Certain cities have a color of their own. Miami is pink and white, London gray and Paris the color of sand. In this scheme Savannah is green, overwhelmingly and everlastingly green.
It lays claim to more than 5,000 oaks, most of them dressed in garlands of Spanish moss, and these -- along with huge old magnolias and other trees and bushes that stay green year-round -- fill the parks, line the streets, ornament the yards and anchor the gardens.
In late winter and early spring there is a bonus. Thousands of azaleas, camellias, jasmine, oleanders and gardenias blanket the city and lend intoxicating aromas that enhance their beauty.
Of course it looked nothing like this back in 1733, when England's Gen. James Oglethorpe sailed 17 miles up the Savannah River to this spot, climbed up Yamacraw Bluff, established Georgia -- the 13th colony -- and laid out a city of 24 squares. Savannah is still a city of squares, or small parks, but there are just 20 of them now, one every two blocks in each direction.
Each has its own name and a fountain, monument or statuary. And each is surrounded by the distinctive architectural detail for which the city is so well-known.
The squares lend the city a grace and charm found in few other places. And they help account for the saying that this is a walking city. Sometimes by walking, you can almost outpace vehicular traffic, because cars crawl around the squares. If you weren't so busy gawking, you could stride through the parks. But in Savannah, even joggers sightsee en route.
We collapsed on a park bench. I hadn't walked so much since my earliest army days in World War II.
The historic district is 2.2 square miles. It's the largest in the country, and just entering town we had already seen that it's a lovely and enchanting city. But to walk every step of the whole 12-by-16-block area would take more time and stamina than my wife and I had. There had to be a better way.
The tourist sharing the bench said indeed there was. "Go to the visitors center," he said, "and freeload on all they have to offer, which is considerable. See the 15-minute slide show, then pick one of the two-hour bus tours. Make note of what you want to see more of, then go back on foot."
We did, and it turned out he was right.
The slide show was a dandy. And tour choices ranged from bicycle, carriage and boat to bus, walking or walking with a tape-recorded guide. One map suggested three areas of the historic district that should be seen: one area along River Street and Riverfront Plaza, two further south of the river. The two-hour minibus tour we chose bore out the wisdom of following a plan we'd decided on -- to walk the river part, but drive to a central point in each of the other two areas and walk some more. (Granted enough time, though, we'd have walked every foot of the whole 12 miles, because Savannah is as addictive as beer and pretzels.)
We wound up as wards of a personable tour guide, a native Savannahian who knows her town inside out and pokes a little fun at it while extolling its virtues. As she guided her little bus around the lovely squares, she kept up a running commentary, pointing out details in some of the more than 1,000 significantly historic houses in the district. (An adjacent Victorian area has another 800 important houses, a third of which have been restored.)
Savannah came very close to bulldozing away its heritage. By the mid-1950s, many residents had moved to developments on the edge of town. The city had come upon hard times. The once-magnificent old residences of Regency, Greek Revival, Victorian Gothic and Georgian Colonial architecture had been abandoned, become slum housing or in increasing numbers been demolished to make way for parking lots and modern buildings. In 1955 a group of six or seven indignant women formed the Historic Savannah Foundation and raised the money to save the Davenport House from the wrecker's ball. Now it is one of the city's restored gems.
Today the foundation oversees preservation and restoration throughout the historic district and ensures that such work is done in an authentic manner, even down to the shade of paint used on exteriors. Without the foundation, Savannah today would be just another city in Georgia.
As we drove down Oglethorpe Avenue, our guide pointed out a modern building that reeked more of suburban country club than old Savannah. "That's the GSA General Services Administration building," she said scornfully. "Mayor John Rousakis said recently, and this was in the paper, 'All they need to do is install shower heads on the exterior walls and it would look just like the men's room at the Y.' The Historic Review Board screens all architectural plans, but the feds can overrule them."
Back at the visitors center we got in the car and went back to cover some of the things we had seen from the bus. This is an easy city to learn and to get around. Everything is checkerboardish, including the squares. Parking, surprisingly, is plentiful, even down on the riverfront, where the greatest crowds are.
The river is the city's northern boundary. We started at that end of Bull Street -- a main thoroughfare of the historic district -- and walked south to the first square, Johnson Square. It was also the first square in Oglethorpe's planned city, and Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene is buried here. At Wright Square we temporarily left Bull Street and went two blocks west on State to the Telfair Mansion and Art Museum. The mansion, which was designed by William Jay and built in 1818, is handsomely furnished. An added wing houses American Impressionist and European paintings and statuary.
Back on Bull, it was easy to imagine having walked here a century ago, when Savannah's wealth came from cotton and the cotton prices set here prevailed over the world. A century before that, rice was the main export -- once the British had been routed. Savannah had been conquered another time, too: Sherman "presented" it, along with 150 artillery pieces and 25,000 bales of cotton, to President Lincoln as a Christmas present in 1864.
