Strolling Old San Juan’s Colorful Streets

Some of the most pleasurable parts of visiting a new place are free—as I learned while rambling among the vibrantly painted apartments and churches in Puerto Rico’s historic downtown area of Old San Juan. My entertainment during my two-day solo stay there was soaking up the atmosphere in Old San Juan, founded by Spanish colonists in 1521.

The streets of Old San Juan are a riot of Caribbean color. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The streets of Old San Juan are a riot of Caribbean color. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The architecture is a spicy mix of old-world Spanish and Caribbean tropical hues. When I got tired of walking, I stopped into some authentic local eateries to sample the flavors of the island too.

Yellow window, Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

Old San Juan is probably Puerto Rico’s most-visited spot, and rightfully so, with its colonial, cobblestone streets lined by a rainbow of apartments with balconies and bougainvillea. Add in palm trees, fragrant food cooking at wonderful restaurants, and sweeping views of the Atlantic, and you’ll fall in love.

I did.

On my two days in Old San Juan, I wandered among the quieter boulevards and simply drank in the colors. Except for the cars parked all along the streets, it’s easy to imagine how the town looked in the 16th and 17th centuries, back when it was a Spanish colony.

Old San Juan has shops, of course. I dropped into a few local artisan shops during the quiet hours, early morning and late afternoon when the cruise ships weren’t in port.

The inner courtyard of private home. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The inner courtyard of private home. ©Laurel Kallenbach

There are also satisfying restaurants, including modest spots where locals grab breakfast or lunch. At Café Manolin, an Old San Juan institution that serves creole-style food, I had fried eggs and beans with tortillas while I watched the old-style orange juice machine mash up oranges and spit out fresh juice. It tasted heavenly.

For high-end dining, there are many possibilities in the old town. One evening I enjoyed an early dinner at the snazzy Hotel El Convento tapas bar, where I sat on the patio overlooking the courtyard. Contentedly, I sipped a Bacardi Mojito and savored slices of Manchego cheese drizzled with truffle honey served with fresh-baked bread.

Mostly though, I wandered Old San Juan until my feet were sore or I got too hot in the Caribbean sun. That’s when I knew it was time to return to my “home” during my stay: the Casablanca Hotel. There I could nurse a margarita or cold Puerto Rican cerveza—the Old Harbor Taina brews are lovely—and watch one of my favorite movies of all time projected on the wall of the bar. Or, I walked up the stairs for a siesta in my room, which was small but comfy with a Moroccan flair.

I never got tired of taking photos of the brilliant architecture. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I never got tired of taking photos of the brilliant architecture. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The concierge at the Casablanca steered me to the best restaurants, and he humored me by letting me practice my Spanish. (For the record, most puertorriqueños speak fluent English.) This U.S. territory uses the American dollar. And I did a double-take one day when I bumped into the mailman wearing the traditional U.S. mail uniform—with shorts of course!

In addition, the Castillo San Cristóbal fortress and the Castillo San Felipe del Morro  are part of the U.S. National Park Service, where interpreters in those Smoky Bear hats give you guided tours of the old fort walls overlooking the azure ocean.

Mostly I loved Old San Juan’s small details, like iron knockers, glimpses into courtyards of apartment buildings, and colorful shutters. Nearly every apartment number was painted on glazed tiles.

Pink lantern, Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

Pink lantern, Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

One morning, after breakfast, I was crossing a plaza and saw a skinny, feral cat dash out of nowhere and grab a pigeon from a flock pecking at the cobblestones. I was shocked; domesticated cats back home are rarely that fast, but clearly this cat was hunting for his breakfast!

A few hours later, I noticed a grumpy Persian perched inside the window of a posh apartment. He gazed out at the street with a pout that reminded me of a grounded teenager.

No, pampered puss, you have an easy life in your house, I thought. The streets of Old San Juan are lovely for us tourists, but they would be hard for a cat like you.

Brass knocker on a door ©Laurel Kallenbach

Brass knocker on a door ©Laurel Kallenbach

On and on I strolled the quiet streets of colonial San Juan, enjoying the arched entryways, elegant shuttered windows, and ornate iron grillwork—an art form brought to the New World by the Spanish.

Viva Viejo San Juan—viva Old San Juan!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Puerto Rico:

My Hunt for Irish Sheela-na-Gigs

This sheela-na-gig from Seir Kieran in County Offaly was on display at the National Museum of Ireland when I visited in 2004.

Think Indiana Jones. Think of a quest for an archaeological treasure. Picture me, wide-eyed and somewhat crazed, tearing around Ireland’s rural backroads seeking a treasure. See me wading through thigh-high weeds still wet from the morning dew. Hear me cursing out loud to myself about driving on the left-hand side of the road.

