Strolling Old San Juan’s Colorful Streets

March 2018: I’m re-posting my piece about glorious Old San Juan, which I visited in 2014. Yes, Puerto Rico is still struggling to rebuild after the devastation of Hurricane Maria in September 2017, but in San Juan, beaches have been cleaned up, and most hotels and restaurants are open. So if you’re craving sunshine and tropical color, Puerto Rico beckons, and your tourism dollars help our citizens in the Caribbean!

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:

On Downings Beach, Ireland

There’s a working-class beach town called Downings in northern County Donegal, Ireland. Located right on the Atlantic, the views are lovely, and Sheephaven Bay shelters this surprisingly long, sandy beach.

Oceanside Car Park

The Irish treat Downings’ Beach a lot like a local park. And here’s the funny part: They drive their cars right onto the beach and park them surprisingly close to the water. (I suppose it’s because that’s where the sand is hard-packed after the receding tide.) Still, it’s astonishing to see people use the sand as a “car park,” as they call it here. Many families set up beach chairs and picnic right beside their car!

©Laurel Kallenbach

Sunday on the Beach

I took this photo late on a Sunday afternoon in August, after most of the action died down for the day. (That’s why there are only a few parked autos—earlier at least 50 of them were lined in neat rows.)

The horse wagon is for the wee kiddies to ride, whereas the boys in the foreground were more interesting in net fishing. Or were they butterfly hunting?

Downings has a several hotels and pubs (which favor country-western music over fiddles and Irish tin whistles most nights of the week.) The tiny town was once a getaway for folks from nearby Northern Ireland fleeing “The Troubles.” There’s still a large caravan (trailer) park in Downings.

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

Originally posted in March 2009

Read more about my travels in Ireland:

P.S. For more tips on places to visit in Ireland, visit Discover Ireland.

An Irish Dolmen and a Magical Dog

Places I find most magical are in countries with either a very ancient history or where people have a different sense of time—where a day is measured by afternoons rather than nanoseconds.

So in 2004, I made a pilgrimage to Ireland, a nation of storytellers, where you can still hear tales about encounters with fairy folk, where upscale housing developments might still be named for an ancient queen or saint, where you fetch the gate key to a 6,000-year old stone passage tomb at the espresso shop down the hill.

My first view of the Kilclooney Dolmen, which sits on a rise in the land.

I’m a bit obsessed with standing stones, you see, and Ireland has so many!

One morning, I clomped in vain through thigh-high grasses searching for a sacred well along Donegal’s cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. (Wells like these were used in pagan and early Christian times for healing.) Frustrated, I decided to skip my next itinerary stop and head to my B&B for an afternoon nap.

Searching for Stones

As I drove past the road sign pointing to Kilclooney, just 15 miles away, I made a U-turn (not so easy on Ireland’s narrow rural roads!), and took the route leading to Kilclooney’s dolmen, which is a huge stone table built over a tomb entrance.

At the village of Kilclooney, I pulled into a church parking lot and walked to the farm gate across the street—following my trusty guidebook, The Traveller’s Guide to Sacred Ireland by Cary Meehan (I can’t recommend this one enough!).

The rough farmhouse road/path lay behind the gate—where two large red cows stood sentry, menacingly chewing their cud (or the remains of the last pilgrim they had thwarted!). I followed the guidebook’s instructions and knocked on the stone farmhouse door.

“Is this the path to the dolmen?” I inquired of the elderly lady with a cane who opened it.

“Yes, yes,” she answered with a welcoming smile. “Go through the gate and up the hill a way,” she said.

“There are cows?” I stammered.

The woman must have read my mind: “Ah,” she said with a wave of her hand, “Don’t worry about the cows; they won’t touch you.”

Guardian at the Gate

So I set out, opened the gate, and sidled toward the bovine guards, eyeing their horns. I had come all this way, and I couldn’t stand the thought of losing both the sacred well and the dolmen in one day.

At that moment, a black lab bounded through the fence, barking and nipping at the cows, who grudgingly yielded the path. I petted the wagging dog, my hero, then she began bouncing up the trail toward the dolmen.

So I had a four-footed guide, who soon presented me with a reddish rock, dropped it at my feet and stared pointedly at it. On Ireland’s farmland, trees and sticks are scarce, so I picked up the rock and hurled it along the path. So began our game of “fetch,” which lasted the entire half-mile walk to the dolmen: The dog got the rock (always the same one), carried it in her mouth back to the spot in the trail where I had advanced, and dropped it slobber-covered at my feet. I picked it up, threw it ahead and walked some more.

Rocks with a View

When we came up a hill, I gasped when I caught sight of giant rocks like three legs supporting a massive horizontal rock that nonetheless was elegantly stacked so that it looked like a bird taking flight. As we drew nearer, my dog friend guided me safely off the path and across the soggy bog until I arrived at the foot of the dolmen.

I could see for miles over the countryside; there wasn’t a soul around except my canine companion. I explored the stone monument, touching the cool rocks, crouching inside the hollow beneath its “legs,” which once (millennia ago) led into a subterranean chamber.

Kilclooney Dolmen is located in County Donegal, just a few miles from the town of Ardara. You can see my canine guide in the shadow of the dolmen.

I wanted to write in my journal, so I sat on a nearby rock where I had a lovely view of the dolmen against the dramatic sky with storm clouds brewing on the horizon. Minutes later, my reverie was destroyed by an army of buzzing midges. I had to keep moving to escape their bites, so I ambled, assessing the dolmen from many angles and picking a few wildflowers.

