Thursday, January 20, 2011

Castillo de San Felipe del Morro!

The rugged Puerto Rico coastline on the way to Old Town San Juan
We hopped on our bikes this morning and went over to the Old Town of San Juan, built on the point of land overlooking the east entrance to San Juan Bay. Inside its walls, there are over 400 restored buildings, museums and churches from the 16th- and 17th-century Spanish Colonial period. It's only a three miles away from the marina, and perfect for bicycling! The area is steeped in history, with a fascinating mix of ornate architecture and colorful storefronts sitting along narrow blue-glazed tile cobbelstone streets with a charming, old-world atmosphere. The first settlement in Puerto Rico was founded by Leon Ponce de Leon in 1508, and San Juan was settled shortly thereafter. Such history! Very cool.
Part of the wall of Castillo de San Cristóbal that surrounds
the old city of San Juan
There are actually two forts over in the Old Town, one being the Castillo de San Cristóbal, and the other, Castillo de San Felipe del Morro. Castillo de San Cristóbal is the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the New World. (Shades of Martin Harvey here, from Captain Ron!) Finished in 1783 as a defense against land-based attacks, the fort covered about 27 acres, with walls that wrapped around the city of San Juan. Double gates ensured control of entry or exit for hundreds of years. This was the first fort we encountered as we cycled out along the shoreline road, and its walls were immense!

The other castle, "El Morro" is Puerto Rico's best known fortress, built as a defense against sea-based attacks. Spanish troops fortified this 'morro' (promontory) starting in 1539, with further construction and fortification going on for the next couple of centuries. It was primarily built to keep seaborne enemies out of San Juan, and served its purpose well! Sir Francis Drake unsuccessfully attacked El Morro in 1595, getting a cannonball shot through the cabin of his flagship for his efforts. The Dutch attacked, the British attacked repeatedly, and even the U.S. Navy attacked in a day-long bombardment in May of 1898, during the Spanish-American War. 
As we biked towards El Morro, we went past the Cementerio de
Santa Maria Magdelena de Pazzis on the right, resplendent with its
many white tombs overlooking the Atlantic 
The place was fabulous to explore; it was uncrowded and open, and the history was staggering. We only saw a small part of it and we were there for a good couple of hours, climbing around the ramparts and looking over the breakwater below. The sentry look-out towers called garitas, are on the corners of the walls of El Morro. They are unique and distinctive; so much so that they are landmarks of Puerto Rico, even pictured on their license plates. The lighthouse atop the fort is still in use; we saw the large Fresnel lens rotating away inside. So much history, both Ron and I sat back and imagined how it must have been back in three hundred years ago. To imagine what it was like to sail in under its ramparts...mind-boggling!  
View through one of the gunnery posts
The coat of arms overlooking the entrance to Castillo Del Morro 
A view through one of the lookout points
The lighthouse -- still in use today
Checking out the view to the east, from under the lighthouse
This was an unexpected stop, but one we are really enjoying! It feels so Spanish and European after all the small islands we've been on...even Provo, with all its amenities, is not on this scale, and we are enjoying being in a cosmopolitan city in a Caribbean setting. Being aboard, we are getting more of the local flavor -- no fancy resorts, our home for the moment is just a working marina on the water. What cruising is all about!

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