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A Walking Tour of Historic Charleston, South Carolina

Article by Carole Terrell

Charleston is one of the best walking cities in the U.S. and a good place to begin your walk is Charleston’s Waterfront Park. The waves slap gently against the boardwalk while locals and visitors alike enjoy swinging in oversized porch swings and strolling through the breezy park. People can be seen all around the park relaxing on benches, reading books while lying in the cool grass, walking and playing with their dogs, or going for their daily jog. Cruise ships and naval vessels often dock nearby and there is plenty of fishing to be done off the small pier. Telescopes are available in order to gain a closer look at wildlife and catch a glimpse of Patriot’s Point across the harbor, where out of service naval vessels are available for touring. Waterfront Park holds a fountain that sprays water in multiple directions and the public is welcome to run through the water and the spray of the fountain. Perfect for those humid summer days! The pineapple is the Southern symbol for hospitality and a pineapple-shaped fountain rests in the middle of the park, inviting walkers to soak their feet a few moments prior to venturing further into town to explore more opportunities.

Heading east out of Waterfront Park will lead you to the Battery at the tip of the peninsula, where ships with tall masts and sails once docked and Civil War cannons proudly stood, facing the harbor and the Atlantic Ocean. There seems to be a constant, steady breeze floating across the Battery, palm trees rustling in the wind and myriad boats sailing and racing across the harbor. This is one of the most relaxing and rejuvenating spots in the town, where you can take the time to be still in a busy world, breathe deeply, let the wind run its fingers through your hair and just lose yourself for a while in the sights and sounds of the harbor and the smell of the salty sea air.

Adjoining the Battery is White Point Gardens, a large grassy area shaded by massive oaks and fringed with cannons, monuments, and historical statues. Pigeons and seagulls often fly into the shaded park to eat and rest their wings. In the middle of the park is a large white gazebo and it isn’t uncommon to come across a wedding in progress or a string quartet playing in the gazebo.  Horse and buggies roll around the Battery and the park off and on all day, giving visitors a glimpse of the past, as do the grand old mansions lining the Battery.

From White Point Gardens you can continue your walk back through town on Meeting Street, which will eventually lead you to the City Market, or take your pick of any number of streets that crisscross the city, some of them still cobblestone just as they were a century ago. Take your time as you meander along the streets and past the homes that transport you back into the past with hidden gardens surrounded by decorative wrought iron gates and ancient Spanish moss-laden oaks. The clip-clop of horses’ feet, cemeteries, and some the oldest churches in our country remind you of the beginnings of America. Charleston is often referred to as “The Holy City” because there are so many churches; you are never out of sight of a church steeple. The whole city seems to be a garden in itself, lush with azaleas in the spring season and other types of blossoms and foliage the remainder of the year.  Everything is so picturesque, one would never know that Charleston has endured its share of devastating earthquakes, fires, and hurricanes through the years.

 A self-guided tour is a great way to spend a day or a weekend, but to gain further insight and a sense of the city’s history, a guided walking tour is also an option. On a recent visit to Charleston, we chose to participate in one of the many walking tours, Anna’s House & Garden Walking Tour. Being a 12th generation Charleston native, Anna Blythe has an abundant knowledge of the area and its history. The tour begins under the green awning at 61 Queen St., at a shop called Charleston Gardens, and the tour goes rain or shine. Fortunately, the weather was perfect on this day- sunny and 80 degrees.

