Old San Juan: Spanish History Buffs Unite!
A cloud of humidity and scores of singing frogs greeted me as I first encountered the island in darkness. Curse the color spots, I muttered. My vision had to adjust from the glaring institutional white I had abandoned a mere moment ago to the vast blackness beyond the line of taxis.
After some awkward negotiations with a middle-age taxi driver, I staggered into the hotel lobby and mumbled the necessary words to the receptionist. I plopped down before the computer humming a few feet away from the front desk. The desire to check my email suddenly possessed me. I sent a few messages to my most beloved explaining that I had yet to be kidnapped or enchanted by any Spanish Colonial architecture. Then, noting my growling stomach, I ran to the only nearby restaurant open at 3 a.m.--Burger King (whose menu differed drastically from the one I grew up with in the Mid-Atlantic United States.)
I was staying in the rather beachy El Condado, a district located near Old San Juan, the city's Colonial heart. Needless to say, as a Quail Bell(e), Old San Juan was the district that most arrested my attention.
During my four days of mostly aimless (but happy) wandering, I discovered a historic district unlike any other I had ever seen. I grew up on the East Coast of the United States, where British Colonial villages abound. Particularly in my home state of Virginia, historic districts are practically commonplace.
In Richmond, where I currently live, there's The Fan, Shockoe Bottom, and Church Hill. Within a three hour drive, there's Old Town Fredericksburg, Old Town Leesburg, Old Town Winchester, Old Town Manassas, and, my favorite, Old Town Alexandria. There are also many other historical districts whose names do not begin with the words "Old Town"--take Jamestown, Staunton, and Charlottesville, for example.
My point is that blue cobblestones and terra cotta roofs by the sea are not the norm in any of these Virginian towns. Like a little girl, I marveled at such basic differences between British Colonial and Spanish Colonial. Yes, I had been to multiple historic cities over the years--from Edinburgh to La Rochelle to Old Montréal--but this was my first time in the Caribbean.
What first caught me in Old San Juan was the matter of shades and hues. You can't ignore the vibrant, pure colors. Imagine bright pinks and oranges, mostly variations of coral. You'll notice sunshine yellow, sky blue, and a range of other shocking shades, too. Well, at least "shocking" compared to the more conservative tones of Antebellum and Victorian era architecture. Even in The Fan, the largest Victorian and Edwardian architectural district in the United States and a place where homeowners tend to be more playful than in other parts of the Commonwealth, neutral colors abound. I put the architecture in Floridian terms, since I have vacationed in the state almost every year since birth. Old San Juan seems to fuse the palette of Miami with the silhouettes of St. Augustine.
Another huge departure from what I knew back home is the matter of architectural materials. In Virginia, many of the historic buildings are made of brick or wood board. In Old San Juan, stucco and stone dominate. On this same note, gardens are not landscaped with magnolias and dogwoods. Instead, palm and banana trees make up the materials of San Juan gardens--gardens, mind you, that are located in lush courtyards, not on lavish lawns full of topiary.
The language, of course, isn't the same, either. All of the Old San Juan museum signs appear in Spanish first, English second, assuming they provide an English translation at all. As a hispanohablante, this does not bother me. In fact, it delights me. In Virginia, despite the large hispanic population, many museum signs and brochures only appear in English. (Massively popular historic sites like Colonial Williamsburg aside.) In Old San Juan, no one can accuse there of being a shortage of Spanish "Ye Olde" signs. For those who don't read Spanish, I hope it's a treat to admire the Colonial typography apparent in so many labels, plaques, and signs.
Something else that struck me about my visit is simply the historic vibe that emanates from Spanish conquerors versus English ones. I cannot articulate what it is, but I can assure that you, too, will feel it if you ever see Old San Juan. I just sensed very distinctive ghosts in Old San Juan. The burden of imperialism and slavery was there just as it is in any European settlement in America. Yet the ghosts talk differently, dress differently, and haunt differently from the ones who inhabit Virginia. I closed my eyes and thought of the men and women who walked here centuries ago. Colonial Spaniards, Indians...everyone roaming about half-purposefully, as if they were not quite aware that one day their most trivial actions would be recorded as history, whether political, economic, cultural or social.
Clearly, smaller, subtler differences between the historic districts in Virginia and Old San Juan exist, but now I'd like to mention the must-sees in Old San Juan:
If you ever go to Old San Juan, definitely visit the two "castles": Fort San Felipe del Morro and San Juan de Cristóbal. Built in the 1500s, El Morro is a great stone citadel, while San Juan de Cristóbal, the biggest Spanish fortification built in the Americas, dates back to the 17th century and therefore looks slightly less ancient. Another fantastic site is the governor's mansion, El Palacio de Santa Catalina. Radiating a breezy blue with hints of white, El Palacio de Santa Catalina dates back to the 1500s. These are the district's three "biggies." If you're in Old San Juan for more than a quick two-hour cruise stop, check out any of the following: Santa María Magdalena de Pazzi, Museum of Ballajá, San José Church, Hotel El Convento, Casa Blanca, Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, and Paseo de la Princesa.
When I went home four days later, I felt privileged to have experienced such a beautiful, historic splendor as Old San Juan. Now if only I can get these conquistador phantoms to stop trailing me...