Archive for May, 2015

Some days back, I found myself in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic with a day to spare. This is where Christopher Columbus set foot first when he discovered Americas. The city of Santo Domingo itself was founded by Bartholomew Columbus, his brother. It is the oldest continuously settled European city in the New World and hence has the first Cathedral, Monastery, University etc. As is the case with many old cities, Santo Domingo too has a new face and an old face. If we one were to restrict one’s movements just the new parts of the city, one would have no clue of its wonderful history. The new areas look like any other mid-sized South American / Central American city with its rich and poor neighbourhoods, commercial complexes and hotels. The more interesting area is the old city, known as Zona Colonial (Colonial Zone), which was the original Santo Domingo. This was where I decided to spend my day.

First stop was the ruins of the oldest hospital in America, the Hospital San Nicolás de Bari. There was absolutely no information displayed whatsoever in the premises and later, from Wikipedia, I learnt that this hospital was built in the 16th Century and could accommodate about 70 patients on completion. The ruins are quite beautiful with its red brick construction.

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A short walk up the hill from here, are the ruins of the first monastery in America, the Monasterio de San Francisco. Unfortunately, there is no entry into the ruins and I could only see it from outside. This was also built in the 16th Century. Supposedly, the remains of Bartholomew Columbus were discovered here later.

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A short walk down the hill is where the Palace of Diego Columbus, son of Christopher Columbus stands. Christopher Columbus had fallen out of favour with the Spanish Crown in 1500 and all his titles and privileges were taken back from him. Diego Columbus tried to win back these favours and was appointed as the Governor of the Indies (as Columbus always maintained that he had actually reached India) in 1509. He set us his base in Santo Domingo and built his residence, the Alcázar de Colón, between 1510 and 1512. The building itself is well maintained and is actually very small. The audio guide kept referring to it as a palace but is just about the size of an old landlord’s house like a naalukettu. There are many articles displayed in the palace but most are replicas.

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Beds of Diego Columbus and his wife Mary of Toledo; it seems in those days royalty slept in a semi-reclined position and not flat on their backs!

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Sitting room with painting of Christopher Columbus and Diego Columbus

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Replica of the ship Santa Maria, the flagship of Columbus’ first journey to the Americas

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Portraits of the Catholic Monarchs who sponsored Columbus’ exploratory journey with the hope of getting wealth from prospective colonies

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The Catedral Primada de America is the first Cathedral in America and as most of the colonial buildings in Santo Domingo, was built in the 16th Century. The construction was started by Diego Columbus but was finished by its first bishop, Alejandro Geraldini. The ashes of both Christopher and Diego Columbus were buried under the crypt of this Cathedral. Later, Columbus’ remains were moved to a lighthouse built in his memory. When visiting Seville, I had heard that Columbus’ remains were finally brought to Seville and cremated in the Seville Cathedral. The cathedral is quite impressive and has many chapels inside with some beautiful stained glass and wonderful Gothic arches. Francis Drake – pirate to the Spanish and a knighted hero to the English – used the Cathedral as his quarters and ransacked the place during this campaign.

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Oldest European painting in the country, which was rescued miraculously from a ship wreck

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There was a small group of tourists in the Cathedral and once they left, it was quiet empty and peaceful and I spent some time sitting there and looking up at the majestic arches and the altar. As I looked the play of light, bright light coming from the outside and becoming dimmer and dimmer as it neared the altar, I was reminded of an encounter I had with a passionate Christian many years ago. He wanted to me become a Christian and come into the “light”. I was amused by the thought that light was actually receding as it reached the altar…..

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In the Colonial Zone, the country has a memorial for its honoured citizens called the National Pantheon of the Dominical Republic. This was on old church and they still have service there once a month. A guide pointed out some graves but I could not remember any names as I was not very familiar with the history of the country. What impressed me was that he mentioned some of the people were honoured because they had worked hard to bring education to the masses. If a country respects such people, it surely is in the right path. As can be expected, the Pantheon also has an eternal flame in the memory of the Unknown Soldier. This seems to be a universal practice across the world.

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Fort Ozama stands on the banks of the river Ozama and is the oldest fort in the country. My guide insisted there is a lot of history there but I do not know whether it was his difficulty to explain it in English or my inability to understand what he said, it didn’t really sound too deep. The fort was used as prison during the times of Rafael Trujillo, the cruel dictator who ruled Dominican Republic from 1930 and 1961. Incidentally, Trujillo had renamed Santo Domingo as Ciudad Trujillo, but after his death, the name Santo Domingo made a comeback. Trujillo is rumoured to have been responsible the death of about 50,000 people. He made several modifications to the fort as well. The fort itself is reasonably well preserved and looked quite a functional one with its various turrets and rooms. There is an old naval school building also on the grounds but that was closed.

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With the fort, my tour of the Colonial Zone was finished. I spent some time wandering around the streets. There were many nicely painted houses and the whole ambience reminded me of the Jew Town in Mattancherry, Kochi.

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Many of the electric poles had street art painted on them and that I thought that was a very nice idea!

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