Wilmington, North Carolina up the East Coast from Charleston, on the way between Charleston and Richmond, Virginia. I didn’t know much about the place, but it had several beaches a couple of miles away, so I thought I’d stop by.
'Tis a pretty little city. It was raining almost the entire two days I was there, so I never actually checked out the beaches … BUT, I did wander the lovely historic centre, along the river, and I checked out a serpentarium! And the rest of the time I was there I attended the university graduation party of the son of my Couchsurfing host there. Fun times!
And fun fact: Wilmington was the filming location for Dawson’s Creek! What?! I know. It’s also apparently the filming location for multiple other TV shows and movies, being quite the Hollywood of North Carolina. But none as seminal to me as Dawson’s, so I don’t remember what they are.
Another day, another beach. The main part of Charleston is located on a peninsula but many of the suburbs span various off-shore islands, connected by narrow waterways and roads on causeways. It’s quite lovely to drive through them, and one of them, Folly Island, has one of Charleston’s most popular beaches, Folly Beach. Giving off a much more relaxed and beachy vibe, the suburb of Folly Beach is quite lovely. The waves are small, but the beach is beautiful. I spent a late afternoon out there, walking on the beach and going for a quick dip.
The Civil War history of the South really interested me. Much more than the Revolutionary War history - possibly because you can still see the effects of the Civil War rippling through modern day America. Charleston, being an important city in South Carolina, a key state in the conflict, obviously has quite a bit of Civil War history in and around the city. For example, Fort Sumter, on an island in Charleston Harbour, is credited with being fired upon by the ‘shot fired around the world’ (this is a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, originally applied to the Revolutionary war, but appropriated to describe the Civil War) - the first salvo of the Civil War when Confederate soldiers fired upon the federally-held fort, and ‘officially’ opened hostilities between the North and the South.
On a sunny day in Charleston, I took a ferry down the Cooper River to Fort Sumter for a bit of Civil War history. Charleston sits on a peninsula between two rivers, the Ashley and the Cooper and at the head of the Cooper, before it turns into Charleston Harbour, sits Fort Sumter. You get magnificent views of Charleston from the water as you cross on the ferry, and a recording plays explaining the origins of the Civil War and Fort Sumter’s role in it.
Fort Sumter was a fort long before the Civil War, and played a key role in the British and the Americans defending Charleston’s coastline from the British, the French and pirates. Like Savannah, Charleston has a lot of off-shore islands, and was thus a happy playground for pirates. In fact, Edward Teach (Blackbeard!) spent a lot of time in the area - in 1996, they dredged up one of his ships that he supposedly abandoned in the shoals off Charleston (after absconding with the treasure). So, yes, Fort Sumter and the Charleston coast have a long and storied history.
Charleston, like Savannah, is a beautiful, historic Southern city built, unfortunately, on the slave trade. It’s older than Savannah, having been settled in 1670 to Savannah’s 1733, and was an important centre for both the American Revolutionary and Civil Wars. South Carolina, was, in fact, the first state to secede from the Union, precipitating the Civil War.
The central historic district is very pretty, lined with big old houses, and lots of trees. The first afternoon I arrived, I wandered, in sticky heat, through this nice part of town. The streets smelled like honeysuckle; in the less salubrious parts of town, you get constant whiffs of sewerage or rotten garbage. I think it’s the case with all Southern cities, and in fact all American cities, in the heat of summer. They’re all old, and big, and the heat just brings out the smell of all those people. But, yes, in the nice parts of town, honeysuckle!
Other fun facts about Charleston: it is the PBR capital of America. (PBR stands for Pabst Blue Ribbon, a cheap but drinkable beer here in the State which has been around for 168 years, but has recently been adopted by young hipstery types as their cheap beer of choice.) Anyway, Charlestonians drink a lot of it - I’m unsure why, but there are quite a few, artsy bohemian types in Charleston. Downtown Charleston is an interesting mix of very expensive boutiques selling Miu Miu and Prada, and artsy, still expensive boutiques selling the artsy equivalent labels. There is also another side to Charleston - North Charleston, for example, where the Greyhound bus that I arrived on came into, is a bit of a ghetto.
Another fun fact about Charleston: Hootie and the Blowfish are from here! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ln6WQqRDrCo
One of the days I was staying in Savannah, I spent out at the beach at Tybee Island. The coast of Savannah is a maze of small off-shore islands (hence, the pirates!), now all connected by causeways. Tybee Island is probably the most popular - read also a bit trashy - apparently nearby Hilton Head is the poncy version - but why would I want to go there! Tybee Island it was. I even bought a t-shirt!
As I biked around Savannah, I ate pancakes, and visited cemeteries and pirates’ houses. (Well, only one that I know of - Savannah is a major part of Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’ - some of the story actually takes place there, in fact) And on my final night in Savannah, I went on a pub crawl/ghost tour. Savannah is the second most haunted city in the States. (Can’t remember which city our tour guide said was the first; probably one of those with lots of Civil War dead.)
The cemetery was already closed to burials before the start of the Civil War and no Confederate soldiers are buried there. (There are a tonne of dueling deaths though, and multiple victims of the Yellow Fever Epidemic.) But Union troops did take over the cemetery grounds during their occupation of Savannah and many of the graves were looted and desecrated. Union soldiers apparently changed the dates on many of the headstones. (What tricksters - in a mean kind of way.)
