Santo Domingo: Oldest European City in the New World

The Colonial Zone is the most magical part of Santo Domingo. Last weekend I had 3 wishes, so I asked the area to grant them:
#1 Take me back to Europe.
#2 Give me rest.
#3 Help me remember again why I moved to the DR.
Like a genie, it did.
A huge perk of living two years in Morocco was taking advantage of cheap flights to Europe. Oh how I miss the $60-80 roundtrip tickets to Neighbor Spain. But last weekend I went there again via a staycation in Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial.
Never underestimate seeing your city as a tourist. While home last summer, I felt again the excitement found under the Batman building along the banks of the Cumberland River while staying in the center of Nashvegas.
Likewise, last weekend I needed escape. A new perspective. Peace. Weeks go by working in my Piantini neighborhood—a maze of mega malls and stifling traffic– when I never see a wave, monument, or sunset. But then I remembered. Just an Uber ride away from my apartment where car horns and jackhammers deafen and high rise apartments smother is the Colonial Zone with its wide open spaces- -grand plazas surrounded by cathedrals,  museums, and waterfront views.


Oldest church in North and South America and the Caribbean


Controversial Columbus

The old town of the first permanent European settlement in the New World offers a feel of two countries I love—Spain and Italy—perched above what drew me to the Dominican Republic—the Caribbean Sea.
I opted for my first stay in the Colonial Zone to be at a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hostal Nicolas de Ovando, built in 1502 as the home of Santo Domingo’s founder, Governor Nicolas de Ovando.

The hotel is located on the Port of Santo Domingo and the first paved street in the Americas, first called the Street of Fortress or Strength.
Although the name has been changed several times since 1502, it is now called Las Damas, Street of the Ladies, named so because when Viceroy Diego Columbus and his wife doña María de Toledo, the great niece of the King of Spain King Ferdinand, came they brought with them Spanish ladies-in-waiting.  Here these women of high society lived and swished through the streets in gorgeous ballgowns.
When traveling alone I prefer to be as near as possible to the action.
Exiting the hotel to the right, I was 150 meters  from Plaza de España and Alcázar de Colón Viceregal Palace—the most visited museum in the Domincan Republic and former home of Ovando’s successor/Christopher Columbus’s oldest son, Don Diego Colón, who became Governor of Hispaniola (now Haiti and Domincan Republic) in 1509.
Under my window was the National Pantheon of the Dominican Republic, built 1714-1746 as a Jesuit church.  In 1956 under order of then dictator Rafael Trujillo, it was remodelled as a national mausoleum.  Trujillo planned to rest here but today his assassins and other heroes of the the country are interred. 
A highlight of my stay was when Las Damas began filling with beautiful young ladies like days of old.  On the steps of the memorial proud parents photographed daughters for a Quinceañera, 15th birthday celebration. I fell in love with this rite of passage at a friend’s niece’s party in Nashville.  While weddings are known for being the “bride’s day,” since not all women marry, I love that every girl is celebrated on her special day when she is recognized as becoming a woman.  The dress, the cake, the coming together of friends and family–most of all, the speech of respect and affirmation given by the girl’s father and godfather–makes each girl feel cherished.
Changing directions…Out the front door to the left, past the hotel’s restaurant 70 meters away
is the plaza of Basilica Cathedral of Santa María la Menor, the oldest church built in the New World. This area is a social hub so close to the hotel it feels safe for solo travellers to venture there at night.

As for the hotel,  the romantic in me loved viewing the Ozama River from behind fortress walls as I used to look out from my balcony above the battlement of Essaouira. Perhaps walking in the footsteps of ghosts from Genoa and living isolated much of the time on this island made me feel like The Count of Monte as he looked across the sea wondering about, wishing for life at home.
Peering down on Andalusian arches and fountains and roaming mammoth hallways with iron chandeliers and candelabras reminded me of palaces and patios I loved in Marrakesh and Seville.
I enjoyed  the hospitality and modern 5-star amenities of the property—swimming pool, gym, restaurant, lounge, and live music–and thought of how I’d love to fill the pool with friends and family. I took a dip at dusk and another later in the dark–something I haven’t done in years.
Sunday I awoke in the way I’ve always dreamt of doing when in Italy.  I opened the shutters to only the sounds of church bells, birds’ songs, flapping pigeons’ wings, and horse hooves on cobblestone.
A local sat on a bench reading a newspaper and I sipped coffee in bed and read this:
He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak…Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  They’ll soar on wings like eagles.
Below someone called to a friend in Spanish, breaking the silence, and I remembered I was in Santo Domingo. Downstairs I found breakfast by following the sound of a guitarist and ate in the courtyard.
I wrote by the pool awhile and took a last walk before calling Uber.
Again I thought of roots and wings. Seeing families together made me long for my children and a new nest near them. Still, I am so grateful for each day and what it teaches, where it takes us all, and I know wherever I am– uprooted in a hot city of concrete or refreshed by a night swim under a big moon–and wherever they are in Knoxville and Nashville, we three are seen, strengthened, and protected under His wings.

11 Comments on “Santo Domingo: Oldest European City in the New World

  1. What a fascinating post on Santo Domingo – the frescoes on those ancient churches are remarkably preserved and still so vibrant in colour! And I love those photos of the young women in their Quinceañera gowns. Those historic buildings make a perfect backdrop for their special day.


  2. The Colonial Zone of Santa Domingo looks fascinating. I love the history. I’ve been to the DR a few times, but the most time I ever spent in Santa Domingo was half an hour, changing buses. I’ll have to arrange for more time in this city next time I get to the DR.


    • Hi Donna,
      It really is a fascinating area. If you can, stop over on a Sunday night when locals dance to live music at Las Ruinas de San Franciso. I will be posting about the history and fun of that place soon.


  3. Such a beautiful capital, I wish I had extra days to spend in the DR when I visited, but it was via a cruise. I’ll have to really take another trip just to see the beautiful historical district and lovely architecture.


    • It is and I haven’t seen all of the Colonial Zone yet–particularly the museums and art shows. It was so cool to stumble upon a Frida and Diego photography exhibit one afternoon while going to dinner with friends.


  4. It sounds like you had a wonderful staycation in Santo Domingo, though perhaps not long enough? It looks so much like Spain, except for the tropical foliage.


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