Love is a shifty critter. Describing it is like describing light or air – it’s too full of subtle subjectivity to ever completely pin down. But I’ve fallen in love over the past four days – unexpectedly and delightfully.
No one is usurping Amanda as my soulmate – don’t worry kids. The lady I’ve fallen for is over 250 years old and made mainly of brick and stone. The Hostess of the South she is called – a gracious hostess indeed.
I knew almost nothing about Savannah before we arrived here. I wasn’t even sure how to spell it (those two ens can be tricky). But within a day I was carried away by the charm and beauty of this sedate river town. Savannah sneaks up on you.
It’s not just the people, who are as genteel and unhurried as their home town, or the scores of stately buildings saved from developers by crusading locals. It’s the whole character of the place. You don’t just feel safe in Savannah – you feel at home.
The historical district of Savannah was laid out in a grid pattern, interspersed with 24 squares (of which 21 remain intact). Each square is like a portal into leafy tranquility. The day we arrived, dazed by jet-lag and still twitching with the stress of our last few weeks of work, we couldn’t believe how sleepy the city seemed on an ordinary Friday in May.
But it’s when we strolled around at night that I really lost my heart. As a Joburg boy I’m a sucker for trees. That city may have grown into a relentless, sharp-edged machine of greed and greatness, but the trees of my childhood are still standing and those trees will forever shade my soul.
Savannah’s trees, decked out in Spanish Moss, seem to say “I’ve been here a while, son. I wouldn’t worry to much about what’s troublin’ you today. I’ll be here long after you’re gone.” Those dark squares, steeped in history and nature, in blood and stone, seem to occupy both past and present simultaneously. They radiate a deep calm that washes over you like warm water.
Om nom nom
Amanda will tell you the real reason for this love affair: the food. She does have a point, cheeky beast though she may be. The town is dotted with great little restaurants and cafes, full of the kind of character and flavour that is supposed to be absent from American food (if you believe the snobs and Europeans). Three of them really made an impression on us:
Mrs Wilkes’ Kitchen
A lot of restaurants promise Southern home cookin’ , but Mrs Wilkes really is Southern home cookin’. After queuing for at least an hour (food this good is bound to be famous), you’re ushered into a pokey front room with a low ceiling – full of knick knacks and pictures of famous guests (including President Obama). You’re seated at a big table with nine other people – usually strangers – and all the food is already on the table.
And what food. Cornbread, cheesy grits, black-eyed peas, collared greens, stuffing, pulled pork, fried chicken … literally every Southern dish you’ve ever read about or seen in a movie. And it’s not just plentiful – it’s delicious. You serve yourself a morsel from each of the dozens of bowls and platters and then pass it to your neighbour. It’s like Sunday lunch at Gran’s house – which is exactly how Mr Wilkes wanted it.
If you’re ever in Savannah – even for a short time – get down to Mrs Wilkes. It’s an experience you’ll remember for the rest of your life. That fried chicken … I’m still dreaming about it.
It’s like stepping into the local malt shop in an Archie comic. The counter, the signage, even the hats and uniforms worn by the staff are like something out of a pre-war movie set.
But the resemblance to bland Americana ends there. The ice-cream is the best I’ve ever eaten – including Rome, Paris or London. It’s not too sweet, packed with delicious ingredients (the pistachio flavour is about 25% nuts, the choc chip is about a third real chocolate chips) and incredibly moreish. And the sandwiches are just as good.
Leopold’s has been in downtown Savannah for over a century – it’s really not that surprising. No chain restaurant or ice-cream joint could touch them for either ambience or quality. People queue literally out into the street to get a taste of the Leopold’s magic. Don’t miss it.
The Olde Pink House
This charming historical building has been converted into an excellent five star restaurant. The staff are attentive, the food is excellent and not overpriced and the ambience is unique (particularly in the old cellar in which we dined). It’s not cheap, but the Kobe beef burger and “she crab” soup Amanda and I scarfed down were heavenly. Skip the tourist traps along the river walk – the Olde Pink House is the real deal.