Old San Juan: colonial Spanish elegance

Before there was Plymouth Rock or even the founding of Jamestown in 1607, there was Old San Juan. It is still there, much as it has been for centuries, seven square blocks of twisting, narrow streets and medieval Spanish buildings that recall legendary explorers and the dawn of European settlement in the New World.

It is hard to determine whether the natural or the man-made is the more impressive aspect of this historic peninsula, which forms the westernmost section of San Juan. On three sides, below jagged cliffs studded with flowering tropical trees, is the turquoise sweep of the Atlantic; atop those cliffs are beautifully restored churches, town houses, and villas, guarded at the east and west by the noble remains of the forts El Morro and San Cristobal.

No matter which you find more dazzling, the best way to enjoy them is on foot , equipped with a map and guidebook from the tourist office just to the left of Pier 1, where the cruise ships dock. In fact, those visiting San Juan as a cruise destination will find Old San Juan before them as soon as they leave the ship.

A good way to begin a walking tour is to head for Fort San Cristobal, in the northeastern corner of the district. It is a masterpiece of Spanish military architecture, begun in 1614 and completed during the 18th century as a defense against land attacks on San Juan. Repeated attempts by the English and Dutch to wrest away the treasures of the seaport made its vast proportions -- it rises 150 feet above the sea and encompasses 27 acres -- a necessity.

But its turbulent past is silent now, the chief reminder of its warlike purpose being the Cross of the Burgundy, the Spanish imperial flag, that flies alongside those of Puerto Rico and the United States. Its crumbling masonry, peeling into shades of pink, beige, and gray, evokes an atmosphere that is both timeless and serene, a hushed quietness broken only by the crashing waves of the sea below. Here and there a solitary cannon peers out of a gun mount, waiting in vain for a masted fleet to invade the harbor.

Through one of the many archways in the central courtyard is a small museum with dioramas and transparencies of the fort's history and construction from a mixture of sandstone, mortar, and rubble. In one room a group of mannequins is resplendent in many layers of 17th- and 18th-century Spanish military garb, leaving one to wonder how they managed to fight off attackers so successfully.

From San Cristobal it is a few blocks westward to the older and even more impressive El Morro. The long walkway, lined with wind- battered Australian pines leading up to the fort, is as grand as any drive leading to a medievel castle or stately home. In fact, the pillared, neoclassical entryway that bears an 18th-century coat of arms looks not unlike the facade of a Georgian Manor. But, as a tour around the supporting bastions reveals, some of the construction harkens to back to as early as 1539.

It was in that year that the strategic site at the tip of the peninsula was chosen for the much-needed defense. Construction was not to be completed for some 250 years, years that saw an abortive attempt in 1595 by Sir Francis Drake to claim the island for England and an attack by the Dutch fleet in 1625 which sent the city up in flames.

The main courtyard, painted a mellow gold with contrasting white, reflects the splendid 18th-century phase of the construction. Off the courtyard is a series of archways leading to the various sections of the sprawling, six-level fortress. Down one is a steep ramp which one can descend to the Santa Barbara Bastion to take in the magnificent ocean view. Hard to resist is a walk inside one of the bastion's little turreted sentry boxes to peer through slitlike windows.

From El Morro it is a short walk south to a landmark of greater antiquity yet , Casa Blanca, the house built for Ponce de Leon, Puerto Rico's colonizer and first governor. But because he was killed in Florida in 1521, he never lived to see it. Built of masonry in 1523 shortly after an earlier structure was destroyed by a hurricane, it was home of the governor's heirs for 250 years.

Today it is a museum depicting how an upper-class Puerto Rican family would have lived in the 16th and 17th centuries. A stone path leads through a lovely landscaped courtyard up to an entryway guarded by two fierce-looking stone lions.

No matter how hot the tropical sun is outside, the high-ceilinged, white-walled interior is cool and airy from the trade winds blowing in from the harbor just below the terraced balconies. From the polished, moss-brown tiles underfoot to the hand-hewn crossbeams overhead, the house is a prime example of colonial Spanish elegance and charm.

Leaving Casa Blanca, one heads down Calle San Sebastian to Plaza de San jose, the heart of the old city. This street, like many of the others, is paved with small bluish-gray stones from Spain called adoquines and lined with tall colonial town houses painted in a pallette of ice cream colors.

At the plaza are numerous structures of note, the largest being the 16 th-century Dominican Convent which is now the headquarters of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, a government organization responsible for much of the restoration done in Old San Juan during the past 25 years. On many days the convent's huge double-galleried patio is the scene for concerts and craft festivals; nearly always there is an art exhibit lining it walls.

Next to the institute is the San Jose Church, one of the oldest and most beautiful in the hemisphere. Dating from 1532, it is worth a visit for a glance upward at its remarkable series of vaulted ceilings. Right next to it is the Pablo Casals Museum, a fitting place to pay respects to the great cellist, who spent the last 17 years of his life in Puerto Rico.

There is much to see and hear in this small museum, which occupies one of the city's oldest town houses. In addition to an extensive collection of memorabilia from the cellist's career is a library of videotape recordings of the Festival Casals, an annual summer event on the island since 1956. And what Casals referred to as his "oldest, dearest friend" is upstairs carefully preserved in a glass case -- his cello.

Calle Cristo heads south from the plaza, taking one past more landmarks and museums, as well as some intriguing boutiques and art galleries. About halfway down is the beautifully restored San Juan Cathedral, a splendid example of medieval Gothic architecture.

Across the way, the elegant Hotel El Convento is a good place to stop for lunch or a cold drink. Like its surroundings, the hotel is over 300 years old and would not look out of place on a plaza in Madrid. Inside are spacious, high-ceilinged rooms built around a lush patio where flamenco dancers put on an evening show.

A little farther down Calle Cristo, a right turn on Calle Fortaleza leads to La Fortaleza, the executive mansion for Puerto Rican governors and the seat of the island's government for over four centuries. After the original 16 th-century house was burned by the Dutch, the present structure was rebuilt in 1640 and then enlarged to its present plan in 1846.

The last block of Calle Cristo is a charming little mall, stopping short of tiny Cristo Chapel and a panoramic view of the harbor. Here history is interspersed with boutiques selling jewelry, tropical fashions, and Puerto Rican crafts, such as hammocks similar to the ones that intrigued Columbus on his visit to the island in 1493. Like so much else in Old San Juan, they are still eliciting that same response.

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