuing along the Savannah Highway, we cross the Ashley River, again passing farmhouses and marshlands, but also vultures and racoons. Route 162 is an in- credibly romantic stretch of highway and well worth a slight detour. Oaks and pecan trees line the road, their branches forming an archway overhead. And everywhere, Spanish moss. “It’s the color of smoke, the color of amber and twilight,” the French author Simone de Beauvoir wrote after visiting the region for the first time.
Elderly Afro-American women sit by the roadside on upturned pails, selling boiled peanuts and pickled okra. Slaves used to hide the seeds of the nutritious plant in their hair in order to smuggle it into the New World as a precaution for an uncertain future, or so the story goes. The Low Country, a region of uncultivated country around Charleston and Savannah, is home to the Gullah, descendants of former slaves who still master their people’s ancient handicrafts. People here speak a mixture of English and African languages.
We stop at Beaufort on Port Royal Island, one of the loveliest towns in the Low Country, and sit down beside the Beaufort River. Pelicans sail sedately on the breeze, cormorants dry their wings and monarch butterflies flutter by on their long journey to Mexico. With a bit of luck, we may even catch sight of a dolphin here.
Beaufort, too, grew wealthy from rice and indigo, and palms and banana trees grow in the gardens of the splendid mansions here. Camellias blossom amid shrubs bright with yellow, orange and fiery red leaves. Fall has arrived and Nature is changing her colorful coat even here in the South. We drive the last few kilometers to Savannah along Route 170 and Highway 17.
All of a sudden the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge looms up like a mountain high above the broad Savannah River. You have to be careful not to let the view distract you and send you veering off the road. Down on the river, highly stacked container ships plow through the waters and into the world beyond. Just ahead is the old, historical part of Georgia’s first city.
Church towers glitter in the evening sun and the brick fronts of the former cotton warehouses glow red along the waterfront. A shipload of English colonists landed here in 1733. Their charter: to found for King George II the city and colony of Georgia as a kind of buffer zone between Charleston and what was then Spanish Florida. From Talmadge Bridge, we drive along Oglethorpe Avenue straight into downtown Savannah, where elderly gentlemen in hats sit at the wheel of their Cadillacs, puffing on fat cigars as they drive over the bumpy streets. Bells ring, the air is fragrant with jasmine. And there’s Spanish moss everywhere here, too; it even creeps over traffic lights and gas streetlamps. Savannah is a perfect movie set. It’s where Clint Eastwood filmed Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The movie Forrest Gump, starring Tom Hanks, was also shot in Savannah.
“Savannah is Charleston’s whacky, but less swanky cousin,” says Ryon Thomp- son, the great-grandson of Southern soul food chef Sema Wilkes.
Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room restaurant is just as wonderfully whacky and consists of a single basement room with a kitchen next door that’s been serving the same good, home-style cooking since 1943: fried chicken, baked beans in tomato sauce, candied yams, banana pudding. Savannah’s old town also survived the destruction that the Civil War visited on so many southern cities. When Northern troops under General William T. Sherman arrived in December 1864, the people surrendered without putting up a fight and the city was spared. In fact, General Sherman was allegedly so delighted by the beauty of Savannah that he sent a telegram to Presi- dent Lincoln, offering him the city as a Christmas gift.