After two weeks in New York and Vermont, including the big blizzard of Boxing Day, and two more weeks visiting The Boy at his Generic Midwestern Directional University, where it snowed every day, we had to bug out of the frozen white stuff. A GypsyNester can only take so much.
It only took us six hundred miles of driving to escape, but finally, as we came down out of the mountains in Virginia, the snow pack dissipated until it was completely gone in North Carolina.
We didn't really have a destination in mind other than south, but Veronica had never been to South Carolina, and we were both intrigued by the town of Charleston, so we headed for the coastal "Lowcountry" and discovered one of America's most interesting cities.
Originally called Charles Towne way back in 1670, after the Revolutionary War when the British left, the name was officially changed to Charleston in 1783. Remarkably, it looks much as it did back then. A phenomenal amount of the colonial structures remain, and most have been restored to "like new" condition.
To get a closer look at these gems, we knocked the dust off of our trusty bikes, well, more like hosed off the road salt, and cycled into the heart Charleston's historic district. Highlights of the district included The Market Hall and Sheds, known simply as the Market, which was built in the 1830s, Battery Park with its cannons, promenade and view of Fort Sumter guarding the harbor, and a plethora of churches. In fact steeples, not skyscrapers, form the Charleston skyline.
Charleston is sometimes called "The Holy City" for all these churches, and for the fact that it was one of the few cities in colonial America practicing religious tolerance. In fact, it was one of the first to allow Jews to openly practice their faith and, until the 1830s, boasted the largest Jewish community in North America.
Something else stood out to us as we pedaled around - many homes had odd doors facing the street leading to outside porches. Having never seen such before, we dubbed them "porch doors," and tossed around quite a few theories as to why they existed before finding out their true function. Known as "hospitality doors," these portals were a way of communicating with friends and neighbors. Leaving the door open meant the occupants were home and ready to receive guests and offer up some good old southern hospitality. Possibly with a mint julep on the veranda. We would have been on the lookout for open doors if we had known this fact ahead of time - who knows what we missed out on.
Hospitality doors are a staple feature of the colonial style homes known as the Charleston Single, and are unique to Charleston. Unlike most other places, the houses here were situated perpendicular to the street with the porch facing sideways. This allowed for maximum outdoor living space, more cross ventilation and, could fit more homes on longer, narrow lots.
After a quick pit stop for some shrimp & grits, a Lowcountry favorite, we happened upon the campus of Charleston College, right in the midst of the historic old town. Talk about historic - the college was founded in 1770 - C of C is the oldest municipal college, and 13th oldest college of any kind, in the United States.
Three of the school's founders signed The Declaration of Independence and, three more, The Constitution. Through the years the campus has grown and now incorporates some amazing stately old mansions. Hope these young whippersnapper students appreciate their surroundings - with its Spanish moss draped trees and elegant architecture, it is the most beautiful campus we've seen.
Just a hop, skip and a jump closer to Charleston from The Isle of Palms is Sullivan's Island and Fort Moultrie National Monument - the best place to view Fort Sumter from dry land. Fearing an impending attack from the Brits in 1776, Fort Moultrie was the first of Charleston's many fortifications.
The fort was originally built of Palmetto tree logs because the trees were readily available and the colonists were in a hurry. This turned out to be a stroke of incredible luck though, since the palm logs are soft and rubbery. When the British attacked, their cannon balls pretty much bounced off the fort doing little damage. The King's navy was held at bay, and South Carolina became known as The Palmetto State.
Fort Moultrie went on to see service guarding Charleston in every conflict through World War II, including firing some of the first shots of The Civil War, when General Pierre G. T. Beauregard fired on the Union-held Fort Sumter out in the harbor.
In the Visitors Center, exhibits detail the nonmilitary history of Sullivan's Island as well. The Island was the largest slave port in North America, with over two hundred thousand shackled people passing through. Almost half of all African Americans have an ancestor forced to disembark there, a kind of reprehensible version of Ellis Island.
Once onshore, the enslaved Africans were mostly left to themselves on these coastal islands, since the plantation owners feared diseases and wanted to live in the cities. A unique culture and language developed on these "sea islands" in The Carolinas and Georgia known as Gullah.
We wanted to know more...
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com