Santo Domingo

Late-19th-century statue of Christopher Columbus by French Sculptor Ernest Gilbert, stands tall in Parque Colón

Late-19th-century statue of Christopher Columbus by French Sculptor Ernest Gilbert, stands tall in Parque Colón

Dates visited: February 18, 2015 – February 20, 2015

Santo Domingo, founded in 1496 by Bartholomew Columbus (yes, he was Christopher’s younger brother), is a city of firsts—first cathedral, university, castle, monastery, and fortress in the New World. And all of this contained within a two square miles area called Ciudad Colonial (aka Zona Colonial) which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As per wiki, Santo Domingo is the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the Americas, and was the first seat of the Spanish colonial rule in the New World. Just to put everything in perspective, when Christopher Columbus set out on his first voyage in 1492 in search of Japan, the island of Hispaniola (now comprising Haiti and Dominican Republic) was one of the islands on which he landed. In fact, he visited Hispaniola on his next three voyages as well, in 1493, 1498 and 1502.

So being a history and architecture buff, Santo Domingo was just the perfect fit for me. The colonial town, Ciudad Colonial, was laid out on the grid pattern that became the model for almost all town planners in the New World. As per UNESCO’s description of Ciudad Colonial, the original plan, the scale of its streets and its buildings are almost totally intact; it is the only living urban centre that retains its characteristics of the 15th century. Conquerors such as Ponce de Leon, Juan de Esquivel, Hernán Cortés, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, Alonso de Ojeda and many others departed in search of new lands from the port of Santo Domingo.

However, I was as excited and nervous as a teen on his first date… …excited because I was literally walking in the footsteps of great explorers such as Columbus, Ponce de Leon and Cortés, and nervous because this was my first trip ever by myself. I’ll explain why I was here by myself so we can get it out of the way and jump right into all that the oldest permanent European settlement of the New World has to offer. Some of my friends who turned 40 wanted to do something different and the idea of visiting Punta Cana as an all-guys trip came up. So I decided to travel a couple of days earlier to visit Santo Domingo, and then join them in Punta Cana.

Back to the city. Unlike most cathedrals built by Europeans, the first cathedral of the New World—Cathedral of Santa María la Menor (aka Catedral Primada de América), built from 1512-1540 is neither majestic nor opulent… …in fact, it’s grandiose lies in its simplicity.  Obviously, no Renaissance artists came along with Columbus so it was built as a place of worship and to convert the indigenous Taino people to Christianity. The cathedral has high-vaulted ceilings and 12 side chapels inside, all of them very well-preserved. In front of the cathedral is Parque Colon, a central square of Ciudad Colonial, teeming with tour guides, but a superb place for people watching. Given the number of pigeons in the square, the statue of Christopher Columbus here is probably the world’s most pooped-on statue.

Another first here is a street called Calle Las Damas (Street of the Ladies)… …the oldest paved cobblestone street in the New World. It is so named because the aristocratic ladies of the Spanish empire used to parade up and down this street. It has now been taken over by cars, and walking down this street leads you to Alcázar de Colón—the palace constructed in 1517 for Columbus’s son, Diego, and his wife, Maria of Toledo, who was also niece to Ferdinand II, King of Spain. The palace has a very unassuming facade, but the interior is rich with history and provides a peek into how the residents lived in the 16th century. Some of the other firsts such as Fortaleza Ozama (oldest formal military construction of European origin in Americas) and Imperial Convento de Santo Domingo (first University in Americas) are also worth watching as these are structures still standing proud and well-preserved since early 1500s.

All and all, Santo Domingo is a wonderful city that should be on your list if you are interested in history or if you don’t mind a little education on your way to working up a tan at Punta Cana.

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