Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, is a historic and charming city of firsts — first street, military fortress and cathedral of the Spanish-settled New World.
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — There’s something about firsts. And Santo Domingo, the oldest colonial 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 Spanish-settled New World.
Lucky for me, my friend (and Dominican native) Alex knew where to go and what to do. And thanks to explorer Christopher Columbus & Co., every step in this city tells a story. (The city was founded in 1496 by Bartholomew Columbus, a brother of Christopher Columbus, and was the capital of the New World’s first Spanish colony.) We set out for the Colonial District — the capital city’s historic neighborhood — the next morning.
We began, 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.
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Heading west along this promenade, we hit the Parque Colon. The traditional Old World square, duplicated throughout the Americas, remains a gathering place for tourists and vendors, festivals and nightlife.
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.
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 loaned me a yellow shawl and let me through, not without first giving me a stern reminder that I had to keep covered at all times.
The cathedral, by all accounts, took so long to build in the early 1500s that it required many architects. As a result, the completely contrasting styles, including Roman, Renaissance and Gothic, are apparent. I examined the plaques, altar pieces 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 Dominican Republic’s most distinguished public figures. A tour guide solemnly identified each person as we walked past rows of flags and marble-lined tombs. He spoke of Concepcion Bona, who helped design the Dominican flag (the only one to feature an open Bible, he said); and of Emilio Prudhomme and Jose Reyes, credited with creating the national anthem.
Dominican 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.
I returned to the past, though, at the Fortress of Santo Domingo, with its cannons pointing to the brown-bottomed Ozama River and some long-ago enemy sailing up to shore. Christopher Columbus’ relatives lived close by, in a two-story building known as the Alcazar de Colon.
I loved everything I saw, but the highlight of my trip was the invaluable opportunity to be a part of everyday life on the island.
Having an “insider” friend helped give 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, with an exquisite view of the sea.
I got to celebrate the island’s Father’s Day on a Sunday afternoon with the neighbors who had gathered in the courtyard. They quickly pulled up chairs for us and popped open a bottle of sparkling cider.
The circle expanded as more friends stopped in to pay their respects to the dads. It reminded me of life in my native Argentina. Turns out we all share as many similarities as differences. Between sightseeing suggestions, they talked about the high cost of gas and the unbearable hot weather. About the city’s traffic laws and the recent presidential elections. They wanted to know about my life and job as a journalist — and they didn’t even comment on my “funny” Argentine Spanish.
Our quick hello turned into almost four hours.
Forget the museums. I learned more about Dominican culture and its people right then. They welcomed me into the circle and made me feel like a native, when I’d only been there a few days.
Now that was a first.