Seeing the Americas' oldest city

October 26, 2008|By Melina I. De Rose | Melina I. De Rose,South Florida Sun-Sentinel

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic - There's something about firsts, and Santo Domingo, the oldest city of the Americas, boasts many.

In the Dominican capital for the first time, I sat in the courtyard of an apartment complex, listening as the neighbors relayed a long list of must-sees: among them, the first street, military fortress and cathedral of the New World.

Lucky for me, my friend (and Dominican native) Alex knew where to go and what to do. We had only a long weekend, and had been en route to the car when his neighbors' chatter led us to peek in for a quick hello.

Thanks to Columbus & Co., every step here tells a story - one my new friends were only too happy to share. Their pride was palpable. After all, whether you're North, Central or South American, this is where it began.

We set out for the Colonial District the next morning, beginning, appropriately, on the city's first roadway, Calle Las Damas, or Ladies Street. It was so named, the story goes, because the wife of Diego Columbus (Christopher's son) liked to take afternoon walks there with her ladies-in-waiting. During our stroll, I took in the stone buildings with long, wooden doors, the old-fashioned light poles and the ceramic street signs with bright-blue trim. A pair of horse-drawn buggies completed the picture.

Heading west along this promenade, we hit the Parque Colon. The traditional square, brought over from the Old World and later replicated throughout the Americas, remains a gathering place for tourists and vendors, festivals and night life.

Because Old World charm mixes with the new, across from the rows of benches and patches of green was a Hard Rock Cafe. But stand at the plaza long enough and you can almost envision how the rest of the city came to life and grew around it.

Christopher Columbus is still there in the middle of it all, covered in pigeons, like all good statues.

Spotting the imposing Catedral Primada de America up ahead, I raced toward the entrance, barely registering the man trying to stop me.

"She can't go in like that," he said, gesturing to Alex. That's when I remembered the no-bare-shoulders rule that had almost prevented me from seeing several important European cathedrals, too. As a sign of respect, you don't wear tank tops or shorts. But before I could walk away dejected, the man produced a yellow shawl and let me through, not without first giving me a stern reminder that I had to keep covered at all times.

By all accounts, the cathedral took so long to build in the early 1500s that it required many architects; the completely contrasting styles, including Roman, Renaissance and Gothic, are apparent. I examined the plaques, altarpieces and small chapels inside, and tried to take pictures without releasing my tight hold on the shawl.

Next stop was the nearby Panteon Nacional, which started out a Jesuit church but is now, after several incarnations, the resting place for some of the island's most distinguished public figures, including Concepcion Bona, who helped design the Dominican flag, and of Emilio Prud'homme and Jose Reyes, credited with creating the national anthem.

Dictator Rafael Trujillo restored the pantheon around 1955, and symbols of his friendships throughout the world are still present. Spanish dictator Francisco Franco donated the copper chandelier, and iron grills near the ceiling may have been a gift from the German government. Depending on how you look at them, the designs could be crosses or swastikas.

Weaving through side streets, we stopped at a money-changing office (the dollar was at about 33 pesos) and a souvenir shop, before heading to the Fortress of Santo Domingo, with its cannons pointing to the brown-bottomed Ozama River and some long-ago enemy sailing up to shore. Columbus' relatives lived close by, in a boxy, two-story building known as the Alcazar de Colon.

I loved everything I saw that day, but the highlight of my trip was the invaluable opportunity to be a part of everyday life on the island.

Having an "insider" there helped expose a more intimate view of the city. The emergency stop at La Sirena supermarket for motor oil and Brugal rum. Breakfast at Adrian Tropical, along the banks of El Malecon, where they offer traditional fare such as sancocho, a hearty stew, and mangu, made from mashed plantains, as well as an exquisite view of the water's edge.

We played pool at a private neighborhood hangout, Club Naco, to the sounds of merengue coming from downstairs. I developed a craving for Country Club raspberry soda, enjoyed a beachside jaunt with Presidente beer, and had my first taste of gin at the chic Dock lounge, which serves drinks that are bigger than your head and is part of a mall built to resemble a ship.

And I got to celebrate the island's Father's Day that Sunday afternoon, with the neighbors who had gathered in the courtyard. They pulled up chairs for us and popped open a bottle of sparkling cider.

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