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St Augustine, Florida’s Historic City
Thomas R. & Deborah A. Fletcher
Clip-clop, clip-clop the unfamiliar sound drew our attention to our window and the tree-shaded lane below. Horse hooves on pavement; it was a horse-drawn carriage. The occupants: a new bride and groom, fresh from the wedding chapel, starting their life together. The scene could have been snatched from an earlier time; fitting, for a destination whose primary focus is history. We watched from our own second-story romantic enclave in the Victorian House Bed & Breakfast on Cadiz Street.
St Augustine is a tourist town. Traffic jams, difficulty parking, and gads of attractions are the evidence. The city dates its roots from 1565 when Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles arrived in a natural harbor and established the settlement he called San Agustin making it the oldest permanent European settlement in the US. His mission of Crown and Church was to rid the area of a French Huguenot settlement–they were French on Spanish-claimed territory, and they were Protestants. Upon landing, Menendez and his followers celebrated the first mass in what is now the United States, the supposed location marked by today’s Mission of Nombre de Dios. St Augustine soon became the center of Spanish control along the Florida coast, protecting Spain’s favored shipping lanes of the Gulf Stream.
Castillo de San Marcos, overlooking Matanzas Bay, is the oldest and best preserved masonry fort in the continental US. The fort replaced a series of wooden forts that had protected the city. Needing better protection from the raiding English and Native Americans, construction on Castillo de San Marcos started in 1672 and completed in 1695, making it Spain’s northernmost such fortification in the New World. The fort twice withstood attacks from the British, including a fifty-day siege, only to later come under possession of the English through the 1763 Treaty of Paris. (Florida was again returned to Spain in the Second Treaty of Paris in 1783.)
Occupied by Union forces during most of the Civil War, St Augustine escaped the destruction visited upon much of the South. After the war, her pleasing year-round climate made St Augustine a natural winter destination for Northerners. Climate, coupled with fascination for this historical Spanish city, gave city tourism a start. The Spanish Colonial city’s Historic District takes in 144 blocks of historic homes and structures, the heart of which is an 11-block, pedestrian-only area, of which, St George Street is the main thoroughfare.
The Spanish influence is evident in the architecture, but for a sample of the Spanish Colonial days’ lifestyle, stop by the Spanish Quarter Museum. Just off St George Street, this living history museum’s exhibitions and period-costumed actors take visitors back to the 1740's. Watch as a lady works a spinning wheel, turning raw wool into yarn. See the blacksmith fire his forge, heating the metal; glowing red-hot he pulls it from the fire, striking with his hammer he shapes it as he wishes.
One of the most convenient ways to see the Old City is on the sightseeing train or trolley. The narrated historic tours cover a seven-mile circuit through the city, with 20 scheduled stops. The entire tour takes around an hour and gives one an historic overview of the city and buildings. Armed with this information, one may decide where to begin a walking tour. Tickets are good for three days and allow unlimited reboarding. Tours operate daily, except Christmas, 8:30 A.M. to 5:00 P.M.
Walking tours hosted by period-costumed guides wend their way through the narrow streets of the Historic District as history and colorful stories are related by the guides. In a city whose history spans more than 400 years, it would stand to reason there are a few ghost stories in the town. So, numbered among the walking tours are the evening ghost tours. We joined one such tour.
"Watch carefully," our guide informed as he passed around a set of photos, "people see things on these tours all the time." The photos were, supposedly, from previous sightings; some occurring from a tour "just like the one you’re on now." The photos made their way to us–obviously made by someone with an understanding of film exposure and lighting techniques, but definitely, nothing supernatural. Apparently, quite a competition has developed between the companies hosting the ghost tours. Concern over, and accusations of "ghost-theft" abound, prompting security concerns over each group’s stories. Apparently, there are enough ghost stories in the public domain to keep all in business.
Of course there is more to St Augustine than the history, there are plenty of attractions to lend that touristy feel while keeping traveling families occupied. Two million visitors pass through St Augustine each year. Our favorite time to visit is late September through October. During this six-week period, the kids are back in school and the snowbirds haven’t started to arrive. This is St Augustine’s quiet time and there are still plenty of people.
The Alligator Farm and Zoological Park is one of St Augustine’s most popular attractions. It is also one of the oldest. It has been around since 1893. Here are plenty of alligators, 23 species of crocodile, birds, monkeys, and of course the albino alligators round out a list of displays.
Potter’s Wax Museum features 160 life-size wax figures on display. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the selection of figures. Historical figures, horror film subjects, political personalities, and movie stars are all represented. Some figures are quite well done. Others, are questionable representations to say the least.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not is a collection of oddities housed in an 1885 mansion. There are more than 500 exhibits spread over three floors of the mansion. Here’s a tip: be careful what you do before a mirror checking for certain genetic traits–you may regret it five minutes later.
Hooked on Harry’s along Avienida Menendez offers excellent New Orleans style seafood fare. We highly recommend the crawfish etoufee.
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Text and Photos Copyright Thomas R. Fletcher / PROSE AND PHOTOS