Unlike Indiana Jones, no one was chasing me with a gun or a sword. I was not searching for the Holy Grail or the Crystal Skull or the Lost Ark. I was searching Ireland for sheela-na-gigs—peculiar, medieval-era stone carvings of haglike, naked women displaying their private parts.

If you read my last post, you know that during my 2004 Ireland trip, I had a bit of an obsession with searching out sheela-na-gigs, which are found on the walls of churches and castles in England, Wales, and Scotland, and Ireland. There are more known sheelas in Ireland than anywhere else, and on my journey through Éire, I stalked the gargoyle-like carvings literally over hill and dale.

Searching for Sheelas at the National Museum of Ireland

I started in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, which houses fabulous archeological treasures, such as the Indiana Jones–worthy Ardagh Chalice made by 12th-century monks of gold, silver, bronze, brass, and copper. And the golden, delicate Tara Brooch made in 700 AD is priceless.

A book with the sheela-na-gig from County Cavan, Ireland.

A book with the sheela-na-gig from County Cavan, Ireland.

Displayed alongside these magnificent works of Celtic art were two crudely carved sheela-na-gigs—much less flashy than the aforementioned treasures, but also much more intriguing. No one really knows why these “hags of the castle” were located like gargoyles on Anglo-Norman-era churches and medieval castles. But one thing we know for sure: they had meaning for people ten centuries ago.

“The name comes from the Irish language, although its meaning is uncertain,” says Dr. Eamonn Kelly of the National Museum, and author of Sheela-na-Gigs: Origins and Functions. “The most likely interpretations are Sighe na gCíoch, meaning “the old hag of the breasts,” or Síla-na Giob, meaning ‘sheela (a name for an old woman) on her hunkers.’”

I emailed the National Museum in advance and got permission on my visit to be escorted into the museum’s vaults to see a dozen more sheelas that weren’t on display but that have been in the museum’s care for decades—some for an entire century.

It’s an amazing thing to be face to face with works of sacred (or profane) art that I’ve only read about in books. (One of my favorites is The Sheela-na-gigs of Ireland and Britain by Joanne McMahon and Jack Roberts because it includes a catalogue with drawings of sheelas.) So, after I got my fill of sheelas in the museum, I set off to search for others, in situ.

The Sheela-Na-Gig of Esker Castle

Locating the sheela-na-gig—reportedly located on the walls of a ruined castle near the tiny village of Doon, in County Offaly—was quite an adventure. I felt completely lost while trying to find the village, and once there, I had no way of knowing where Esker Castle was. (If there was a sign to it, I never saw it because I was too busy driving on unmarked roads.)

This sheela-na-gig was a cornerstone on Esker Castle, near Doon, Ireland. The sheela-na-gig's right hand passes underneath her right thigh, and her left hand reaches over her left thigh to expose the vulva. Esker Castle, Doon: The sheela-na-gig her right hand passes underneath her right thigh, and her left hand reaches over her left thigh to expose the vulva. ©Laurel Kallenbach

This sheela-na-gig was a cornerstone on Esker Castle, near Doon, Ireland. The sheela-na-gig’s right hand passes underneath her right thigh, and her left hand reaches over her left thigh to expose the vulva. Esker Castle, Doon: The sheela-na-gig her right hand passes underneath her right thigh, and her left hand reaches over her left thigh to expose the vulva. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Luckily, from the road, I could see a hilltop ruin of what might be a medieval castle—though I wasn’t positive. I pulled onto a gravel road and drove to what I hoped would be the ruin, but soon the road disappeared into grass and there wasn’t enough space to turn around. My car had pretty bad sightlines for backing up (or maybe I should have looked backwards over my left shoulder instead of my right!) but I managed to drive in reverse back to the “safe,” graveled road. At the foot of the hill with the castle, I parked on a gravelly pullover spot, pulled on my rain pants and rain jacket, laced up my sturdy hiking boots, and then set off as it began to drizzle.

Foolishly, I chose a steep trail that led up toward the castle—ancient fortresses were designed to be difficult to reach—but halfway up it became apparent that no pedestrian had used it in ages—perhaps since the Middle Ages. I picked my way through brambles and briars; thorns clawed at my hair and rain jacket. I lost my traction in the mud. At last, though, I emerged at the foot of the ancient stone walls, sweating and hoping that my grit and determination would be rewarded by an easy-to-find sheela-na-gig.

