The Oldest Colony In The New World
If you go to the Dominican Republic, make sure you land at the right airport–NOT Punta Cana where clueless Yanks, Brits, and Krauts go for sand, sea, golf, and fleecing. You want to land at Las Americas Airport at Santo Domingo, where Christopher Columbus first landed in the New World and left behind the Caribbean’s only medieval Spanish city…which is what you have come to see.
At first sight, the Dominican capital is an unattractive place, with a row of featureless hotels staring out across a bay that has no beaches and is unsafe for swimming. The bayside motorway is snarled with traffic and perilous to cross on foot. Roads and sidewalks are in dreadful, typically Third World condition, and the city’s buildings are generally shabby and rundown. Even the town Columbus left behind at the city’s eastern end today bears the unromantic title of La Zona Colonial.
But that is what it is–the first colony in the New World. Here, spread over some four or five city blocks, are the New World’s oldest cathedral, its first university, Columbus’ own house, the houses of many of the Spanish conquistadores, the palaces of the first Spanish governors of the lands he had discovered, and innumerable churches and houses from those far-off days, all perfectly preserved.
A good way to get an overview of the Zona Colonial is to jump on the little tourist train, called the Chu Chu Colonial, which leaves from the Cathedral square every hour and makes a 40-minute introductory tour of the area. This is sponsored by Coca Cola, a drink so popular in the Dominican Republic that the company has put its name on just about everything. But a ride on the Cocoa Cola train will give you an idea of where the principal tourist sites and shops are situated and the restaurants on offer.
The principal building is the Cathedral, which is remarkably large and built in a very severe Gothic style. It was started in 1515 but only finished in 1540 because the first bunch of imported Spanish stone masons scarpered to search for gold in Mexico, a better-paying job. The high altar is of hammered silver, but the rest is unadorned. However, a welcome touch in summer is that it is one of the few cathedrals in Christendom to be fully air conditioned.
From the Cathedral, take the Calle Isabella la Catolica or the Calle las Damas, which run through the old city, past Columbus’ old house and numerous ancient Spanish buildings, down to the old Governors Palace, or Casas Reales. This is now an excellent museum full of old Spanish furniture and antiquities and the most interesting single building in the Colonial Zone.
A vendor of cheap farmer broad-brimmed hats for US$4 is usually to be found in front of the building, and his wares are very useful during the hot sunny summer. (Shops also sell genuine Panama hats from Ecuador for a bargain US$50, but they are for more than keeping the sun off your head. Combined with a stogie and a white suit, they are part of the colonial master look a tourist may adopt.)
Nearby stand the remnants of the old stone walls that once safeguarded the city, which was a constant prey for the pirates and buccaneers who roamed the early Caribbean–particularly Sir Francis Drake who extracted large bribes from the city in return for not burning it down.
Across from the Casa Reales are a number of reasonable restaurants in the Plaza de Espana. But my own favorite is La Taberna Vasca, a Basque restaurant owned by two French settlers in Dominica, which is only a block away on the Calle Las Mercedes in a shady courtyard. I particularly enjoyed the dressed crab washed down with cold white wine.
The principal shopping street in Santo Domingo is the Calle Conde, a long pedestrianized thoroughfare which runs westward from the Cathedral Square and houses every imaginable kind of shop including many ice cream parlors. And hatters. And cigar stores.
Traveling between the hotel and the Zona Colonial on foot is perfectly possible but a bit arduous in the heat of summer, especially if you don’t enjoy clambering over piles of broken paving stone. But most private cars turn out to be taxis if you are a gringo. Be firm on the price: 300 pesos (about US$8) should take you anywhere you want to go.
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