Savannah, Georgia is gorgeous. Seriously, such a beautiful city. I spent the majority of my time there biking around the historic city centre, marvelling. The city was designed in a grid pattern, with a small square every two blocks. Each square has it’s own special character, but all are uniformly beautiful.
They are generally filled with big live oak trees (native to this part of the South) covered in Spanish moss, and surrounded by big old beautiful buildings. Savannah was left relatively untouched by the Civil War. General Sherman marched his Union army to Savannah from Atlanta, and they occupied the city for a short period of time, but they didn’t burn the city down, and so much of the original layout and architecture is still there.
4TH OF JULY! AND SPARKLERS! I spent the American Independence Day in Macon, Georgia, a small city/town on the Greyhound bus route between Birmingham and Savannah, Georgia. It proved a really fun place to spend the holiday.
Turns out 4th of July means eating copious amounts of Southern American cooking - BBQ, shrimp, potato salad, various other types of salad, ribs … the list goes on and on. Seriously, so much food. Also, drinking alcohol, and, well, we had sparklers, which were fantastic. But no big fireworks display as Macon is a fairly small city.
But the welcome I received from the Couchsurfing host I was staying with, and all her friends, meant that I had an amazing time. So much fun. And Macon is cute, and on a river, and has some interesting history. Did you know that Little Richard is from there? His family stills lives there, and are an important part of the local music scene/history. There is also quite a bit of Civil War history in the area, and while I didn’t visit the city cemetery (gasp! I know), I know it would have been lovely, and full of Civil War heroes.
I arrived in Birmingham, Alabama on a Sunday night, and it was a ghost town. I walked the streets of the downtown and I could have been wandering in the aftermath of a zombie apocalyse. The occasional person walked past, going who knows where. I was wandering, looking for either a restaurant, a bar, or somewhere to buy alcohol. However, I realised, since it was Alabama on a Sunday, anywhere that sold alcohol was closed (apparently this law does not apply in all counties in Alabama, but whatever, it definitely seemed to in Birmingham). And most restaurants were closed also, because almost everyone in Birmingham goes home for a Sunday BBQ after church, so there’s no one going out, so why stay open? I eventually came upon a hot dog stand in what was a very cool park called Railway Park on Birmingham’s Southside, but a bottle of wine proved impossible to find.
Birmingham is a really pretty city, as I discovered while strolling, looking for wine. It has wide, wide streets, with trees and parks galore. But the downtown area has no cool street with bars, and restaurants and boutiques, like you’d expect in most cities. Instead, everything cool is in little pockets. A couple of restaurants here, a boutique there; I walked half an hour to find a bar recommended to me by a fellow traveller, thinking that I would also find a bunch of other bars in the same place. But, no! It was surrounded by an industrial wasteland. Also, it was closed.
As a city without good public transport, Birmingham was thus a little hard to navigate. Anything interesting was often more than a half hour walk away, and then it was another half hour walk to the next cool thing.
It’s a downtown in the midst of gentrification, which was kind of interesting. I kept imagining what the central city would be like once fully gentrified. I can’t help but hope more vibrant, as it’s currently pretty, but fairly desolate. I thought this, and then I also sat down to dinner and read an entire article in the local arts/culture mag about the pros and cons of gentrification in downtown Birmingham.
According to the article, local downtown business development kind of stalled in the ’60s and ’70s when a lot of Birmingham’s richer (white) folk fled to the suburbs. The racial politics and civil rights history of Birmingham is really all I knew about the city’s history before I arrived: It was one of the centre of civil rights activism - Birmingham African Americans boycotting ‘white-only’ stores, and marching for the integration of public places. It was also the site of the 16 St Baptist Church bombing, an act of racially motivated terrorism in which four young African American girls died. You can walk a civil rights trail that follows the path of the original Birmingham marches for integration, with panels from participants and survivors. I also visited the 16 St Baptist Church, which is still a church with a large congregation. Admirably, the city doesn’t shy away from its troublesome history - it acknowledges it.
I did, however, immerse myself in the bourbon of Kentucky. Not literally; I went on a bourbon distillery tour. Which was super interesting, and made me buy bourbon on the rocks the next several times I went out drinking. I may now be a bourbon fan.
Previously, I had only thought of bourbon as part of bourbon and cola, sickly sweet complement to numerous teenage parties where Woodstocks and Codys were boys’ drink of choice. There are a heck of a lot of bourbon distilleries surrounding Louisville, many of whose products I’d never heard of. But, I visited two that I had heard of: Maker’s Mark, a classier bourbon label, and Jim Beam (not so classy, but definitely world famous). And I tasted several bourbons that were yummy, and that I would totally drink again (though always on ice).
Several kilometres out of Louisville, on the green Kentucky backroads, Maker’s Mark has one of the most historic distilleries in the world (it actually holds a Guinness Record for being the oldest continuously bourbon distillery site).
There are several requirements for a spirit to be officially a bourbon: it must be made in the USA; it must be made from corn mash; and it must be aged in white oak barrels for two years. There may also be a couple of other official requirements but I can’t remember them. Kentucky, and also nearby Tennessee, have become famous for bourbon because the water supply in the mainly limestone rock of the region makes for a particularly good flavoured spirit.
And, the whisky is called bourbon because the region of Kentucky used to be Bourbon County (named so after the Kings of France, as France had, at that point, recently helped the States in several wars).