The oldest city in the Americas: Santo Domingo

Actually it’s been two months since I left Asia and arrived in Central America. Very intense time indeed, lots of places visited, people met, photos taken. While changing planes in Brussels, I accidentally bumped into my former colleagues from Unit R1 who were going on an audit mission. Talk about coincidences! But it was a fascinating moment, to suddenly imagine how it would feel to be back, and of course to get an update of all the interesting developments.

Right now I am in Costa Rica. However my trip around Central America started in the Dominican Republic. I took a flight from Brussels to Santo Domingo, the little-visited capital. Which happens to be the oldest city in the Americas. Columbus himself was a governor, as were his brother and his son Diego. This is where the Spanish conquest of the Americas was planned and executed: the expeditions to Mexico, Central America and further South all started here. Due to the wind pattern in the Atlantic Santo Domingo was an obligatory stop for sailing ships both on the way from Europe and on the way back. Santo Domingo lost its importance after Sir Francis Drake, at the time a British-sponsored pirate, took it and looted it thoroughly in 1583. The centre of gravity of the Spanish Americas moved irreversibly towards the continent.

Yes, by the way, if you ever wondered where the name of the Dominican Republic comes from – very easy! The Republic is named after the capital city, and the capital city takes its name from the Catholic saint – and the founder of the monastic order which used to be rather powerful here.

The Columbus park is the heart of the colonial town – Zona Colonial, as it’s known here.

Behind his back – the first Cathedral of the Americas.

The meaning of the name “Columbus” is “dove”.

The Conde street heads West from the Columbus park. It’s the main street of colonial Santo Domingo, always full of life. For a Western-looking person it’s also always full of rather unpleasant attention from various shady characters.

Alcázar de Colón (Columbus’ Castle) on the Northern Plaza de Espana. Columbus’ son Diego lived here as the Vice-Roy of the New World. The Spanish King got scared that Diego would declare himself emperor of the Americas and recalled him back to Spain. The building henceforth belonged to the heirs of Columbus. Surprisingly, he has numerous direct male-line descendants, some of whom rank among the Spanish nobles.

The balcony inside the Alcázar. You can almost feel the heat and the humidity.

Diego Columbus might have eaten behind this table.

From Alcázar’s balcony you have the overview of the Ozama river. The river was the key reason for why the Spanish founded their settlement here. In the distance you can make out the Columbus Lighthouse – an immense concrete monolith in the shape of the cross, which is supposed to hold his earthly remains. The light projectors placed on the roof are supposed to draw a giant cross in the sky. It’s a running joke in Santo Domingo that when the cross of light is in the sky, all of Santo Domingo sits in darkness – the electricity is too scarce here.

From the balcony of Alcázar. Plaza de Espana.

Motorbikes everywhere! Feels like Naples with its Vespas.

The original wall to the North of the Alcázar.

The railway bridge over the Ozama river:

The famous calle Atarazana, the restaurant street that limits the square from the North. Actually right now most of Zona Colonial is being renovated, streets are covered with building sites, so not too many visitors in the restaurants.

In the residence of the Spanish governor today is found Museo de Las Casas Reales, the best museum in the country.

The audience hall – although the Spanish kings never came here during the empire.

This is supposed to represent the conversion of the Indians to Christianity. To me it looks rather like an S&M orgy. I wonder what the painter was smoking.

Yet another key building, the National Pantheon. Not a single name of those enterred here was familiar to me. So I felt like I was in a make-believe Pantheon of a make-believe country.

Of course it reminded me of the Natheonal Pantheon in Paraguay, where it also represents the overcompensation of a wounded nationalism.

Very serious.

Let’s enter the Cathedral:

The main altarpiece:

In 1583 as the English took Santo Domingo, they used the Cathedral as their residence for the time that they remained in the city to loot it. According to the legend, Francis Drake himself slept in this chapel by the altar.

Wooden monks all around the building:

Lions in the Cathedral’s garden.

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