History With A Merengue Beat In Santo Domingo, The New World's First City, You Can Stroll Along The Waterfront Where Columbus Docked In 1496.

Posted: January 12, 1992

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Christopher Columbus slept here.

Even as historians, scholars, writers, travelers and just-plain-folk scramble to re-evaluate Columbus in light of contemporary mores, his saga is inseparable from the legend and lore of the oldest city in the Western hemisphere.

One does not come to Santo Domingo, founded in 1496, for the beaches. They're in another part of this poor, politically chaotic nation that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.

One does not come here for trendy restaurants. There are some good ones - Fonda de la Atarazana for Dominican cuisine, Cafe St. Michel for French, Rally I for crepes - but this city of two million is not the kind of place that marches in lockstep with yuppie food fashions.

One does not come here to shop until one drops in the Caribbean sun - unless, perhaps, you're looking for art. Although overshadowed by Haiti's international reputation for primitive art, the works of Dominican artists are often striking, sophisticated and relatively inexpensive.

One comes to Santo Domingo for a dose of historical and contemporary reality, for a modestly ambitious Caribbean adventure.

This is a funky Third World city of open-air bars and cafes, street vendors galore and grinding poverty juxtaposed with great museums and historic sites that demand reverence and awe, despite Columbus' recently tarnished reputation.

You don't have to be a history buff to enjoy this vibrant city with its distinctive merengue beat, but it helps. One guidebook provided this historic perspective on the New World, of which Santo Domingo was once the center: ''The New World amalgamated the commercialism of late medieval Europe with the soul of Africa on the fringes of a wilderness in which both were alien."

A few of Santo Domingo's "firsts" in that New World: first cathedral, first hospital, first court of law. The Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor, with its Renaissance facade, stands majestically in the oldest part of the city, the Colonial Zone, just a short walk from the rubble that remains of the first hospital. The first court is preserved in the Museo de las Casas Reales.

You don't have to speak Spanish in Santo Domingo either, but that helps, too. English-speakers can be found, but even those who don't understand you will still do their best to help you. Dominicans love Americans, if for no other reason than the size of the Dominican diaspora in the United States: There are 600,000 Dominicans in the States now, 400,000 in the New York metropolitan area alone.

On our recent visit here - and without really setting out to do it - we managed to stay in two very different hotels that, in a sense, embraced Dominican history.

The first, the Hostal Palacio Nicholas de Ovando, is located in the Colonial Zone, the city's 12-block historic district, a distinctive yet integral part of the city. Named after the city's first governor, the hotel is the oldest in the New World. Part of it was the governor's house; Columbus was his guest for the month of August 1504.

Today that handsome residence has been transformed into a gracious hotel with pool, restaurant and charming courtyards. That its architecture is faithfully preserved - graceful arches, walls a foot thick, heavy wooden shutters - is confirmed by a series of enlarged and grainy photographs of the renovation.

Our view was of Santo Domingo's Ozama River, which is its working port. The mere proximity to that body of water - in which Columbus is said to have moored one of his ships - is a lesson in Dominican history. Also on the murky Ozama, and a brief walk from the hotel, is the Alcazar de Colon - the residence of Columbus' son, Diego Colon. Built of coral limestone in 1514 and restored in 1957, it boasts 22 rooms (and walls that are 40 inches thick). Now one of the city's extraordinary museums, it will doubtless play a major role in the city's 500th anniversary celebration.

Also within a short walk from our hotel we found three historic sites that convey the flavor of a much earlier Santo Domingo:

* The Museo de las Casas Reales may well be the finest museum in the hemisphere in showing the sweep of human, political and judicial history in this part of the world. Within this stately, fortresslike structure - literally "Museum of the Royal Houses" - one glimpses the island's past. Jars and crude implements line the shelves of a room recalling early medical education, begun here in 1538. Heavy, intricately carved furniture bespeaks Spanish origins. Suits of clothing and primitive carriages are reminders of the city's colonial days. There are remarkable maps and artifacts, including the original gate to the city of Santo Domingo and a historic stone that used to mark the French-Spanish (i.e. Haitian-Dominican) border. There are also replicas of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria and a huge map tracing the routes of all the expeditions of the imperialist pillager-brave explorer - depending on one's point of view - named Columbus.