The luck of the Irish was with me, because I turned the corner, and there she was, halfway up on the wall of the castle amid twisty ivy vines to the left of the castle entrance. She was carved horizontally on a cornerstone, even though she’s depicted in a standing position, with both toes pointing to the right. A shiver of excitement passed through me. I’d done it: located a sheela-na-gig in a non-museum location!

Esker Castle, near Doon, Ireland ©Laurel Kallenbach

The ruins of Esker Castle, near the village of Doon, County Offaly, Ireland ©Laurel Kallenbach

The first thing I noticed was the sheela’s large, bald head, part of which was covered in white. (Maybe someone whitewashed her for ease of seeing her?) Her mouth was open as if she were grimacing or saying something. She was a bit eerie, this sheela-na-gig: otherworldly and ancient and none too inviting despite her naked breasts (just two little mounds) and spread legs.

I took some photos, but it was difficult to relax and reflect because a nasty wind had come up. Besides that, the castle ruins were gloomy, the weather threatening. I was already a bit traumatized from the ordeal of the disappearing road and the brambly path. All I could think was, What if my car gets stuck here or I fall down the hill and sprain an ankle? There was a farmhouse just 100 meters away, but I was spooked just the same.

I walked around a bit, shielding my camera inside my raincoat from the wind-driven rain. I wanted to see the sheela from several angles. And then, Irish luck struck again, and I discovered another path—a real one this time—that I might have discovered if I hadn’t been in such a frantic hurry at the beginning. Compared to the path up, this one was fairly tame. Soon I was inside my rental car and peeling off my wet jacket. As I drove off, I took one last look at the towering walls—the home of the Esker Castle sheela-na-gig—and bid a hasty farewell.

The Sheela-Na-Gig of St. Munna’s Church

Although Indiana Jones got lost a number of times on his adventures, I seemed to have more than the usual mishaps on the sheela route. Two days after I almost missed the Esker Castle sheela, I again got confused while searching for one of the stone carvings on a church in County Westmeath. First, I got lost in the nearby town of Mullingar. Shortly later, I took two more wrong turns around Crookedwood before I eventually happened upon St. Munna Church, which ironically looks more like a castle than a church because of its crenellated tower.

I parked and walked up to the 15th-century church with its old cemetery. The four-eyed sheela-na-gig was in plain sight over a broken-out trefoil window, and just a moment after I saw her, I was greeted enthusiastically by a wag-tailed black dog from a farm across the street.

This sheela, above a window of St. Munna church, appears to have four eyes. ©Laurel Kallenbach

This sheela, above a window of St. Munna church appears to have four eyes. ©Laurel Kallenbach

This sheela was fairly eroded, but she either has four eyes or two holes drilled into her head above the eyes. Again part of her head was blotched with white—I think it must have been some sort of lichen. This sheela also had an open mouth, as if she were speaking, and this one looked like she had a beard. Though her hands were on her abdomen, there was little view of her genitals other than a deep hole. It was easy for me to imagine this sheela acting the role of a gargoyle—perhaps because her features we so indistinct. It’s possible she was defaced by people in more recent centuries who would have considered this stone carving obscene.

Perhaps it was because I was very tired, but I didn’t spend too much time with this sheela. And I felt a little out of place somehow, despite the adorable dog. This was the case a number of rural sites in Ireland. I disliked being among lots of tourists, but I also sometimes wished I wasn’t the only human around. So, I paid my respects to the naked, stone woman who has gazed fiercely down upon centuries of church-goers with her four eyes. Then I moved on to my next destination: the Loughcrew archaeological site, also called Slieve na Calliagh (“Mountain of the Hag”).

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Ireland:

 

 

Archways into the Irish Past

Nothing beckons me more than the archways of antiquity, so I was charmed by these ruined, but graceful portals that once led into a medieval abbey in Ireland. This one is located at Clonmacnoise, an early Christian site founded by St. Ciarán in the mid-6th century on the eastern bank of the River Shannon.

Just outside Ireland's Clonmacnoise are the arches of a ruined Nun's Chapel, where I discovered a sheela-na-gig. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Just outside Ireland’s Clonmacnoise are the arches of a ruined Nun’s Chapel, where I discovered a sheela-na-gig. ©Laurel Kallenbach

For an hour or more, I wandered through misting rain among the ruins of a cathedral, two round towers, several Celtic crosses, and ancient grave stones at Clonmacnoise. In the Dark Ages, this religious center was filled with scholarly monks during Ireland’s Golden Age of Learning.

Even today, this home of the 6th-century saint Ciarán is revered. In Temple Ciarán, where the saint is believed to be buried, farmers still take clay from the ruins of the church and place it at the four corners of their fields as a blessing.