To the left and right of us, cross streets tunneled through bowers of live oaks whose gnarled branches met overhead. Magnificent old houses, freshly painted in pastel colors, were adorned with black wrought iron with the delicacy of lace. The older houses were frame. Many of the 19th-century residences were brick of a color called Savannah Gray. Some brick houses had been stuccoed; others were built of tabby, a mixture of ground oyster shell, lime and sand, and then stuccoed. There are great single houses, and here and there we found double houses, two separate residences adjoined like Siamese twins, although they didn't always look alike.
The old houses are being used again. Many are residences. Others serve as offices for doctors, lawyers, insurance agencies and other businesses. Often, someone will ask the price of an old, unrestored house, obviously hoping to pick up a bargain. But the days of bargains are long gone. Our guide pointed out one such house that she said sold three years ago for $200,000. Then she added, "And it will take another $200,000 to put it in good shape."
We walked down Bull to Chippewa Square, which is one of the loveliest. Then on to Madison and Monterey squares, and finally to Forsyth Park, a 20-acre oasis in a city of oases. There is a large fountain here, a Confederate monument to the dead of the Civil War, and a fragrant garden for the blind.
Some visitors spend all their time in the city's churches. Although most were established long ago, many of the original buildings were destroyed by fire, so the present building may be the second or third on its site. Among those of special interest are St. John's Episcopal, which is famous for its chimes, and Christ Episcopal, the first church established in the colony. John Wesley once preached at Christ Episcopal. And the Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church on Abercorn Street is a memorial to John and his brother, Charles Wesley.
The Congregation Mickve Temple, said to be the only Gothic synagogue in America, was founded in 1733, although the present building was built in 1876. The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, a magnificent, twin-spired edifice reminiscent of many European cathedrals, can be seen from many parts of the city. Trinity Methodist Church was founded in 1844, and Independent Presbyterian Church is where Woodrow Wilson married Ellen Axson, granddaughter of the pastor.
Other visitors prefer to study the old houses. A half-dozen or more of the restored ones are open to visitors for a fee of as little as $2. Among them are the Green-Meldrim House, a fine example of Gothic Revival architecture and the headquarters of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman when he and his henchmen were in town during the "late unpleasantness," as Charlestonians refer to the Civil War.
There is the Owens-Thomas House, generally considered the finest English Regency house in America. Its guide will proudly, and a little haughtily, tell you, "This is a preservation, not a restoration. It was in one family for 121 years."
Others are the Isaiah Davenport House, in the American Federal style, and the William Scarbrough House, an elegant Regency-style mansion. And perhaps every woman who once wore the green uniform of a Girl Scout will want to see where all that started. A Regency town house called the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace is where the founder of Girl Scouting was born. And in 1912 -- in the Andrew Low House, where she later lived -- she organized the first Girl Scout troop in America.
I noticed that a lot of women lingered inside those houses. They carefully examined minute details of wainscoting, furniture and furnishings. The men took a quick look around, then sought a place to sit and wait.
Down by the river it was different. In a lot of shops there it was the women who waited while the men lingered long over a barometer, a sextant or a marine print in a nautical shop, or considered a fine meerschaum at the tobacconist's or a model ship at the Ships of the Sea Museum.
A few years ago there was a multi-million-dollar restoration of this waterfront. Long-abandoned warehouses were reopened and cleaned and partitioned, and today some 75 small shops, restaurants and art galleries line River Street. Many visitors find this the most enchanting part of the city. It is the one part of town where something goes on at night. It is also the one part of Savannah where residents say it is perfectly safe to walk at night, although they advise that you drive to the riverfront rather than walk, even from nearby Bay Street.
To drive along River Street is something else. It is paved in cobblestones -- actually, ballast stones brought over in sailing ships of an earlier century. Driving on cobblestones will jar loose the jaw teeth of an ox, but it is of such stuff that romance is made, and Savannah is a most romantic city.
It had been a great day, and a full one. It was good to sit on a bench there in Riverfront Park. Narrow and crowded River Street with all its shops was to our backs. The broad Savannah River flowed silently at our feet. A hundred yards away, a three-decked excursion boat prepared to get under way for a festive occasion. A wedding party, complete with its own band, had boarded. The train of the bride's gown fluttered gently in the breeze coming off the river. Dixieland music drifted softly across the water.
A freshening breeze out of the east brought the tangy smell of the sea into Savannah. The sun had gone down, and as the sky colored and then darkened, the range lights that sailors use to navigate the river appeared and blinked on and off in fixed cadences. To the right, a mountain of lights came slowly up the river, growing ever larger. Then we saw what it was: a huge, ocean-going freighter, slowly under way and inward bound. Silently, like some glowing ghost in the night, she passed us, squeezed under the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge, steamed around the bend and out of sight.
And then it was dark.