St. Augustine

A Spanish Paradise

St. Augustine, Fl.

November 20th, 1999


Here's a trivia, "What North American event occurred one year after the death of Michelangelo?", ah, you guessed it. Boy! you're pretty smart. You're right, the City of St. Augustine Florida was founded by Pedro Menendez de Aviles. The year was 1565, making St. Augustine the oldest continually existing city in North America. By comparison, the Jamestown Colony would not be founded by the British for almost another half century (1607). Spain, enjoying a naval superiority during the 16th century, built large holdings in Mexico and the Caribbean Islands. Privateering, which was nothing more than sanctioned piracy, was practiced by many European Countries The old square rigger sailing ships of the era which were incapable of sailing against the wind, were required to ride the gulf currents to get back to Europe after leaving their holdings in the Caribbean. This brought the Spanish ships close to the Florida shore as they headed up the coast to catch the Nova Scotia currents across to Europe. In order to give these treasure-laden ships some security, Spain sent Menendez, with five ships to Florida to "clean out" the French and establish a land base for the protection of Spanish ships. After several bloody encounters, St. Augustine was established as Spain's northern frontier fortress. It would endure centuries of harsh and violent existence. Some two decades later, the settlement, having resisted destruction by the local Indians, fell victim to the English privateer Sir Frances Drake who burned the town to the ground and destroyed the crops needed by the residents to survive. The city was rebuilt out of the Palmetto palms, a good wood but highly flammable, and of course the community caught fire and most of it burned down again. In 1599 it was almost washed away by a hurricane yet the Spaniards hung on and life continued. From its very conception, the Spanish depended on a Fort for defense and sanctuary during times of conflict. After nine consecutive wooden forts rotted away in the salt water environment, the impregnable Castillo de San Marcos was built out of a local sedimentary rock. This structure would stand the test of time and exists today as a remarkable example of Spanish architecture. However Spain, with all her glory was not able to maintain its stronghold in the New World, as a result St. Augustine and likewise the Castillo would see four different flags flying over it. Even so, the Fort would never be taken in battle. The city would live on through a short British rule, then back to Spain, then to the Americans, and for a few years it would live under the Confederate flag, until again returned to the American flag which flies there today. The City itself is a remarkable example of the forward thinking of the Spaniards at that time. The narrow but straight streets that make up the "old quarter" are a marvelous assortment of shops and activities that attract the admiring visitors day after day. There are no beggars, but the carnival atmosphere of street performers with their hats and cups, while dancing, playing or acting out (mimes) is reminiscent of the French quarter of New Orleans. The old pillars of the walled entrance near the Fort still stand, although the wall is long since gone. St. Augustine continued to struggle on until just before the end of the 19th century. Life suddenly got better with the arrival of Henry Flagler who envisioned the city as a haven for the Northern rich escaping the harsh winters. Flagler and his millions soon brought the city into the golden age of tourism. He built the magnificent hotel Ponce de Leon in his "Spanish Renaissance Revival" style which quickly spread to all other important buildings being built in the area. The result was a return of the old Spanish atmosphere, and a splendor which is as radiant today as when Flagler first constructed it.
As it would happen, we found ourselves in the bar of Harry's Restaurant, along Menendez Ave., waiting for a table. An idle conversation with the man next to me resulted in meeting Dave Russell, a retired Cincinnati cop, and his wife. Before the night was over I had accepted an invitation to do some great Florida sports fishing. Dave took me out in his small boat
and for the next several hours under a threatening sky we fished, drank beer and told war stories to our heart's contents. As I have never caught an edible fish in my life, I was not expecting much, so you can imagine the surprise on my face when the line went zing and snapped taut. I pulled and nothing happened. "You've got one" Dave exclaimed and began talking me through the step of landing the "big one". A tug here and a pull there, and some deft handling of a fishing net by Dave and hurrah! I had my very first eatable catch, a 20 in. Drum fish. Before long Dave had caught a second, but now the sea was getting a chop to it and it was time to start back. Dave honored me with a quick lesson in filleting as he effortlessly produced 4 fillets, casting the remainder over the side to the admiring crowd of pelicans. It was in fact a great day for me. That night as I prepared the fire, and got out the rack, I repeated the story with just a little flavoring, after all it was a "fish story". The final proof was in the dinner as we toasted our new found friends and the best of food. And so it was for all the days that we stayed in this picturesque Spanish town. It will remain high on my list of "must see" places within this great country.

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