Wednesday, March 29, 2017


San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital city, is the second oldest European-established capital city in the Americas (behind Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic). It was founded by Spaniards in 1521, which explains why it is so hard to drive around Old Town--narrow streets, one-way signs, little parking, etc.

Still, Old Town San Juan is an immensely charming area that lends itself to long walks with frequent refreshment stops. After a morning at El Yunque National Forest, we headed for Old Town San Juan.

The first picture I took as we ambled along was of this niche in a church wall. It turns out that it is part of St. Anne's Catholic Church, one of the original churches in San Juan. I wish we had gone inside!

One of my favorite things about Puerto Rico is the unabashed use of glorious color. Puerto Ricans must think our California subdivisions shrouded in muted palettes are very dull.

It's easy to forget that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, and seeing familiar signs like this one was always a bit surprising:
We've recently added "Basilicas" to our list of "Things to See," and our first destination in Old Town was the Catedral Metropolitana Basilica de San Juan Bautista, or in English, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.

It is one of the oldest buildings in San Juan and is the second oldest cathedral in the Americas (again behind a church in the Dominican Republic). The original wood church, built in 1521, was swept away by a hurricane, and the current structure, which has been reinforced and refashioned many times over the centuries, was built in 1540. The flat front reminds me a lot of California mission architecture:
The cathedral was designated a minor basilica in 1978.

The interior is the classic cross-shaped design with a long, narrow nave:

The nave has a beautiful arched ceiling:

The altar and choir seat area is a rich Italian yellow:

Saint Sebastian, an early Christian martyr, is typically painted tied to a tree and shot with arrows. In this painting in the San Juan Basilica, he is shown tied to a Puerto Rican ceiba tree with distinct Puerto Rican scenery in the background:

This is an interesting combination: A luminous stained glass window rising over a mummified body:

This is stunning artwork. The layering of colors (e.g., the red and blue robe of the angel on the right) makes it look a little like a Tiffany window. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find anything regarding either the window's age or its creator. The angels appear to be rescuing people from Hell. I especially like the face of the woman at the bottom center. She doesn't look too hopeful about getting out, does she? Or maybe she's thinking, "Darn. I shouldn't have been such a gossip."

And just below those poor souls consigned to Hell is the waxed coated, mummified form of St. Pius, one of the first martyrs of the Roman persecutions in the first century AD. This holy relic was brought to San Juan in 1862, where a glass box was constructed for the figure so that everyone could see it:
Twelve popes have taken this martyr's name as their papal name.

Another unusual thing in the church is this side chapel dedicated to Carlos Manuel Rodriguez Santiago, the first Puerto Rican to be beatified (in 1991 by Pope John Paul II). He was a very dedicated layperson, not a priest, who died in 1963 of cancer at age 44.

I think this is a tender display--Mary cradling Jesus' body, the cloth being held by angels, Christ in shepherd's robes in the background:

I'm guessing this painting, which appears to be of very recent vintage, is Mary. Those are pretty cute baby angels at her feet:

The Chapel of Our Lady of Providence, Patroness of Puerto Rico, includes the Puerto Rican flag:

A plaque commemorates the discovery of Puerto Rico by Christopher Columbus in 1493:

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this basilica, however, is that it is the final resting place of the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon. I suppose in some ways the intrepid searcher for the Fountain of Youth is as mystical a figure to me as his fountain. In my history classes there was so much focus on his quest for youth--which many now believe is a myth--that I lost sight of the fact that he was an explorer (of Florida and Puerto Rico) and a territorial governor (of Puerto Rico). However, his tomb in the cathedral includes a lovely young lady drinking from a fountain, which makes me think the Puerto Ricans embrace the legend:

There is nothing like walking around in a cathedral to whet one's appetite for some ice cream. (Well, pretty much anything will whet some people's appetite for ice cream. I'm not naming names, Dave and Chris.)  When we saw the Himalaya Ice Co., we knew it was time for a snack.

They have an interesting process for making their ice cream. First they dump a creamy liquid onto a round frozen tray. As the liquid begins to freeze, they use two metal spatulas to chop in some mix-ins:

Then they spread the cream mixture, making a very thin layer on the tray. It hardens as it is spread:

Using the spatula, they scrape the frozen cream in long curls that look like taquitos:

Four or five rolls are placed in a bowl, toppings are added, and voila! Himalaya Ice! I got the Chocolate Overload, slightly overpriced at $8.00 but still delicious. You can see the ice cream rolls in the photos below:

I have some seriously ice cream-addicted siblings:

They are so addicted, in fact, that when we finished up at Himalaya Ice Co. and continued our walk and turned the corner and saw ANOTHER frozen confection establishment, well . . .

Yup. Two ice cream/gelato purchases in half an hour requires some serious walking. San Juan is a beautiful place to walk off two bowls of ice cream:

We had parked our car in a lot next to this outdoor bazaar:

One of the booths caught our attention. There was a big sign that said "China" and a man furiously working the foot pedal of a machine that cut the peels off what looked like oranges in endless strips, creating a Rapunzel-like mass (or Goldilocks, or even Medusa). It's a lot like the apple peeler I have at home, but much faster:

The line for a cup of juice was fairly long, and while we waited, I asked the peeler-man, "Que is 'China'?"  He looked at me in surprise and responded "China es naranja [an orange]!" Well, duh. After we paid, he came over and gave me a peeled orange, I guess so that I could see that he was telling me the truth.
So why not join the rest of the Spanish-speaking world and call this "naranja"? I found out that "China" a regionalism peculiar to Puerto Rico. I've seen two explanations: 1) "China" is used to refer to the sweet oranges used for eating and juicing; "naranja" is used for the more sour or bitter oranges used in cooking; 2) the conquering Spaniards brought oranges with them that they got in China, and they called them "fruta de China," a name that stuck.

In either case, I'm not sure why you need to peel oranges before you juice them, but the wonderful scent of the peel saturates the senses and the peels themselves are a crowd-enticing spectacle. It worked to draw us in!


  1. Beautiful colonial city, with interesting foodie items (did they crush the orange to get the juice, leaving the bitter peel behind?). Looks like you walked a LONG time (city going dark) to work off that ice cream!

    1. They juiced the peel-less oranges much the same way you and I do, but with the outer peel removed, there was just a bit of the bitter white left once they had pressed the juice out.

  2. I must have been sleep-walking through the cathedral - you saw stuff in there I didn't. The ice cream place was very interesting, a unique way of creating an ice cream treat. It was fun to watch.

  3. I never quite understand the love of displaying bodies for centuries in these churches. I DO understand the attraction of creating a "new" way to create an ice cream treat. I also love being on vacation and giving myself permission to try ice cream AND gelato.