Day 21: Sunday 2nd April
A Florida local who I know in Prague told me that if we were going to Florida, we absolutely had to visit St. Augustine. According to him and Wikipedia, it’s the oldest city in the US. I was skeptical of this. Surely the oldest place in the US is somewhere where the pilgrims landed, I thought, like Jamestown, or that island where the settlers disappeared and were never heard from again. But I checked out this assertion and St. Augustine’s claim to the title of Oldest City is that it is the oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement within the continental United States. And St. Augustine certainly milks this prize for all it’s worth. It has signs like this everywhere:
Tourist traps aside, St. Augustine is actually lovely. With its cobbled streets, old architecture and warm, balmy weather, we almost could have been in a small town in Spain.
After driving round the downtown area for a while and not finding any parking for less than $12, we drove a tiny bit out of the centre and found free street parking for 2 hours. Sometimes it pays to go a little bit out of your way and be willing to walk for more than 5 minutes (which we still are, we’re not American yet). We were only planning to stop in St. Augustine for a couple of hours on our way to Savannah anyway, so 2 hours was the perfect amount of time.
We went to the Spanish Bakery for lunch where the sounds of flamenco music drifted unobtrusively around us as we sat in the pleasant outdoor seating area (this may have contributed to the feeling that we were in Spain). Then we split up and went for a wander so we could each do our own thing (read: Gwynnie wanted to go to some gift shops. Gwynnie’s edit: I have a problem.). I had a very pleasant time wandering around taking pictures of cobbled streets and churches and things.
Please find below an assortment of photos that we took along our way:
Actually, we accidentally ended up in the same place but either didn’t see each other or narrowly missed each other – I got a deliciously refreshing homemade lemonade to go from the Hot Shot Bakery N Cafe, and then later found out Gwynnie had gone there too! I guess there probably aren’t really that many places to go in a town the size of St. Augustine.
St. Augustine also has an old fort and is by the sea, as you might expect, it being in Florida, where everything is by the sea as far as I can work out.
After whiling away our pleasant couple of hours in St. Augustine, we continued on to Savannah, Georgia. Now I will freely admit that I chose this location for the road trip purely on the basis of Bill Bryson’s recommendation. As we may have mentioned in earlier blog posts, a big inspiration for this road trip for me (Anna) was reading Bill Bryson’s ‘The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America’ when I was 19 or so.
Gwynnie has also read the book and similarly loved it, so we got excited together about going to various locations on the trip that he talks about in the book. Even though I only read the book once eight or nine years ago, the two locations that stuck out in my memory from it were Savannah, GA and Charleston, SC. This was because these were the only two places in the US that Bryson visited that he actually liked. He was on a quest to find the perfect American small town, and Savannah and Charleston were the only ones that even came close as far as I can remember. So I was eager to visit and see what was so charming about them.
Because accommodation in downtown Savannah is alarmingly expensive, we opted to stay in a motel about 20 minutes drive from the downtown area. It was the first motel we had stayed in, so we got pretty excited. (Also a bit scared, because we had just finished watching Thelma and Louise the night before, and didn’t want to get robbed by a young Brad Pitt.)
After checking in and getting sorted out, we drove downtown and went to Fire Street Food for dinner, where I was introduced to American-style sushi, which to my surprise and alarm contains cream cheese. It was kind of good, but I don’t think I would necessarily call it sushi.
We had a brief look round Chippewa Square behind the restaurant, but since it was dark we couldn’t see much or take any good photos, so we decided to come back the next day.
Day 22: Monday 3rd April
In the morning we made the most of the motel’s free breakfast, which consisted of some batter which you could pour into a waffle maker to make your own waffles, and a selection of ‘cereals’ dispensed from a – well, cereal dispenser I guess. Gwynnie sat there eating her waffles, saddened by the fact that everything was served in plastic, as the local news talked about a nearby motel whose swimming pool had contained chemicals it wasn’t supposed to and had killed several guests. I got some Fruit Loops, and I can tell you, there wasn’t anything nutritious, appetising, or even resembling cereal in those brightly-coloured circles of death.
We drove back to downtown Savannah, parked the car and wandered through the streets. Savannah is very leafy and green. It’s easy to see why Bill Bryson liked it so much, even thirty years on from when he wrote his book. There are parks, trees and general greenery everywhere, cosy squares, that lovely Southern architecture, and – remarkably for a US city – it is easy to get round as a pedestrian.
Savannah’s other point of interest for me, apart from Bill Bryson’s glowing review, is that the famous bench scene in Forrest Gump was filmed and is actually meant to be set there. I love Forrest Gump, obviously, so I was pretty excited to sit on the actual bench where Forrest Gump sat and narrated his life story to strangers. So I was pretty disappointed when we got to Chippewa Square and couldn’t find the bench anywhere, and after googling it discovered that the bench in the movie is just a prop that now sits in the Savannah History Museum. However, you can still recognise the square from the movie, so I satisfied myself with taking some photos.
We spent a bit of time in Gallery Espresso, a cosy cafe on Chippewa Square. Meanwhile a rainstorm hit – a rainstorm that by this point we were beginning to think was following us around the US, as there had been heavy rain overnight while we were in Oxford, MS, then the next day in Birmingham, overnight while we were in Atlanta, and on the news this morning we had seen that it was coming up to Savannah and then Charleston. So, we left in a hurry to get on to Charleston to try to escape the storm.
After having a late lunch at the Early Bird Diner, which actually came pretty close to fulfilling our criteria of a classic roadside diner – we’ve been on the hunt for one the whole time we’ve been driving around the US – we arrived in Charleston around 5pm. We were couchsurfing and after being shown round our host’s apartment, we decided to take a quick turn around the nearby Colonial Lake and Old Jail. It was a good job we did, because just as we were coming back from the walk we felt the first spits of rain, and a few minutes after getting back it turned into a full-on rainstorm that didn’t let up for hours. So we didn’t feel guilty about spending the night in watching TV with our couchsurf host 😉
Day 23: Tuesday 4th April
Miraculously, the next day the weather was beautiful and there were no signs of the previous night’s rainstorm. We took advantage of the good weather and wandered round Charleston’s downtown area. Once again, it was easy to see why Bill Bryson had raved on about it so much. We wandered round the Historic Charleston City Market, and after walking down some pretty streets and taking some photos, we agreed with Bill Bryson that Savannah and Charleston would both be lovely places to live, and left content that we’d seen the loveliest towns in America.
I have to say that these three towns were so lovely, quaint and charming that I fear we may already have seen the best small cities America has to offer, and there’s nowhere to go but downhill from here. But it’s nice to see with your own eyes that the USA isn’t all strip malls and KFC – there are some nice towns that have character, quirkiness and charm, be it St Augustine’s cobbled streets and cute cafes, Savannah’s lush parks and charming squares, or Charleston’s pretty streets and grand houses.