Diego, The Ocean Blue and What’s an Alcázar?

Palace of ColumbusThose of us who are a “certain age” grew up with the rhyme, “In fourteen hundred ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue…”  We learned of Christopher Columbus (now the subject of a hot debate but we’ll pass on that story) and his voyage west, bumping into the “New World” along the way.  But we never heard about his family. His eldest son, Diego, for example, spent much of his adult life trying to regain the titles and perquisites bestowed upon his explorer father that were stripped from Christopher in 1500. Being a clever fellow like his padre, Diego married a woman with family ties to King Ferdinand. Recently, we became aware of the younger Colombo during our visit to the Alcázar de Colón in the historic central district of Santo Domingo, the Zona Colonial, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

renovation in Santo DomingoOur road trip to the capital city of the Dominican Republic began smoothly enough as well-marked and maintained toll roads run between Punta Cana and Santo Domingo. Upon reaching the sprawling city, however, the carefully thought out route to the hotel that our friends had downloaded to their iPad went awry.  Roads in the center of town were completely blocked off by piles of bricks, paving stones and mounds of dirt with huge gaping holes where the streets had once been.  A massive project of renovation and utility improvements within the old city was underway.renovation - historical zone

And there we were, driving down a one way-street the wrong way, four pairs of eyes looking frantically for a street sign to hint at our location.  A stern-looking representative of the Nacional Policia motioned us to stop with an imperious wave of his hand, allowed us to turn around and then led us along an unimaginably complex route to the destination where we were quartered for the evening. The officer finally smiled as profuse thanks were offered by all of us and we lugged our bags into the Boutique Hotel Palacio.  A few minutes later one of the hotel staff informed us that the policeman was still outside and we, somewhat gingerly, inquired of the officer if it was permissible to offer a “propina” (a gratuity) for such exemplary service. “Only,” he gravely and courteously replied, “If we wished to do so…”

sideview of Alcázar de Colón

side view of Alcázar de Colón

But, we digress.  Back to Diego and the Alcázar de Colón, the most visited museum in Santo Domingo. The royal palace was commissioned by Diego who became the Viceroy of Hispaniola in 1509 assuming the post his father had previously held. Construction initially began between 1510 and 1512 and, when it was finally completed, it encompassed fifty-five rooms and was the Viceroy’s residence as well as the administrative center of the New World for much of the 16th century.

Alcázar de Colón

Alcázar de Colón

Today only twenty-two rooms survive and we’re fortunate to have them.  Our old friend, whose dastardly deeds we’d first run into in Panama and then Colombia, the English Admiral Sir Francis Drake, sacked the Alcázar, or Palace, in 1586.  As the importance of Santo Domingo waned in the New World, the Alcazar was abandoned and fell into disrepair. Finally, in 1955, renovation began to preserve what remains.

Picture a square with a central courtyard populated by a fewinside Alcázar de Colón strutting peacocks and rooms leading like railroad cars to other rooms.  Weaving our way between tour groups of school children we tried hard to stay ahead or behind them as we went from one display to another admiring the period pieces of furniture, paintings, tapestries, armaments, clothing and other accoutrements of life among the royal families.  As an aside, it’s an unnerving feeling to be contemplating a royal dignitary’s bedroom, with its itsy-bitsy little bed, trunks, chairs and bureau (for they truly were small people) and look out the open-shuttered window and view a cruise ship docked not two hundred yards distant alongside the quay in the old city dwarfing the Alcázar.courtyard  cruise ship

apothecaryEntirely unique to our experiences in Latin America was a room containing what once must have been a fully stocked apothecary. A wall of individually labeled bottles, rather resembling Delft pottery in appearance, stored the herbs, spices, ground potions and liniments which an eminent physician would naturally have had at his disposal, especially when his clientele included the ruling masters of the New World.  Another wall contained shelves loaded with beakers, flasks, mortars and pestles, even a small copper distillery for producing the extracts and essences of the medicinal products. The Alcázar’s medical practitioner also possessed a handsome cabinet which, behind the screened front, revealed eighty-one individual drawers, each painted in exquisite detail, identifying its contents. While no plaques attested to the physician’s prowess in the healing arts this stupendous collection should, at the least, have assuaged some of the qualms of Diego Colón.apothecary

Much of our time in Santa Domingo was spent on the Calle da las Damas, the first cobblestoned street in the Americas and the heart of the New World back in the day. It lies parallel to the waterfront on the Caribbean Sea and the Ozama River and nearly abuts the Parque Colon and La Catedral de Santa Maria la Menor also known as La Catedral Primada de America, the first church of the Americas.

La Catedral

La Catedral – building began in 1514

This venue houses the Museo de las Casas de Reales (Museum of the Royal Families) which was initially the Royal Court, the first court of law in the New World.  Also on the Calle de las Damas is the Panteón Nacional, originally a Jesuit church which, after many iterations, became the resting place of many of the leading revolutionary figures and national leaders. A single sentry stands a silent vigil over the crypts.

There’s more to see in the venerable old city of Santo Domingo, first established in 1496, than we anticipated.  We returned to Punta Cana with the feeling that we could have spent another day exploring and learning more about the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Zona Colonial and the first and oldest Spanish colonial city in the Americas.

