Archive for March, 2015

Art, culture, resorts and tourists.

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

DSC02332

We hired a car in Santo Domingo and drove ninety minutes east to the Hotel Vecchia Caserma, not far from La Romano.

This is the third largest town in the Dominican Republic and the area surrounding it has recently become a big tourist destination. Cruise ships can dock in the Romano River and there is the added incentive of an international airport.

And there’s golf.

Just outside of La Romana is Casa de Campo, a mega resort of 7,000 acres, built on land formally occupied by a sugar plantation.

There are three championship golf courses on the estate which is surrounded by luxury villas, condominiums and resort hotels.

On the eastern side and overlooking the Chavón River Gorge is Altos de Chavón.

Inspired by medieval Europe and built by Hollywood, this replica Mediterranean village is a tourist attraction, that also houses a museum and art colony.

Roberto Copa, a former set designer had the idea and his friend, Charles Bluhdorn the chairman of Paramount Pictures, funded his dream.

This complex is like Montsalvat on steroids.

Construction started in 1976, using stone from a local road building project, and was completed in the 1980s.

It sounds rather kitsch but in fact it’s a very pleasant place to visit.

The 15th century Italian style village is a great stage for the numerous restaurants, bars and boutiques. However it’s also a great cultural experience.

The compact, but well curated museum, covers the periods from 4,000 BC to 1492, the year Columbus arrived. While the art school and galleries are part of the Altos de Chavón Foundation that give local Caribbean artists an opportunity to further their studies abroad.

There’s even a Roman styled, 5,000 seat amphitheater where such diverse artists as Frank Sinatra and The Pet Shop Boys have performed.

As the light faded in the late afternoon we went to see the beach used by the ‘Day Trippers’

That night at dinner there was a large table of ‘God Botherers’ sitting near us. They were so close, and so loud, that we couldn’t help but be engulfed in the sermon that the group were subjected to, once they had all eaten their fill from the buffet.

It was full of platitudes and jargon about the subject of ‘grace’, none of which made sense to me.

It brought to mind the Stephen Fry rant about what sort of god would create a world that is so unjust.

I must agree with Stephen, where is the grace in a god that allows so much suffering and poverty.

The group were 15 American missionaries that seemed very pleased with themselves and the work they were doing, in the name of god.

They were here to help build a new church. I would have thought that a school would have been of more value.

Education rather than indoctrination.

I couldn’t help but think that the Conquistadors and the Catholic Clergy that followed Columbus in 1492 had the same religious zeal. And look how they devastated entire ancient societies in the New World – and all in the name of god.

The next day we decided to drive around the eastern part of the Island.

Our first stop was Bayahibe, a small fishing village and resort east of La Romana.

That was the last real village we got to see for many hours.

As we drove east to Punta Cana and then north along the coast to towards El Cedro there was nothing but resorts, all with boom gates and heavy security.

The entire coast has been taken over by private enterprise, only catering to the packaged tourists.

We had heard that many of the roads were poor – our experience was very different. The ones we used were in excellent condition, however the road signs were quite ambiguous.

It was only after we headed south, over the mountains near El Seibo, that conditions got a little hairy. This had nothing to do with the roads, but rather the many landslides that had recently occurred as a result of the heavy rain.

The only other road hazard was the numerous speed humps that stood sentry on either side of every village and at most intersections.

These speed traps varied in height from a mere bump in the road to something resembling a rallycross circuit.

At one point we were stuck behind a fully laden pick-up truck who struggle to get over the hump.

Some of these obstacles were painted yellow, so you could see them coming, however the vast majority we unmarked and therefore unexpected.

The Kia’s suspension took a pounding.

It was a great road trip, my only regret being that I couldn’t get any snaps along the way.

The roads were windy, with cavernous drains on either side and all marked with double lines, making stopping impossible.

On our last day we headed out in the car again. This time we did a loop, travelling north and west, via Hato Mayor and then down into La Romana.

This is a large town, by Dominican standards, but not really set up for tourists. They come in and are immediately whisked away to the resorts. These are self contained enclaves that don’t really encourage their patrons venturing off the resort grounds.

Just like Christopher.

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

DSC03108

Santo Domingo was our first stop in the Dominican Republic and our port of entry to the Americas.

Christopher Columbus visited here in 1492 and in 1496 his brother, Bartolome, set up a settlement.

At every turn the early history of the Americas leaps out to greet you.

Our hotel was in the old part of the city known as Zona Colonial, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This is a colourful place.

The full time job of most of the locals, including the school kids, is to separate you from your money.

Most of the kids just want you to take their photo, however some want money for the snap and others just ask straight out for a handout of cash.

They haven’t yet leant the more sophisticated scams of their parents.

On our first morning we were having breakfast in Calle El Conde, which is the main pedestrian strip. There were hundreds of school children, of all ages, filing past. We later discovered that they were on an excursion to visit the El Altar de la Patria, or the Altar of the Homeland.

It was originally built to be the mausoleum of the dictator, Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, but ultimately given over to the three founding fathers of the republic, Juan Pablo Duarte, Francisco del Rosario Sánchez, and Ramón Matías Mella.

The 31 years of the Trujillo tyranny was believed to have resulted in the deaths of over 50,000 Dominicans.

We also walked down Calle Billini, a newly renovated street containing Convento de los Dominicos, the site of the New World’s first university. It’s also a street with some rather original ‘lamp post art’.

Many of the old streets are being rebuilt and there are signs out the front showing what renovations are being done. It’s to be hoped that during the renovations the power and telecommunications cables will find their way underground.

It was then on to Parque Colón, the centre of life in Santo Domingo. To one side of the park is the Cathedral of Santa María la Menor, built between 1512 and 1530, it’s the oldest cathedral in the Americas. On the other side are bars, restaurants and buskers of all varieties.

Fortaleza Ozama (The Fortress) dominates the riverfront and was built between 1502 and 1505. It’s also the oldest European styled medieval fortress in the Americas and was designed to protect the port of Santo Domingo.

The next day we went to the other side of the old colonial town and visited the Panteón Nacional and the Alcázar de Colón.

The Pantheon houses the remains of all the other heroes of the republic, while the Columbus Alcazar is the oldest viceregal building in the Americas and built by Christopher Columbus’s son, Diego.

Santo Domingo is really a family affair.

Then it was down to the ocean to see the waterfront boulevard and It started to pour.

This was tropical rain, the sort we hadn’t seen in months.

Before the deluge I did manage to get a snap of the giant statue of Fray Anton Montesinos.

In 1511 he spoke out about equal rights for the Taino Indians, the original inhabitants of the Island. Sadly the international fight for human rights is still continuing, over 500 years later.

Seeking somewhere to shelter from the rain we sort refuge in the cathedral.

This felt strange, as recently we had been scampering to a bar or pub when the weather turned sour.

However the rain kept up and we reverted to form and eventually found a bar – you can only spend so long in a church.

The skies were clearer for our final morning in Santo Domingo and we took a walk down to the waterfront – it wasn’t worth the effort. The buildings were run down and what beach there was, was awash with garbage.