Born to shop? Try San Juan. This Caribbean island-emporium also offers beautiful Spanish architecture, walkability
Old San Juan, Puerto Rico — SURE you're exhausted, battered, and broke. After an hour at the Ralph Lauren outlet store, you feel as if you've spent the afternoon in a rugby scrum. But don't just hop a cab and beat it back to the cool comfort of the new Sands Hotel swimming pool. There's more than the hysterical side of this ancient city - there's the historical side as well.
Have the cashier store your bargains under the counter, and take a right up Calle Cristo. Do not enter the London Fog outlet. Save that for your return later in the day.
As you step out, you'll notice the smooth blue adoquines streets that run through the old city. These bricks, cast of slag from Spanish iron foundries in the late 1800s, were used as ship's ballast. Their beauty really comes to light on bright rainy days, when they shine like polished lapis lazuli.
Just a block away you can relax, catch your breath, and count what's left of your money under the large ficus trees at Parque de las Monjas. The tiny park is an artist's hangout between rain showers. There are always a few painters under the shade trees eager to peddle their latest rendition of the Cathedral de San Juan Bautista before the paint is even dry.
The cathedral, perhaps the most famous building in Old San Juan, looms just across the street.
Nothing remains of the original wood-and-thatch building built in the 1520s. Hurricanes and British looters took care of that early on. Restoration of the present handsome coffee-with-cream-colored structure was completed in 1977. The cathedral is worth a quick look-see, if only to find the marble tomb of the city's founder and first governor, Juan Ponce de Le'on.
While other conquistadors took the busy looting-and-sacking-for-gold route, de Le'on was in hot pursuit of the elusive ``fountain of youth.'' This early-day Mary Kay unfortunately caught an Indian arrow in Florida. After he succumbed in Cuba, his remains were shipped from Havana back to Puerto Rico and interred up the street in the Church of San Jos'e.
Just across from the cathedral is the old convent, built in 1616. It's been a hotel for many years. The Gran Hotel El Convento is the only ``true'' hotel in Old San Juan. Yes, there are others. These, however, are delicately referred to as ``half-hour hotels.'' You won't find them listed in the tourist brochures.
The El Convento is a fine place for those who appreciate older things - including accommodations. Its location makes it especially nice for older couples or those without children who would rather explore Old San Juan than spin the wheel of misfortune at one of the razzle-dazzle casinos in the ``new'' town.
The rooms are on the small side but are furnished attractively with Spanish four-poster beds and modern baths. The enclosed atrium houses a swimming pool. In any case, it's a relaxing place to escape the heat and sip a cold drink under the ``chewing gum'' tree.
Two nights a week the adjacent Nuns Chapel echoes to the beat of the ``Festival Flamenco.'' The dancers - all Spanish imports - stomp, shout, click their castanets, kick up their heels, and spin like tops. It's the best flamenco show around - certainly a lot of activity, color, and entertainment for $20.
Heading back into the sun, make your way up Calle Cristo.
Small, colorful shops of ocher, pink, yellow, beige, and blue are tucked up and down the street. You may browse for antiques, hand-woven baskets, and imports from South America (notably Peru), and, of course, there are T-shirt shops here and there.
Where the hill levels off at the top, it is crowned by the Church of San Jos'e. The surrounding park shares the name of the saint. Ponce de Le'on appears again here. His bronze statue - cast of melted- down British cannon - casts a fine (and rather youthful) contraposto pose against the blue sky and stark white walls of the church.
Just to the left and tucked in a corner is the Pablo Casals Museum. This little storefront building holds a collection of the Spanish cello master's memorabilia. Included are photographs, manuscripts, and a collection of video recordings of Festival Casals concerts, which may be viewed on request.
If you're in the market for souvenirs, the best are at the Centro do Artes Populares, just to the left of San Jos'e's in the old Dominican Convent.
Among the tiles, ``quatro'' guitars, paper flowers, and wonderfully bizarre papier-m^ach'e masks are the popular santos. These are rather rustic, hand-carved, often painted figures of saints used for worship, especially by rural families. Older ones and those by preeminent carvers are considered choice, collectible folk art.
Especially charming are the ``Three Kings'' standing in a row stiff as soldiers, on horseback. Examples of santos dating back to the 19th century are available at antique stores in the Old Town, and can cost several hundred dollars.
Be sure, too, to visit the Church of San Jos'e next door.
If it's time for lunch, cross the street to Amadeus at 106 San Sebastian. No need to look at the entree side of the menu; just choose a few starters: Rabbit turnovers, tostones with caviar, phyllo triangles with chicken curry, codfish pancakes, and pigeon pea pur'ee with fried breadfruit and yucca are just a few of the delightful appetizers offered.
Belly full, you'll be ready to wander the Old Town on your way toward the centerpiece of this historical area - the fort of El Morro.
If you see the trolley that's run by Goya Foods, hail it. It's free.
Throughout the area, you'll see the state of flux Old San Juan is in. More than 400 buildings have been, or are being, refurbished in a massive effort to restore the town to new glory. The old asylum is now a school of fine arts.
The prison down by the waterfront will soon house tourism headquarters. Homes in fine 17th-century French colonial architecture, with arches and balconies, are being replastered and painted. More streets will be closed to traffic for pedestrian strolling. And so it goes throughout the city.
A double line of tropical pines divides the spacious park leading to El Morro. Kite strings, snared between the trees, dangle like cobwebs from branches where green and gray parrots squawk for attention. These birds are recent immigrants - descendants of some 300 Dominican parrots that escaped six years ago as they were being brought here for sale in some of the local pet shops.
The Fort of El Morro clings to the tip of this island like a starfish on an oyster. Its high bastions are the perfect place to observe the 45-foot walls that girdle the old city.
Here, too, you can reach over the ramparts and take a picture of the famous garitos - the picturesque watchtowers that punctuate the wall every hundred feet or so.
A march up, down, around, and through the fort, and you're ready to line up at the fuente de aqua (water fountain).
Old San Juan is filled with more treasure than a pirate's locker.
The city surprised me on a number of levels: the genuine sweetness, friendliness, and caring of the people; the vast collection of historic and beautiful Spanish-colonial architecture, numerous museums, with more on the way; the quiet charm of the Old City; and the number of fine restaurants.