19th century statue honoring Christopher Columbus in Parque Colon - La Catedral in background

19th century statue of Christopher Columbus in Parque Colon – La Catedral in background

By Richard and Anita

 

26 comments

  • I used to hate history in high school but when you see it and read about it from travellers or during travels it’s much more exciting and interesting. Thanks for sharing.

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  • I’m glad you found the “pot of gold” after the construction fiasco. Others may have given up:-)

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  • This is a fascinating glimpse into what happened after “the big event.” We’re fans of the book 1491, which introduced us to the idea (not taught in our school history classes) that there were thriving cultures, communities and city/states in the New World long before Columbus showed up. I will now have to put resources about Diego on my reading list. It appears that his influence was substantial.

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    • Thanks for the recommendation, Betsy. We’ll have to put “1491” on our must read list. Looking back at the way history was taught when we were growing up it’s disturbing to see how ethnocentric it was and still is. A great thing about travel is that is shows you how everything relates and that people aren’t so different after all…

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  • Christopher Columbus did get around in the Caribbean! Always interesting to hear yet another story about him.

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  • I’ve only passed through Santa Domingo briefly when we took a bus from Cabarete to Punta Cana. I wish we’d had time to explore the city. You’ve provided interesting history and I love exploring historic places.

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    • Thanks Donna. As you’ve probably noticed by now, we get a little excited when we find new places and stories in the history puzzle and it’s always fun to share these with other enthusiastic history buffs. It’s a long ride from Cabarete to Punta Cana but you might find a stop-over of a day or two to explore Santo Domingo to be very interesting if you make a return visit to the island.

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  • Once again you have given me historical information that I didn’t have and I find it fascinating. And the photos, beautiful. Thanks.

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  • Some fascinating history here – I’d never heard of the younger Columbus!

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  • Thanks for letting us know of this World Heritage Site with links to the family of Christopher Columbus. We just came from the Sevilla Cathedral which has a dispute with the Dominican Republic about who has the remains of the great explorer. Is this the Catedral that is alleged to have them?

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    • Ah, interesting debate, Carole! Christopher died in Vallodolid, Spain where he was first buried. Diego had the remains reburied in a monastery in Seville and then in 1542 they were dug up once more, transported across the sea and reintered at La Catedral de Santa Maria la Menor in Santo Domingo. But, after France kicked Spain off the island of Hispaniola, the remains were moved to Havana, Cuba where they rested until 1898 with Cuba’s Independence from Spain. Back to Seville Christopher went!
      So, the story goes on with a worker finding bones at the Santo Domingo Cathedral with Columbus’s name although there is some speculation that they might be Diego’s. Santo Domingo built the Columbus Lighthouse as a memorial for the disputed remains and has resisted all offers to submit the bones for DNA testing. A DNA test of the Seville remains shows they do belong to Columbus but the debate goes on…

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      • Thanks for this detailed story. Our guide in Seville did not go to this length. If they don’t submit for DNA testing then I guess I will believe that I was close to his remains! May I quote your version in my post about Seville?

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  • contentedtraveller

    Loved this story and I must be of that certain age because i remember the rhyme. A propina …LOL, I can think of other terms.

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    • Ah, the heroes that fall into disfavor when the true story is told! I’m sure the rhyme will also fade away… As for the propina – We were rather hesitant to mention a “tip” to the officer but it seems to be exactly what he was waiting for and worth the money – we never would have found our way through the maze of construction!

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  • Diego who? I didn’t know Columbus had any children – their father certainly gets all the attention.
    I haven’t visited any of the Caribbean islands in my travels yet, perhaps one day I will tour the islands and explore the region’s history.

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    • The Alcázar de Colón was our first introduction to Diego, the oldest son of Cristopher, although it doesn’t sound like the Columbus family was especially close-knit! We’ve enjoyed our travels through some of the Caribbean islands in the last several months and learned a tremendous amount about the history. Hopefully you’ll have a chance to visit this amazing area of the world soon.

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  • I’ve allowed myself to be frightened by reports of crime in the Dominican Republic and have not visited there. (I am unhappy if I visit a country where it is strongly suggested that visitors confine themselves to tourist beach resorts). Your narrative about your visit to Santo Domingo is making me think that I need to add the Dominican Republic to my “places to visit” list. After all, I’ve traveled in interior Mexico and just returned from Turkey and Israel in the Middle East, so I know that with prudence, it is possible to safely visit many places that cause one’s relatives to be appalled when discussing one’s travel plans.

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    • We’ve been in many places over the last few years that are “unsafe” (Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia) but, like you, we’ve acquainted ourselves with the risks before-hand and proceeded with prudence. I think, after venturing to Turkey and Israel that the Dominican Republic might even feel tame. And forget about the resorts – they’re a fine place to relax but you’ll never see the real country!

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  • Who knew the history of the Columbus family? That apothecary chest is amazingly gorgeous. I’m chuckling at the description of the policeman who led you through the construction and his response to you asking if you could give him a propina. 🙂 One thing is for certain, I learn something new every time I open one of your delightful posts.

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