A brief history: Old San Juan is the very well-preserved colonial portion of Puerto Rico's historic city, the gateway to the island. Puerto Rico came on the map of the New World when the Spanish explorer, Columbus, landed in 1493. At that time, the island's indigenous inhabitants were the Taíno (read more about them in my post, "Puerto Rico Outside San Juan"), who were of course quickly decimated by slavery, disease and exile. Columbus named the island in good Catholic tradition, San Juan Bautista, for St. John the Baptist. But over time, the entire island became referred to as Puerto Rico, meaning "rich port" in Spanish, and only the main trading and shipping port retained the name San Juan. Another famous Spanish explorer of the New World, Ponce de León, once a lieutenant under Columbus, founded the settlement of Caparra in 1508 as the first Spanish permanent presence. Puerto Rico then remained for centuries under Spain's wing until it was ceded to the United States as part of the treaty ending the Spanish-American War in 1898.
The two primary historic features of Old San Juan, or at least the largest, are the impressive fortresses, about a cannonball's throw away from one another. Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo San Cristóbal are the products of centuries of labor, constructing massive, thick stone walls, which could withstand not only man's fury of guns and cannonballs, but mother nature's fury of tropical storms and hurricanes. The stone fortifications stand uninjured by the recent hurricane, Maria.
The Spanish began building the first commanding fort, Castillo San Felipe del Morro, at the northwestern tip of the island to protect the harbor in 1539. It wasn't completed until almost 250 years later and 140 feet higher from the first stones placed at sea level. Pleasantly for today's tourist, pretty much the whole place is open to the public to explore ... none of the hated and frustrating velvet ropes and "no entry" signs that populate so many historic buildings in the world. It's truly an ode to classic fortifications ... a labyrinth of tunnels, ramps, turrets, towers, cannon batteries, bunkers.
View from the fortress walls on the promontory where Castillo San Felipe del Morro stands sentinel.
Today the large green lawn next to el Morro is filled with laughter and picnickers and loads of people flying kites. It's a particularly cheery place in light of the fact it lies between two battle fortresses and a cemetery.
Because I'm lazy but I think this is interesting in explaining the proximity of the other fortress, and it's the most easily accessible compact info, I'm pasting in from Wikipedia this tidbit: "In 1625, in the Battle of San Juan, the Dutch commander Boudewijn Hendricksz tested the defenses' limits like no one else before. Learning from Francis Drake's previous failures here, he circumvented the cannons of the castle of San Felipe del Morro and quickly brought his 17 ships into the San Juan Bay. He then occupied the port and attacked the city while the population hurried for shelter behind the Morro's moat and high battlements. Historians consider this event the worst attack on San Juan. Though the Dutch set the village on fire, they failed to conquer the Morro, and its batteries pounded their troops and ships until Hendricksz deemed the cause lost. Hendricksz's expedition eventually helped propel a fortification frenzy. Constructions of defenses for the San Cristóbal Hill were soon ordered so as to prevent the landing of invaders out of reach of the Morro's artillery. Urban planning responded to the needs of keeping the colony in Spanish hands."
And so here we have Castillo San Cristóbal, with its three flags flying: the American flag, Puerto Rico's flag, and the Spanish military flag, as flown in the fort's days of old.
From the bell "tower" you can see the fortress walls of el Morro on the far horizon next to the sea.
Them's a lot of cannonballs. Wouldn't want to see one flying at me!
Covered walkway inside Castillo San Cristóbal ... so it's not all just stark stone walls, but some nice interior architecture, as well.
Below are some views from inside a bunker at Castillo San Cristóbal. First looking down the coast toward the city, and then looking the other direction toward el Morro. You can just pick out the Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery below the fortress wall of el Morro ... you can see a pin prick of orange directly below and against the wall, which is the dome roof sticking up.
And now up close, the orange dome in the Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis cemetery.
This is what I wrote about the cemetery from my Friday Photo post on September 30, 2016: I feel wistful looking at it knowing that some far away day all those people who are interred in the earth will surely be washed out into that beautiful blue ocean. It gives me a sense of sadness and freedom at the same time.
I really like cemeteries, I find them peaceful, not creepy. And the artistry of the tombstones and statues in some cemeteries, such as in this one, is lovely and compelling. (for example also, in the Recoleta Cemetery). I think it's an interesting juxtaposition to be adjacent to the stark stone walls of a battle fortress and the undulating vastness of the sea. It's not a particularly old cemetery, begun in the early 1800s, but as you might expect, it has a roster of well-known figures to Puerto Rico's history, politics and artistic community resting at the shore of the Atlantic Ocean.
And of course the cemetery kitties find a quiet place for shelter in the city.
