Thursday, January 30, 2014

Strolling the streets of Old San Juan

Old San Juan was definitely on our list of places to see.  Great place to visit, but a parking nightmare!  We decided to hire a car and driver to take us the three hour drive from the west coast of Puerto Rico to the city rather than fight the traffic and deal with parking.  Once we saw what the parking situation was when we got there, we knew we had made the right decision.  We met a young couple at our hotel who spent five hours, yes, five hours!, looking for someplace safe to park their rental car!  

Old San Juan was a fascinating place to visit.  Pastel stucco houses, though some crumbling a bit, have a character and sophistication all their own.  They have wrought iron balconies overhanging the sidewalk, offering privacy without cutting off the street life below.  

And the doors…oh those doors!  Lovely old wooden doors painted in lively tropical colors add to the charm of this lovely, old world city. We could not wait to leave our hotel and strike out to explore this lovely city.

The old section of San Juan, situated on the peninsula that separates San Juan Bay from the Atlantic Ocean, looks just like New Orleans' French Quarter, which also was built under Spanish colonial rule. Instead of the Rue Bourbon, we strolled down Calle Cristo. Instead of Creole mansions firmly shuttered against the sun, we saw Spanish Colonial townhouses with doors and windows wide open to catch the ocean breeze. Instead of beignets, we ate conch fritters.  

The streets of the city are hilly with blueish looking "cobblestones" which are actually bricks cast from foundries' slag-iron which was shipped to Puerto Rico as ballast from Europe.  It's quite a workout to tour this city.  The narrow streets are organized much like New Orleans' french quarter-- neat, square blocks which made it easy to find our way around. 

The old city used to be completely enclosed by an European-style city wall. By the 19th century, it was primarily a residential neighborhood, and in the 1950s, the U.S. government declared it a National Historic Zone, making preservation a priority.  

We started our walking tour of the city with the old city's two fortresses, both administered by the National Park Service.

First stop was the 18th-century San Cristobal, which protected the city from inland attack. 

LA was excited to get his "Golden Pass" to the National Parks! With age comes privilege... finally, something to get excited about being over 65!

The fort offered excellent views of Puerto Rico's Capitol a few blocks away and, beyond that, the modern city stretching as far as the eye can see.

It was a beautiful walk along the wall high above the sea from one fortress to the other with great vantage points for photography.  No sight in Old San Juan was more dramatic.  

LA looks out over one of the towers on the edge of the fort.  

We have our photo taken in next to a pile of old cannon balls. The munitions had been there for some time. A group of children came by and tried to pick them up.. I think they were surprised at how heavy they were! 

At the other end of the wall on the western tip of the city was the 16th-century fortress San Felipe del Morro, commonly called El Morro.  It is linked to San Cristobal by the city wall.  Built at the head of the harbor in stages beginning in the 1540s, El Morro successfully defended the city against many invasions - including an English attack by Sir Francis Drake in 1595. 

El Morro, with its' beautiful lighthouse and spectacular scenes, engrosses history buffs and photographers. 

Looking over the city at the top of Fort Morro.

The grassy parade grounds next to the fort stretch for several acres, an ideal spot for a picnic or a stroll.  

The cemetery nearby overlooks the beautiful ocean. It is very peaceful with the spectacular view of the water.

It is a beautiful resting place with headstones and marble sculptures.

We enjoyed our step back in time... but now it's time for some shopping! 

San Juan is a frequent port of call for cruise ships.  So there is plenty of shopping to be done… Ralph Lauren, Guess, Tommy Hilfiger, Coach, Louis Vuitton, Tommy Bahama to name a few.  We took advantage of some shopping deals, including the local rums!

We decided to explore the world of fine hats. The fine shops in Puerto Rico harken back to a time when class and civility reigned and a man regularly tipped his hat to a lady out of respect.  The shop girl was happy to show off the stylish hats and eager to educate us on the finer points of hat selection. We learned all about hand-woven hats, weaves per square inch, and straw color. We had no idea there was so much to consider in choosing a hat!

After helping LA choose a hat that fit the shape of his head, she hand "blocked" the hat using a wooden block .. something only done by the finest of shops. As every one's head is a different shape, care is taken to provide the best fitting. She lowered the crown of the hat and placed a diamond shape on top of the hat. 

Here's LA, the proud owner of a custom fit, fine straw hat, looking stylish and sophisticated! A man about town, if you will... just waiting to open doors for the ladies and give a friendly tip of the hat!

Continuing on our journey, we visited a premium cigar shop.  LA marveled at all of the brands available. Everyone thinks of Cuban cigars as the ultimate, but we soon found out that Dominican cigars are the most sought after. 

LA met a fellow cigar aficionado, Eric, who followed him in the humidor and introduced LA to his favorite cigar brands. They had a great time trading cigar stories and deciding which brands to buy.

Eric was there with his friend, Diego, who was celebrating his 50th birthday.  They were sampling the cigars and spirits in honor of the momentous occasion, so of course, we had to join them in the cigar bar.

We struck up a friendship and met later for dinner to further the celebration at a famous jazz restaurant, Carli's Jazz Bistro.  

Carli Munoz played with the Beach Boys in the 60's and 70's and plays the piano several nights a week at this intimate jazz bar. 

Diego, Eric, LA, and Susan with Carli at the piano

Great jazz, terrific food, new friends, good wine, a 50th birthday celebration.. what else could we ask for?  A great time was had by all! 

We loved our trip to Old San Juan! So fun seeing the sights and meeting new friends. Traveling enriches our lives beyond measure. We can't wait to see what our travels have in store for us at the next stop!

Until next time....!

No comments: