A large part of the history of Savannah has to do with religion. In 1733 a group of Jewish settlers, fleeing the Inquisition in Spain, arrived in Savannah and organized their Congregation Mickve Israel. At the time, residents of Savannah were suffering from tropical diseases so they welcomed the Jewish doctors and the congregation into their community. In 1887 they consecrated their synagogue on Monterey Square.
General Oglethorpe, the founder of Savannah, banned Catholics (also slaves, liquor, and lawyers) from his settlement. After the American Revolution, the bans went away, Catholic congregations were formed, and churches built. The dual spires of the Cathedral of St. John The Baptist have towered over Lafayette Square since 1873.
After General Oglethorpe went back to England in 1743, his bans eroded. Savannah’s plantation owners adopted slavery. George Leile, a slave, became the first African American licensed to preach as a Baptist. His owner set him free and he preached salves on plantations. With the advent of the Revolutionary War, Leile fled to Savannah, where the British protected escaped slaves. When Savannah fell to the Colonists, most of the freed slaves were evacuated by the British, but a few stayed on, including Andrew Bryan, one of Leile’s converts. Bryan established the First African Baptist Church in 1788. By 1794 they had built a church.
With very old churches, you get very old cemeteries. We went to visit the Bonaventure Cemetery (famously featured in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”), but due to recent hurricane damage, it was closed to the public. Next to it though, is the Greenwich Cemetery. The giant old live oaks lend an aura of venerability not to be found in Northern cemeteries.
Modern Savannah is an interesting mix of the old and the new. There are whole districts of stately old mansions, some impeccably maintained and restored, and some old and tired. Just out of downtown, there are long straight boulevards with grass medians flowing under their canopies of live oak and palm trees. The downtown is very modern and busy and parking is hard to find.
Beer was a disappointment in Savannah. Not that there isn’t a lot of great beer made in Georgia. The problem is political. The laws do not allow breweries to have taprooms. As a kind of work around, it is OK for a brewery to give tours and sell 32 ounce “souvenirs” onsite or 64 ounce “souvenirs” to go. The Breweries are still fighting for taprooms. The one exception we found was Moon River, which is also a restaurant.
The food in Savannah is all over the map. We found lots of ethnics and some deep Southern cooking. I would be a terrible food critic. I tend to grab my fork before my camera. But here are a couple meals we loved:
Savannah is an interesting city to visit and tour. It is a big, modern city though, and has big, modern American problems. We saw a big cluster of police cars on a night when the news reported busting six crime spots on that night. We enjoyed strolling through Forsyth Park during the afternoon before the news reported a robbery there that night. Unemployment is high and wages are low for the majority of residents. We never felt threatened in any way, but know we should always be aware of our surroundings.
Next up: St. Augustine, Florida