I am not a big city bear. I enjoy a day trip to the city, walking amidst the tall buildings, window shopping, people watching, visiting museums and grand big city parks — even riding the subway can be fun. But I hate the chaos of traffic and trying to find a parking spot, especially in a big city that I am unfamiliar with, and even more so when I am the driver, navigator, and sole crash avoider.
Being on the Atlantic coast and reluctant to leave the water behind, I thought I’d take a chance on the city life and make like a Southern belle for a few hours in Charleston, South Carolina. After all, Charleston represents the founding of our nation, Southern charm, and more history than you can imagine.
The plan was to head downtown, take in some history, photograph antebellum homes for the folks back home, have a little dinner in a quaint local establishment in a 200+ year old neighborhood and then head to Asheville and the mountains.
Having avoided Savannah and taken a more direct secondary highway into the state, I missed the official welcome center so I had no state map. Just outside the city I came upon a tourist information center so I stopped to get a map. Being a private tourism office, they make their money from referrals to hotels and restaurants in Charleston; the agent had no state maps and she was not too pleased with my plan to just visit the city for a few hours and hit the road again. (Let’s just say she did not offer a stellar example of Southern hospitality.)
Though I asked for directions to the historic area where I could see the antebellum homes and such, she directed me to the Olde Market area — “200 years old and lots of arts and crafts.” OK I am up for that.
After navigating into the heart of the old city port area, where streets are twisted and narrow, one way and dead ended, driving around for 1/2 hour, dodging people, cars, and horse drawn carriages to find a parking spot, I found the olde market — a succession of 8 – 10 or more brick buildings with open ends and half walls filled with vendors. They have indeed stood here as a place to vend goods (originally from the ships in port and the plantations outside town) for 200 years.
The area was originally a warehouse district, though now the warehouses sport major chain and niche hotels, pubs, and restaurants for the tourists.
Since I was expecting “arts and crafts,” I was not prepared for the flea market atmosphere — a few handmade basket vendors (a Charleston specialty) and hand sewn bonnets, aprons, and household items, but stalls were mostly filled with 21st century junk “as seen on TV” or you’d find at K-mart. After walking through 3 buildings and literally finding nothing worth even pausing to look at (except the baskets – tourist priced), I bought a handmade lemonade and bolted back to my car. Following my own intuition and with the help of the lemonade vendor, I managed to make my way to White Point Gardens at the water’s edge.
This delightful couple blocks of green space, though under reconstruction in spots, offered a respite from the traffic and chaos. Walking around the area, I discovered the kind of historical homes, large and small, that I was looking for, towering live oaks dripping in Spanish moss, old brick and cobblestone streets, sections of the old city wall, gates offering glimpses of 200 year old courtyards and formal gardens, pavilions, statues, and more historical markers than you could count. Horse drawn carriages were everywhere, telling of the history of certain houses and residents (I guess taking the tour was the “seeing the antebellum houses” the tourism maven had in mind.)
Enjoy this photo tour of the area south of Broad.
Being a coastal city, a seawall and promenade, 6-feet high and wide enough for 4 people to walk abreast protects the homes from the sea (and served dual duty as a battery in times past (the canons now sit in the park.) From the top, you get a view of Fort Sumter where the Star Spangled Banner was penned. (Never realized this historic fort was so small.)
For some reason, my foot hurt, making it really painful to walk (I learned later I had cracked a metatarsal bone; don’t ask me how) so I departed without finding a local historic establishment for dinner and set my sites on the drive home — via Asheville, North Carolina, and through the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains.
I have decided that a solo meander is not conducive to big city exploration. Charleston is a charming Southern city, worthy of a couple days or a long weekend of exploration where one can ferret out the historical gems and quaint restaurants. Visit with a friend, spend the money and stay in the heart of the city, and act like a tourist — take the horse drawn tours, visit the market, go to the fort, walk the old streets and live the history of America.