Finally, I tied my bundle with a stem, placed the flowers at the dolmen’s feet, made a wish and kissed the bird-like capstone. It’s part of the dolmen lore that a kiss on the ancient rocks will make your wishes come true.

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Ireland and to Neolithic sites in the British Isles:

P.S. For more tips on places to visit in Ireland, visit Discover Ireland.

Originally posted in March 2011.

A Birthday among the Ancient Rocks of Stonehenge

On my fiftieth birthday, I become a pilgrim to Stonehenge. On the evening I arrive, Wiltshire’s wide landscape is swept by a downpour and epic winds. The gates are closed, and all the day-tourists have hurried to pubs or their B&Bs to escape the midsummer storm. It is the after-hours entry time, and I clasp my special, advanced reservation like a golden ticket.

Stonehenge after the rain. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Stonehenge after the rain. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Weatherworn and rain-soaked, I am one of a tribe of twenty-six people huddling silently in the dusky gloom as a guard unhooks the rope that separates the public from the stones. I am pulled into the circle, toward these broad-shouldered behemoths of Salisbury Plain. Miraculously, the rain has stopped, though the last drops continue to drain off my raincoat, streaking my rain-pants and darkening my brown hiking-boot leather with bloodlike splotches.

The evening sun is swaddled in clouds; the filtered light is heavy and otherworldly. I walk beside the stones—the lichen-covered stones—so mottled they look hairy. More shadow than surface. Every blade of the hallowed grass is a slim, green knife too vivid to be real.

After fifty years of seeing photos of Stonehenge, I now stand so close I can smell the musk of ancient rock and the ever-so-slight perfume of damp bluebells. But no touching the stones. No hugging them. No climbing. No eating, drinking, or smoking. No indecent activities—in other words, no copulation or pagan fertility rites. The wary guards insure compliance.

©Laurel Kallenbach.jpg

©Laurel Kallenbach

Yet I have an entire hour to stroke Stonehenge with my eyes: veins of minerals through the sarsen slabs, shards of broken rock, crust of lichen, etched signatures from bygone centuries.

Walking beneath a giant lintel stone, I feel that I have stepped through a portal into the second stage of my life—into a land of uncertainty. At fifty, I’m veiny and far less statuesque than I care to admit. Silver hairs sprout with abandon. My joints complain. Sleep eludes me.

I cross my fingers before each mammogram and every cholesterol test. I have no faith in my own crumbling edifice—certainly not the kind of faith that it takes to build in stone. Faith that’s bolstered by generation after generation who studied the stars and who marked the sun’s rising and setting year after year. Who, like me, witnessed purple-and-black thunderheads roil and move on.

Center of the stones ©Laurel Kallenbach

Center of the stones ©Laurel Kallenbach

Even for those ancient people, the patient watchers of time, there came a day when they split the plain with flint axes, cleaving the wormy soil on a wind-swept plateau. “This is where we buttress the forty-ton rock,” they announced. “Here we build. This is where we begin.”

For millennia, people have come to Stonehenge for reasons we can only guess. For solstices? For healing? For community? My own motives are surprisingly vague as well. I believe I was called to this mythic place—that somehow Stonehenge will be my cornerstone for the decades to come. This is where I begin again.

Inside the stone circle. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Inside the stone circle. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I sink onto the damp ground in the center of a horseshoe of six-foot-high bluestones: an inner ring of dolerite rocks transported hundreds of miles from western Wales. The trilithons in front of me are bone-white against the brooding clouds. Stillness.

What is there to discover here? Dirt, grass, stone, sky. Permanence, impermanence. I simply sit and breathe in my own half-century. Nothing I can do or make will be here in five thousand years. By then, I’ll be as mysterious and invisible as the builders of Stonehenge and all those who have come before me.

 ©Laurel Kallenbach

©Laurel Kallenbach

Rocks have been raised; rocks have fallen. Some face the east; some open to the west. Looking north across the A344 highway is the Avenue, the processional pathway that people once walked to reach Stonehenge from the River Avon.

Next year, the petrol-infused asphalt of the A344 will be torn out, and once again the stone circle will be reunited with the Avenue. Its passage stones, those proud sentries, have disappeared. Cracked and dissected, they were carted off to become chunks of farm fences. But the Avenue’s footprint on the land remains, and the memory of stones points to the horizon, through rippling fields of barley that beckon “this way.”

I sight through the linteled megaliths, over the toppled Slaughter Stone, and beyond the Heel Stone to that ghost of a walkway. My hour here has passed; the sun, shrouded in clouds, has set without fanfare. No farewell display of amber or vermillion streaks the sky. This one day—significant only to me as the anniversary of my birth—is nearly done. Tomorrow, the sun will illuminate a new road—a whisper of a way—for me to travel.

A guard calls. It is time for me to rise and depart this temple of the grasslands. It is time to feel my own legs beneath me, strong and solid—though not as hard as rock. I leave behind no monument, no marker—but if these stones are ancient dreams made solid, then perhaps my hopes for the future will join the circle. I touch my lips to my fingers and offer a kiss to the wet, joyful earth.

—Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Note: Since 2013, when I wrote this, Stonehenge has undergone “renovation.” The highway has been removed, and a new museum has been created. For information about visiting Stonehenge, visit the English Heritage website.

Read more about my travels in England:

©Laurel Kallenbach

©Laurel Kallenbach