* The National Pantheon houses a mural commemorating the assassination of Rafael Trujillo, the legendary dictator who ruled the country from 1930 to 1961, when he was gunned down on the boulevard along Santo Domingo's waterfront. Dimly lit and churchlike, the building is where remains of his assassins are buried, and there is an eternal flame to their memory.

* The Casa de Bastidas has a beautiful inner courtyard and several exhibition galleries. During our visit, we saw a photography exhibit with a Dominican-Philadelphia connection: pictures from the rural village of Samana, where a group of black Philadelphians settled during the 19th century and where their descendants remain. The group was led there by Richard Allen, a Philadelphian and the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal church in the United States.

Thus steeped in history, we set out to explore the contemporary city.

We were looking for El Mercado Modelo, the domed indoor market where you can find everything from vegetables to voodoo charms, flowers to fishmongers. The place is filled with booths from which vendors beckon and cajole, shouting out bargain prices, holding up bargain pieces: a plethora of stereotypical Haitian paintings, tourist knickknacks of the painted-maracas school, countless strings of "amber" necklaces. Quality varies wildly, and the cacophony of voices can be overwhelming, but the market must be experienced if you want to get a taste of present-day Santo Domingo.

AMBER REPOSITORY

Amber is synonymous with shopping in the Dominican Republic; the island is one of the world's leading repositories of the fossilized resin. We were disappointed by what we saw - commercial strands of the yellow-brown ''stones" that resembled chunks of tainted ice. People told us that Puerto Plata on the island's north coast boasts more creative amber jewelry.

It was en route to the market that we had an encounter that lingers in memory. It remains part of our experience in this city.

Santo Domingo is not a place in which poverty is hidden away in neighborhoods that visitors never see. It is an ever-present part of the historic, energetic, gracious, chaotic, multifaceted city that has grown up around the place where Columbus received the hospitality of a friend nearly five centuries ago.

We walked up a narrow alley, along which open doorways framed dingy, sparsely furnished rooms. In one doorway sat a young woman, her aproned lap filled with hunks of pale homemade fudge. "Dulces," she sang, in a high, plaintive voice. "Du-u-ulces."

We approached hesitantly, not to buy her sweets but to ask directions. Expressionless, she stood, transferring the candies to a container that she balanced on her head. With a nod, she led the way for seven or eight blocks, trailed by us and a diapered child. Guiding us was a courtesy we had not expected, and we gratefully pressed coins into her hand. She nodded, turned and headed back down the alley.

Poverty is palpable in the Colonial Zone, the core around which the modern city expanded. Children tag along after visitors, hands outstretched for coins. Lottery stands - racks from which paper tickets are purchased - are omnipresent, promising instant wealth. Despite deprivation, however, there is a fast-paced determination, a vibrancy evident in this city that seems to be embodied in the music blaring from open cafes.

In stark contrast to our historically important hostelry was the hotel we found for the second part of our week's visit. One of the First-World reasons we switched was that the air-conditioning at the Nicholas de Ovando fell victim to the country's frequent power failures. The El Embajador, our second choice, was a modest high-rise compound in a relatively affluent neighborhood, across town from the Colonial Zone.

A Trujillo-era hotel, built in 1955 for the World's Fair, it was attractive and comfortable without lapsing into overwrought luxury. It featured one of the best Chinese restaurants in this hemisphere or any other, a large pool area where wealthy Dominicans stage interminable fashion shows and a nightclub where a lively band plays merengue. (Do not leave Santo Domingo without listening at least once - and maybe dancing - to the unique beat of the meringue, which was born in the Dominican Republic.)

A walk from the El Embajador to the fabled Malecon took about half an hour. The Malecon is Santo Domingo's seaside promenade, lined with royal palms and transformed, on weekend nights, into a blocks-long party complete with music and dancing and drink. Several luxury hotels overlook the Malecon, as do a number of restaurants. (It was on the Malecon that Trujillo was assassinated on May 30, 1961.)

The walk from the hotel, down Avenida George Washington, gave us the flavor of another part of Santo Domingo: not as poor as much of the Colonial Zone, but distinctively Caribbean. Stalks of bananas hang from sidewalk stands, the vendors hovering nearby in any available shade. Bicyclists pedal past, lengths of sugar cane poking from bicycle baskets. Low stucco buildings in tropical pastels cry for a new coat of paint. Traffic is erratic, drivers aggressive.

This, too, is Santo Domingo. A part of the present in a city with a historic past.

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