Since the days my cousins and I gathered after church at my grandparents’ house for dinner (SouthernSpeak for lunch), I’ve loved a big Sunday meal. Though I don’t recommended eating the huge portions at Pat’s Palo just before trying to shake it like Shakira, I highly recommend this spot for Sundays and any day of the week. An institution with locals, indoors is cave-cool and outdoors the patio overlooks The Alcázar de Colón, Diego Columbus’ home. There’s also a great playlist, live music, and PIRATES for waiters (who doesn’t love Jack Sparrow and other pirates of the Caribbean???) Though I support Piantini, my local ‘hood, this is one of the two must-eat places in Santo Domingo (the other being Adrian Tropical). Here you get fabulous food, a fun atmosphere, and a front row seat to the authentic Santo Domingo old and new.
Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order. – Samuel Beckett
For those wanting the ultimate Dominican experience, check out Las Ruinas in Santo Domingo where every Sunday night locals gather to dance merengue, bachata (both invented here) and salsa—the world dance popular from Asia to Africa to Australia.
I love hearing Latin music played daily in taxis, groceries, and restaurants and hearing it played live in the Colonial Zone feels like home. When in Nashville I danced weekly—sometimes biweekly—with people bonded by a shared passion for dance and music. From Colombia, Chile, Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Cuba, Panama, Canada, Spain, India, France, Ethiopia, Syria, and Jordan, strangers became friends and made my life richer by teaching me about cuisine, art, and celebrations from around the globe. Dancing has always brought me pure joy and freedom. It makes me feel alive.
Las Ruinas is also symbolic of the spirit of the Dominican people. Flanked by food trucks and under bright, colorful lights, Las Ruinas is a backdrop to a sea of laughing faces and twirling bodies. It is a testimony to tenacity. Formerly called The Monastery of San Franciso and built by Nicolas de Ovando in 1508, this first monastery of the New World has been battered by nature and war. First it was stormed by a hurricane, then sacked by Francis Drake. In 1673 and 1751 it was shaken by two earthquakes. French troops collapsed its ceiling by placing artillery on its roof and Cyclone San Zenon in 1930 destroyed much of the building. In 1940 it was converted into an asylum.
Today Las Ruinas is the site of the biggest dance party on the island. The days when Dictator Rafael Trujillo censored bachata are gone and now friends and families gather to sing and see older couples show young ones how it’s done. The weekly ritual is a reminder that despite daunting times the human spirit can rise from ruins. Together we can celebrate and dance on.
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.
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.