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Old San Juan: Beautiful...and not all old

DSC02914San Juan, Puerto Rico is a city of contrasts, of modern skyscrapers, crowded residential areas of different eras, resort hotels and casinos along Condado, and much more...but the image that usually comes to mind is really that of Old San Juan, the walled island town that was, in the beginning, San Juan.



Actually, not quite. One of the things we learned along the way is that San Juan, or more fully San Juan Bautista (Saint John the Baptist) was the name originally applied to the whole island, and the early Spanish settlers described their new town, on a narrow island just off shore, as a rich port: Puerto Rico. We heard several stories of how the switch happened, and we're not taking sides.


(For more Gumbo blogs and pictures from San Juan and Puerto Rico, click HERE)


sanjose Of course, the mental image most of us carry of Old San Juan is either an atmospheric street scene like the one above, or an image of the city walls and fortifications with their "garitas," or watchtowers. And those are all there, and much more with it—including a number of truly notable modern buildings. Here are some images and notes from our walks through Old San Juan, starting with the second-oldest church in the Americas, San Jose.


We only saw it surrounded by its protective wall; it's designated as one of the most endangered landmarks in the world. Through poor maintenance and sometimes bad restoration, it has reached a perilous state and work is moving slowly.



Almost as old, and also undergoing renovation, but not in perilous condition, this former religious foundation and almshouse is now home to the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, with major art and historic exhibits. We were disappointed to learn it won't be open again for a year or so...but we have a feeling we'll be back.


The institute and the church are both on the north side of the island. From there, we turned south and walked downhill to San Juan's Cathedral. While San Jose claims title as the second-oldest church, the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista has its own second: second-oldest cathedral in the Americas. Started in the 16th-century, it seemed small to us, until we realized how small the population of San Juan was at the time. It's a 1540 building, replacing a wooden one from 1521.




Inside, the cathedral is a mix of traditional arts and styles and intricate decoration, and some stunningly modern stained glass and tableaus.







Don't you just look at the one above and think "Gee, he should have planned ahead!" We've looked but can't find any explanation for the artist's asymmetrical choice. My only guess is that he wanted to emphasize the first three...





And what's a cathedral without a cat? It would be almost like a library without lions.






Across from the cathedral, an extremely inviting little park and streetscape. At least they seemed inviting until, only a moment after this picture, the clear sky closed over and we ducked indoors to avoid the rain. Meant to go back, never did...




Another day, we visited the Alcaldia, or City Hall, facing the Plaza de Armas. Started in 1640 and added to a few times after, it's been San Juan's administrative center for nearly 375 years. Given the tight security at our own City Hall in New York, we were surprised when the guard in the lobby invited us to walk around and enjoy the building.




But before we go inside, let's stop for a moment to watch the action in the Plaza de Armas, which appears to be the premier pigeon-feeding site in the city.



Inside, just past the guard post, we found the first formal staircase. As you'll note, it was Christmas season, and not yet Three Kings Day, so all decorations were still up. In fact, if you look at the picture above of the facade, you'll see the Kings peeking out.






Glorious glass by modern Puerto Rican artists at the head of the stairs. We haven't identified the artists yet, but I'm looking. If anyone knows, please chip in!


At the next level, another stairway with beautiful iron work, and just past it, the way out into the courtyard, which is surrounded by graceful multi-story galleries.




Later, on our way back to the parking garage (one thing you do NOT do is count on driving around in Old San Juan), we walked down Calle Tetuan, in the one area of San Juan where the walls surrounding the town were removed, in the late 19th century. Along the way, we noted some beautiful buildings in fairly traditional style, like these.



But we also found a significant amount of late 19th and early 20th century decor and buildings that gave a surprising twist to the idea of "Old" San Juan. Here's a sample of the decorations.









And then we hit the truly modern side of the street, with two examples of 20th century architecture, one an Art Deco classic, and the other a Deco-ish riff on classic themes. Here's the full-on Deco headquarters of Banco Popular.









 Note the effect of the imperfect mirror glass above the doors.  Below, the Chamber of Commerce of Puerto Rico, built in 1926 as the home of the Federal Land Bank.


And now, just for fun, two more buildings with tales to tell. First, the skinniest house in Puerto Rico (although another on Calle del Sol matches it). It's just five feet wide, and is built in what was formerly an alleyway belonging to the house on the right. It's not quite as cramped as it might seem; when it passes behind its neighbor, it widens out into what was part of a courtyard.


 The next one is truly unique. It's not just its appearance, it's the historic significance. It was the retirement project of Angel Rivero Mendez, a Puerto Rican officer in the Spanish Army, with a checkered career. Trained in Puerto Rico and Spain as an artillery officer and engineer, he was explelled from the military and jailed for nationalist agitation in the 1890s, but was pardoned and recalled to the Army when war with the U.S. seemed imminent. 


As commander of artillery at Fort San Cristobal, he ordered his troops to fire on the U.S. cruiser Yale, part of a blockade of the port. The army gave him a medal; local people were angry with him, blaming him for the destruction in the city when the Yale fired back. 


After the surrender of Puerto Rico, Rivero was offered military positions by both the U.S. and Spain; he declined both and retired to build his soda business and invent a lasting product: he is the inventor of Kola Champagne, beloved throughout the Caribbean.




And here's one of the beloved symbols of Puerto Rico is the small native frog called a "coqui"—so frog-theme souvenirs can be found everywhere...including on this rooftop facing the cruise port.





























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

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Plaza de Armas is NOT the premier pigeon feeding spot in San Juan. The honor goes to the near by Plaza de las Palomas (Plaza of the Doves). This park has a wall with literal Pigeon holes and is the home to hundreds of the birds. There are machine to buy food and if you stand real still they will land on your hands and arms to eat.



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Last edited by Paul Heymont
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