St. Augustine, Florida: A Blast From The Past
by Ruby Bayan
My first visit to Florida was an abbreviated business trip. I promised myself that if I had the chance to fly that way again, I would include R&R time in my itinerary. The Sunshine State is the vacation state of the nation, the melting pot of tourists, with famous theme parks, and hundreds of attractions! How can I not find time to savor all that?
Sure enough, within a few months, I had my chance. A friend took me to what he referred to as "a sight every Florida tourist ought to see": St. Augustine, the first permanent settlement by Europeans in the continental USA.
Castillo de San Marcos
Consulting a site map we picked up at a Visitor's Center, we decided to re-live history by going to "where it all started" -- the Castillo de San Marcos. The tour brochure said that after Ponce de Leon claimed "La Florida" in 1513, Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles established a Spanish military base in St. Augustine. They constructed the Castillo de San Marcos fort in the late 1600s to protect what later became the seat of Spanish power in Florida. The fort, being the northernmost outpost of the Spanish Caribbean, saw action during the struggle between Great Britain and Spain for regional supremacy, during the American Revolution, and finally in 1898 during the Spanish-American War.
As we approached the fort, "the oldest existing permanent seacoast fortification in the US", I was hit by a severe case of nostalgia. Back in the Philippines, we have a Fort Santiago, built by the colonizers at just about the same time, also to protect the Spanish settlements, in Manila. The Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, with its molds, must, and masonry, is so like a small version of Fort Santiago, Manila!
St. Augustine Town Plan Historic District
My friend and I continued our tour of history by driving out to the St. Augustine Town Plan Historic District, a National Historic Landmark, and a whole town of centuries-old structures. I felt like I was suddenly in another place and time!
We saw the Spanish colonial "Oldest House," circa 1706, the oldest surviving residence in St. Augustine. We drove by the Basilica Cathedral (1797 parish church), which is one of the oldest Catholic religious buildings in the country. If not for the t-shirt-golf-shorts-and-baseball-cap-wearing tourists sauntering all over the place, I would've sworn I had accidentally "materialized" in 17th century Spain!
The Park Grounds
Our last stop was the heart of St. Augustine, a vast, spacious park catering to year-round visits by sight-seers from all over the world. Administered by the National Park Service, the peripheral areas of Castillo San Marcos is like a slice of the past preserved for future generations to appreciate.
We saw remnants of old schoolhouses, a cemetery where the earliest Spanish colonizers rest in peace, and a drugstore (it was called an apothecary back then) displaying shelves of blackish liquids in strange-shaped bottles with faded labels -- all delicately "frozen in time."
Spanish colonial houses had been converted into souvenir shops, ice cream and candy parlors, and specialty restaurants. The facades and main structures of the ancient buildings, however, were beautifully maintained, or meticulously reproduced, to preserve the historical aura of the whole place.
Horses and Cobblestones
Then I heard something familiar and nostalgic -- again I was reminded of the old Spanish towns in my home country. I heard the patter of horseshoes! "Calesas" or Spanish era horse-driven carriages roamed the cobblestone streets, carting visitors through the park. Colorful flowers and antique metallic accents decorated the shiny coaches driven by 18th century-clad "coachmen." It was so reminiscent of the classic festivities we still celebrate in the Philippines.
But what struck me as interesting was, the tourists taking in the St. Augustine experience were mostly adults. And during our back-and-forth walks of the place, the conversations I overheard were mostly European. Maybe it's the lure of history that brings these present-day European travelers to St. Augustine. But then again, it could be the food at the Columbia Restaurant.
Shadows of the Spanish Empire
For me, my very first Florida sight-seeing tour was a blast from the Philippine Spanish era of towering cathedrals, horse-driven carriages, and war-torn colonial forts. It reminded me of the power of the Spanish Empire during the 16th century -- and its influence on the history of not only my far eastern homeland but also of this western world State of Florida.
As the sun began to set, my friend and I walked back to the car to head home to Orlando. I remained dazed, still unable to believe my nostalgia. But as we drove onto the main highway, I couldn't resist saying, "Uh, can you now please beam me back to present-day America? Do we have time to watch the fireworks at Epcot?"
[Published at New2USA.com, 2000; also published at GoFloridaVacations.com]