Anna was able to explain about many of the homes on the route: Who owned them, who bought them, additions and repairs throughout the years, the certain styles and periods of the homes, and just about everything you would want to learn. A home on Queen Street had actually been picked up and moved back in order to create parking space. The balconies of a three-story house near the Battery are supported by the three styles of Greek columns, going from bottom to top, Doric, Ionian, and Corinthian.  The architecture on all these homes is superb! There is so much to see. Our group learned about the windows in the homes that could be fully opened and used as doors, the stone blocks found all around the city that are stepping stones to enter a carriage, the boot scrapes placed outside the front door to remove dirt and mud, and how many of the homes are turned at an angle to catch the ocean breezes. And one of the most interesting things about the homes are the earthquake rods. Past earthquakes had shaken and shifted the homes, and rods were run through the homes in order to stabilize them. Once the rods were in place, they could be slowly turned until the house was once again level. The washers at the ends of the rods can be seen on the outside of the homes. I noticed that several of the washers had been covered with decorative metal lions’ heads. There is a definite lion theme in this area. It can be seen in statues placed at front doors of homes, lion decorations placed on top of and around buildings, and lion faces forged into the iron gates.

Even though the homes are elegant, they require constant upkeep and repair. Many of the first floors of homes and restaurants were flooded during Hurricane Hugo in 1989, which left a musty smell for quite some time and required extensive repair. One of the homes we passed had recently been painted a soft purple hue, described as “the marshes in winter.” Being a mountain girl, I likened it to the color of twilight over the mountains just before nightfall.

Anna led us into several secluded gardens along the way. Shady and cool with a multitude of greenery and fragrant blooms, goldfish ponds with flowing fountains, simple walkways and statues, the gardens gave all kinds of ideas that could be used in our own gardens at home. One of the gardens included a playhouse that four generations have played in and a dog who came out of the house to curiously look us over and then went back inside. I guess we all looked pretty harmless. Vines and native plants were pointed out to us all along the tour, one of them being the Jerusalem Thorn Bush. The bush has sets of thorns along its branches, one long and two short thorns that represent Jesus and the two thieves on the cross. It is believed that Jesus’ thorn of crowns was made from the Jerusalem Thorn Bush.

Toward the end of the tour we were ushered into the Palmer Home, an 1849 mansion located on 5 East Battery It is now operated as a bed and breakfast. This stately home is painted a soft pink with white trim and black shutters. The owners of the pink palace live in what used to be the carriage house and the bottom floor of the home and the other floors are used for the bed and breakfast operations. Our group was led through the front door of the home and up the carpeted staircase to the second floor dining room, where assorted refreshments of sweets and pink lemonade had been laid out for us to enjoy. We then took our refreshments onto the balcony (also called a piazza), where we relaxed in rocking chairs and gazed out to sea toward Fort Sumter. We waved to passersby as if we all lived there. The third floor piazza holds additional rocking chairs and a telescope for long range viewing. After taking the break from walking, we went back into the house for a tour of the parlors and bedrooms. Each room was colorful, and chandeliers glistened throughout the house. Anna pointed out pieces of antique furniture and glassware along with ancestral portraits on the walls. I noticed a lot of bird prints throughout the house, and photos of the family over the years gave the house a real homey touch. The ocean breeze keeps the house cool most of the time.

At the end of our house tour, we let ourselves out and closed the iron gate behind us, entering once again into the modern world. But as we walked around the Battery and onto Meeting Street, we were again greeted by the past, where we came upon African-American basket weavers selling their wares on the street. This type of basket-making was originally brought here from Africa and has been taught to each generation and preserved until today. The baskets are woven so tightly that they can easily hold water, and some of the baskets require 10 to 12 hours to create.

The tour ended on Queen Street, having made a loop around several blocks. City maps can be obtained at the visitor center, bikes can be rented, and a public transportation system is available to continue your self-guided tour. There is lots more to see! All types of architecture, history, plantations, the Citadel military academy, City Market, museums, succulent seafood, art, the South Carolina Aquarium and IMAX theater and, of course, the beaches, just about 20 minutes outside the city. The only tea plantation in America is located in Charleston. And all kinds of shopping. Clothing stores, chocolate shops, restaurants and the intoxicating aromas of those cozy little coffee and tobacco shops. So the next time you need a getaway to escape the fast pace of the world and uplift your spirits, consider a walking tour of Charleston’s historic district.

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