A high cross and round tower at Clonmacnoise.

A high cross and round tower at Clonmacnoise.

In Search of a Sheela-Na-Gig

The historic architecture there was more than enough to make Clonmacnoise a part of my itinerary, but I was also on a quest to find an odd detail carved into the arch. The carving is known as a sheela-na-gig, a stone figure of a naked, old woman squatting and displaying her vulva. These somewhat grotesque female figures are usually found on Norman or Romanesque churches, usually over a door or window. A strange thing to put on a church fairly strange thing to find on a church, yet there are many in Ireland, and while I was visiting, I wanted to see as many as I could.

No one else was at the Nun’s Church while I was there, so I wandered around trying to locate the sheela-na-gig, which my guidebook said was located in the arch. Frustrated, and with a crick in my neck, I started calling out “sheela!” as I circled around the whole ruin. At last I spotted her amid the carvings on the outer ring of the lintel.

An Irish sheela-na-gig, carved into the front arch of the Nun's Chapel in Clonmacnoise. This is a closeup; the actual size of the sheela was probably only five inches in the diamond. You can see her face, and just make out her feet behind her head, with a display of her crotch below. ©Laurel Kallenbach

An Irish sheela-na-gig, carved into the front arch of the Nun’s Chapel in Clonmacnoise. This is a closeup; the actual size of the sheela was probably only five inches in the diamond. You can see her face, and just make out her feet behind her head, with a display of her crotch below. ©Laurel Kallenbach

If I hadn’t seen pictures of this sheela-na-gig in books, I wouldn’t have recognized her, because she has a very stylized, smiling face surrounded by what I guess are her legs wrapped yoga-style behind her head. At last I was beholding a sheela in situ. Although I’d seen a number of them at the National Museum of Ireland  in Dublin, there’s just nothing like locating a piece of art in its natural habitat!

There were actually two other faces lower down that frankly looked more like a sheela-na-gig than the real one—round head, pronounced ears, and deep eyes—except the rock carving stopped at the neck; there was no lower body.

So what’s the significance of a sheela-na-gig, and why is she clutching her genitalia? No one really knows, but there are many theories:

  • Sheelas are like gargoyles, designed to ward off evil spirits or to warn people of the perils of lust.
  • They are fertility symbols. This one seems unlikely, because sheelas rarely have breasts and their boney ribs, bald heads, and almost skeletal features are often depicted. There’s nothing sexy about a sheela-na-gig.
  • Sheelas are a depiction of an ancient Irish crone goddess, Cailleach, who was very powerful and could sometimes appear as a comely maiden, a mother, or a grandmother.

This last theory is the one that interests me most. In medieval Ireland, people often embraced both Christian and pagan beliefs, and the two merged. I’m fascinated by the Divine Feminine, and I like the thought of there being a fierce hag warrior on castles and churches.

In case you think me batty, I can tell you that I’m not alone in my fascination with sheelas. There are sheela-na-gig T-shirts, hoodies, and necklaces. And singer PJ Harvey wrote and performed a song called “Sheela-na-Gig” back in 1992. (You can read more about that at my post, My Hunt for Sheela-Na-Gigs).

I’ll always remember Clonmacnoise fondly, especially because it was the first time I’d ever seen a sheela-na-gig “live,” outside of a museum.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Clonmacnoise is located 21km from Athlone, in Co. Offaly. The Nun’s Chapel is just outside the main gates of the Clonmacnoise complex. For more information about travel in Ireland, visit Tourism Ireland.

Read more about my travels in Ireland:

A view of Clonmacnoise. Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

A view of Clonmacnoise. Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

 

 

Sunset over Old San Juan

Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis cemetery in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico ©Laurel Kallenbach

Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis cemetery in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico ©Laurel Kallenbach

This view of the Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis cemetery in historic Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, is iconic. (An old edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook has this photo on its cover.) The desk attendant at my hotel shared a scenic tip: Walk to the 16th-century Castillo San Felipe del Morro fortress in late afternoon to watch the sunset. I took his advice and was not disappointed!

I wandered along the old streets on the cliff above the ocean for a while. Nice to be out of the traffic. Just as I reached the old fortress walls, the sun was at its most golden. Looking east over the walls, I could see this chapel and historic cemetery bathed in the warm light, with the Atlantic sparkling and blue. Breathtaking!

Supposedly, the Spanish colonists built the cemetery in the mid-1800s overlooking the Atlantic Ocean to symbolize the spirit’s journey to cross over to the afterlife. I can’t imagine a better place to spend eternity!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Puerto Rico: