San Juan Feature
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Cellist Pablo Casals was one of the 20th century's most influential musicians. Born in Catalonia in 1876, he studied in Spain and Belgium, settled for a time in Paris, then returned to Barcelona. Tours in Europe, the United States, and South America brought him artistic and financial success and opportunities to collaborate with other prominent musicians.
By the advent of the Spanish civil war he was an internationally famous musician, teacher, and conductor. He was also an outspoken supporter of a democratic Spain. Forced into exile by Franco's regime, Casals arrived in Puerto Rico, his mother's birthplace, in 1956. Here the then-81-year-old maestro continued to work and teach. He established the Casals Festival of Classical Music, making the island a home for sublime orchestral and chamber works. During two weeks each June, the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra is joined by musicians from all over the world.
In Catalan, Casals's first name is Pau, which appropriately means "peace." He and his friend Albert Schweitzer appealed to the world powers to stop the arms race, and Casals made what many experts say is his greatest work—an oratorio titled The Manger—his personal message of peace. Casals died in Puerto Rico in 1973, but his many legacies live on.
The tallest statue of Christopher Columbus in the Americas stands atop a soaring column and fountain in this bustling Old San Juan square, kitty-corner to Castillo San Cristóbal. What was once called St. James Square was renamed in 1893 to honor the 400th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in Puerto Rico. Bronze plaques on the statue's base relate various episodes in the life of the explorer. Local artisans often line the plaza, so it's a good place to stop for souvenirs.
According to legend, the British, while laying siege to the city in 1797, mistook the flaming torches of a rogativa—religious procession—for Spanish reinforcements and beat a hasty retreat. In this little plaza a monument of a bishop and three women commemorates the legend. The striking contemporary statue was created in 1971 by the artist Lindsay Daen to mark the Old City's 450th anniversary. The fine view of La Fortaleza and the harbor is a bonus.
Dating back to 1520, this was one of the five original entrances to the city and is the only one still in its original state. The massive gate, painted a brilliant shade of red, gave access from the port. It resembles a tunnel because it passes through La Muralla, the 20-foot-thick city walls.
Greater San Juan
Old San Juan may be Puerto Rico's jewel, but each of the other neighborhoods of San Juan has a distinctive character with its own special attractions. Just east of the Old City is Puerta de Tierra, home to a few notable hotels, a nice public beach, and several parks.
For multiple shopping and dining options all within walking distance, look to Condado. Home to many of the city's moneyed elite, it's the most vibrant pedestrian neighborhood outside of Old San Juan. Here you'll find old Spanish-style homes next to sleek, modern apartment buildings and designer shops. The main street, Avenida Ashford, is fun to walk along, but the quieter residential areas are also very attractive. Many hotels are beachfront, though the beach is not as big or alluring as those in Isla Verde.
Ocean Park is a partially gated residential community with a laid-back feel. If you've dreamed of staying in a quiet guesthouse on a more secluded beach—away from the crowds—this might be the spot for you.
What to See
Saints on Parade
Each of Puerto Rico's 78 municipalities has a patron saint, and each one celebrates an annual festival near the saint's birthday, sometimes lasting a week or more. These festivals are a great opportunity to hear live music and buy local arts and crafts. San Juan celebrates its patron-saint feast in the noche de San Juan on June 23, when locals take to the beach. The event culminates at midnight, when crowds plunge into the Atlantic to flip over backward three times, a cleansing ritual expected to bring good fortune.
A Good Tour
East of Old San Juan on Avenida Ponce de León you'll find El Capitolio, Puerto Rico's magnificent capitol building. Take Avenida Ashford east, branching off onto Avenida Magdalena and then Calle Loíza. At the corner of Avenida Ponce de León is the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico, with a fine collection of contemporary Latin-American art. If you're hungry, stop for lunch at the nearby Plaza del Mercado. Afterward, head east on Avenida Ponce de León, then north on Avenida José de Diego to reach the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, a former hospital that has been transformed into the island's most ambitious art museum.
From the museum, it's a straight ride south on Avenida Ponce de León (Route 25) to the Río Piedras district, where you'll find the Universidad de Puerto Rico and its Museo de Historia, Antropología y Arte. Less than 1 mile (1½ km) to the west, at the junction of Routes 1 and 847, is the 75-acre Jardín Botánico.
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