Sun | Aug 20, 2017

Treading on cobbled stones

Published:Sunday | February 14, 2016 | 2:00 AM
Capitolio de Puerto Rico, the legislative assembly in Old San Juan.
Time stands still here: Cobblestone streets in the old city of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Statues of Presidents of United States face the Capitolio de Puerto Rico, the legislative assembly in Old San Juan.
A bus touring old city of San Juan, Peurto Rico.
Murals on the walls line a street going to Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.
A church in the old city of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The old city of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Entrance to Catedral Metropolitana Basílica de San Juan Bautista, in the old city of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
A road leading to Old San Juan.
Amitabh Sharma
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History. The word most times reminiscent of yellowing pages of books, oft-forgotten expanses of time. In the alleys of San Juan, Puerto Rico, the hands of the clock stand still in a time and era when pace of life was a gingerly trod cobblestone street, and aromas of pungent spices mixed with the subtle breeze of the Atlantic Ocean.

San Juan, one of the oldest cities in the continental United States, is tucked away from the bustling Condado district; high-rises, stores, and shops, clubs and shiny, swanky cars transition to an elevation, where the old city appears, the tar of the road giving way to the cobblestone streets.

This old city is a mix of 400 years of urban development, which has a confluence of varied eras of Spanish influence - Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture - which encapsulates arches, drones and ornamentation on the facades of the structures.

Known as La Ciudad Amurallada (Walled City), San Juan has one of the biggest natural harbours in the Caribbean and is one of the oldest European-founded cities in the Americas.

Old San Juan's fortifications include La Fortaleza, three forts of San Felipe del Morro, San Cristobal and San Juan de la Cruz (El Canuelo), and a large portion of the city wall, constructed between the 16th and 19th centuries to protect the city and the Bay of San Juan.

In the vicinity of these fortifications, a row of lifelike statues of the presidents of the United States face the El Capitolio (Capitol Building of Puerto Rico), the legislative assembly building built in 1929; this imposing structure sits on the periphery of the old city.

Walking along the streets of this city, where modernity bustles with the time-encapsulated structures, the edifice of Catedral de San Juan (San Juan Cathedral) radiates serenity. The second oldest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere is a New World example of medieval architecture said to have its fair share of historical testaments.

The original church, which had wooden walls and a thatched roof, was destroyed by hurricane in 1526, rebuilt in 1540, looted in 1598, and ravaged by another hurricane in 1615. The current structure was built in 1917, with major restorations.

Capilla del Cristo (Cristo Chapel), built in the 18th century, has fables surrounding its existence, a divine intervention to prevent accidents and spill offs on the cliff that it is located on. The chapel houses Campeche paintings and altar.

The striking feature of Old San Juan is the character, a neighbourhood which is 465-year-old and was originally conceived as a military stronghold. The city includes more than 400 restored 16th- and 17th-century Spanish colonial buildings.

Old San Juan is diverse, both architecturally and historically, which makes it unique and distinct. The historic sites and buildings blend into the modern world, where the visitors flock and savour the quaint shopping experiences, sip their favourite brew and indulge in delicacies alfresco, under the tree shaded cafÈs.

"Sounds of a San Juan night," said Hunter S. Thompson, American journalist and author, "drifting across the city through layers of humid air; sounds of life and movement, people getting ready and people giving up, the sound of hope and the sound of hanging on, and behind them all, the quiet, deadly ticking of a thousand hungry clocks, the lonely sound of time passing in the long Caribbean night."

Old San Juan stands as a testimony of resilience, withstanding the ravages of time, and as that country goes through its metamorphosis, perhaps a fine example of how the past can be blended into the present - functional yet timeless.

amitabh.sharma@hotmail.com