I was amused to find a cathedral in the center of Old San Juan, Catedral de San Juan Bautista, to be a safe haven for them as well. The doors to the church were propped open, and so cats wandered freely in and out. Not sure how well they'd be tolerated in America, but here we found them sleeping on the pews and in corners on the floor.
Now, you might be tempted to think that the only other thing the historic city of Old San Juan has to offer are a bunch of wandering kitty cats, if the preponderance of them inside my camera is any indication. Any city Erik and I visit that has roaming kitty cats, we usually follow them around like creepy cat people, taking pictures and trying to entice them to come to our petting fingers. And of course, we've also been known to invite them to hang out inside our hotel room, as one example when we were in Ushuaia, Argentina. Knowing our own propensity for doing this, I have to ask the people who stay in my own B&B to please not let my kitties inside the studio, as friendly as they are (as I try to keep pet hair out).
So yes, we accost kitties across the world and you might think that's the only thing that interested us here. Until, that is, you notice the even greater quantity of pigeon pictures! There are several public areas around the old city -- parks and squares -- where loads of pigeons (I first wrote "penguins" ... guess I still have Antarctica on the brain!) hang out and people feed them, causing them to swell in great masses. I personally am scared of them when they get into their large, frenzied flocks (or kits, apparently is another name for a group of pigeons). Not only do they freak me out, but also I figure pure statistical odds have it that at least one of them is going to have to poop. Just looking around at the ground and benches will confirm that. I'd rather stay poop-free. But Erik was more brave than I.
There was something fascinating, though, I must confess, about watching them in their masses, the way they moved in waves, their crowd dynamics very similar to fluid dynamics. Though I didn't want to do it myself, I appreciated the other people who threw out food to induce this hypnotizing spectacle.
The Parque de las Palomas (pictured above and below) is a particular haven for them, as a whole stone wall flanking the park is a pigeon apartment complex, with many holes for the birds and their families. I suppose you can guess what "las palomas" means! It's also a nice location for a scenic view over the Atlantic Ocean. Street musicians perform just outside the park gates, and bars and restaurants offer pleasant patio seating and always a nice selection of mixed drinks.
The birds also find nifty little places to hang out all over the city, like on this historical bronze plaque. He fits in so well on the guy's head, you'd almost walk right by and not process that something was out of place.
Cats and pigeons aside, the streets of Old San Juan make for pleasant strolling, and this historic part of town is very pedestrian-friendly. We were staying at a hotel a little ways outside of the city ... kind of in between Old San Juan and the other attractions further east and south on the island (such as the rain forests). So we drove into Old San Juan and parked the car in one of the many car parks for the day or evening and just walked everywhere. I, if you remember from my other Puerto Rico post, had an injured foot during this trip and was clumping around with a big boot on my leg.
The buildings lining the old cobblestone streets are colorful and give the city a cheery feel. We always appreciate a competent bit of street art, as well.
And a piece of park art, shall we call it. A whimsical bronze sculpture in a small shady park we often stopped to rest at. The fact that it was a very popular kitty hang-out might have had something to do with our fondness for it.
We visited several nice museums, also -- art museums as well as restored historic homes. We had heard that there was an excellent mixology bar, La Factoria, in town. Normally, we are beer drinkers, but mixed drinks seem to be the thing here. So we checked it out, um, more than once, and found it to be a delightful place where, sure enough, you can either order an interesting drink from their menu or ask the bartender to mix up something unique for you ... tell him what kind of liquor you want and maybe some flavors, and he'll give a suggestion and set to work. This is where we discovered the world of mule drinks, as well as rubbing orange rind around the rim of a glass, particularly for rum drinks. I mention all of these things that we went to pre-Maria hurricane. So I can't attest to their continued existence, but I sure hope for it. And as soon as the island can get back on its feet to accommodate tourists, I encourage you to go and support their economy with your tourist dollars and smiling faces. :-)
Did I mention this was my birthday trip for 2016? These trips tend to vary widely in their nature, scope and degree of relaxation. This week in Puerto Rico was high on the relaxation scale, and ultimately quite affordable. I feel so awful for the damage done to this wonderful island from Hurricane Maria in 2017. Knowing how beautiful the land was, how historic some of the places such as Old San Juan, and how incredibly friendly the people were, it gives me a heavy heart to know they are suffering and to know that so many Americans on the mainland don't really consider this island to be full of their countrymen who are in need of our compassion and help. Hopefully my posts on my time there do a wee bit of justice to the island in portraying what has now been largely lost in the destruction that Mother Nature wreaked. She is a capricious force, and she both makes us and breaks us. But I hope the spirit of the Puerto Ricans is not broken, and though the island will never be restored to the same as it was before, I hope they can recover their lives and livelihoods again in a rebuilt Puerto Rico, that their spirit will stand the test of time as well as the formidable castillos.