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Old San Juan – An Historic Look

4 min read
Old San Juan – An Historic Look

Picture this as you read.

You are walking along a rough cobblestone street. There is a light breeze running over your skin, cooling you along the way. Behind you, the cobbles continue in a sloping hill and you can see the top of the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista rising over the surrounding rooftops. In front of you is the Capilla del Cristo – Chapel of Christ – showing it’s 240 year age, but remaining in good condition. Beyond the chapel, you can see on either side of it, the Bay of San Juan glistening blue in the sun light. An enormous cruise ship passes from right to left, as it prepares to park itself at the nearby dock. To your left is a small museum dedicated to preserving the cultural art of the island, and to your right is a small park echoing with the laughter of school children feeding the hundreds of pigeons that dwell there.

Taking a few steps forward, you approach the short wall that keeps unfortunate victims from falling to their death. You look down and realize this is not actually a short wall as you initially thought, but is in reality the top part of a fifty foot high defensive barricade that went under construction nearly four centuries ago. Looking down around your feet, you notice the cobbles do not quite look the same as the cobbles in the mainland United States do. They are not red brick, but are in fact blue tinted, and cast of iron slag. They were used as ballast on ships crossing from Spain to San Juan, to keep them balanced in the ocean waves. After arriving in port, they were tossed out of the ships and used to construct cobblestone streets. Which particular ship these cobbles arrived on, you do not know. But it doesn’t take much imagination to conceive it possible that they arrived in the same boat that carried Juan Ponce de Leon, or possibly even Christopher Columbus.

Turning and walking back in the other direction, you pass four and five story tall buildings with intricate facades and blue and yellow paint schemes. Travelling two blocks north takes you past a park dedicated to the wild cats of Old San Juan, and if you look around carefully, you will indeed see several of the beautiful felines lounging in a corner, carefully watching the surrounding humans. The park features monuments to the cats, with necks stretched out in curiosity, and an enormous tree dominates the center, casting a lovely shade over the whole of the area. Sit here and relax, or continue on your path. Immediately to your right as the San Juan Cathedral, and though you cannot immediately tell from the outside, you quickly realize this is the second oldest cathedral in the western hemisphere, and is reaching its 500th anniversary in 2021. To your left, recently celebrating its 350th anniversary, is Puerto Rico’s first convent, El Convento. Now one of the finest hotels in Old San Juan, it plays host to socialites from around the world, and also features a lovely restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a host of beverages in between. Turning left here, you walk down another aged cobblestone street, and through a wall. Standing on the path that intersects the bottom of the street, you look up and read the Latin inscription over the gate you passed through: “Benedictus Qui Venit In Nomine Domini” – “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord”

This gate used to be main entrance to the city, and the docks were right underneath it. Sailors would kneel before the gate upon landing, and give a prayer of thanks to God, for allowing them safe passage. Turning away from the gate, you walk down the path to your left and look up at the full scope of the defensive walls you noted earlier, at the chapel. Pockmarks riddle the walls, evidence of centuries of failed invasions. You can almost hear the musket and cannon fire from the top of the walls, as the Spanish defenders fought off Francis Drake and a host of other English and Dutch invaders.

Old San Juan is a must for any history buff, whether you prefer European or American tales. It all ties together in Puerto Rico. The Island of Enchantment is the birthplace of European culture in the Americas, discovered by Columbus in 1493. Old San Juan is the second oldest European city in the Western Hemisphere, approaching its 500th anniversary in 2012. While it may not be as old as Dresden or Brighton or Rome or a host of other European cities, you can be guaranteed that you will always be blessed with weather only seen in a tropical paradise, as well as being guaranteed that the city will never be paved over with condos or high rise hotels. Out of all the antique cities in the world, Old San Juan may be the best at maintaining its identity, and not losing itself in the wave of tourism that crashes ashore 24 hours a day.

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