Old South, Part 3

by Kiko Matsing

I.

We drove the rented car to Charleston, South Carolina, capital of the Deep South, where the first canons of the Civil War sounded off at Fort Sumter. We bore north and east along I-95 then turned to Highway 17 and the backroads just as it cut through Coosawhatchie River. Charleston is a headland, aptly shaped like a shield on a coat of arms, flanked by the Cooper and Ashley Rivers, which meet and mix into the Atlantic at The Battery.

At the intersection of Meeting and Market Streets stands an eyesore of a faux Greek temple that announces in overreaching classical terms the, um, well, meeting-/market-place (agora): an entire roofed alley of small shops of trifles and knicknacks, wood carvings and reed baskets, bottles of unguents and essences. Here we found a small deli for a quick and easy lunch (reuben sandwich and, of course, Greek salad), afterwhich we headed south along E. Bay St. to the promenades of E. Battery and Murray Blvd. for a long afternoon walk.

It was muggy but breezy, the air perfumed with jasmine and magnolia, the wrap around porches on the old mansions, shaded and quiet, and empty. They stand with genteel dignity, aloof from all the curious tourists, detached and disinterested with the present age. Savannah must have been the provincial cousins to Charleston’s big city folk, yet, nonetheless, the gothic quaintness of the former still wins me over.

Terra Cotta Façade German Stained Glass

By the time we came around Colonial Lake, I was ready to take a power nap on a park bench. On our return walk, we cut across the peninsula via Broad St., passing the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist (another one!), notable for its terra cotta façade and German stained glass (again!). At the corner of Church and Cumberland Streets is Bocci, an Italian restaurant, whose Mussels Garlique and Tuscan Duck, served with risotto and mushrooms, and seared, as promised, to temperature, turned out to be my best dining experience on this trip.

II.

We started the following day with a Civil War walking tour around the historic district. I would have said it was fitting, as it was Memorial Day, until I found out it originally commemorated Union soldiers, and we were at the heart of the Confederacy. The tour began where the rebellion began, at the county courthouse where the declaration of secession was enacted, and ended just past the white mansion where, we were told, Stephen Colbert grew up. It was not for the canonical version of foregrounded history that I enjoyed this tour, but the small histories–the priceless anecdotes about the fates of church bells, uncanny reversals of fortunes and twists of fates, stories of petty greed and small-time treachery. In short, the same saucy chattiness I find and enjoy in Herodotus, the tourist and tour guide par exellence of ancient Greece.

Having found ourselves in the vicinity of Market Street, we decided to look for the same deli we went to last time, but ended up, to our eventual regret at Tbonz, a golf-themed sports bar. Not only was their food unremarkable, the service was remarkably slow, inefficient, and worse, incompetent. I can still manage to forgive a restaurant for making me wait for nearly an hour if at the end of the day they deliver the goods. Tbonz, however, must have figured out that they have enough tourist traffic, first-and-only-time customers, to keep them in business to care about good food and good service.

Magnolia Plantation English-Style Garden

Our last stop, before we headed back to Savannah and home, was Magnolia Plantation. Just as we had to go visit the Davenport Mansion to wash our memories of the Sorrel-Weed Mansion, we had to visit another plantation to trump Wormsloe, and Magnolia promised (on its highway billboard) “a complete plantation experience”. My aunt, who posed with a lifesized replica of Rhett Butler in Margaret Mitchell’s house in Atlanta, just could not pass the chance to complete her “Gone With the Wind” experience. Magnolia boasts an extensive English-style garden, one of if not the best example this side of the Atlantic, which 19th century naturalists, most notably Audubon, visited to study North American wildlife. The garden, while visibly suffering from the recent drought, was nonetheless still impressive as the photos on my Flickr website shows. The best time to visit, we were told, was in April. In any case, I certainly prefer this more loose and organic structure to the staid squared-off hedges of French gardens (e.g. Versailles).

The house still belongs to the Drayton family and contains original furniture, decorations, and memorabilia just as they left them in the 1970’s when it was opened to the public. The original house, actually the second, burned down during the Civil War, and, due to the scarcity that followed, was rebuilt out of materials from a family cottage, hence, not looking at all like the typical Palladian (“Gone With the Wind”) style mansion. Surprisingly, though, it looks less dated and more livable than the latter, a perfect example of which is Drayton Hall on the adjacent property, preserved from the war by clever subterfuge. (The residents were said to have raised flags warning of yellow fever and thus spared themselves from Sherman’s marauding troops.)

III.

We spent the last night of our “Old South” trip in Savannah, not in the historic district, but in some cheap hotel south of the city. The gothic oak trees disappear past the train tracks on Abercorn, the roads widen to four lanes or more, and the rows of antebellum houses turn into wide empty strip malls. We arrived just as the sun was setting, and the night lights on the closed shops turned on. I felt somewhat sad that just outside this fabulous city lies this insipid landscape of utilitarian buildings. Efficient and disposable, nothing superfluous as dolphin-shaped drainpipes, nothing worth keeping. We found good Thai food though.

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