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A Day in Ponce, Puerto Rico (Where Gumbo Was #87)

DSC03288On our second-to-last day in Puerto Rico, we headed to the south shore of the island, to the city of Ponce. It's smaller than San Juan, has less tourist traffic—all that, and yet it considers itself the cultural equal of the capital or of anyone. And it has a quite different history. 



 Ponce calls itself the City of Lions; here is the beautiful Lion Fountain


Unlike San Juan, with its 500-year history as a capital city, Ponce was a relatively insignificant hamlet, one of many along the coast, until the early 1800s, when an offshore event changed everything. In Haiti, not so far away, slaves rebelled, overthrew the French government forces, and established the first republic in the Americas after the U.S., and the first ruled by Africans and their descendants.



 Looking across the Plaza las Delicias toward the cathedral, behind Lion Fountain


In the years after 1804, many French planters from Haiti, with capital and slaves, arrived to start sugarcane production in the flat lands around them. They were followed by two more waves of Europeans: Spanish royalists leaving newly-independent Latin American countries, and other European Catholics, invited by Spain to come and farm and build up population.



By 1848, it was declared a village by royal charter, and in 1877 a city. By then, it was bigger than San Juan, and the planters' wealth made it the financial capital of Puerto Rico. And like all proud cities of the time, it dreamed of holding a big Exposition, like those in Paris and other cities.


 And so it held one, in 1882, and celebrated it by inaugurating its newly-installed electric grid on opening day, and by building a cluster of exhibit halls, one of them a colorful fantasy that survived to become Ponce's main fire station until 1990, when it became a museum of fire-fighting, called the Parque de Bombas, literally Park of the Pumps. And it is in front of that building that the painted lions of Puzzle #87 stand, recognized by both Jonathan L and PortMoresby—and congratulations to both of them!


For more Gumbo blogs and pictures from Puerto Rico, CLICK here!


We wandered for a bit around the Plaza las Delicias, which includes the Cathedral as well as the Parque de Bombas. Actually for a little longer than we intended, because our plan was to start with the Ponce Museum of History...but our map and some of the street signs were a little off. We got a few more blocks of sightseeing than we intended, and then found our way back to the Tourist Information desk in the Parque and got new directions.




The museum is only a couple of blocks away from the Plaza, in a group of former private homes, starting behind the beautiful doors above. It's a fairly comprehensive museum about Ponce, covering not only the early history, but also the pre-history of the area, social and cultural movements, independentista activity including 19th-century rebellions, and the infamous 1930s massacre of protesters by police and National Guard. There's a separate museum of the Ponce Massacre nearby, but it was closed on our day. 


 Signage in the museum varies; it's very complete and well-researched, but not all of it is in English as well as Spanish. The major themes have both; some of the detail we had to translate as best we could.





And how could a museum in a sugar-growing area of the Caribbean be complete without a tribute to rum-making?




After the museum, we followed our map a few blocks to a cafe that had been highly recommended to us by several sources; unfortunately, January 2 was not a day for that...or for the two others nearby. Back to the firehouse for more instructions; we were told that there were several places for food only a few blocks away at El Mercado. We were to follow Paseo Atocha, a pedestrianized commercial street full of stores and vendors, to the market.



 We did, and found an eye-treat even before the food: while El Mercado has many vacant stalls (and is getting some more gentrified plans made for it), it's a well-maintained Art Deco gem.





Once inside, we looked for food places, and had found little and were approaching despair, when we spotted two women, one a security guard, carrying and eating from plates of delicious looking carne guisada and pernil. We asked where, and they pointed, and we followed. Tucked away in a back corner of the market we found it—a small lunch counter, patronized by market workers and others. Just a few tables, a counter, and friendly people who explained that sadly, the last of the hot food has just been sold.




However, they still had sandwiches. Lovely sandwiches, roast pork for my wife and a really good Cubano for me. Perhaps we shouldn't have, but we ate them all.





Then it was back to the Plaza las Delicias again for a visit to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Dating to 1670, though little of that age remains after over three centuries of earthquakes, fires and vaulting ambitions. (Yes, pun intended)



It's considered, we read, the most intricately decorated of Puerto Rico's four cathedrals, and has a large organ that was played frequently by Ponce's composer and national hero Juan Morel Campos, whose statue also stands in the Plaza las Delicias.




Unfortunately, by that time, about two o'clock, the Cathedral, which had been open in the morning, was closed and shows no signs of opening soon. Disappointed—for the moment—we turned to the sovereign cure for melancholy: ice cream. And conveniently, across from the Plaza, we found Kings, which we had read (in the words of people from elsewhere) is the source of the second-best ice cream in Puerto Rico. We had also read, in the words of Poncenos, that it is the source of Puerto Rico's best.



20150102_142049We have now attempted the place in Lares that everyone, just everyone, says was the best, but which is now closed.


We tried Jendy's Heladeria Artesenal in Caguas, which most books call the current best. We avoided the place in Caguas that an elderly woman and her teenage daughter both warned us against, although for different reasons...that's for another blog.


And we tried more flavors at Kings than we should have after our sandwiches.


I don't know which is really "best;" sometimes that just isn't knowable. But I'd have to rate Kings very high for excellent flavors and rich, creamy smoothness. The woman in pink with the yellow machine may have been the secret; she tended the batches with a practiced eye, manually stirring with a large paddle between machine stirrings. Recommended!


 After the ice cream we went off to see Ponce's other major museum, the Ponce Museum of Art, considered by some to be Puerto Rico's best. Again with the best! Enough! It was a very good museum, and worth the trip. The city is very proud of its design by Edward Durrell Stone.




Local museums are always a good opportunity to see how local painters fit in with broader trends in the art world, and how they've influenced each other (for another example, see the Gumbo blog on the Puerto Rico Museum of art in San Juan) Among the many works here, we were struck by those of Miguel Pou y Becerra (1880-1968).
































 After the museum, it was back to the Plaza, for a little more sightseeing, and the hope that perhaps the Cathedral would have re-opened. After a little looking through this street market (which was mostly selling cheap plastic toys—still time to buy more presents before Three Kings' Day—we moved on to the Cathedral, walking again through the lovely park.








And then we found not just the Cathedral, open, but preparations for a wedding in progress. And the preparations included this classic '51 Chevy Bel Air, wating for the bridal couple to make their first marital journey.






Inside, the Cathedral certainly lived up to its reputation for intricate beauty, with stained glass both modern and old, and dramatically painted ceiling vaults and columns.









And then it was time to head "home" to San Juan. On the way, we passed this puzzling window. I'm afraid I've missed the connection between the pharmacy that must once have occupied the store and the "ad hoc," but it here serves its interim purpose of giving a last view of Ponce.





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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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